If You Can Use Anything Lord, You Can Use Me – A Homily for the 11th Sunday of the Year

The readings for this Sunday speak of God’s providence, which is often displayed in humble, hidden, and mysterious ways. While it is true that God sometimes works in overpowering ways, His more common method seems to be using the humble and even unlikely things of the created order to accomplish His goals.

For us who are disciples, there are three related teachings given to us that speak of how God will make use of us and others. It is also good to link these teaching to Father’s Day, which occurs this weekend here in the U.S. These three teachings can be described as Adaptability, “Awe-Ability,” and Accountability.

ADAPTABILITY – In today’s first reading and in the Gospel, we hear how God can take something humble and adapt it to be something mighty and powerful.

The tender shoot of the first reading becomes a mighty oak: I [the Lord] will take from the crest of the cedar…a tender shoot, and plant it on a high and lofty mountain. … It shall put forth branches and bear fruit and become a majestic cedar (Ezekiel 17:22-23).

The mustard seed of the first reading which becomes a great shade tree: The … kingdom of God … is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth. But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade (Mk 4:32-33).

Yes, God adapts us for His purposes and no one should say, “I cannot be used.” An old song says, “If you can use anything Lord, you can use me.” There’s a litany I’ve seen floating around the Internet that says,

The next time you think God can’t use you, remember

Noah was a drunk
Abraham was too old
Isaac was a daydreamer
Jacob was a liar
Leah was ugly
Joseph was abused
Moses was murderer had a stuttering problem
Gideon was afraid
Samson had long hair and was a womanizer
Rahab was a prostitute
Jeremiah and Timothy were too young
David had an affair and was a murderer
Elijah was suicidal
Isaiah preached naked
Jonah ran from God
Naomi was a widow
Job went bankrupt and was depressed
Peter denied Christ
The Disciples fell asleep while praying
Martha worried about everything
The Samaritan woman was divorced, more than once
Zaccheus was too small
Paul was too argumentative
Timothy had an ulcer
and Lazarus was dead!

No excuses, then, God chooses the weak and makes them strong

In fact, it is often our very weakness that is the open door for God. In our strength we are usually too proud to be of any use to Him. Moses was too strong at age forty when he pridefully murdered a man, thinking he was doing both the Jews and God a favor. Only forty years later, at the age of eighty, was Moses weak and humble enough to depend on God. Only then could God use him.

We are invited in this principle to consider that it is not merely in the “biggie-wow” things we do that God can work. It is also in the humble and imperfect things about us—the mustard seed of faith, the tiny shoots, the humble growth—that God can magnify His power.

So, God can adapt even the humblest, most ordinary, lowliest things and from them bring forth might and lasting fruit. Never despair of what is most humble about you, or that you are of little account on the world’s stage. It is precisely our humble state that God most often uses to bring forth His greatest and most lasting works.

“AWE-ABILITY” – This is the capacity to reverence mystery and to have wonder and awe at what God does. In today’s Gospel, Jesus emphasizes that although a man plants seeds, he does not really know the deeper mysteries of life and growth:

This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and through it all the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how (Mk 4:26-27).

Despite our often-self-congratulatory celebration of our scientific prowess and of how much we know, there is much more that we neither know nor understand. We do well to maintain a reverential awe of the deeper mysteries of God’s works and His ways. We are also rather poor at assessing the effectiveness of our methods. We may come away from a project considering it to have been very effective, and yet little comes of it in the long run. Conversely, sometimes what we consider to have been an ineffective effort may bear great fruit. God works in His own ways and we do well to remember that He can surprise us, reminding us that He is able and is in charge.

Some years ago, a friend of mine had on her desk a “God can.” It was a metal cookie tin with the following saying on its lid: He worketh in strange and mysterious ways, his wonders to perform. Into this box she would place slips of papers on which were written the challenges, struggles, and failures of her life. When she reached the limits of her strengths and abilities, she would say, “I can’t, but God can.” So, into this metal “God can” went the slips of paper, placed there in the hope that God would make a way out of no way. Quite often He did.

We do well to cultivate a sense of wonder and awe at who God is and how He works. Not only does this bring us joy, but it also opens us to hope. It reminds us that God can work in hidden ways to exult what is humble and to bring great transformation to those who are cast down and troubled. As we saw in the “adaptability” section of this post, it is often in the humblest things that God performs His mightiest works.

ACCOUNTABILITY – If it is true that we can’t, but God can; if it is true that God can use us mightily despite our humble state, our weakness, and even our sinfulness; then there can be no excuse for not bearing fruit in our life. Each of us is accountable to the Lord for how we let Him use us and work through us to further His Kingdom.

The second reading reminds that we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil (2 Cor 5:9-10).

God is able to adapt and to work in wondrous and hidden ways to lift us up, even if we are humble and struggle. Given this capacity of God’s, we must one day render an account of how we have responded to God’s grace and His invitation to be used for His work.

On that day of judgment, the answer “I couldn’t” will ring hollow, because God can. Today’s readings remind us to be open to what God can do, often in mysterious ways, and even with the most humble things in our life.

Today is also Father’s Day, and so the following litany of resolution seems appropriate:

I DO solemnly resolve before God to take full responsibility for myself, my wife, and my children.

I WILL love them, protect them, serve them, and teach them the Word of God as the spiritual leader of my home.

I WILL be faithful to my wife, to love and honor her, and be willing to lay down my life for her as Jesus Christ did for me.

I WILL bless my children and teach them to love God with all of their hearts, all of their minds, and all of their strength.

I WILL train them to honor authority and live responsibly.

I WILL confront evil, pursue justice, and love mercy.

I WILL pray for others and treat them with kindness, respect, and compassion.

I WILL work diligently to provide for the needs of my family.

I WILL forgive those who have wronged me and reconcile with those I have wronged.

