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.

Saint Philip Neri

Today’s readings

Today we celebrate the memorial of Saint Philip Neri, founder of the Congregation of the Oratory, a community of Catholic priests and lay brothers.  At the age of 18, he travelled to live with a wealthy relative to learn, and possibly inherit, the family business.  But soon after arriving, he experienced a mystical vision that he called his Christian conversion, which dramatically changed his life.

Having lost interest in the family business, he travelled to Rome to live for and serve the Lord Jesus Christ and His Church.  He studied for three years at Saint Augustine’s monastery, but then decided not to be ordained.  Instead, he worked for the conversion of souls by stirring up conversations with people, which eventually led them to further studies, prayer, and the enjoyment of music.  He would then encourage them to move beyond these endeavors to serve those in need, especially the sick.In 1548, with the help of his confessor, Philip founded a confraternity for poor laymen to meet for spiritual exercises and service of the poor, the Confraternity of the Most Holy Trinity.

Finally, at the age of 34, Philip’s confessor succeeded in returning to priestly formation and he was ordained a deacon, and finally a priest, in 1551.  Philip went to live with his confessor and other priests at San Girolamo and carried on his mission, mostly through the confessional.  Philip spent hours sitting and listening to people of all ages. Sometimes Philip arranged informal discussions for those who desired to live a better life. He spoke to them about Jesus, the saints and the martyrs.  He had many pilgrims come to visit him; so much so that other priests gathered to help him, and a room was built above the church in San Girolamo for their ministry.  Philip and the priests were soon called the “Oratorians,” because they would ring a bell to call the faithful in their “oratory.”

Today’s first reading from the Apostle Saint James encourages us to pray in suffering, sing praise in times of joy, and call on the priests in our illness, praying for healing and forgiveness of sins.  That certainly rang true in the heart of Saint Philip Neri: prayer and an encounter with our Lord was a primary concern for him.  Today our Liturgy and the saint we are memorializing encourages us to step up our prayer life, and in the words of our Psalmist, may our prayer “rise like incense” before our God: the One who regards our prayers to be as pleasing as the most beautiful music.

Thursday of the Seventh Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s Scriptures extol the virtue of poverty of spirit, which is perhaps one of the more difficult virtues to embrace and nurture.  Saint James illustrates how things of this world, specifically the pursuit of riches, can be not only a powerful distraction from the spiritual life, but can also leave one complicit in serious sin.  In the Gospel, Jesus exhorts us not to let anything – not even the members of our own body – to get in the way.  We are called to be salt in the world; to flavor our interactions with others such that they see the attraction of life in Christ.

But if we’re ever going to accomplish it, we have to be poor in spirit.  We have to get over ourselves and shed whatever takes us off the right path.  If our hands or feet or eyes lead us down the wrong path, we have to humble ourselves and get rid of that obstacle so that we can salt the world.

Possessing the kingdom of heaven is our goal; in fact it’s why we were created.  That’s the ultimate destination on the spiritual journey.  To get there, we can’t be content with the things that get in the way.  We have to pluck out the errant eye, lop off the wayward limb.  We have to give up worldly riches, especially those garnered at the expense of the poor, and go all in for the kingdom of God.

Tuesday of the Seventh Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

In today’s Gospel, we have the disciples arguing among themselves because they find they don’t understand Jesus’ message. And then that degenerates into a further argument about which one of them was the greatest.  They’re doing an awful lot of arguing, and not nearly enough listening.

All of this arguing betrays a real lack of growth in faith among those disciples.  They probably felt like, since they were in Jesus’ inner-circle, they should have all the answers.  And perhaps they should, but to their defense, they hadn’t received the Holy Spirit yet.  In a real sense, they were still in formation, and they shouldn’t have been so afraid to ask Jesus for clarification, rather than start petty arguments.

