The Most Holy Trinity: What is God like?

Today’s readings

There’s a little Christian Science church in the town where I grew up, on Main Street, just north of the downtown area.  They don’t anymore, but they used to list their upcoming sermon topic, followed by the line “All are welcome.”  Imagine my surprise when one day, the topic was going to be eternal punishment.  So the sign read: “Eternal Punishment.  All are welcome.”  Yeah, I had to drive around the block to make sure I read that right!

Usually though, the topics weren’t very specific.  So one time the topic was going to be “God.”  I thought that will either be the world’s longest sermon, or it won’t really come all that close to talking about God.  The problem with God as a topic is that you’re painting with a pretty wide brush: anything you say can be right, but it also might not even really finish the job.

I feel like today’s topic of the Most Holy Trinity has me faced with that same dilemma.  It takes a lot longer than I’m able to talk to really get that topic covered, and still we probably won’t understand it very well.  Our limited vocabulary just gets in the way.  But let’s see how far we can get.

There was a time when I got invited to speak to a religious education class about God.  I had the teacher ask them the week before to write down their questions about God so that I could help them with the things they really wondered about.  One of the questions, at first glance, seemed kind of a halfhearted effort to get an assignment done, until I really thought about it.  That question was, “What is God like?” and I think that young person was really onto something.

In the end, we can say a whole lot of things about what God is like, but again our vocabulary gets in the way.  We can say God is like goodness, and that would be right.  But not in the way we think of things or even people as good.  Because our view of goodness has to do with how useful it is, and God’s goodness goes way beyond that.  We can say that God is like beauty, and that too would be right.  But not in the way that the world views beauty, which is limited and selfish and sometimes objectifying.  God’s beauty goes far beyond what we could ever imagine.

But there is something we can say about what God is like that gets us a little closer to understanding the Most Holy Trinity, at least insofar as we can understand that holy mystery.  When I preach to the children in our school, I often tell them there is one thing that they have to know about God, and if they know it, they know a lot about what God is like.  And that one thing is that God loves you.  I tell them that’s so important that if they’re ever stumped on a religion test, they can write “God loves me” and it will be worth at least half credit.  The teachers love when I say that!

But even that is hard to understand, because God, who is love itself, his love goes beyond anything we can conceive of.  His love looks like what happened on that cross.  His love embraces us even in our ugliest moments.  His love is powerful enough to burn away all of our flaws and make us new creations in his image.  His love really, truly keeps the world in motion.

And our readings today tell us that love is a lot of what God is like.  The greeting I gave you at the beginning of Mass comes to us from the end of today’s second reading: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”  In that greeting, Saint Paul mentions every member of the Holy Trinity, “God” referring to God the Father.  And he describes that Trinity as a loving communion that fills us with grace.  Pretty awesome!  That’s echoed in our Gospel reading, in which the very famous line from John 3:16 tells us what God is about, and what the Gospel teaches about God: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”  God’s love wants us all to come to eternal life, and so he sent his only begotten Son to come and take the punishment for our sins, and in the process breaking the power of sin and death to control our eternity.  Memorize that line, friends.

Love is an apt description of the Holy Trinity, even for Saint Thomas Aquinas who famously described the Trinity in that way.  The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father, and the Holy Spirit is that love between the Father and the Son.  For Aquinas, the Trinity is a loving relationship, and I think that’s helpful to us who exist in relationships.

Sometimes, we need God to be Father: correcting us, wanting the best for us, calling us to be who he meant us to be.  If we let him, the Father’s love burns away all the parts of us that are not praiseworthy and sets us ablaze to become new in his image.  Sometimes, though, we need God to be Son: a brother who picks us up when we have fallen far down, one who walks with us in the darkness of whatever is going on with us, one who leads us to the place where God’s love can encompass us.  And sometimes we need the Holy Spirit, whose love literally inspires us to be who we were meant to be, to live as new creations, and to desire nothing outside of God’s love.  We need God to be Father, Son and Holy Spirit in different ways at different times.  God doesn’t change: he’s always Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  But we change, needing him in different ways all through our life.

So to answer that student’s question, “What is God like?” is a challenge.  Because God looks different to us at different times in our lives.  It’s only after this life has brought us to the kingdom when we’ll really know what God is like, as we see him face to face.  So I think I’ll leave you with that question, brothers and sisters.  What is God like?  I imagine it depends on what’s going on in your life, what your prayer has been like, and what your hopes and dreams are.  But it’s a question we should often pause to consider.  So pray about it this week.  What is God like?

Friday of the Ninth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Angels are messengers that God sends sometimes to let us know his plans for us, or to guard and guide us, or even to help us to see what’s really important. And it’s that last thing that the archangel Raphael does in today’s first reading. If we remember all the way back to Tuesday, we heard about Tobit being made blind by cataracts caused by bird droppings, and later in that same story, he scolded his wife for accepting a goat as a bonus on her labor, because he did not believe her story. I mentioned then that Tobit had to learn that charity – for which he was quite well known – begins at home. His period of blindness gave him that very insight, I think, and in today’s story he rejoices in his cleared vision.