I WILL learn from my mistakes, repent of my sins, and walk with integrity as a man answerable to God.

I WILL seek to honor God, be faithful to His church, obey His Word, and do His will.

I WILL courageously work with the strength God provides to fulfill this resolution for the rest of my life and for His glory.

As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord (Joshua 24:15).

This resolution comes from the 2011 movie Courageous, which I strongly recommend seeing.

All of us, men and women, will be held accountable, for even if we can’t, God can. Even if we feel too humble and insignificant, God does His greatest work with humble things and humble people. For us, it is simply to say that we have an adaptability that God can use. This should inspire in us an “awe-ability” that joyfully acknowledges God’s often secretive and hidden power. If that be the case, then, knowing our accountability, it simply remains for us to say, “If you can use anything, Lord, you can use me!”

 

Three Crucial Questions, One Crucial Plan: A Homily for the 10th Sunday of the Year

Adam and Eve, Charles-Joseph Natoire (1740)

In the first reading for Sunday (from Genesis) the Lord asks three important questions and sets into motion a “crucial” plan for our salvation. The word “crucial” is rooted in the Latin word for cross (crux or crucis). As such, it indicates something that is central by a coming together of the horizontal and vertical. It also points to a suffering that needs healing. Let’s look at each question in turn and then observe God’s saving plan.

I.  “Adam, where are you?” – God’s first question has almost the quality of a plaintive cry. Because Adam is the head of his household, when God calls Adam He is also seeking Eve.

Of course, God knows where Adam and Eve are. He is really saying, “Adam, Eve: your heart has been hidden from me. What has happened? Where are you going with your life?” This is a crucial question for all of us who are so easily wayward and dull of heart: Where are you?

It is almost as if Adam and Eve had a place in God’s heart and suddenly are absent from that place. Noticing it at once, God seeks them as a shepherd looks for lost sheep.

It is interesting that He is seeking them, not pursuing them. There is nothing here to imply an angry Father, bent on punishment and venting His anger, pursuing those who have done wrong. No, this is a soulful cry.

God is not unaware of what has happened or where they are. The question is deeper: Where is your heart?

We are asked this same question: Where is our heart? On what are our desires focused? Where are we and where are we going? It is much like what Jesus asked Peter: “Do you love me?” How will we answer?

II.  “Who told you that you were naked?” – We do well to understand that the nakedness here is about more than a lack of clothes (which they didn’t even need moments ago). It more fully refers to the experience of feeling exposed, vulnerable, inadequate, and unduly humiliated before God and others.

Proper sorrow for sin is a good thing, but if it descends to deep degradation and feelings of worthlessness, we are robbed of our dignity and capacity to withstand sin in the future. St. Paul says,

Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. (2 Cor. 7:10).

Proper sorrow bids us to seek God for healing. Note that Adam is hiding from God. He has a servile fear of punishment. Instead of running to God, Adam hides; he is fearful and resentful. How quickly he blames his wife for the whole thing: “It was that woman you put here with me!”

God asks us this question, too: “Who told you that you were naked?” In other words, who told you that were wretched and inadequate such that you need to hide from me? I never told you that. Clearly, Satan has bedeviled you and lied to you.

Here are some further things for many of us: “Who told you that you are ugly, that others are better than you, that you do not measure up, that others are laughing at you, that your inadequacies are all that others see? I did not tell you this. They are not the source of your dignity, I am.”

It is a terrible thing to sin, but it is even worse to then lose all hope, to despair, and to feel incapable of emerging from the nakedness of humiliation. Judas despaired of his sin in this way and refused to live with his nakedness and exposure to humiliation. In contrast, Peter waited for the Lord, lived with his sorrow, and then experienced His forgiveness at the lakeside (Jn 21:15ff).

Let the Lord ask you: “Who told you that you were naked?” What does nakedness mean in your life?

Remember, the Lord did not forsake Adam and Eve. He prepares their salvation (as we shall see) and meanwhile He clothed them: The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them (Gen 3:21). Later, Jesus clothed us in righteousness (Rev 19:8).

III. “Why did you do such a thing?” – The tone here could be rhetorical, as if to say, “How could you have done such a thing?” For our purpose, though, it is better to understand the question as an invitation to look into our heart and ponder our motivations.

The Catechism speaks to Adam and Eve’s motivations in the following way:

Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. This is what man’s first sin consisted of. All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness (CCC # 397).

So, at the heart of Adam and Eve’s fall was a lack of trust in God’s goodness and truthfulness. They accepted Satan’s lie that God was not really good and that He was holding the best things back from them, that He was preventing them from being gods. This also aroused their pride and made them ungrateful for what they had. These are the deeper drives behind their external act.

In asking this question, God invites Adam and Eve to ponder the motivations of their hearts and come to greater self-knowledge.

This same question must be asked of us when we sin: Why did you do such a thing? It is good to confess our sinful behavior, but it is more healing to ponder the deep drives of sin and seek the Lord’s healing. There are many deep drives of sin: pride, greed, lust, anger, envy, gluttony, sloth, ingratitude, fear, worldliness, stubbornness, and so forth. We do well to study our hearts and learn to name the vices and virtues we discover there. Through self-knowledge and grace, we can take greater authority over our lives.

The Crucial Plan: The text from Genesis 3 also announces the “protoevangelium” (the first Gospel) after Original Sin. The Lord does not forsake Adam, Eve, or us. He sets forth a crucial plan wherein one of Eve’s own progeny will rise to conquer Satan’s pride by His humble acceptance of the Cross:

Then the LORD God said to the serpent: “Because you have done this, you shall be banned from all the animals and from all the wild creatures; on your belly shall you crawl, and dirt shall you eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel.”

