Saint Petronille, Virgin and Martyr

Today’s Gospel: Luke 9:23-26

Saint Petronille could have had everything.  Pursued by her suitor Count Flaccus, she could have lived a very comfortable life that maybe she would have seen as a just reward for her years of service.  Whether she was Saint Peter’s daughter as one legend tells us, or a spiritual daughter and manager of his household which another legend argues, she was certainly a servant of the Lord in the house of Saint Peter.  One might think she would be well rewarded to marry Flaccus and live that comfortable life after all she had done for Saint Peter.

But Petronille knew better than that.  She seems to have been well versed in today’s Gospel reading.  She knew that even if she were to gain the whole world by being the wife of Flaccus, she would be forfeiting herself.  She must have known that she would be forced to make the decision that confronted her friends Felicula and Saint Nicodemus: sacrifice to the idols and live, or stick to Christian ways and die.  But all three of them saw that choice differently than Flaccus and the Romans would present it.  For Petronille, Felicula and Nicodemus, sacrificing to the idols would be no life at all.

We don’t know much about Saint Petronille’s martyrdom.  All we are told is that after three days of fasting, prayer and reception of Holy Communion, she “migrated to the Lord.”  After three days – the perfect time, and in many ways for her, a lifetime of prayer and service – she received the reward that we all must hope for.  Whatever the details are, we know that her life and her death inspired others to live and die for Christ.  Her companion Felicula, and even Nicodemus – perhaps the same Nicodemus who first came to Jesus at night – were inspired by Petronille to give their lives rather than sacrifice to the Roman gods.

Her life and death then, can be inspiration for us too.  As we live our lives, we will be tempted by many comforts that would consequently take us out of service to Christ.  We will be tempted to sacrifice to the idols of this world, rather than to take the hard road and follow the Lord.  But we must remember, as Saint Petronille did, that “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for [the sake of Christ] will save it.”  We have to see in Saint Petronille the firm conviction that this life’s treasures mean nothing if they take us away from eternal life with Christ, which is the greatest treasure of all.

That’s a wonderful message on this Memorial Day, isn’t it?  Just like Saint Petronille, many of our friends and family have given their lives in the service of something greater than themselves.  For them it was country and freedom, just as for the virgin martyrs like Petronille it was Christ.  We are grateful to all of these men and women, saints and ordinary soldiers, for the blessings we have as a result of their sacrifice.

You see, Saint Petronille really did have it all.  She just knew it wasn’t coming in this passing life.  She knew that she would indeed be well rewarded, and live a comfortable life in marriage – only that marriage was to Christ himself.  Let us see in Saint Petronille that we too must deny ourselves, take up our crosses daily, and follow Christ.

The Most Holy Trinity

Today’s readings

Today’s feast has us gathered to celebrate one of the greatest mysteries of our faith, the Most Holy Trinity. Today we celebrate our one God in three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. You have probably heard me tell one of my favorite stories about Saint Augustine with regard to the Trinity. The story goes that he was walking along the beach one day, trying to figure out the nature of the Holy Trinity. As he walked along, he came across a little boy who had dug a hole in the sand right next to the shore. With his little hands he was carrying water from the ocean and was dumping it in the little hole. St. Augustine asked, “What are you doing, my child?” The child replied, “I want to put all of the water of the ocean into this hole.” So St. Augustine asked him, “But is it possible for all of the water of this great ocean to be contained in this little hole?” And the child asked him in return, “If the water of the ocean cannot be contained in this little hole, then how can the Infinite Trinitarian God be contained in your mind?” With that the child disappeared.

Indeed, the greatest minds of our faith have wrestled with this notion of the Holy Trinity. How can one God contain three Persons, how could they all be present in the world, working among us in different ways, and yet remain but one? Even the great Saint Patrick, who attempted to symbolize the Trinity with a shamrock, could only scratch the surface of this great mystery.

I think the Trinity isn’t the kind of mystery one solves. And that’s hard for me because I love a good mystery! When I have the chance to just read what I want to read, it’s almost always a mystery novel. I read Agatha Christie all the time growing up, and I’ll often go back to some of her stuff even now. My love for mysteries probably explains why I like to watch “Law & Order” and “CSI.” It’s great to try to figure out the mystery before the end of the book or the end of the show. But, if you like mysteries too, then you know that the mark of a good mystery is when it doesn’t get solved in the first six pages. It’s good to have to think and rethink your theory, right up until the last page.

