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.  One of my favorite stories is about Saint Augustine, grappling with the sublime concept of 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.”  Augustine asked him, “But is it possible for all of the water of this great ocean to be contained in that little hole you’ve dug?”  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 little 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 “Blue Bloods” and “NCIS.”  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 of love 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, as our Gospel suggests today, 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 singing this verse, if you know it:

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.

The Transfiguration of the Lord 

Sometimes I think that, because of the limitedness of our minds, we accept a rather small view of Jesus. We think of him as a friend and brother, which is okay, but he is also our Lord and God. The disciples had this problem too, although they had a good excuse: they didn’t have two thousand years of Church history to guide them! So they were definitely familiar with the human side of Jesus: Over the time they had spent with him thus far, they had become close to him and saw him as a friend, a companion on the journey, and a great teacher. But they were always having trouble with his divinity. 

Today’s feast changes all of that for them, and for us as well. If there was any doubt about who Jesus was, it’s gone now. That voice from the cloud is absolutely specific: “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” Jesus is the Son of God and his divinity must be embraced and proclaimed. While it can be comfortable for us to have a picture of Jesus that is absolutely human, we must always keep in mind the Transfigured Christ, dazzling white, radiating glory, the lamp shining in a dark place. He is the Son of Man of whom Daniel speaks, and to him belongs dominion, glory, and kingship. If Jesus were only human, we would have no Savior, we would have no chance of touching divinity ourselves, that divinity for which we were created. 

On the way to the mountain, the disciples came to know Jesus in his humanity, and on the way down, they came to know Jesus in his divinity. That trip down from the mountain took him to Calvary, and ultimately to the Resurrection, the glory of all glories. Christ is both human and divine, without any kind of division or separation. We must be ready to see both natures of our Jesus, so that we ourselves can transfigure our world with justice, compassion and mercy, in the divine image of our beautiful Savior. No matter what challenges may confront us or what obstacles may appear along the way, we must be encouraged to press on with the words of the Psalmist: “The Lord is king, the Most High over all the earth.” 

The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

Today’s readings

I think we have to be a little bit careful about how we read and hear today’s readings.  We’re still in the Christmas season – at the end of it, actually – and, more precisely, we’re at the octave day of the Epiphany of the Lord, which we celebrated last week, in which we started to see Jesus revealing himself, manifesting himself, to the world.  Today’s readings are Epiphany readings, too, because they show us even more about who Jesus is and why he came.

But I say that we have to be careful about how we hear these readings because I think they can lead us to define Jesus by what he does.  And that’s a start, but it’s just inadequate.  Let’s see if we can recognize this a bit more clearly.  In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah tells us about the Suffering Servant, and he says that that suffering servant is one who would “open the eyes of the blind … bring out prisoners from confinement …. and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.”  So it’s easy to see Jesus as the suffering servant who would bring about justice.  This in itself is pretty huge, but again, if we define Jesus as a justice-bringer, then he’s just a glorified judge or legislator.  But Jesus is the true Suffering Servant: the one who would come and serve the people while himself suffering the effects of the peoples’ sins.  Jesus did in fact came to suffer and die for us, to pay the price for our many sins.  So far from being a judge or legislator, he also stands in place of the condemned – that would be us – and pays the price we deserve for our own lack of justice.

In our second reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Luke tells us that Jesus “… went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.”  Going about doing good and healing those who are suffering is a great thing.  But if we see Jesus merely in this way, then he’s just a glorified social worker or physician – there’s nothing special about that.  But during this year of grace, we will see Jesus as the divine physician who heals us from the inside out and makes us fit for heaven.  He won’t be just a food service worker, but instead the one who spreads the lavish feast that becomes food for the journey to heaven, where we are called to the heavenly banquet.

And we know this is hard because we get confused about our own identities all the time.  We can easily define ourselves or especially others by what we or they do.  “He’s a computer programmer … she’s an attorney … he’s a retail worker.”  Or we may even go so far as to define ourselves or others by superficial factors like nationality or sexual identity.  None of this is adequate; it all falls short of saying who we really are.

So we’re in a quandary.  If we don’t know who we are, it will be pretty hard for us to see who Jesus is.  If we define ourselves by what we do, then we’re definitely going to look to Jesus to fill a role for us, perhaps a different role depending on where life has us at the moment.  But it’s all inadequate, and we go through life confused.

Until we hear the words of God the Father in today’s Gospel.  With Jesus coming up out of the river Jordan, the Father boldly proclaims: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”  So Jesus isn’t what he does: he is what he was begotten: the Son of God, who is in relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit from before time began and until eternity.  Because of this, his interaction with us is life-changing.  Maybe he will heal us of this or that current ailment, but whether he does or whether he doesn’t, he will surely heal us from the inside out, and if we let him, he will lead us to heaven.  Maybe he will help us with a family issue that has us up half the night every day, but whether he does or whether he doesn’t, he will surely give us a strength we never expected that will help us through it.  All we have to do is stop seeing Jesus for what he does, stop expecting him to fill a role, and instead enter into relationship with him as the Son of God who does nothing but please his heavenly Father.

When we do that – when we enter into relationship with Christ – he will give us identity too.  And not just the paltry identity of what we do or our nationality or whatever, but the real identity that God created us with – our identity as sons and daughters of God.  It is our task to live that identity with authenticity.  And all of this is hard to do.  But thank God he gives us himself and gives us the Church to help us on the way to him.  We sons and daughters of God live for that day when he tells us that with us, too, he is well-pleased.