In effect, God says that this attack on His people will not stand. He will set this right. In setting it right He will include His people in the very solution. The man, woman, and tree involved in this fall will also be its undoing. There will be a new Adam (Christ), a new Eve (Mary), and the tree of the Cross. In the very act of striking at Christ’s heel, the serpent’s head will be crushed. Your power will be crushed, Satan.

So indeed, it happened. God had a “crucial” plan: the plan of the Cross. Humility would defeat pride as light casts out darkness and love drives out hatred.

Whatever your sins, never forget that God has a plan to save you. Let God find you as He calls “Where are you?” Let Him clothe your nakedness and help you to understand your heart. Finally, let Him apply the crucial remedy, the cross. All He needs is your ongoing yes!

On the Ministry of Angels in Creation

The conclusion of the Book of Tobit  features the Archangel Raphael revealing himself to Tobit and others and explaining his ministry to them. This post I write is not a full angelology, it is just a grateful reflection for God, his angels and his creation. Book-length treatments are necessary for a good angelology. If you are looking for a readable, and brief account of angelology I might recommend The Angels and Their Mission According to the Fathers of the Church, by Cardinal Jean Danielou.

Let’s look at a brief excerpt of Archangel Raphael and ponder gratefully the ministry of the angels. Raphael says,

I can now tell you that when you, Tobit, and Sarah prayed, it was I who presented and read the record of your prayer before the Glory of the Lord; and I did the same thing when you used to bury the dead. When you did not hesitate to get up and leave your dinner in order to go and bury the dead….

God commissioned me to heal you and your daughter-in-law Sarah. I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who enter and serve before the Glory of the Lord.” (Tobit 12:14-16)

This passage presents a description of how God interacts with his creation through the ministry of the angels. Notice how Raphael presented the prayers of Tobit and Sarah before God. More than this, the text implies that Raphael presented a record of the prayerfulness of the two and described Tobit’s good deeds. Thus, he stood before God more as a witness of their love and prayerfulness than as a mere conveyor of requests.

Why is this? Is God not omniscient? He is of course and therefore does not need the mediation of the angels, but He does seem to will it. It is common in both Scripture and doctrinal traditions to ascribe to the angels the work of mediation.

Angels in Scripture often speak for God and mediate His presence. At times, such as when Jacob wrestles with God, it is not clear whether it is an angel or God (Genesis 32:22-32); Abram greats three angels but calls them “Lord” (Genesis 18). At other times, it is clearly an angel that people such as Joshua (Joshua 5:13-15), Tobit (Tobit 12), and Mary (Luke 1) encounter. These angles speak for God and mediate His presence but are not God. Throughout the Book of Revelation, angels are sent forth to mediate God’s justice. In many places in Scripture, we are told by the Lord heed the voice of the angels who are sent to guard and guide us.

In the sacred Liturgy the ministry of the angels in connecting our sacrifice to the true altar in heaven is spoken of (Roman canon) and the Book of Revelation describes how the heavenly and earthly liturgy is the work of angels and men. Angels bring the prayers of the saints before God, minister at the altar of incense, and so forth.

There are numerous other passages and teachings that I could present, let it suffice to say that God, though almighty, all-powerful, and omniscient, most often chooses to mediate His presence to creation through the work of the angels.

Perhaps an example may illustrate a likely reason. The laptop computer on which I am typing is not plugged directly into the wall outlet; its delicate circuitry cannot endure the 110-120 V. alternating current; it would blow out. Instead, an adaptor between the laptop and the wall outlet mediates, reducing the voltage to 19 V. direct current. Similarly, direct encounters with God may well be impossible for us on this side of the veil unless God hides His face or mediates His presence through the angels and/or the sacraments.

For us and for all of His creation, the ministry of the angels is a great mercy of God. Doctrinal traditions emphasize the ministry of the angels in mediating all of God’s providence. The highest angels minister in God’s Heaven, other ranks of angels minster the cosmos, and still other ranks minister here on earth. Nations, cities, local churches, and individuals have presiding angels. The Book of Revelation describes angels controlling winds and earthquakes as well as executing God’s justice and authority over history and events. Angels mediate God’s providence and sustenance throughout the whole of creation.

We seldom talk or even think this way today. Let’s look at another modern example. In explaining how a large passenger airplane rises off the runway, a scientist would speak of “lift” and “thrust.” The angle of the wing creates an area of lower air pressure above the wing and higher pressure beneath. Combine this with enough thrust to overcome gravity and you have the lift required for the plane to take off. However, a theologian from the Middle Ages might simply say that “the angels lift the plane.” In a certain sense both explanations are correct. If God sustains all of creation, and if He mediates His actions through the angels, it is not incorrect to say that “the angels lift the plane,” just as they serve God in all His creation. The theologian speaks to the metaphysical while the physicist speaks to the physical/material. The physicist speaks to efficient causality while the theologian speaks to final causality.

Yet there are many today, even among believers, who scoff at ascribing so much (or anything at all) to angels. To them one must point out that physics and mechanics alone cannot fully answer the legitimate questions that arise as we watch the plane take off into the sky. Science is good at answering mechanical questions and quantifying things such as force and lift, but it is not able to answer deeper questions such as why, from what, or for what ultimate reason things exist. Why are things the way they are and not some other way? Where does the order and intelligibility of the material world come from? How is the world sustained in a steady-enough state that we can interact with it reliably and depend upon its laws and order? In fact, why is there anything at all?

There are deeper realities to things than the mere mechanics. And many of the mechanics are not even fully explained or understood. Science, despite the use of numbers and formulas, still has not pierced all the physical mysteries of the plane’s vertical rise.

Perhaps the deepest mystery at the physical level is gravity. We can quantify this force, but its presence in the physical order is mysterious and even counterintuitive. Why do objects attract one another? And how does this attractive force work? Are there invisible strings that pull us toward the earth or other large bodies? What is it about gravity that affects time, as it seems that it does? There are not definitive answers. That gravity exists and can be measured is clear, but precisely what it is and how it works exactly is not clear.

