The Most Holy Trinity

Today's readings

holy trinity-1I don't think it would come as too much of a shock for me to tell you that not one of us here in this place, not one of us here on this earth, will ever come to understand the Holy Trinity in this life. We've all been told that the Trinity is a mystery, and that's not just a church cop-out, it is in fact, truth. What we hear in today's Liturgy of the Word is that all of the truth about the Trinity is there, for the taking, in the person of the Holy Spirit. But we still don't get it, do we? And Jesus said as much: "I have much more to tell you," Jesus says, "but you cannot bear it now." We cannot bear it now because we are earthly creatures, corporeal and temporal – that is, material and bound to this time – and so our minds necessarily do not conform to God who is heavenly, ethereal and eternal. The long and short of it is, we'll never fully understand the nature of the Holy Trinity this side of the Kingdom of God.

St. Augustine found out 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 was digging 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." Once more St. Augustine asked, "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?" And the child disappeared. No wonder Jesus says to us, "I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now."

But even this is not meant to discourage us from trying to find out more about our God. As St. Augustine says in another place, we are made for God, and "our hearts are restless until they rest in thee." And so it is with hearts and minds filled with expectation that we gather on this Trinity Sunday, yearning to know the One true God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This is Trinity Sunday and so it is perhaps appropriate to approach things in threes. And so, if you will, a third idea from St. Augustine. If you heard me preach on the feast of Pentecost last Sunday, you know that he said of the Trinity that the Father is the Lover, the Son is the Beloved, and the Holy Spirit is the Love between the Father and the Son. Now, as I also said last week, this is but a tiny scratch in the surface of who God is. With this little caricature, we come to understand a tiny bit about the Trinity, but it is a very important tiny bit, I think. Because from this description of the Trinity we get two very important facts about God. The first is one that we know quite well, that God is love. And the second is one that makes sense if we think about it, and that is that God is a relationship.

This notion of God as a relationship is fundamental to Catholic thinking. It forms the basis for so much of our theology and our experience as a Church. For example, many of our protestant brothers and sisters emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus Christ above all else. While we do not necessarily reject this notion, and while we do think it's important for all people to come to know Christ, we believe that a person comes to know God in community because God is a community. So that's why we think it's important to come to Church for worship and reject the idea that one can worship God best by looking at a tree or focusing on a crystal. God made us to know him and gives us other people in our lives so that we can come to know him better. Indeed we see God's love for us poured out in the way others love and serve us. And so gathering as a community is fundamental to our faith and expresses our true belief in the Triune God.

Today's readings underscore this notion of God as relationship. The mysterious figure of Wisdom in our first reading from Proverbs was with God in the beginning. The relationship between the two of them brought forth the heavens, the earth, the skies, the waters, and everything that is in them. It has been said that Wisdom here is the personification of the Word of God, which we often identify with the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. But whoever it is, it makes clear the fact that the creation of the world took place in the context of relationship. Sure, God could have created everything himself, but that's not who God is. God is relationship, so his creating action is one of relationship as well.

The second reading mentions all three Persons of the Trinity. We have peace with God (the Father) through our Lord Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit. Peace, too, can only be experienced in community. Sometimes we think we'd be better off without some of the people around us, but we can never experience the peace of God apart from the community. Peace, true peace, the peace that God gives, is a peace that comes from the love experienced in the Community of the Trinity and bestowed upon all those who believe. We experience peace when we relate to one another as God intended, we have peace when we exercise our vocation and our calling as God intended, we have peace when we love and serve others as God intended. St. Paul is not naïve here, though. He does not claim that knowing the Triune God will give us a life devoid of tribulation. No, we will definitely experience affliction, but instead of being crushed and dejected by our afflictions, we can instead boast about them, because we know that through them we come to know endurance, proven character, and a hope that can never be taken away from us. God is relationship, so he does not leave us alone in our afflictions, lost and broken, but instead, stretches out his arms on the cross and endures them with us, giving us hope and peace.

The idea of God as a relationship is helpful to us, I think, because we know what relationships are. But it's also difficult, in a way, because none of us experiences their relationships perfectly. If God is a relationship and our own relationships are broken and fragile, then our understanding of the Triune God remains at least partially shrouded in mystery. What truly stands in our way on the quest to coming to know God and comprehend the mystery of the Trinity is that we are sinful people, and always will be so this side of the Kingdom. And so it is most likely that it is only on that great day when Christ will have destroyed sin and death itself, when all that is hidden will be revealed, it is only on that day that we will truly understand who God is. Until then, we can at least scratch the surface by experiencing the love of God in relationships, perfecting them as best we can. And on that great day, we believe that we will see our God as he truly is and will cry out with the Psalmist, "O Lord, our God, how wonderful your name in all the earth!"