Through the intercession of St. Raphael, Tobit regained his sight and was able to see his son safely returned from a long and dangerous journey. He saw also the return of his family fortune. And he saw the union of his son Tobit with his new wife Sarah. There was great cause for rejoicing in all that he was able to see and Tobit didn’t miss a beat in placing the credit where it belonged. He said,

Blessed be God,
and praised be his great name,
and blessed be all his holy angels.
May his holy name be praised
throughout all the ages.
Because it was he who scourged me,
and it is he who has had mercy on me.

And so we praise God today for angels who help us to see what’s really important. We praise God for angels who clear up our clouded vision and help us to see past the obstacles we’ve put in God’s way. We praise God for angels who help us to overcome our pride and self-righteousness so that God’s way can become clear to us. May we rejoice along with Tobit and Anna and all the rest that God has truly sent his angels to us often to bring us back to him.

Thursday of the Ninth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

If you’ve ever been to one of our school Masses here at Notre Dame, you know that I’m almost always telling the children that God loves them.  I feel like that might be the most important thing we ever learn about God; and that if we learn it – really learn it – then it can get us to heaven.  And we see that today in our readings: love is very definitely the theme of today’s Liturgy of the Word.  This week we have been hearing readings from the book of Tobit, in which we have the only Scriptural appearance of Saint Raphael the archangel.  And today we hear about him entering the story, in the guise of the person of Azariah.  Tobit and Tobiah and all the rest don’t know he’s an angel yet, but that will become clear enough when the blessing of love wipes the cataracts away from Tobit’s eyes, and everything becomes clear to him.

And we know that it is love that can do all these things.  There’s a lot of sadness leading up to today’s first reading.  Tobit has contracted cataracts, and the doctors have only made it worse.  Sarah has had six potential husbands, all of whom have died on the wedding night.  But we will see that love will clear up old Tobit’s vision, and love will let Tobiah survive his wedding night.  Love can heal Tobit’s and Sarah’s broken hearts.  And love can reveal that the power of God works in all of our lives, in all of our hearts.

Sometimes we need an angel – literally a messenger of God – to come to know that.  During our lives, we can go through periods that are just awful and seem to be devoid of any joy.  But love won’t let that be the final answer for any of us.  Just as the angel Raphael took the form of Azaraiah and was a blessing to Tobiah and Sarah, so too there may be angels in our own lives, in the form of family or friends or caregivers that end the cycle of sadness in the same way that God’s blessing ended the cycle of death for Sarah’s husbands.

Tobiah and Sarah sang a song of praise to God and said “Amen, amen” before going to bed for the night.  They woke up the next morning to rejoice in God’s love in the same way that we can, if we will but realize that there is no commandment greater than the commandment to love God and one another.  Death cannot and will not ever win the battle over love.

Tuesday of the Ninth Week of Ordinary Time 

Today’s readings 

Today Tobit finds out that charity begins at home. All his noble deeds of burying the dead are worth nothing if he does not know how to honor the living who are with him. The blindness he develops in today’s first reading is really on two counts. First, and most obviously, there is the physical blindness caused by the cataracts and exacerbated by the doctors’ treatments. But second, and perhaps more seriously, there is the blindness that is caused by cataracts of the heart. His physical blindness is beginning to embitter him, and he cannot “see” past his own suffering to see that others may be hurting too. He doesn’t even take time to listen to his wife, who has been laboring faithfully to support the family during his disability.

The Pharisees and Herodians in today’s Gospel had their own kind of blindness. They wanted to trap Jesus into being either a tax evader or an idolater. If he said don’t pay the census tax, he was an anarchist. If he said pay it, he was blasphemous. But Jesus isn’t going to fall for that. He sees that their blindness is a lack of generosity. Giving Caesar what belongs to Caesar is easy. The hard part is giving to God what belongs to God. That requires true generosity, a willingness to reach out to the poor and needy, a desire for union with God that requires prayer to burst forth into service.

If we would be people of the Gospel, we need to break free of the blindness that sometimes overwhelms us. We have to see past our own needs, and perhaps past our own suffering, to see the needs of those around us. We need to see past getting caught up in trivialities and instead open ourselves up in generosity to our God who is the most generous of all. We need to be the kind of people our Psalmist sings of today: “Lavishly he gives to the poor; his generosity shall endure forever…”

Saint Boniface, bishop and martyr

Today’s readings 

St. Boniface was sent by Pope Gregory II to reform the Church in Germany, which had been heavily negatively influenced by the forces of paganism. He sought to restore the fidelity of the German clergy to their bishops, in union with Rome. He also sought to build up houses of prayer throughout the region, in the form of Benedictine monasteries. While he had much success, in the Frankish kingdom, he met great problems because of lay interference in bishops’ elections, the worldliness of the clergy and lack of papal control. During a final mission to the Frisians, he and 53 companions were massacred while he was preparing converts for Confirmation. St. Boniface has been called the apostle to Germany.

One of the great problems in the German Church at Boniface’s time was the worldliness of the clergy. The caution against getting too caught up in the things of this world is well-taken for all of us. Jesus said as much in today’s Gospel reading. Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but do not withhold from God the things that are of God. Namely, we owe God our worship and faithfulness, and a spirit of prayerfulness that should imbue everything that we do.