Perhaps one day we will uncover gravity’s secrets, but this still does not satisfy our legitimate metaphysical questions. Simply scoffing at or being dismissive of the ministry and existence of angels (or demons, for that matter) does not do away with our questions. The existence of order, intelligibility, and predictability presents questions that cannot be sidestepped. Who or what ordered creation so that we can discover its order and its laws? If creation can speak to our intelligence by its intelligibility, what intelligence introduced it there to be discovered? If creation moves from simplicity to complexity (in seeming violation of the usual entropy of physical things), how do we explain this?

It will be granted that simply saying “the angels do this” amounts to a kind of “God of the gaps” argument (wherein every unknown thing is simply ascribed to God), but utterly dismissing the role of the angels (and ultimately the role of God) is to fall into the opposite error of scientism, which says that everything can and must be explained as merely the result of physical and mechanical causes. This cannot explain why things exist at all, nor can it speak to metaphysical concepts that are real but nonphysical such as justice, beauty, infinite longing, or our sense of good and evil.

God interacts with his creation. It is revealed to us that He does this most often, if not exclusively, through His angels. This is not to deny that the material order has observed laws and that chains of material causalities that can be measured and observed. The theological world would remind us to reverence all the orders of creation: physical and metaphysical, material and spiritual.

Blessed be God, who created all things through His Word, his Son Jesus, who holds all creation together in Himself (Col 1:17). Blessed, too, be the angels, who mediate God’s interaction with His creation and are His ministers. Blessed also is the created world, all that is in it from the tiniest parts of atoms to the greatest galaxies. Yes, blessed be God, all His angels and saints, and all that He has ordered and sustained. Blessed are we, who by God’s gift of our intellect, can observe and understand the beauty, order, and laws of God’s creation.

May you, O Lord keep us humble, and fill us with wonder and awe. Help us remember that Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. (1 Cor 8:1). Thank you for your angels. Keep us mindful that although they are hidden from our eyes, myriad angels mediate your presence to this world and are at work all about us in your creation and unto your highest heavens. May Raphael and all the angels witness to our prayers and actions before you and may they bring your graces to us swiftly. May the angels one day lead us to paradise.

Three Teachings on Corpus Christi

The feast of Corpus Christi affords us an opportunity to renew our understanding of the Holy Eucharist and Sacred Liturgy. It also helps us clarify certain errors that have crept into our thinking. Let’s look at the readings today under three headings: The Righteousness of our Worship, the Reality of our Worship, and Readiness of our Worship.

The Righteousness of our Worship – In the first reading today Moses has the faithful swear an oath:

Taking the Book of the Covenant, he read it aloud to the people, who answered, “All that the LORD has said, we will heed and do.” Then he took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words of his.”

Jesus too gives a solemn command at the Last Supper:

Take and eat, this is my Body… take and drink this is my Blood of the new and everlasting Covenant…do this is in memory of me.

He too seals the covenant, not with the blood of animals, but with his very own blood. We who would heed and do all that the Lord commands cannot skip out on Holy Communion and absent ourselves from the Sacrifice and Liturgy that is at the very heart of the New Covenant.

Too many people today think of Sunday worship in rather egocentric terms. They speak of “being fed.” But usually what they mean by this is that the preacher gave them an uplifting message in terms that please them and seem relevant to them, or that the choir sang well and there was good fellowship. These are all fine.

But the first and most essential reason that we are to show up on Sunday is to worship God, to give Him the thanks and adoration He is due. To worship is an act of justice and righteousness. St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa does not put worship where we might expect it, (likely under Faith or Love). Rather he puts worship in his treatise on Justice. We owe God praise, gratitude and adoration. He is the source of every blessing, all that we call our own is really His, everything, quite literally every thing is his and generously shared by Him. God has been too good to us for us to shirk our duty to worship and obey him. Even our troubles work together for our good, if we trust God. To fail in our duty to worship God on his terms is to fail in righteousness and justice. When Jesus says, “Do this is remembrance of me,” we owe him obedience in this regard. Our faithful Sunday worship and regular and worthy reception of Holy Communion is our righteous worship and an act of Justice.

The Reality of our Worship – In the Gospel today Christ makes it clear that we are receiving him: Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. The Eucharist is no mere symbol of Jesus. Sadly today, many Catholics, according to polls, have lost faith in the Eucharist, seeing it as only a symbol. But we do not partake of a symbol; the Eucharist is truly the Lord. Neither is it a “piece” of His flesh; it is Christ, living, glorified, whole and entire. Scripture attests to this in many places.

And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:19-20).

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a partaking in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a partaking in the body of Christ? (1 Cor 10:16).

They recognized him in the breaking of the bread. (Luke 24:35).

For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. (1 Cor 11:29).

I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:51).

This last passage is a profound theology of the Eucharist from Jesus Himself. He makes it clear that we are not to think of the Eucharist as symbolic.

As Jesus spoke the words saying that the bread was His flesh, the Jewish people grumbled in protest. Jesus did not seek to reassure them or to say that He was speaking only symbolically. Rather, He became even more adamant, shifting His choice of words from the polite form of eating, φάγητε (phagete, meaning to eat), to the impolite form, τρώγων (trogon, meaning to munch, gnaw, or chew).

So insistent was He that they grasp this, that He permitted most of them to leave, no longer following in His company due to this teaching (cf Jn 6:66). Yes, the Lord paid quite a price for His graphic and “hard” teaching (Jn 6:60).

Today, He asks us, Do you also want to leave me? (Jn 6:67) We must give our answer each time we approach the altar and hear the words, “The Body of Christ.” It is at this time that we respond, “Amen,” as if to say, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68).