Saturday of the Eighth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The precepts of the Lord give joy to the heart.

There’s a lot of talk in today’s readings about the Law. The Jews in ancient times and even still today love the Law because that Law, given by God, gave them access to God. Those who kept the law, they felt, are chosen and blessed by God and are indeed God’s chosen people. So much of the Old Testament is devoted to the law: the giving of it, the interpretation of it, singing the praises of it, and well, the breaking of it. If the Scriptures show us anything, they show us how our ancestors in faith were people who fell short of keeping the law – wonderful as it was – time and time again.

But did that lack of faithfulness remove from them the great promises of God? No, of course not. God intervened in history often to bring his people back and to help them to realize that the Law was for their benefit and helped them to become a holy nation, a people set apart. God in justice could certainly have turned his back on them, but in his mercy, God didn’t.

Instead, in the fullness of time, God sent his only Son to be our Redeemer. He paid the price we so richly deserved for our lack of faithfulness. His death not only paid the price but also freed God’s people from the law if they would but believe in Jesus Christ. That’s why Jesus chose not to quarrel with the chief priests, the elders and the scribes in today’s Gospel reading. He knew that keeping the Law was something that could only be accomplished by God, and they refused to acknowledge that. So they would never come to believe in the Gospel he was preaching.

But we do. And we are invited to renew our love for God’s Law. Yes, we have been delivered from it, but that Law is still the joy of our hearts. Because following God’s ways leads us to his truth, and his truth leads us to his salvation. That is why we can rejoice with the Psalmist today by saying, The precepts of the Lord give joy to the heart.

The Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today's readings | Today's feast

This feast is one of the reasons I love the Blessed Virgin. Having given her fiat – her "yes" – to God, she now shows concern for her elder relative who is also with child. She goes to visit her in a great act of hospitality, which is one of the virtues Paul admonished the Romans to follow in our first reading today. Perhaps because of her faith and her great concern for Elizabeth, Elizabeth's own child begins to rejoice in the womb, recognizing his Lord and the great woman who would bring him to human life.

While we don't have an exact account of what happened at that visit, we do have the Church's recollection of its spirit, as told through Luke the Evangelist. The whole feeling of this Gospel story is one of great joy. Both Elizabeth and Mary represent the Church in the telling of the story. Because just as Elizabeth was moved by the faith and generosity of Mary, so the Church continues to be edified by her example of faith and charity. And just as Mary rejoiced in what God was doing in her life, so the Church continues to rejoice at the mighty acts of God in every person, time and place.

The Gospel reading ends with the great song called the Magnificat which is Mary's song of praise to God for the wonders he has done throughout all time, but also in her own life. We too should make that our own song as we continue to be overjoyed by the great acts of God, shepherding us all through our own lives, and intervening in our world and society to bring grace to a world darkened by sin. We, too, can pray with Mary, "From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name."

Memorial Day

Today's readings: Philippians 4:6-9 & John 14:23-29

memorialdayMemorial Day originally began in our country as an occasion to remember and decorate the graves of the soldiers who died in the Civil War. Later it became a holiday to commemorate all those who had died in war in the service of our country. This continues to be the main focus of Memorial Day but this day has also become a time to remember not just those who died in war, but also all of our loved ones who have died. It is above all a time to remember.

As a people, we tend to look for heroes in our lives. Our society gives us all kinds of heroes, most of them really pretty unworthy of the title. How many sports heroes have also been drug users? How many political heroes have also turned out to be corrupt? How many entertainment heroes have found their way into drug or alcohol abuse or have turned out to be flawed in other ways? We are all of us both saints and sinners. We are works in progress hoping for true redemption in Christ. We should therefore look up to those heroes in our lives who have been people of faith, even if they have been flawed in other ways.

And so we remember today those who have been believers, those who loved God and, as Jesus commanded in today's Gospel, have kept his word. These are the heroes we would do well to pattern our lives after, as St. Paul says in today's first reading: "Finally, brothers [and sisters], whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you."