The kind of mystery that is the Holy Trinity is a mystery that takes us beyond the last page. This is one we’ll take to heaven with us, intending to ask God to explain it when we get there, but when we get there, we’ll most likely be too much in awe to ask any questions. And so we are left with the question, who is this that is the Holy Trinity? How do we explain our one God in Three Persons? Who is this one who is beyond everything and everyone, higher than the heavens, and yet nearer than our very own hearts?

One of the best minds of our faith, Saint Thomas Aquinas, has described the Holy Trinity as a relationship. The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father, and the Holy Spirit is the love between the Father and the Son. And this makes sense to us on some levels, because we all have been taught, and we all accept, that God is love. And not just the kind of paltry love that our pop culture and society calls love, but love in the deepest of all senses, the kind of love that is self-giving and that intimately shares in the life of the other. God is love, but God is better than the best love our feeble human minds can picture. The love that is God is a love so pure that it would wholly consume us if we gave ourselves to it completely. Just as difficult as it is for our minds to describe the Holy Trinity, so that love that is God is impossible for our minds to grasp.

But this picture of God as a relationship is important to us, I think, because we need to relate to God in different ways at different times. Because sometimes we need a parent. And so relating to God as Father reminds us of the nurturing of our faith, being protected from evil, being encouraged to grow, and being corrected when we stray. If you’ve had difficulty with a parent in your life, particularly a father, then relating to God as Father can also be difficult. But still, I think there is a part of all of us, no matter what our earthly parents have been like, that longs to have a loving parental relationship. God as Father can be that kind of parent in our lives.

And sometimes we need the Son. Relating to God the Son – Jesus our brother – reminds us that God knows our needs, he knows our temptations, he’s experienced our sorrows and celebrated our joys. God in Christ has walked our walk and died our death and redeemed all of our failures out of love for us. God the Son reminds us that God, having created us in his own image and likeness, loves what he created enough to become one of us. Our bodies are not profane place-holders for our souls, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and that very body was good enough to become the dwelling place of God when he came to earth. Maybe you’ve never had a brother or sister or never were close to yours, but in Christ you have the brother above all others who is present to you in all your joys and sorrows.

Sometimes, too, we need a Holy Spirit. Because we often have to be reminded that there is something beyond ourselves. That this is not as good as it gets. As wonderful as our world and our bodies can be, we also know they are very flawed. The Holy Spirit reminds us that there is a part of us that always longs for God, no matter how far we have strayed. The Spirit reminds us that our sins are not who we are and that repentance and forgiveness are possible. It is the Holy Spirit that enables us to do the really good things we wouldn’t be capable of all by ourselves, the really good things that are who we really are before God.

It might seem like this mystery of the Trinity is a purely academic discussion. Does the Trinity affect our daily lives or make a difference in our here and now? Is all this discussion just talk, or does it really make any difference? Obviously, I don’t think it’s just talk. Instead, the Most Holy Trinity must be shared with people in every time and place. God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit wants to relate to all of us, be present to all of us, and call all of us to discipleship through common baptism, and it’s up to us to point the way to that Trinity of love that longs to be in loving relationship with all people.

Sometimes the hymnody of our faith can express what prose alone can’t get at. The great old hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy” by Reginald Heber sums up our awe of the Trinity today. Join me in praising God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit by turning to #474 in the Gather hymnals and singing that last verse:

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
All thy works shall praise thy name, in earth and sky and sea.
Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty,
God in three persons, blessed Trinity.

School Graduation

Today’s readings: 1Peter 1:3-5; Philippians 4:4-9; John 15:9-12

My dear graduates, you are gathered here for the last time as a class.  This has been your home away from home for the last nine years, you have known each other and grown together, you have formed relationships that have seen you through good times and bad.  And so, as we come together for graduation this evening, I know that this is a bittersweet occasion for you, as it is for your teachers and all of us who have been privileged to be part of your life these past years.  You are certainly excited to graduate and move on with the rest of your life, but you are certainly also sad to leave behind so many close friends as you go to different schools in the year ahead.