Would that people grasped that the Lord Himself is truly present in our Churches! Were that so, one would never be able to empty our parishes of those seeking to pray with the Lord. As it is, though, only about 25% of Catholics attend Mass regularly. This is more evidence of the “narrow road” and of how few there are who find it. Two thousand years ago, Jesus experienced that most left Him; many today continue to leave Him (or stand far away), either through indifference or false notions.

What father would not be alarmed if one of his children stopped eating? Consider, then, God’s alarm that many of us have stopped eating.

The Readiness of our Worship – Notice that in preparing for the Last Supper and First Mass, Jesus told two of his disciples to enter Jerusalem and look for an unusual thing, a man carrying a water jar. This was usually women’s work and thus a man doing so would stand out. They were to follow him, and: he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready. Now, this is for us a spiritual prescription for the inner room that is our soul:

    • It is to be large, a spacious place not cluttered with sin and worldly trinkets trappings and distractions. There is to be plenty of room for the Lord, who is the guest of our soul in Holy Communion!
    • It is to be furnished with holiness, justice, patience and love to receive so great a guest as Jesus!
    • It is to be ready. That is, it is to be clean, free of the filth of sin and fully apportioned unto the great liturgy about to occur in every Mass. The heart and mind are to be eagerly alert, awaiting in full readiness our divine Guest!

Of course, at the heart of this large upper room furnished and ready, is to be free of serious sin as St. Paul admonishes:

The Lord Jesus, on the night He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way, after supper He took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me….” Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Each one must examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. (1 Cor 11:24-29)

Because of this, the Catechism of the Catholic Church plainly states: Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation before approaching Holy Communion (Catechism # 1385). For how can the upper room of our soul be spacious, furnished and ready if it is filled with sin? In my own parish we hear confessions before every Sunday Mass to ensure the faithful an opportunity to confess if necessary or simply out of devotion.  If we priests are to be sincere in promoting the worthy reception of Holy Communion, we must be generous in celebrating the Sacrament of Confession and the faithful must be zealous in seeking it when necessary.

Here then are three teachings and reminders about Holy Communion. May we be righteous in our observance, real in our understanding and ready in our souls!

 

 

What Does It Mean When Scripture Says That God Hardens Certain Human Hearts?

Blog-06-27One of the more difficult biblical concepts to understand is that of God hardening the hearts and minds of certain people. The most memorable case is that of Pharaoh: before sending Moses to him, God said that He would “harden Pharaoh’s heart” (Ex 4:21). And there are other instances in which biblical texts speak of God hardening the hearts of sinners, even from among his own people.

What are we to make of texts like these, which explicitly or implicitly speak of God hardening the hearts of people? How can God, who does no evil, be the source of a sinful mind or a hard heart? Why would God do such a thing when He has also said the following?

  1. As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ez 33:11)
  2. God our Savior … wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4).

To be sure, these questions involve very deep mysteries, mysteries about God’s sovereignty and how it interacts with our freedom, the mysteries of time, and the mysteries of causality. As a mystery within mysteries, the question of God hardening hearts cannot be resolved simply. Greater minds than mine have pondered these things and it would be foolish to think that an easy resolution can be found in a blog post.

But some distinctions can and should be made and some context supplied. We do not want to understand the “hardening texts” in simplistic ways or in ways that use one truth to cancel out other important truths that balance it. So please permit a modest summary of the ancient discussion.

I propose that we examine these sorts of texts along four lines:

  1. The Context of Connivance
  2. The Mystery of Time
  3. The Mystery of Causality
  4. The Necessity of Humility

To begin, it is important simply to list a few of the “hardening texts.” The following are not the only ones, but they provide a wide enough sample:

  1. The LORD said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go” (Ex 4:21).
  2. Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh, but the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go out of his country (Ex 11:10).
  3. Why, O LORD, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes that are your inheritance (Is 63:17).
  4. He [God] has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn–and I would heal them (Jesus quoting Isaiah 6:9-10, in John 12:40).
  5. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason, God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie (2 Thess 2:11).
  6. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another … Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done (Rom 1:24, 28).

I. The Context of ConnivanceIn properly assessing texts like these, we ought first to consider the contexts in which they were written. Generally speaking, most of these declarations that God “hardens the heart” come after a significant period of disobedience on the part of those whose hearts were hardened. In a way, God “cements the deal” and gives them what they really want. For seeing that they have hardened their own hearts to God, He determines that their disposition is to be a permanent one, and in a sovereign exercise of His will (for nothing can happen without God’s allowance), declares and permits their hearts to be hardened in a definitive kind of way. In this sense, there is a judgment of God upon the individual that recognizes the person’s definitive decision against Him. Hence this hardening can be understood as voluntary on the part of the one hardened one, for God hardens in such a way that He uses the person’s own will for the executing of His judgment. God accepts that the individual’s will against Him is definitive.

In the case of Pharaoh (e.g., #1 and #2 above), although God indicated to Moses that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart, the actual working out of this is a bit more complicated. We see in the first five plagues that it is Pharaoh who hardens his own heart (Ex 7:13; 7:22; 8:11; 8:28; & 9:7). It is only after this repeated hardening by Pharaoh of his own heart that the Exodus text speaks of God as the one who hardens (Ex 9:12; 9:34; 10:1; 10:20; 10:27). Hence the hardening here is not without Pharaoh’s repeated demonstration of his own hardness. God “cements the deal” as a kind of sovereign judgment on Pharaoh.

The Isaiah texts (many in number) that speak of a hardening being visited upon Israel by God (e.g., #3 and #4 above),  are  also the culmination of a long testimony by Isaiah of Israel’s hardness. At the beginning of Isaiah’s ministry, God describes (through Isaiah) Israel’s hardness as being of their own doing: For the LORD has spoken: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him (Is 1:2-4). There follows a long list of their crimes, their hardness, and their refusal to repent.

