Homily for a Red Mass

 Walter J. Burghardt, S.J.
Woodstock Theological Center
Washington, DC

Micah 6:6-8
James 2:14-17
Luke 4:16-21

For some years I have been intrigued by a single momentous word. The word? Justice. Two distinct visions of justice. There is the justice you know best, the justice intrinsic to our legal system, that stems in large measure from English common law. And there is the justice I know best, the justice intrinsic to Scripture, that stems from a covenant with God. The difference that distinguishes them I find strikingly challenging for a Catholic, indeed any Christian or Jew, as you struggle to link law with love, to shape a spirituality that unifies your life, does not turn you into a two-headed creature living two lives.

Three stages to my song and dance: (1) a swift word on the legal justice you profess; (2) an equally swift word on the biblical justice that is my preoccupation; (3) a critical question on their relationship: Can legal justice and biblical justice be harmonized in one and the same person?[1]

 First, the legal justice you profess. It's central to your vocation. You see to it that just laws foster the common good, that human rights written into law are protected, that the scales of Lady Justice are not weighted in favor of the rich and powerful, that men and women remain innocent until proven guilty, that the punishment fits the proven crime. Your burden is precisely to insure that men and women receive what is their due, what they deserve. You are not to be swayed from justice by love or sentiment; your sway is the law on your books or the need to correct injustice. Your goddess is the Roman Justitia, the lady with scales and a sword, her eyes blindfolded or closed in token of impartiality. A proud profession indeed, for without you "America the Beautiful" would be a nation in anarchy, a country uncommonly unfree. "Equal before the law" is still an ideal, but largely because of you we are moving slowly but relentlessly toward it.

 Proud particularly for a paradoxical reason. Powerful you are, but powerful because you are . . . servants. And service has an honorable history. It goes back to ancient Athens, where the Greek word we translate as "liturgy" meant a burdensome public office or duty which the richer citizens discharged at their own expense for the people or the state. Service goes back to a Jesus who told us he took our flesh "not to be served but to serve"--in fact "to give his life" for others (Mt 20:28). Service goes back to lawyers like St. Thomas More, who went merrily to the scaffold declaring himself "the king's good servant, but God's first."

 And so for you. Bench, bar, schools of law, you are servants. And you serve not an abstract quality called justice; you serve your own flesh and blood. Strange at times, unsettling. For some of you serve by prosecuting the insider trader and the murdering mafioso, others by defending them. Sometimes you serve by shackling a sister or brother for years, sometimes by lifting their shackles. Some of you hassle us for the IRS, others keep corporations from being taxed to death. And every so often, while some of us shiver, you prove to 12 good folk and true that one of your own flesh should die by hanging or a lethal injection.

 All this you do for one overriding purpose: the common good, the well- being of a wondrous rainbow of millions. Lift high your heads! Largely because of you we rarely eat one another alive.


 Second, the biblical justice that preoccupies me. You see, when the prophet Micah announced to Israel, "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice?" (Mic 8:8), he was not imposing on God's people primarily an ethical or legal construct: Give each person what he or she deserves. Biblical justice embraces all that, but goes beyond it. Let me explain.

 In contrast to a rugged individualism that pervades much of our culture, the Israelite lived in a world where "to live" was to be united with others by bonds of family or by covenant relationships.

 This web of relationships--king with people, judge with complainants, family with tribe and kinfolk, the community with the resident alien and [with the] suffering in their midst, and all with the covenant God --constitutes the world in which life is played out.[2]

 Relationships. Biblical justice is fidelity to relationships that stem from a covenant. Within this context, in what sense is God just? Because God always acts as God should; God is unfailingly faithful to God's promises. When are people just? When they are in right relation in every aspect of their lives. Three levels: properly postured toward their God, toward their sisters and brothers, toward the whole of created reality.

 Concretely, what did that mean for Israel? To be just, God's people had to love God above all else, with their whole heart and soul, with all their mind and strength. To be just, they had to love each human person as an image of God, as a brother or sister, like another self, whatever the color or smell, race or religion, no matter how hate-full or evil. To be just, they had to touch "things," nonhuman reality, earth and sea and sky, with respect, with reverence, as gifts of God not to be possessively clutched or rapaciously ravaged, only to be gratefully shared.

 It was the Israelite tradition of justice that sparked the ministry of Jesus. He inaugurated a new covenant, where the most significant relationship is the monosyllable that says it all-love. And astonishingly, where loving others, already commanded in Leviticus (19:18), is said by Jesus to be "like" loving God (Mt 22:39). New Testament justice? Love God above all else; love one another as Jesus has loved us (Jn 15:12). Not a quid pro quo, but the kind of love that impelled God's unique Son to wear our flesh, to be born of a woman as we are born, to thirst and tire as we do; to respond with compassion to a hungry crowd, to the bereavement of a mother, to the sorrow of a sinful woman; to spend himself especially for the bedeviled and bewildered, the poverty-stricken and the marginalized; to die in exquisite agony so that others might live.

