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, 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 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.

Friday of the Twenty-second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings: 2 John 4-9; John 13:34-35

[This was Mass for the Kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade school children.]

Today we celebrate a Mass in honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  We celebrate Jesus’ Sacred Heard because we always think of love as coming from the heart, and we know that Jesus, our God, is love.

Last week, I read our Kindergarteners a story about how God loves us.  The Wemmicks were a little village of wooden people, kind of like puppets.  They used to give each other stickers.  The really talented, beautiful, special people used to get pretty star stickers.  The ones who had trouble doing anything good, or who weren’t so nice to look at, they got gray dot stickers.

Punchinello used to get lots of gray dots because he was really clumsy, and his paint was chipped and scratched.  He would often say silly things or make mistakes, and so he got lots and lots of gray dots.  He was very sad about that until he met a wooden girl who didn’t have any stickers at all.  She didn’t have stickers because the stickers wouldn’t stick to her.  Punchinello asked her about that, and she said she used to get a lot of stickers until she met the puppet maker.

Punchinello went to meet the puppet maker too.  He explained to Punchinello that the stickers only stick if you let them.  The puppet maker didn’t care what other people thought about Punchinello because he loved him no matter what he looked like, or what he said, or what he did.  When Punchinello started to understand that, one of his dot stickers fell off.

The Church teaches us that God loves us very much, just like the puppet maker.  He loves us because he made us.  So when he looks at us, he doesn’t see if we’re beautiful or not.  He doesn’t see how high we can jump, or how nicely we dance, or how beautiful our clothes are or how smart we are.  He sees us for what we are: wonderful people who were made by God, and are special just because God made us.

That kind of love is really wonderful.  It’s the kind of love that lets us know that we can live our lives in happiness because God loves us.  It lets us know that we can do anything God calls us to do.  It lets us know that no matter what other people think of us, we are wonderful in God’s eyes.

But love like that can’t be kept.  Just like the wooden girl who told Punchinello about the puppet maker, we have to tell other people how much God loves them.  We have to take God’s love and spread it around.  The really wonderful thing is that no matter how much we share God’s love, we’ll never run out of it.

So today we’re going to ask all of you children to spread that love around.  After Communion, you are all going to come forward to receive a blessing.  We’ll say “God loves you.”  And you’ll say, “Amen.”  Then we will give you the name of someone in your class.  You then have to find a way to spread God’s love to that person.  Maybe you can help that person if they’re having trouble one day.  Maybe you can sit next to them at lunch.  Maybe you can invite them to play with you and your friends at recess.  Maybe you can just tell them they are wonderful and that you love them just like God loves them.

I know that you will find a way to spread that love around.  We don’t need to be giving people gray dots or shiny stars.  We don’t need to say bad things about people.  We just need to let them know God loves them.  And we can do that, because God loves us first and best.

The Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Today’s readings

Chicago priest and theologian Robert Barron speaks of what he calls a “beige” Catholicism. This is how he describes the Church during the years following the second Vatican Council. It was a time, he says, when “Christianity’s distinctive qualities and bright colors tended to be muted and its rough edges smoothed, while points of contact and continuity with non-Christian and secular realms were consistently brought into the light and celebrated.” Now, to be fair, Vatican II did indeed rightly bring to light the points of contact we have with our protestant brothers and sisters, and even our non-Christian friends. We do, in fact, have some things in common. But the downside of this emphasis was this kind of “beige” or blasé religion which challenged no one. “As a result,” Barron says, “the Christianity into which I was initiated was relatively bland and domesticated, easy to grasp and unthreatening.

So what we were left with was a Catholicism in which one could come and go, there were no demands made of anyone so that they didn’t feel bad, and everyone was welcome to gather around and sing “Kumbaya.” And there may be a time and a place for all that, but it’s not what our religion is ultimately about.

And so we have today this relatively strange feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, sometimes called the Triumph of the Cross. This feast enters into our Liturgical year and rips us from our complacency to gaze on the awful, disfigured body of our Lord, writhing in pain, nailed to the cross. There is nothing beige about this moment. We are forced to look at this horrible scene and try to figure out how it can ever be glorious. What is exultant or triumphant about such a horrible, painful, humiliating death?

Now, to be fair, we have looked at the cross so many times in our lives that it may no longer be shocking to us. But in order to recapture the significance of this feast, indeed in order to recapture the significance of our faith, we must look once again at the cross and be repulsed. The book of Lamentations is a wonderful invitation to the cross: “Come, all you who pass by the way, look and see whether there is any suffering like my suffering, which has been dealt me when the LORD afflicted me on the day of his blazing wrath.” (Lamentations 1:12) If the thought of our God nailed to a cross and suffering an agony that can only be relieved by death doesn’t evoke strong feelings in us, then we cannot possibly ever come to a true acceptance of our faith.