That sense of prayerfulness inspired Tobit to take care of the dead, against the orders of the government. That was a value for him as a Jew, and it seems second nature for us, since it is a corporal act of mercy. But the government was trying to squash the Jewish way of life, so that’s what is at stake here. We will see Tobit’s story play out in the first reading all this week.

May the spirit of St. Boniface’s efforts to reform the Church keep us all from being caught up in anything that is not of God, and may a spirit of prayerfulness pervade our thoughts, words, and actions this day and always.

The Solemnity of Pentecost

Today’s readings

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
w
ho proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.

We say these words every Sunday, and unfortunately I think they can become a little rote.  And that’s too bad, because they are beautiful words, and they have been given to us at great cost.  We should pray them perhaps a bit more reflectively today, on this feast of the Holy Spirit.

So these words are 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.

I don’t know if we understand how radically the Holy Spirit changes things.  The Fathers of the Church wrote about it very plainly.  Saint Cyril of Alexandria writes: “It can be easily shown from examples both in the Old Testament and the New that the Spirit changes those in whom he comes to dwell; he so transforms them that they begin to live a completely new kind of life.  Saul was told by the prophet Samuel: The Spirit of the Lord will take possession of you, and you shall be changed into another man.  Saint Paul writes: As we behold the glory of the Lord with unveiled faces, that glory, which comes from the Lord who is the Spirit, transforms us all into his own likeness, from one degree of glory to another.”

And we do see the work of the Holy Spirit on those disciples of the early Church.  They were confused people.  They had no idea what to do now that Jesus had died and risen.  Think about it.  What if you were there?  What would you have made of all that?  Would you know what to do next any better than they would?  I don’t think I’d do very well!  But it was the Holy Spirit that changed them.  And thank God for that, or we wouldn’t have the Church to guide us today!

The Spirit changed Peter from an impulsive, bumbling disciple to an Apostle of great strength.  He shared his own gift of the Holy Spirit with many others, baptizing them and confirming them in the faith.  He guided the Church from its rough beginnings to the birth of something great.  The other Apostles likewise went out, bringing the Gospel and the gift of the Holy Spirit to all corners of the then-known world.  Their witness eventually brought the Church to us, in our own day.  The Spirit changed Saul from a man who oversaw the imprisonment and murder of Christians into Paul, a man who was on fire for the faith.  His preaching and writing converted whole communities of Gentiles and helped them believe in the Gospel, and continues to inspire us in our own day.

The Holy Spirit has continued to work in the hearts and minds of countless saints through the ages, making up for any personal inadequacies they may have had and giving them the strength to teach truth, write convincing testimonials, reach out to the poor and needy, bind up the broken and bring hurting souls to the Lord.

That same Holy Spirit continues to work among us in our own day, if we are open, if we let him do what he wills.  The Holy Spirit is still making saints, guiding men and women to do things greater than they are capable of all on their own, for the honor and glory of God.  This is the Spirit who enables you to have words to speak to someone who is questioning the faith, or to a child who wants to know why the sky is blue, or to a friend who needs advice that you don’t know how to give.  The Spirit even speaks for us when we are trying to pray and don’t know quite what to say to God.

The Spirit gives us the inspiration to do acts of mercy and love.  It is the Holy Spirit who encourages you to take on a ministry at church, or to coach a softball team, or to look in on a sick friend or neighbor, or give an elderly parishioner a ride to church.  It is the Spirit who inspires us to pray in new ways, to grow in devotion, to spend more time getting closer to the Lord.  All in all, it is the Holy Spirit who helps us to find the way to heaven, the goal of all of our lives.

We should pray for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit every morning of our lives.  It’s amazing how much that changes me over time.  The prayer I learned at my Confirmation is as good a way to pray that as any, and maybe you know it too.  If you do, pray along with me:

Come, Holy Spirit
fill the hearts of your faithful
enkindle in them the fire of your love.
Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created,
and you shall renew the face of the earth.

Amen.

Saint Justin

Today’s readings 

The greatest men and women who have ever lived have followed the example of our Lord Jesus Christ in that they have been willing to give their lives for the truth, for what they believed in, for what is right. In our first reading, Saint Paul is on trial for preaching Christ and bearing witness to the truth. He is only saved by playing on the rivalry between the Pharisees and Saducees.

For Saint Justin, whose feast we celebrate today, he also chose to stand up for the truth. He was born a pagan, and spent a good deal of his youth studying pagan philosophy, principally that of Plato. But he eventually found that Christianity answered the great questions of life and existence better than did the pagan philosophers, so he converted. He wrote famous apologies, defenses of the Christian faith, to the Roman emperor and to the senate. Because of his unwavering dedication to his faith, he was beheaded in Rome in the year 165.

In the Gospel reading, Jesús prays for Paul and Justin and all of us. Because we are all called to live our faith with conviction, as did Saints Paul and Justin. We might never be in the dire straits in which they found themselves, but we too are called to give our lives, our comforts, our standing in the community, our reputation among our peers, for the faith. Today we pray for the grace to live what we believe and to be an everlasting remembrance.