St. John Chrysostom – Of the numerous texts later in Isaiah (and also referenced by Jesus (e.g., Jn 12:40)) that speak of Israel being hardened by God (and having their eyes shut by Him), St John Chrysostom said, That the saying of Isaiah might be fulfilled: that here is expressive not of the cause, but of the event. They did not disbelieve because Isaiah said they would; but because they would disbelieve, Isaiah said they would … For He does not leave us, except we wish Him … Whereby it is plain that we begin to forsake first, and are the cause of our own perdition. For as it is not the fault of the sun that it hurts weak eyes, so neither is God to blame for punishing those who do not attend to His words (in a gloss of Is. 6:9-10 at Jn 12:40, quoted in the Catena Aurea).

St. Augustine – This is not said to be the devil’s doing, but God’s. Yet if any ask why they could not believe, I answer, because they would not … But the Prophet, you say, mentions another cause, not their will; but that God had blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart. But I answer that they well deserved this. For God hardens and blinds a man by forsaking and not supporting him; and this He makes by a secret sentence, for by an unjust one He cannot (quoted in the Catena Aurea at Jn 12:40).

In the text of 2 Thessalonians (# 5 above), God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie. While this verse speaks of God as having sent the delusion, the verses before and after make clear the sinful role of the punished: They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved … so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness (2 Thess 2:10,12).

St. AugustineFrom a hidden judgment of God comes perversity of heart, so that the refusal to hear the truth leads to the commission of sin, and this sin is itself a punishment for the preceding sin [of refusing to hear the truth] (Against Julian 5.3.12).

St. John Damascus[God does this] so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness (The Orthodox Faith 4.26).

The texts from Romans 1 (e.g., # 6 above) speak of God handing them over only after they have suppressed the truth (1:18), persevered in their wickedness (1:18), and preferred lust and idolatry (1:23-24). Hence, as a just judgment, God hands them over to sexual confusion (homosexuality) and countless other destructive drives. So here, too, though it is said that God hands them over, it is really not that simple. Again, God has “cemented the deal.” They do not want to serve Him and so God, knowing their definitive decision, gives them what they want.

Thus our first point in understanding the “hardening texts” is that the context of connivance is important in assessing them. Scripture does not assert that God takes a reasonably righteous man and, out of the blue, hardens his heart, confuses his mind, or causes him (against his will) to become obstinate. The texts are usually presented as a kind of prevenient judgment by God, such that the state of the person’s hardness becomes permanent. God “cements the deal” and “causes” the person to walk in his own sinful ways since he has insisted on doing so.

II. The Mystery of Time – In understanding these “hardening texts” (which we have seen are akin to judgment texts) we must strive to recall that God does not live in time in the same way that we do. Scripture speaks often of God’s knowledge and vision of time as being comprehensive rather than speculative or serial (e.g., Ex 3:14; Ps 90:2-4; Ps 93:2; Is 43:13; Ps 139; 2 Peter 3:8; James 1:17).

To say that God is eternal and lives in eternity is to say that He lives in the fullness of time. For God past, present, and future are all the same. God is not wondering what I will do tomorrow; neither is He waiting for it to happen. For Him, my tomorrow has always been present. All of my days were written in His book before one of them ever came to be (Ps 139:16). Whether and how long I live have always been known to Him. Before He ever formed me in my mother’s womb He knew me (Jer 1:5). My final destiny is already known and present to Him.

Hence when we strive to understand God’s judgments in the form of hardening hearts, we must be careful not to think that He lives in time the way we do. It is not as though God is watching my life unfold like a movie. He already knows the choices I will make. Thus, when God hardens the hearts of some, it is not that He is trying to influence the outcome by “tripping them up.” He already knows the outcome and has always known it; He knows the destiny they have chosen.

Now be very careful with this insight, for it is a mystery to us. We cannot really know what it is like to live in eternity, in the fullness of time, where the future is just as present as is the past. And even if you think you know, you really don’t. What is essential for us to realize is that God does not live in time the way we do. If we try too hard to solve the mystery (rather than just accepting and respecting it) we risk falling into the denial of human freedom, or double predestination, or other misguided notions that sacrifice one truth for another rather than holding them in balance. That God knows what I will do tomorrow does not destroy my freedom to choose what I do. How this all works out is mysterious, but we are free (Scripture teaches this) and God holds us accountable for our choices. Further, even though God knows our destiny already, this does not mean that He is revealing anything about that to us, such that we should look for signs and seek to call ourselves saved or lost. We ought to work out our salvation in reverential fear and trembling (Phil 2:12).

The key point here is mystery. Striving to understand how, why, and when God hardens the heart of anyone is caught up in the mysterious fact that He lives outside of time and knows all things before they happen. Thus He acts with comprehensive knowledge of all outcomes.

III. The Mystery of Causality – One of the major differences between the ancient and the modern worlds is that the ancient world was much more comfortable dealing with something known as primary causality.

Up until the Renaissance, people thought that God was at the center of all things and they instinctively saw the hand of God in everything—even terrible things. Job said, The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised … if we have received good things at the hand of God, why should we not receive evil? (Job 1:21; 2:10) Thus the ancients would commonly attribute everything as coming from the hand of God, for He was the “first cause” of everything that happened. This is what is meant by primary causality. The ancients were thus much more comfortable attributing things to God than we are. In speaking like this, they were not being superstitious or primitive in their thinking; rather, they were emphasizing that God was sovereign, omnipotent, and omnipresent, and that nothing happened apart from His sovereign will. They believed that God was the primary cause of all that existed.

Of this ancient and scriptural way of thinking the Catechism says, And so we see the Holy Spirit, the principal author of Sacred Scripture, often attributing actions to God without mentioning any secondary causes [e.g., human or natural]. This is not a “primitive mode of speech,” but a profound way of recalling God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world, and so of educating his people to trust in him (CCC # 304).