 Through Christ, with Christ, in Christ we are called to bring closer to realization God's own vision of a single, all-embracing community: God, God's people, and God's earth.


 Finally, the provocative issue: Is it possible to link in your lives secular justice and biblical justice? I mean, give to each what each deserves and give to all more than they deserve? Give to each what you have covenanted with the law to give, and give to all what you have covenanted with the Lord to give? A mission impossible? Let's see.

 Legal justice is indeed an admirable way of life. The crucial question is: Should it be your whole life? From the perspective of a Catholic law center, the answer is no. Why? Because legal justice is not the whole of justice, only a single aspect thereof. For a still richer life, a totally just life, your vision of justice must expand. Not to change one law into another, legal justice into biblical, Blackstone into the Bible. Rather to enlarge your justice, so that justice covers your whole existence: forensic and domestic, legal and social, work and play.

 This is not to denigrate legal justice. Yours is a service the Athenians of old and the prophets of Israel would applaud. More than that, it is a service that links you to the servant that was Jesus. For without you human rights would crumble beneath sheer power, human dignity collapse before the swift, the shrewd, and the savage, and "the land of the free" turn into the home of the slave.

 And still it is not enough. Not for anyone convinced there is more to life than "law and order." Not for such as prize love above law, compassion over court convictions, family more than occupation. Not for those who realize that the equality you dispense at the bar of justice is not enough to unite man and woman, black and white, Jew and Arab, the haves and the have-nots, the restless young and the rest-home aged, the crack pushers and the police who imprison them. Ironically, "equality before the law" tends not to unite but to divide.

 Enter biblical justice. To Lady Justice's fairness it adds a word going swiftly out of fashion: fidelity. Fidelity to every relationship; every relationship. Not only the innocent you defend, but the pedophile you prosecute, the rapist you imprison for life, the bomber you doom to death. A mind-blowing, heartrending dilemma. For biblical fidelity is synonymous with love. Not a mawkish, sickly sentimental feeling. Rather the tough love of a father punishing an unruly child. The tough love that calls for compassion-- compassion for humans who are not particularly human; a compassion that continues to see in the serial murderer and the child abuser God's image, if ever so defaced. A compassion that tries ever so hard to imitate the Jesus who could love the sinner while despising the sin, who turned traditional morality on its head: "You have heard that it was said. `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies" (Mt 5:43-44). This Jesus forces us to confront a sobering question: If our love, our compassion, goes out only to those who love us, only to those who live aright, only to our own kind, how Christlike is this, how do we differ from unbelievers?[3]

 All of which raises a question for your heavy meditation. Can legal justice and biblical justice be harmonized in one and the same person at one and the same time? Or must the attorney, the jurist, the judge be for ever a two-headed creature, living two lives, one in court, the other at home; one on weekdays, in the grime and grit of lawlessness, of murder and the Mob, of cocaine and conspiracy, of spousal abuse and insider trading, the other on weekends, warmed by church or mosque or synagogue, transformed by a loving family and, perhaps, subpar golf?

 I believe the harmony is possible. But not without a profound spirituality. I mean a personal relationship to Someone (capital S) who loves you far more than you love yourself. A relationship that can grace you if not always with specific answers, at least to live at times with ambiguity. If your answer is "Yes, it can be done," the consequences can be enormous. Not only a unique unity in your professional and personal life. Beyond that, a distinctive contribution of lay Christianity to a culture increasingly fragmented by a loss of love, by the ice-cold aphorism "Love those who love you, hate those who hate you."

 Even if your answer at the moment is a regretful "No, it cannot be done," my high regard for you will not be diminished. I promise you the prayer St. Paul framed for the faithful of Philippi: "This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight, to help you to determine what is best" (Phil 1:9-10).[4]

 Gonzaga University

 Spokane, Washington September 23, 1997


1. This Red Mass was sponsored by the Gonzaga University Law School, Spokane, Washington.

 2. John R. Donahue, S.J., "Biblical Perspectives on Justice," in The Faith That Does Justice: Examining the Christian Sources for Social Change, ed. John C. Haughey, S.J. (Woodstock Studies 2; New York: Paulist. 1977) 68-112, at 69.

 3. See the strong text in Mt 5:43-48.

 4. To put this homily in context, it may help to know that the Red Mass is celebrated in many Catholic dioceses at the opening of the judicial year, often as a votive Mass in honor of the Holy Spirit. It has a venerable history that traces back to 13thcentury France, England, and Italy. On the origin of the name, scholars are not at peace. In one theory, the priest-celebrant was vested in red, and so the judges of the High Court in Edward I's reign (1272- 1307) all of them doctors of the law, conformed to ecclesiastical tradition and also wore red robes. Others hold for an origin with more profound content: The liturgical red signifies a willingness to defend the truth inspired by the Holy Spirit, even if it demands one's own blood.