But however we all feel about you moving on, move on you must.  That is what life is all about: growing and learning and becoming and going forward.  We all want that for you, and hopefully that is what you want for yourselves. And so, on this occasion, I have been trying to figure out what words I would want you to hear on this day.  As I have prayed about this homily over the last few weeks, the Spirit seems to be wanting me to talk to you about success.  Success is that pot of gold that we all want for ourselves, and many people have written about it.

Dale Carnegie wrote, “The person who gets the farthest is generally the one who is willing to do and dare. The sure-thing boat never gets far from shore.”  Woody Allen once said, “Seventy percent of success in life is showing up.”  Johann Sebastian Bach wrote, “I was made to work. If you are equally industrious, you will be equally successful.”  I could go on and on quoting all sorts of famous people who have given their opinion on how to be successful, but I thought I might stop there and instead focus on some common advice about success that you usually hear at graduations.

One thing you often hear is something like Jojo from Seussical might say: “Anything’s possible.”  I think that’s more or less true, but that also doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good news.  God only knows what’s ahead for each of you: some of it will be incredibly excellent – the stuff far beyond your wildest dreams.  Those moments are God’s gift to you.  Some of it may also be disappointing, frustrating or even sad.  But whether the future brings joy or sadness, what is truly important is what you do with it.  If God gives you joy, your task is to share it – because no gift is ever given just for ourselves.  And if life brings you pain, the task is to get through it as best you can, knowing that God is with you all the way.

Another piece of advice you might hear at graduation is “Believe in yourself.”  That’s nice advice as far as it goes.  Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t go very far.  If all you believe in is yourself, what do you do when you don’t know what to do?  Who do you turn to?  What happens when you mess up?  I think far better advice is what you’ve been taught for the last nine years here at St. Petronille School: believe in Jesus.  Jesus loves you, Jesus knows what it’s like to live our human life – he knew joy and he knew sorrow and he got through it all.  If you believe in Jesus, you’ll always have a deep well of grace to draw from when you are tested, you’ll always be able to discern the right path, and you’ll be known as a person who is steadfast and courageous, not blown around by whatever fad comes along next.  Jesus is your Lord and Jesus is your friend.  He has known you and loved you before you were you, and he will keep on loving you no matter where life takes you.

Sometimes at graduations, you’ll hear “There’s nothing you can’t achieve.”  I don’t personally think that’s true.  There are lots of things we aren’t made to do, and I think we instead have to figure out what it was we were made to do.  God has an important task for each of us to accomplish, and it’s up to achieve that.  That means we have to pray about what that is, to look for God’s will in our lives.  I can tell you from personal experience, that if you do what God wants you to do in your life, you’ll be successful, and more than that, you’ll be happy every day of your life.  It took me a while to figure that out, but it was worth it.

All in all, I think the best advice there is comes from a very reliable source.  That source is Jesus in this evening’s Gospel reading.  Jesus says that successful disciples have to do just one thing: “Love one another as I have loved you.”  And at first that seems like no big deal, right?  You hear “love one another” so much that it becomes just some warm fuzzy saying that it doesn’t make much of an impression on us.  But I think it should, because Jesus never said something he meant for us to forget.  So we have to look at the Scripture a little more deeply.  And when we do, we can see that the kind of love Jesus is calling us disciples to have for each other is pretty radical.  It looks something like that (indicate the cross).

Now, I’ll be honest.  When you look at the cross, it doesn’t look very successful.  It even looks like love came to an end.  But we know that’s not true.  We know that, because Jesus loved us that much, because he gave up his life for us, the Father raised him from the dead.  Because Jesus loved us unconditionally and sacrificially, we know that we have the possibility of eternal life one day in God’s heavenly kingdom.  God loved us so much that he couldn’t bear the thought of living forever without us, so he sent his Son to become one of us and pay the price for our many sins, and to destroy the power that sin and death had over us.

That’s what success looks like for us believers in Christ.  It looks like love beyond our wildest dreams.  It looks like giving everything, trusting all the while that God will give us what we need in return.  That’s how Jesus loves us, and that’s how we’re supposed to love one another too.  We are probably not going to get nailed to a cross, but we are definitely called upon to give of ourselves, to lay down our lives for each other.