Jesus’ lesson to them then comes from him putting a little child in their midst.  Receive a child like this in my name, he tells them, and you receive me.  What’s the point of that?  Well, receiving a child in Jesus’ name is an act of service, because a child can do nothing but receive at that point in their life.  So serving others in Jesus’ name, serving those who cannot serve you back, or at least in a way that they can’t return the favor, is what brings us to the Father.

I think the take-away for us is that trying to be smarter than everyone else isn’t what shows that we are faithful people.  Instead of arguing our point, we need to ask God to help us get the point.  And we have to be ready to act on our faith, serving others out of love for God, instead of arguing or debating what Jesus is making plain as day.

Saint Matthias, Apostle

Today’s readings

We don’t really know much about St. Matthias. We have no idea the qualifications that led to his being nominated as one of two possibilities to take Judas’s position among the Twelve Apostles. But clearly, they would have nominated a holy and faithful man, and then they left the deciding up to the Holy Spirit. Praying, they cast lots, and the lots selected Matthias, who then became one of the Twelve. He is not mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament, so we don’t know much about his ministry.

What is striking about the selection of St. Matthias though is that this is the first of the disciples or Apostles that was not selected directly by Jesus. Jesus selected all of the original Twelve, but Matthias is the first to be selected by the fledgling Church on the authority passed on by Jesus himself. They act not on their own, but on the authority of Jesus, being led by the Holy Spirit for the glory of God the Father.

A similar process has been repeated through the ages, over and over again, to select men to be popes, bishops, priests and deacons, and men and women for religious communities. The process begins with prayer and ends with thanksgiving and glory to God. People propose the candidates as being noted for holiness and ability, but it is God who makes the final choice.

Today we praise God for the Twelve Apostles, of which Matthias was one. We praise God for the authority of the Apostles which has echoed through the ages giving guidance to the Church. We praise God for the gift of the Holy Spirit who is active in all our decision making.

The Ascension of Our Lord

Today’s readings

When I was on my pastoral internship in seminary, my supervisor and I talked about the fact that our Liturgy is very wordy. Think about it: all of the prayers and readings and songs – it’s a lot of words to take in in an hour or less, but we do it all the time. So once in a while, I like to reflect on what are the important words in the Mass. We have the words of institution of the Eucharist – those are extremely important. The proclamation of the Scriptures, especially the Gospel, well we can’t discount those either. And let’s not forget the Creed, the words of which were the cause of many arguments and literally fights over the centuries – those words are very carefully chosen.

But there is one word that I think is the most important, and I bet it’s going to surprise you. Because that word is “GO.” Go: we have to wait all the way to the end of Mass to hear the deacon or priest say it. “Go in peace.” Because it’s way at the end of Mass, I wonder if some people ever get to hear it. But whether we hear it or not, it’s kind of a throw-away, or it seems so. But it’s not. It’s not just a word of dismissal kind of like “you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.” It’s not just a word to get us out of the church and on to the next thing in life.

“Go” is a word of mission, and we hear it in our Gospel today. Jesus tells the disciples: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” That was what the disciples were to do. They weren’t supposed to just stand there staring up into the sky: they were supposed to GO and do the work of salvation until Jesus returned in glory.

Obviously, the command that was given to those first disciples is one that we are supposed to get as well. We are supposed to GO and preach the gospel in what we say and what we do. We are supposed to GO and baptize people by leading them to the faith in our witness. We are supposed to GO in peace, glorifying the Lord by our lives. We are supposed to GO and announce the gospel of the Lord. We do that by volunteering at the parish, looking in on a sick or elderly neighbor, living lives of integrity in the workplace. We do that by striving to be Christ-like to every person we meet.

So I hope that you’ll hear that word “GO” at the end of Mass differently now than perhaps you have before. I hope that you’ll hear it as a calling, as a challenge, and as a sacred duty. I hope you’ll take up the call to GO and make the world into the Kingdom of God among us.

Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter

Today’s readings

“You will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices;

you will grieve, but your grief will become joy.”