The Most Sacred Heart of Jesus

Today’s readings

I remember when I was growing up, often visiting my dear grandmother.  She and I were best friends in so many ways.  I remember when we visited that she had a beautiful framed picture in the living room, given a spot of honor where everyone could see it, and that picture was of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  Whenever I think of the Sacred Heart, I remember grandma, whose name was Margaret Mary, named after the saint who promoted veneration of the Sacred Heart in the first place.

And so, today we celebrate, with incredible gratitude, the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  Through his most Sacred Heart, the love of God is made manifest among us.  This love is a pervasive love that burns in our hearts and changes our lives and leads us back to the God who made us for himself.  This love is irresistible if we give ourselves over to it.  It is a love that pursues us and a love that can go far beyond whatever distance we have fallen from grace.  It is a love that, seeks out the lost and strayed, and binds up the injured and the sick; and, as St. Paul tells us in the second reading, comes to us not by any merit of our own – God knows! – but only by the free gift of our God who made us precisely to receive this great love.  We who have been loved into existence must love others as we have been loved.  The love of God pours forth from the heart of Christ just as the water and blood poured forth from his side as he hung dead on the cross.  Death could not stop the outpouring of grace that he came to bring.

Today’s Gospel reading gives us a beautiful picture of God.  God is that shepherd who does the unthinkable: leaves the 99 behind to follow their own devices while he seeks out the lost one.  That’s more love than any of us has a right to expect, yet it is freely poured out to us.

Today’s feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus finds us wholly consumed by grace.  We have been loved into existence by our God who made us like himself.  We have been loved into grace by Jesus who gave his life rather than live without us.  And we are being loved into heaven as we give ourselves over to the work of the Holy Spirit who is that love between the Father and the Son.  God is love and today we experience how powerful that love can be if we give ourselves over to it.

The Most Holy Trinity

Today’s readings

Talking about the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is perhaps the most daunting tasks for a preacher, but also one of the greatest privileges.  Here is one of the great mysteries of our faith, one that cries out for explanation, one that has kept the best minds of our religion occupied throughout time, and one that we, very likely, won’t completely understand until that day when we see our God face to face.

You may have 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.

We know, of course, the essential teaching: that we acknowledge and worship just one God, who embodies three divine persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  What that means for us as believers, though, is something that truly takes a lifetime, and then some, to figure out.

Just like any of the mysteries of our faith, the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is not one that can be appreciated in a vacuum, outside of relationship with the God we worship and adore.  And that’s just as well, I think, because, as Saint Thomas Aquinas taught, the Trinity can perhaps best be described 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 it is a love that can be experienced and lived.  We have seen, in the recent observance of Lent and celebration of the fifty days of Easter, that our God won’t stop at anything to be love for us.  Our sins were obstacles, horribly offensive to God, cutting us out of that intimate relationship and destining us for eternal destruction.  But God wasn’t having any of that.  No, instead he gave his Son, his only begotten One, to be our Savior, to pay the price for our sins, to die our death and to rise to new life so that we could have that too.  That is the love of God so deeply expressed in our religious experience.  And it’s a love we’re called to share, as we lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters, renouncing selfishness and allowing ourselves to get caught up in the lives of others.  I’ve experienced that over the last two and a half years that I’ve been here at Notre Dame, and I rejoice everyday at being part of this community.  It’s a feeling that I have for my family, of course, and I pray that you all experience it in your relationships as well.  Love is who God is and love is what we are called to become.

God as a relationship is a convenient concept for us, because our needs change during our lives, depending where we are on the journey.  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.

However we need to relate to God right now, the good news is that he is there for us, giving us that relationship.  God is Triune because he wants to encompass our lives from beginning to end, from conception to life eternal.  Getting caught up in the relationship that is God is the project of our lives, and enables us to cry out with the Psalmist today, “O Lord, our God, how wonderful your name in all the earth!”

The Sacred Heart of Jesus

Today’s readings

I remember when I was growing up, often visiting my dear grandmother.  She and I were best friends in so many ways.  I remember when we visited that she had a beautiful framed picture in the living room, given a spot of honor where everyone could see it, and that picture was of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  Whenever I think of the Sacred Heart, I remember grandma, whose name was Margaret Mary, named after the saint who promoted veneration of the Sacred Heart in the first place.

And so, today we celebrate, with incredible gratitude, the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  Through his most Sacred Heart, the love of God is made manifest among us.  This love is a pervasive love that burns in our hearts and changes our lives and leads us back to the God who made us for himself.  This love is irresistible if we give ourselves over to it.  It is a love that pursues us and a love that can go far beyond whatever distance we have fallen from grace.  It is a love that, as Ezekiel tells us in the first reading, takes us out of the foreign land of our sinfulness and restores us to the promised land of grace, and, as St. Paul tells us in the second reading, is poured into our hearts from the heart of Jesus through the Holy Spirit.  The love of God pours forth from the heart of Christ just as the water and blood poured forth from his side as he hung dead on the cross.  Death could not stop the outpouring of grace that he came to bring.

Today’s Gospel reading gives us a beautiful picture of God’s love for us.  This love seeks out the errant sinner.  The question Jesus asks is a trick question, because not many shepherds would leave ninety-nine sheep behind to seek one out for fear that he’d lose the other ninety-nine too.  But Jesus is the good shepherd, the one who seeks the wandering ones out and dances with joy when they are found.

Today’s feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus finds us wholly consumed by grace.  We have been loved into existence by our God who made us like himself.  We have been loved into grace by Jesus who gave his life rather than live without us.  And we are being loved into heaven as we give ourselves over to the work of the Holy Spirit who is that love between the Father and the Son.  God is love and today we experience how powerful that love can be if we give ourselves over to it.