For nine years, you’ve been hearing that message.  If you remember it, I think you will be successful in life and in the life to come.  The goal of all our lives is to get to heaven one day, and for the time you’ve been in our Catholic school, we have done our best to give you what you need to get there.  St. Paul sums it all up for us, then, in our second reading today: “Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.  Then the God of peace will be with you.”

Thursday of the Eighth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

One of the voices that can never be silenced in us is the voice that cries out seeking to see.  We spend our whole lives crying out as Bartimaeus in today’s Gospel: “Master, I want to see.”  And just as the crowd and even the disciples could not silence his desires, so nothing will silence that desire in our own hearts and souls.  We want to see the truth, we want to see Jesus, we want to see the world as it really is, we want to see our way out of our current messed-up situation, we want to see the end of suffering, we want to see peace, we want to see wholeness, and maybe most of all we want to see ourselves.  As we really are.  As God sees us.  This is our lifelong task.

St. Augustine spoke of that very same task in his Confession.  He said, speaking to God: “I will confess, therefore, what I know of myself, and also what I do not know.  The knowledge that I have of myself, I possess because you have enlightened me; while the knowledge of myself that I do not yet possess will not be mine until my darkness shall be made as the noonday sun before your face.”  He goes on to say that he can try to hide from God if he wanted to, but it would never work.  Hiding from God would only result in hiding God from himself.  God sees the depths of our being, so if we try to hide all we really end up doing is running away from God who knows us at our very core.

The writer of our first reading had this idea in mind when he said:

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood,
a holy nation, a people of his own,
so that you may announce the praises of him
who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

God is calling us all out of darkness today.  He wants us to see him, and ourselves, as we were created to be.  He wants us to be a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own.  He created us from glory.  And we won’t experience that glory until we go through the rather painful experience of bringing all of our darkness out into the light.  Maybe we’re not ready for that yet.  But we can pray to become ready, and to be open.  We can pray in the words of Bartimaeus: “Master, I want to see!”

Wednesday of the Eighth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s readings remind us that God is God and we are not – God is in control.  However much we might want to assert our control on things, that’s really just an illusion.  Lots of things may come and go, what is dull becomes bright and bright things fade, but the word of the Lord lasts forever.  We might tell Jesus what we would like to have in this life or in the next, but none of that is ours to take.  The only thing we can be certain of is that we will drink from the cup that Jesus drank: the cup of suffering, the cup of redemption.  It’s not up to us to steer the course of human events.  It’s up to us to be faithful.

Monday of the Eighth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

It is imperative to our Spiritual lives that we learn to let go.  The problem is, though, that letting go is so counterintuitive for us.  We want to hold on to everything, control everything, because when we are in charge we can be sure everything will work out all right.  At least we think so.  The truth is that God is in control, and just like the rich young man in today’s Gospel reading, we have to learn to let go of everything that keeps us from letting God be God in our lives.  That is the only way that we can achieve faith’s goal, the salvation of our souls, as the first reading tells us.

The Solemnity of Pentecost

Today’s readings

We believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.
He has spoken through the prophets.

You know those words very well; we proclaim them every Sunday, and will proclaim them in a few minutes.  This is the part of the Creed that speaks of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, whose feast we celebrate today.  Today is the birthday of the Church, the moment when the Spirit descended upon those first Apostles and was passed on through them to every Christian ever since.  The Holy Spirit emboldened those first disciples and continues to pour gifts on all of us so that the Church can continue the creative and redemptive works of the Father and the Son until Christ comes in glory.  That is what we gather to celebrate today.

At the Ascension of Christ into heaven, which we celebrated last Sunday, the apostles had been told to wait in the city until they were clothed with power from on high.  This is exactly what we celebrate today.  Christ returned to the Father in heaven, and they sent the Holy Spirit to be with the Church until the end of time.  That Holy Spirit is absolutely necessary so that God can continue to work in the world and be in the world while Christ was no longer physically present.

The Holy Spirit works in us and in the world in so many ways.  But the way that he works in us that jumps out at me today is through language.  The Spirit is speaking powerfully in the world, and our Liturgy reminds us of that.  It is the Holy Spirit that speaks to the world in the voice of God.  Consider what we have heard and will yet hear today:

In the alternate opening prayer, the Church prays:  “Loosen our tongues to sing your praise in words beyond the power of speech, for without your Spirit man could never raise his voice in words of peace or announce the truth that Jesus is Lord.”