We need to understand that the ancient biblical texts, while often speaking of God as hardening the hearts of sinners, do not mean to say that man had no role, no responsibility. Neither do they mean to say that God acts in a merely arbitrary way. Rather, the emphasis is on God’s sovereign power as the first cause of all that is. Hence He is often called the cause of all things and His hand is seen in everything.

After the Renaissance, man moved himself to the center and God was gradually “escorted” to the periphery. Man’s manner of thinking and speaking began to shift to focusing on secondary causes (those related to man and nature). If something happens we look to natural causes, or in human situations, to the humans who caused it. But these are actually secondary causes, because I cannot cause something to happen unless God first causes me.

Today, we have largely thrown primary causality overboard as a category. Even believers do this (unconsciously for the most part) and thus exhibit three related issues:

  1. We fail to maintain the proper balance between two mysteries: God’s sovereignty and our freedom.
  2. We exhibit shock at things like the “hardening texts” of the Bible because we understand them poorly.
  3. We try to resolve the shock by favoring one truth over the other. Maybe we just brush aside the ancient biblical texts as “primitive” and say, inappropriately, that God didn’t have anything to do with this or that occurrence. Or we go to the other extreme and become fatalistic, denying human freedom, denying secondary causality (our part) and accusing God of everything (as if He were the only cause and should shoulder the sole blame for everything). We either read the hardening texts with a clumsy literalism or we dismiss them as misguided notions from an immature, primitive, and pre-scientific age.

The point here is that we have to balance the mysteries of primary and secondary causality. We cannot fully understand how they interrelate, but they do. Both mysteries need to be held. The ancients were more sophisticated than we are in holding these mysteries in the proper balance. Today, we handle causality very clumsily; we do not appreciate the distinctions between primary causality (God’s part) and secondary causality (our own and nature’s part). We try to resolve the mystery rather than holding the two in balance and speaking to both realities. Thus we are poor interpreters of the “hardening texts.”

IV. The Necessity of Humility – We are dealing with the mysterious interrelationship between God and Man, between God’s sovereignty and our freedom, between primary and secondary causality. In the face of such mysteries we have to be very humble. We ought not to think more about the details than is proper for us, because, frankly, they are largely hidden from us. Too many moderns either dismiss the hardening texts outright, or accept them and then sit in harsh judgment over God (as if we could do such a thing). Neither approach bespeaks humility. Consider a shocking but very humbling text in which St. Paul warns us about this very matter:

What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” (Romans 9:14-20)

None of us can demand an absolute account from God for what He does. Even if He were to tell us, could our small, worldly minds ever really comprehend it? My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways, says the Lord (Is 55:8).

Summary – In this (rather too long) post, we have considered the “hardening texts,” in which God hardens the hearts of certain people. But texts like these must be approached carefully, humbly, and with proper distinctions as to the scriptural and historical context. At work here are profound mysteries: God’s sovereignty, our freedom, His mercy, and His justice.

We should be careful to admit the limits of our knowledge when it comes to interpreting such texts. As the Catechism so beautifully states, texts like these are to be appreciated as a profound way of recalling God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world, and so of educating his people to trust in him (CCC # 304).

This song says, “Be not angry any longer, Lord, and no more remember our iniquities. Behold and regard us; we are all your people!”

Love on the Move: Of the Divine “Dance” In the Holy Trinity

There is a kind of tension in some of the imagery we use for God. On the one hand we call Him the “Unmoved Mover.” We also say that God is everywhere. If He is everywhere then there is nowhere for him to go, no need for Him to move because He is already there. Yet we also speak of “processions” in the Trinity.

St. Thomas artfully and with precision speaks of the Trinity and the two “processions” as Gentori Genitoque laus et jubilation … Procedenti abutroque compar sit laudatio (To the One who generates and to the One who is generated be praise and jubilation … To the One proceeding from them both be equal praise).

St. Thomas also points out an important difference between material procession and divine procession:

In material things, what comes forth from another is no longer in it, since it comes from it by a separation from it in essence or in space. But in God, coming forth does not arise in this way. The Son came forth eternally from the Father in such a way that the Son is still in the Father from all eternity. And so, when he is in the Father, he comes forth. And when he comes forth, he is in him, in such a way that he is always coming forth, and always in him (Commentary on John, 16:28).

So, it would seem that the Unmoved Mover, our Triune God, has processions of love within. There is a kind of dynamism of love! Of course, our feeble words fall short and our analogies are weak.

There is a beautiful Greek word used by the Church Fathers (e.g., St. John Damascene) to describe the inner life of the Trinity: perichoresis. It is a combination of two words: peri, meaning “around” and chorein, meaning “to make space.” Therefore perichoresis, literally translated, means “to make space around.” It points to the way in which someone or something makes space around itself for others or for something else.

What a picturesque word! It suggests a kind of swirling or a dance. It is close in its spelling to the Greek word for dance, choreuo, so many people refer to it as the dance of love in the Trinity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit make room for one another; they “dance” about and “with” one another in a way that shows a mutual indwelling while still maintaining space for each person.

Yes, love is dynamic. There is a movement of love between the persons of the Trinity. This imagery is powerfully different than the one that most people have of the Trinity (God the Father on one throne, sitting next to His Son on another, with the Holy Spirit hovering like a dove between them). This is not wrong. Scripture speaks of thrones in Heaven and of the Father and the Son seated, but the thrones are likely more an image of authority than of inactivity.

Surely the inner life of the Trinity is more than merely being seated. It is a glorious procession of love: The Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Father, and the Holy Spirit is the love proceeding from them both. Yes, there is a great movement, a dance of love.

To this “dance” of love, Christ draws His Bride, the Church. It is our destiny and dignity to be caught up one day to the great dance of love of the Trinity. Heaven is not a static vision of God from some distance; it is a beatific vision, an experience of love that is dynamic and moving, a dance of ecstasy.