Jesus continues to prepare his disciples for his not being among them in the flesh. He knows that his death, resurrection and Ascension were all part of the plan, and he wants the disciples to be prepared so that their grief does not overwhelm the mission. He knows that they will indeed grieve, after all, he was fully human in that way too. He grieved over the death of Lazarus and grieved over the needs of the people he ministered to. He knew that sadness was to be expected and please note carefully that he did not tell them not to grieve: “You will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices; you will grieve…” So he does not, as our modern society would, tell them to get over it and get back to work. He knows that grief is healthy and necessary.

But he also gives them hope. Because we Christians do not grieve as if we have no hope. He knows that salvation is the plan, and that death is no longer the end of the story. Their grief would indeed become joy. And joy isn’t the same thing as saying they would always be happy. But just because people grieve doesn’t mean they are not experiencing joy. Because joy is a condition that is not regulated by external circumstances. Joy comes from knowing that God is in control and that salvation is ours.

Joy ultimately comes from the Holy Spirit, the Advocate that Jesus knew for certain he would be sending once he returned to the Father. The Spirit’s presence in our lives gives us a joy that the world and all its grief cannot ever take away. We too look forward to these events as we prepare for our annual celebrations of the Ascension and Pentecost. We may indeed be subject to grief in this life, in many forms. But we have been given the gift of the Spirit, we know that God is in control and that salvation is ours.

We may indeed weep and mourn while the world rejoices; we may grieve, but our grief will certainly become joy.

Tuesday of the Sixth Week of Easter

Today’s readings

There are a lot of miracles going on in today’s first reading.  First, there’s the earthquake that brings down the prison walls, although Paul and Silas did not take advantage of the situation.  Then there’s the conversion of the jailer, who was an employee of the Romans, and so would have had to worship their pagan gods.  You might also note the rather miraculous faith of Paul and Silas, who despite being very badly mistreated on account of Jesus, did not abandon their faith but actually grew stronger in it.  And you might also consider it a miracle that, when they are jailed and singing hymns at midnight, the other prisoners didn’t gang up and beat them into silence!

When you look at it as a vignette, it’s all so amazing, although Paul and Silas probably just viewed it as part and parcel of the life they had been called to live.  They had faith in Jesus and they probably didn’t expect anything less than the miracles they were seeing!

People of great faith experience such great miracles.  This is not to say that all their troubles go away; Paul and Silas were still imprisoned, and continued to be hounded by the people and the government because of their faith.  But the miracles come through the abiding presence of Christ, giving us strength when we need it most, a kind word from a stranger that comes at the right moment, a phone call from a friend that makes our day, an answer to prayer that is not what we expected but exactly what we needed.  The Psalmist today has that same great faith: “Your right hand saves me, O Lord,” he sings.  Let us pray that our hearts and eyes and minds would be open to see the miracles happening around us, that we might sing that same great song!

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Today’s readings

I don’t know if you were counting or not, but between the second reading and the Gospel, the word “love” was used in one form or another eighteen times.  So it’s pretty easy to see where the Church is leading us in today’s Liturgy of the Word.  Love is a theme that runs through John’s Gospel and the letters of Saint John: John’s point is that the Gospel is summed up in that God is love.

Now we get all kinds of notions about what love is and what it’s not.  Our culture feeds us mostly false notions, unfortunately, and it gets confusing because love can mean so many different things.  I can say, “cookies are my favorite food – I love cookies!” and that’s obviously not the kind of love Jesus wants us to know about today.  When we say “love” in our language, we could mean an attraction, like puppy love, or we could mean that we like something a lot, or we might even be referring to the sexual act.  And none of that is adequate to convey the kind of love that is the hallmark of Jesus’ disciples.

So I think we should look at the Greek word which is being translated “love” here.  That word is agape Agape is the love of God, or love that comes from God.  It is outwardly expressed in the person of Jesus Christ, who came to show the depth of God’s love by dying on the Cross to pay the price for our many sins.  So that’s the kind of love that Jesus is talking about today; it’s kind of a benchmark of love that he is putting out there for our consideration.