In our first reading, the Spirit spoke through the apostles.  Even though all of them were Galileans, and spoke some dialect of Aramaic, still people who had gathered in Jerusalem from all over the then-known world, people of every race and language group at that time, all of them came to hear the Gospel proclaimed in their very own language, as though it had been spoken just for them, which of course, it was.  This incredible miracle is often seen as the undoing of the Tower of Babel story, in which men who thought they could build a tower high enough to get to heaven all by themselves were penalized by the invention of all kinds of human languages which prevented people from speaking to each other.  Pentecost, then, was the healing of this ill.

In our Gospel, words are still used by the Holy Spirit.  Jesus tells the apostles even before the Passion, that he would send the Holy Spirit, the Advocate or Paraclete who would teach them everything, and remind them of all Jesus told him while he was alive.

In the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer, which I will sing in a few minutes, the Church prays: “Today we celebrate the great beginning of your Church when the Holy Spirit made known to all peoples the one true God, and created from the many languages of man one voice to profess one faith.”

The Holy Spirit speaks to us to give us what we need, and speaks through us in order to bring the world to God.  The Spirit is the voice of the Church proclaiming the one, true faith, and the voice of each disciple courageously living that faith day in and day out.  Jesus tells us elsewhere in the Gospel that when we are challenged for our faith, we need not fear that we do not have the words to speak in those moments, because the Holy Spirit will speak through us more eloquently than we could on our own.

The Holy Spirit is also the voice of our prayer.  Saint Paul reminds us of what we certainly know: we do not know how to pray as we ought.  But he also reminds us that we need not worry when words fail us and we cannot pray, because the Holy Spirit groans within us and speaks the language of God who hears us and hears the Spirit in us.

I am not a master of languages.  I tried but failed to learn French, Spanish and Greek at various times in my life.  Some days I even have trouble with English!  And so not having the words to speak is very real to me in my Spiritual life.  But I certainly learned what Saint Paul taught in my second year in seminary, when both my mother and father were diagnosed with cancer within about a month of each other.  When that happened, I had no idea what to even say to God any more.  The only prayer that I had in me was “help.”  And that, along with the Spirit’s groaning, was enough.  Fellow seminarians prayed for me and with me and over me, and I was eventually able to pray again.  That was the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit speaks to us all the time, I think, and we would do well to tune in and listen closely.  The Spirit speaks when we are about to embark on a venture or come to a decision and gives us pause because we have not prayed the issue well enough. The Spirit speaks to us when we are agitated or worried or upset or frustrated or dejected, and gives us peace to know we are not alone, that God is there with us in the storm.  The Spirit speaks to us when we are discerning and helps us to know the way we should go.

Then too, the Holy Spirit speaks in us and through us all the time. The Spirit speaks through us when we know something is wrong and gives us the courage to say so.  The Spirit speaks through us whenever we offer someone kind words, even if we’re not sure that our words are helpful – the Spirit even speaks through us if we have no words, and are just there to be present to those in need.  The Spirit speaks through us when we perceive the injustice in our world and reach out to those in need, to those who are marginalized, and to those the world has forgotten.  The Spirit sings in us when we join with the Church in prayer and praise to God, especially when we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, the greatest prayer of the Church.  The Spirit is the one who puts the prayers we offer in our hearts in the first place, and who gives us the words to offer them to God, even groaning for us when our own words are not adequate.

When we are one, united in the Spirit, we speak to a world that is not inclined to understand the language of faith, in a way that moves them and brings them back to God who created the many peoples of the world to be one with him forever.  That is the great project of our lives, the great project of the Church, the mission that owns us and defines us as disciples.  As Cardinal George is fond of saying, the Church does not have a mission; the Mission has a Church.  And it is that Church that speaks words of the Spirit to proclaim the truth, that Jesus is Lord, and that he is the way, the truth and the life.

In the Creed, we proclaim that the Holy Spirit has spoken through the prophets.  But that prophetic word is far from over.  The Spirit-spoken prophecy goes on, in the words and actions of people of faith, every day in every place, so that all people can have the opportunity to know the truth that God is alive and fully intends to love his people into heaven.