What we should see on that cross is that our faith is not so much about our quest for God as much as it is about God’s relentless quest for us. As Fr. Barron says, his quest for us is a quest even to the point of death. And that’s the triumph we see on that horrible cross. The truth is that our God simply loves us too much to let sin and death have any kind of permanent hold on us. So he sent his only Son into our world to walk among us, to live our life and bear our temptations and frustrations, and to die our death in the most horrible and shocking way possible so that we could be relieved of the burden of our sins and come at last to everlasting life.

That’s the message of today’s Gospel. That one verse, John 3:16, which we see on placards and posters at so many sporting events, has been called the “Gospel in miniature.” “For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, so that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life.” And sadly, we can get pretty bland about that too. We can accept the fact that our believing brings us to eternal life to the point that we never give it a second thought. But the cross makes that kind of beige faith impossible. It shows us that the eternal life of our expectation came at a price; a horrible, painful, humiliating price.

We are an Easter people who dwell, as well we should, on the Resurrection of our Lord. But we must not ever forget that the Resurrection would never have been possible without the Cross. Without the Resurrection, the cross is definitely that awful reminder of a meaningless death. But without the Cross, the Resurrection would never be the joyful relief that it is. We are never a Church that is about just one thing. We are always about Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Which is good news for us because, as I’m sure you can tell me, every day of our lives isn’t Easter Sunday. We experience all sorts of death: the very real death of a loved one, failures of all sorts, sickness and infirmity, broken relationships, disappointments and frustrations – all of these are deaths that we must suffer at one point or another in our life. No life is untouched by hardship at some point. This feast, though, reminds us that God’s love can embrace all of that death, take it to the cross and rise up over it. Our life’s pain is not the end for any of us; those who believe in Christ can have eternal life, as John the evangelist eagerly reminds us today.

And so, as much painful as it is to look with horror on the cross today, our eyes of faith can also see great beauty, exaltation and triumph. But we have to see both things. If we cannot bear to walk through the pain of the Cross, we’ll never get to the joy of the Resurrection – it’s both or nothing.

So this feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross has us seeing anything but beige. Instead we see the black darkness of sin and death, the red blood of Christ shed for that sin, and the gold glory of the Resurrection. This feast must find us bending the knee at the cross of Christ, and proclaiming with our lips that Jesus Christ is Lord – Lord of our pain and Lord of our triumph – to the glory of God the Father.

CNS STORY: No ‘Yahweh’ in songs, prayers at Catholic Masses, Vatican rules

WASHINGTON (CNS) — In the not-too-distant future, songs such as "You Are Near," "I Will Bless Yahweh" and "Rise, O Yahweh" will no longer be part of the Catholic worship experience in the United States.

At the very least, the songs will be edited to remove the word "Yahweh" — a name of God that the Vatican has ruled must not "be used or pronounced" in songs and prayers during Catholic Masses.

CNS STORY: No ‘Yahweh’ in songs, prayers at Catholic Masses, Vatican rules.

I’ll refrain from the “Life of Brian” reference here. I wasn’t too sure what I thought about this issue until this morning. I realize that it’s a good thing, because in these days we have what seems to be a lack of reverence. This is a byproduct, I think, of the whole “Jesus is your friend” movement from the 70s or so. And yes, Jesus is your friend. But he is also God, God both immanent and transcendent.

We’ve lost a kind of reverence. God is just another guy we know sometimes. We need to recapture the need to kneel, to bow, to refrain from pronouncing God’s proper name. We need to be in awe of God (yes, that’s still one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, you know!). And so not pronouncing the Tetragrammaton is, I think, a good thing. We’ll just have to learn to sing “O Lord, I know you are near…” or something like that.

Because God is awesome. Let’s never lose sight of that. God is awesome.

The Most Holy Trinity

Today's readings

[display_podcast]

What is God like?

rublev_trinity_iconToday’s celebration of the Most Holy Trinity reminds us of the fact that God loved the world he created so much that he was determined to remain in relationship with it.  “God so loved the world,” the Gospel tells us, “that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”  That very familiar quote from John 3:16 has often been described as the entire Gospel all in one verse, because it tells us the reason for Our Savior’s coming, and the purpose for our existence, which is eternal life.

God wishes to remain in relationship with us, his creatures, because God himself is a relationship.  We will never really understand the Trinity in this lifetime, we know that, but we also know that in the Blessed Trinity, our Church has described God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  We recall this deepest of our beliefs every time we make the sign of the Cross, every time we receive a blessing, indeed every time the priest greets us at Mass with those familiar words: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you.”  God is a relationship: the Father with the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Son with the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit with the Father and the Son.  Three persons, one God, all in relationship.