To really see what Jesus meant by love in today’s Gospel, all we have to do is to look at Jesus.  His command is that his disciples – including us, of course – should “Love one another as I have loved you.”  And the operative phrase there is: “as I have loved you.”   Meaning, “in the same way I have loved you.”  And we can see how far Jesus took that – all the way to the cross.  He loved us enough to take our sins upon himself and nail them to the cross, dying to pay the price for those sins, and being raised from the dead to smash the power of those sins to control our eternity.  So the love that Jesus is talking about here is sacrificial.  And he says it rather plainly in one of my favorite pieces of Holy Scripture: “No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  This sacrificial quality a vital property of agape love.

And the disciples clearly were called to that kind of sacrificial love.  They were persecuted, thrown out of the synagogues, beaten for stirring up trouble, put to death for their faith in Christ.  Like their Savior, they laid down their lives for their friends.  That is what disciples do.  And so, we disciples hear that same command too.   We may never be asked to literally die for those we love, but we are called on to die in little ways: to give up our own self-interests, our own selfishness, our own comforts, for the sake of others.

So we’re going to look for opportunities this week to love sacrificially.  Doing a chore that’s not our job and not making a big thing of it.  Finding an opportunity to encourage a spouse or child with a kind word that we haven’t offered in a long time.  Picking the neighbor’s trashcan up out of the street when it’s been a windy day.  It doesn’t matter how big or small the thing is we do, what matters is the love we put into it.  When we make the decision to do something little for the sake of love, the joy we find in that act can help us to make it a habit of life, so that those little things become even bigger.  That kind of loving transforms families, heals past hurts, and can even make our little corner of the world a more beautiful place.  The love of God, offered most perfectly in the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, transformed our eternity.  That same love of God, lived in each one of us, can be a catalyst for good in our world.

Mother Theresa once said, “I am not sure exactly what heaven will be like, but I do know that when we die and it comes time for God to judge us, he will not ask, ‘How many good things have you done in your life?’  Rather he will ask, ‘How much love did you put into what you did?’”  When we are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to love, there is no way we can miss the joy that Jesus wants us to have today.  “Love one another as I have loved you” might be a big challenge, but it absolutely will be the greatest joy of our lives.

Saints Philip and James, Apostles

Today’s readings

Today is the feast of St. Philip and the man we call “St. James the Lesser” because he is probably not the St. James that we know as a relative of Jesus and the traditional author of the book of James.  Unfortunately, all that we know about this St. James is that Jesus chose him as an apostle, and that Jesus appeared to him after his resurrection, as we hear in today’s first reading.  St. Philip we know a bit more about.  We hear of him in the Gospel story of the feeding of the multitudes because he is the one who tells Jesus “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.”  In today’s Gospel we see him again as an apostle who is slow to believe.  “Show us the Father,” he says, “and that will be enough for us.”

So this, I think, is the feast for all of us disciples who don’t put ourselves in the limelight.  Maybe we too have been slow to believe, or were never really sure how to accomplish the mighty deeds God requires of us.  Maybe we’re pretty unknown in discipleship circles.  And maybe that’s good enough for us.  Today’s feast says that’s okay.  It says that our efforts of faith, small though they may be, make us great believers in God’s time and in God’s eyes, led to the Father, as we always are, by our Savior.  It says that we might need a little convincing that we can do the work God asks us to do, but that filled with the Holy Spirit, all things can be accomplished.  It says that we don’t have to be on the front page of the book to live our faith with conviction.

Today is the feast of apostles who are called to make God’s love known despite their imperfections or apparent lack of ability.  It is a feast for all of us who know that we are called by God and led by the Spirit to do great things in Christ.  To Philip and James and all the rest of the Apostles, Jesus said then, “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it.”  Jesus says that to us today, too, all of us disciples who are slow to believe and understand.  “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do.”