Those who have been part of our lives, and the life of our country, who have been people of faith and integrity are the heroes that God has given us. If we would honor them on this Memorial Day, we should believe as they have believed, we should live as they have lived, and we should rejoice that their memory points us to our Savior, Jesus Christ, who is our hope of eternal life.

The Solemnity of Pentecost

Today’s readings

pentecostThere’s an old prayer that I wonder if people even know any more. I learned it when I was in eighth grade, preparing for my Confirmation. It goes like this (and please pray along with me if you know it):

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

This is a prayer that I pray every day, and I hope you’ll come to learn it too, if you don’t already know it. Because we are a people desperately in need of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

The Apostles were just like us in that regard. They too were in need of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. They didn’t know what they were waiting for, but they knew they were waiting for something, because Jesus told them to wait in the city until they would be clothed with power from on high. That was the message that he gave them as he ascended into heaven. And so they gathered together in those days after Jesus died and rose and ascended and they waited for that power from on high. They waited because they were powerless without Jesus. They waited because they didn’t know what else to do. And they were rewarded for their expectant waiting.

We too are waiting. Which doesn’t mean that we’re just sitting around waiting for something to happen. We are waiting, like the Apostles, with great expectation. All the earth is waiting. Whenever we pause to catch a breath, we can feel that waiting, that expectation, a groaning for God to do a God-thing. We wait for an end to war and all the world’s miseries; we wait for healing of our church’s brokenness; we wait for unity in our families’ divisions, an end to nature’s devastation, and we wait for ourselves to reach the goal of our lives’ search for meaning. We are waiting, and with the Apostles, we pray longingly, “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful…”

One of the ways to look at the Holy Trinity is that the Father is the Lover, the Son is the Beloved, and the Holy Spirit is the love between the Father and the Son. Since God is love, this caricature of the Trinity makes some sense, even though it just begins to scratch the surface of who God is. So the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles at that first Pentecost, which is the same Spirit that abides in the Church today and is poured out on all baptized believers, this continual outpouring of the Holy Spirit was always intended by God because it is a sacrament of God’s love for us.

The love of God through the Spirit enabled those first believers to boldly proclaim the marvelous deeds of God, and enabled all of their hearers to understand them in their own language. Love is that universal language that we all recognize because it is the language of the One who created us, so it is no wonder that everyone understood them. We too speak with that same language when we reach out to our brothers and sisters who are lonely, or hurting, or impoverished, or marginalized or just plain forgotten. If all the world is to come to know the Gospel and its Author, Jesus Christ, then we have to proclaim that Gospel in beautiful acts of love for every person God puts in our path. Then just as those who spoke different languages understood the Apostles’ preaching, all this modern world – which does not speak the language of faith – will come to know and understand our words and actions through love. We cry out with every breath to our God, “Enkindle in us the fire of your love!”

God created all of the world good, because it was a creation of his love for us. We’ve all heard the great Genesis story of the creation of the world. God breathed the world and all its wonders into existence, most especially the greatest of his creations, humankind. That creation, though, was never complete until the coming of the Holy Spirit. The great Paschal Mystery of Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension all were necessary so that, having returned to the Father, the Son could send the Holy Spirit, that One who is the love among the Trinity, to the earth so that all the earth could be God’s new creation. The Apostles were witnesses to that new creation.

Because creation didn’t stop in Genesis. New life is being born into existence in every single moment. Right now, somewhere, a baby cries as it takes its first breath. Right now, somewhere, a tiny sprout of green herbage pokes its head through the soil on its way to becoming a huge tree. Right now, somewhere, the Holy Spirit is working on someone’s heart, tugging at them to become what they have been created for. And we are witnesses to that new creation. We pray with the Apostles, “Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created!”

But what makes the need for the Holy Spirit so evident in our world, though, is the many ways that we are all bruised and broken. Throughout history, humankind had turned away from God, time and time again. Every action of God was meant to intervene and turn us back to him. But it never came to pass fully until he sent his only Son to be our Redeemer. The apostles who gathered in that room, waiting for the power from on high, knew our Redeemer personally. They were longing for the renewal of their own nation, not fully knowing God’s plans for them.

auschwitzrebirthBut that need for renewal never went away, and we have seen death and pain and brokenness all around us. One of our young people this week showed me a picture of the concentration camp at Auschwitz. The camp had been devoid of vegetation during its heyday, for want of a better term. But the picture she showed me had green plants poking up right next to the horrible buildings put there by the Nazis. Her chaplain commented that that was a sign of the earth trying to heal itself. And through the action of the Holy Spirit, we can see creation in so many ways trying to heal itself. Right here, there are people trying to turn away from addictions or patterns of sin. Right now, we have parishioners and friends in the hospital recovering from injury or illness. Right now, there are people among us working to restore broken relationships. The earth and all of creation are devastated at times, but the Holy Spirit never tires of renewing it. We too can pray, “Renew the face of the earth!”