But make no mistake, I don’t come before you today to define the Holy Trinity for you as if I’ve figured it all out.  This deepest of our beliefs remains perhaps the deepest of all our mysteries.  A story about St. Augustine tells us as much: The story goes that he was walking along the beach, 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.

But just because the Trinity is a mystery, that doesn’t mean that we can’t talk about it.  In many ways, the mystery of the Trinity is a great blessing.  If we could really figure God out and define God in a neat set of explanations, it would be way to easy for us to simply file God away and never give a second thought.  Because we have to struggle with the mystery of the Trinity, this means we must constantly call God to mind and try to wrap our minds around God in new ways.  I had the great pleasure of preaching about the Trinity to our school children on Friday.  The fourth grade was preparing the Mass, and I asked them to write down questions that they had about God.  I was so deeply touched by the questions they wrote to me, and it was one of the greatest thrills of my priesthood to be able to speak to them about those questions.

The questions they had were wonderful:  Why can’t we see God?  Why did God create the world?  If God created life, then how did God become God?  Why does God love us?  Was God there when Jesus was dying?  Why does God forgive us after we’ve done something wrong?  How do we know the Holy Spirit is with us?  But there was one question that seemed to get to the bottom of it all for me:  What is God like?  And I realized that Adam’s question was where the rubber meets the road in our faith, and that question was the whole reason for celebrating this feast of the Holy Trinity: we have to every day examine what God is like so that we can remain in relationship with our God who is a relationship and who longs to remain in relationship with us.

Again, I’m not going to stand here and tell you the definitive answer to Adam’s question.  And that’s because there really isn’t one definitive answer to what God is like.  We could pass out cards right now and everyone could write down one thing that God is like.  And every one of us would be right in some ways, and every one of us would be wrong in some ways.  We could say that God is love, and we’d be right, but we’re wrong if we think of love in the limited way that we humans can conceive of love.  We could say that God is good, and we’d be right about that, but we’d be wrong if we think of God’s goodness in the way that a candy bar is good or a new car is good or even a new baby is good.  Our limited vocabulary can’t even come close to describing God.  As the song goes, our God is an awesome God, more so than any lyrics or other words could ever describe.

So I want to go back to this idea of God as a relationship.  I do that because it’s one of a million ways I could talk about the Trinity today.  But I do it also because I think that God as a relationship is such a very appealing way to think about God.  We all know how much our good relationships mean to us, and so it is very desirable to think of our relationship with God, and of the relationship that is God. 

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 part of all of us, no matter what our earthly parents have been like, long 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 soul, 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 know they are also 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 ena
bles 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.

Maybe God comes to us as Trinity because one face of God is not sufficient to be God for us creatures who are constantly changing, and constantly struggling.  One day we need the Father, tomorrow we may need the Son and down the road the Holy Spirit.  Whatever we need, the point is that God is there.  Always was, always will be.

So back to Adam’s question:  What is God like?  Well, that’s a reflection I think I’ll leave you all with today.  What is God like?  I hope you struggle with that question your whole life long.  I hope I do too. 

Saturday of the Twenty-eighth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“The Lord remembers his covenant forever.”

That’s what the Psalmist tells us today. And the worst thing that we can do in our service of the Lord is to despair of that promise. Today’s Gospel speaks to us of the unforgivable sin: blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. “Everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven,” Jesus tells us, “but the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.” This sounds a little curious, I think. But the truth is that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is probably the root of all sin. When we leave behind the Spirit, we leave behind the possibility of any kind of forgiveness, redemption or salvation. It’s not something we do by accident.

I had a professor in seminary who used to say, “Brothers, you don’t want to tick off the Holy Spirit!” And he is right. We are a people gifted by the Holy Spirit who inspires our relationships with God, breathes the life of God into our relationships and endeavors, and guides us sinful people to salvation through the many gifts and fruits that he brings. The truth is, we can do nothing good, we cannot be holy people, we cannot live decent lives without the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit was Jesus’ first gift sent to those who believe just after his ascension into heaven. The reason for that gift was that we can’t possibly live without it.

So, if we cannot live without the gift of the Spirit, it makes sense that that sin is unforgivable. Not because God doesn’t want to forgive it, but more because we have cut short the dialogue and have walked away from the very gift that reconciles us sinful people to God in the first place. All of our repentance, penitence, and reconciliation comes by the power of the Holy Spirit. If we deny the Spirit then, we have denied all possibility of forgiveness, and we don’t want to be doing that. It’s not a sin we should worry about if we are faithful. But when we begin to despair or think ourselves unworthy of God, we need to be careful. Got never thinks that way of us, and as the Psalmist says, he remembers his covenant forever.