Today’s second reading makes it clear that the Holy Spirit is active in all of us, each in different ways. There are different spiritual gifts, different forms of service, different ministries, different workings. But there is one and the same God who works to produce all of them in everyone, through the Holy Spirit. That Spirit fills our hearts and sets them on fire with the love of God. That same spirit makes us into God’s new creation and renews each of us in God’s image every day. We indeed are a people constantly in need of the love and grace of the Holy Spirit, and we should pray every day,

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful;
Enkindle in them the fire of your love.
Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created,
And you shall renew the face of the earth. Amen.

Friday of the Seventh Week of Easter

Today’s readings

Jesus’ words to Peter in this Gospel reading are a mixture of comfort, challenge, and warning. Peter, who had messed up in his relationship with Jesus time and time again, had just messed up in the worst way possible by denying his friend not once but three times. But then comes the question not once but three times: “Peter, do you love me?” This is comfort because with each asking, Jesus is healing Peter from the inside out.

Then words of challenge: “Feed my sheep.” Grace is never just for us. When we are forgiven or graced in any way, we, like Peter, are then challenged to do something about it. Feed my sheep, follow me, give me your life, come to know my grace in a deeper way.

And then words of warning: “when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” When we give ourselves over to God, that necessarily means that we might have to go in a direction we might not otherwise choose.

But then Jesus brings Peter back to comfort and healing once again by saying “Follow me.” No matter what we disciples have done in our past, no matter how many times we have messed up or in what ways, there is always forgiveness if we give ourselves over to our Savior and our friend. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t consequences or that life will be easy. We too may be challenged and hear words of warning. But we will never stop hearing the invitation, “Follow me.”

Thursday of the Seventh Week of Easter

Today's readings

Today's Liturgy of the Word assures us that the establishment of the Church was not some kind of made-up aberration on the part of the followers of Jesus. In the first reading, Paul who is now doing battle for his life against the Pharisees and Sadducees, is told by the Lord that just as he has borne witness to Christ in Jerusalem, he must now do so in Rome. And he will do that by giving witness to his actions. This will lead to his death, but certainly his witness contributed to the establishment of the Church in that great city.

We are still hearing Jesus' prayer in the last hours of his life. Speaking to his Father, he prays not just for the disciples who have been part of his life, but also for all those who will believe in Jesus through their word. Sitting here at this Liturgy, we have to know that we are among those Jesus was praying for in those last moments. And the Father, who certainly would answer the prayers of his only Son, granted that the Church would be the steward of the great mysteries of Redemption.

These early clues of the Church that we hear about in today's readings were nurtured by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, which we will celebrate in just a few days. What we should hear in today's Scriptures is that God always intended us to be one with him, or Jesus would never have prayed for that. And God always intended that the Church would be the institution to bring His creation back to Himself.

Tuesday of the Seventh Week of Easter

Today's readings

Today's Liturgy of the Word represents a kind of wrap-up to the lives of St. Paul and Jesus, respectively. They both have completed the mission for which they had been sent, and both are now giving the mission back to God who would continue it as He alone saw fit. Paul's mission had been one of conversion, beginning with his own, and then reaching out to the Gentiles he met traveling far and wide. Now he did not know what would happen to him, only that the Holy Spirit kept telling him it was to be an end filled with hardship, from which Paul refused to shrink.

Jesus, one with the Father from the beginning, had come from the Father and was now going back to the Father. He brought God's love to bear on the aberrations of sin and death and had drawn disciples into the mission to continue the work. It could not continue unless he returned to the Father and sent the Holy Spirit upon them. Doing that has brought the Gospel into every nation and into the lives of millions. He too faced an end filled with hardship, from which he refused to shrink.

We disciples will come to our own ends as well. Will we too be able to give the mission back to the Father, confident that we've done it as best we could, and confident that it would be continued as God saw fit? Have our days sometimes been filled with hardship, and if so, have we also refused to shrink from it? We disciples are part of the mission that God has in the world. We take it for a time and will eventually have to hand it back over. May we all be able to do so with confidence that God's will has been done in us.

The Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord

Today's readings

ascensionOne of the great themes of Catholic theology is the "already, and not yet." Basically, that means that we disciples of Christ already have a share in the life of God and the promise of heaven, but we are not yet there. So we who believe in Jesus and live our faith every day have the hope of heaven before us, even if we are not home yet. And this hope isn't just some "iffy" kind of thing: it's not "I hope I'll go to heaven one day." No, it's the promise that because of the salvation we have in Christ, we who are faithful will one day live and reign with him. This gives us hope in the midst of the sorrows that we experience in this world.

Another great theme of Catholic theology is that our God is transcendent, but also immanent. Transcendent means that our God is higher than the heavens, more lofty than our thoughts and dreams, beyond anything we can imagine. Whatever we say about God, like "God is love" or "God is good" – those things only begin to scratch the surface of who God is, because God is transcendent beyond anything our limited words can describe. But our God is also immanent. God is not some far off entity that has brought the world into existence and set the events of our lives in motion and then drops back to observe things from afar. No, our God is one who walks among us and knows our sorrow and our pain and celebrates our joy. Saint Augustine said that God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. Our God may indeed be mysterious and beyond us, but he is also the one we can reach out and touch.

As you can see, Catholic theology is generally speaking not exclusive. We are not either already sharing in the promise or not yet sharing in it, but we are "already and not yet." Our God is not either transcendent or immanent, but both transcendent and immanent. These two great theological themes come to a kind of crossroads here on this feast of the Ascension.

Today, as Christ ascends into heaven, our share in the life of God and the promise of heaven is sealed. We have hope of eternal life because our Lord has gone before us to prepare a place for us. If he had not gone, we could never have shared in this life. So, although Jesus has left the apostles yet again, they can rejoice because they know that the promise is coming to fulfillment. We do not possess it yet, because we are not home yet, but we share in it already, because Christ is our promise.

Today, as Christ ascends into heaven, he once again, with the Father, is transcendent, because we, along with the Apostles, can no longer see him. But he remains immanent by his promise to be with us always. Again, I will quote St. Augustine who said of Christ that "He did not leave heaven when he came down to us; nor did he withdraw from us when he went up again into heaven. The fact that he was in haven even while he was on earth is borne out by his own statement: No one has ever ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven." St. Augustine's notion of time is that everything is present to God all at once. This explains how our celebration of the Eucharist in a few minutes brings us to Calvary at the moment when Jesus gave his life for us. And it explains how Jesus can ascend into heaven and yet remain among us. Time is a limitation for us humans, but not for God who created time in the first place.

All of this theology can be heady stuff, but what it boils down to is this: because Jesus died, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven, we now have the hope of heaven and of sharing in the very life of God. Even though we do not possess heaven yet, we know that it belongs to all who have faith in Christ and live that faith every day. And even though we do not see Jesus walking among us, he is still absolutely present among us and promises to be with us forever. The preface to the Eucharistic prayer which I will sing in a few minutes makes this very clear; it says:

Christ, the mediator between God and humanity,
judge of the world and Lord of all,
has passed beyond our sight,
not to abandon us but to be our hope.
Christ is the beginning, the head of the Church;
where he has gone, we hope to follow.

Jesus, having explained the Scriptures to his Apostles yet again, tells them "You are witnesses of these things." And so they don't have the luxury of just standing there, staring up into the sky for hours, dejected and crushed because the One who had been their hope had disappeared. No, as the Gospel tells us today, they "returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God." They are witnesses, "clothed with power from on high," and they must be filled with the hope and joy of the resurrection and ascension of the Lord.

We disciples are witnesses of these things too. We must witness to a world filled with violence and oppression and sadness that our God promises life without end for all those who believe in him. And we have that hope already, even though not yet. We must witness to a world languishing in the vapidity of relativism and individualism and New Age Oprah and Dr. Phil philosophy that it is Jesus Christ, the Lord of All, who is one with us in heaven, and present among us on earth, who fulfills our hopes and longings and will never leave us. We must be witnesses to all these things, living with great joy, continually praising God because, as our opening prayer said so eloquently, Christ's "ascension is our glory and our hope."

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