Put on your dancing shoes and get ready for the dance! Remember that to dance well we must surrender all pride and learn to dance as if no one is watching. Only the humble can really dance well, only those who can make space for the Lord and let Him lead.

I hope you will forgive the secular source, but below is an image of Christ drawing His bride to the dance.

One and One and One are One. A Homily for Trinity Sunday

Trinity

There is an old spiritual that says, “My God is so high you can’t get over Him. He’s so low you can’t get under Him. He’s so wide you can’t get around Him. You must come in, by and through the Lamb.”

It’s not a bad way of saying that God is “other.” He is beyond what human words can describe, beyond what human thoughts can conjure. On the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity we do well to remember that we are pondering a mystery that cannot fit in our minds.

A mystery, though, is not something wholly unknown. In the Christian tradition, the word “mystery” refers to (among other things) something that is partially revealed, something much more of which remains hidden. As we ponder the Trinity, consider that although there are some things we can know by revelation, much more is beyond our understanding.

Let’s ponder the Trinity by exploring it, seeing how it is exhibited in Scripture, and observing how we, who are made in God’s image, experience it.

I.  The Teaching on the Trinity Explored

Perhaps we do best to begin by quoting the Catechism, which says, The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons: [Father, Son, and Holy Spirit] … The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God, whole and entire (Catechism, 253).

There is one God and each of the three persons of the Trinity possesses the one divine nature fully. The Father is God; He is not one-third of God. Likewise, the Son, Jesus, is God; He is not one-third of God. And the Holy Spirit is God, not merely one-third of God.

It is our human experience that if there is only one of something, and someone possesses it fully, then there is nothing left for anyone else. Yet mysteriously, each of the three persons of the Trinity fully possesses the one and only divine nature while remaining a distinct person.

One of the great masterpieces of the Latin Liturgy is the preface for Trinity Sunday. It compactly and clearly sets forth the Christian teaching on the Trinity. The following translation of the Latin is my own:

It is truly fitting and just, right and helpful unto salvation that we should always and everywhere give thanks to you O Holy Lord, Father almighty and eternal God: who, with your only begotten Son and the Holy Spirit are one God, one Lord: not in the oneness of a single person, but in a Trinity of one substance. For that which we believe from your revelation concerning your glory, we acknowledge of your Son and the Holy Spirit without difference or distinction. Thus, in the confession of the true and eternal Godhead there is adored a distinctness of persons, a oneness in essence, and an equality in majesty, whom the angels and archangels, the Cherubim also and the Seraphim, do not cease to daily cry out with one voice saying, Holy, Holy, Holy

Wow! It’s a careful and clear masterpiece, but one that baffles the mind. So deep is this mystery that we had to “invent” a paradoxical word to summarize it: Triune (or Trinity). Triune literally means “three-one” (tri + unus), and “Trinity” is a conflation of “Tri-unity,” meaning the “three-oneness” of God.

If all of this baffles you, good! If you were to say that you fully understood all this, I would have to say you were likely a heretic. The teaching on the Trinity, while not contrary to reason per se, does transcend it and it is surely beyond human understanding.

Here is a final image before we leave our exploration stage. The picture at the upper right is from an experiment I remember doing when I was in high school. We took three projectors, each of which projected a circle: one red, one green, and one blue (the three primary colors). At the intersection of the three circles the color white appeared. Mysteriously, the three primary colors are present in the color white, but only one shows forth. The analogy is not perfect (no analogy is or it wouldn’t be an analogy) for Father, Son, and Spirit do not “blend” to make God, but it does manifest a mysterious “three-oneness” of the color white. Somehow in the one, three are present. (By the way, this experiment only works with light; don’t try it with paint!)

II. The Teaching on the Trinity Exhibited – Scripture also presents images of the Trinity. Interestingly enough, most of the ones I want to present here are from the Old Testament.

As a disclaimer, I’d like to point out that Scripture scholars debate the meaning of these texts; that’s what they get paid the big bucks to do. I am reading these texts as a New Testament Christian and seeing in them a doctrine that later became clear. I am not getting into a time machine and trying to understand them as a Jew from the 8th century B.C. might have. Why should I? That’s not what I am. I am reading these texts as a Christian in the light of the New Testament, as I have a perfect right to do. You, of course, are free to decide whether you think these texts really are images or hints of the Trinity. Here they are:

1. Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness …” (Gen 1:26)

God speaks of himself in the plural: “Let us … our …” Some claim that this is just an instance of the “royal we” being used. Perhaps, but I see an image of the Trinity. There is one (“God said”) but there is also a plural (us, our). Right at the very beginning in Genesis there is already a hint that God is not all by himself, but rather is in a communion of love.

2. Elohim

In the passage above, the word used for God is אֱלֹהִ֔ים (Elohim). It is interesting to note that this word is in the plural form. From a grammatical standpoint, Elohim actually means “Gods,” but the Jewish people understood the sense of the word to be singular. This is a much debated point, however. You can read more about it from a Jewish perspective here: Elohim as Plural yet Singular.

(We have certain words like this in English, words that are plural in form but singular in meaning such as news, mathematics, and acoustics.) My point here is not to try to understand it as a Jew from the 8th century B.C. or even as a present day Jew. Rather, I am observing with interest that one of the main words for God in the Old Testament is plural yet singular, singular yet plural. God is one yet three. I say this as a Christian observing this about one of the main titles of God, and I see an image of the Trinity.

3. And the LORD appeared to [Abram] by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, “My Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I fetch a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said (Gen 18:1-5).

From a purely grammatical standpoint this is a very difficult passage because it switches back and forth between singular and plural references. The Lord (singular) appears to Abram, yet Abram sees three men (some have said that this is just God and two angels, but I think it is the Trinity). Then when Abram addresses “them” he says, “My Lord” (singular). The tortured grammar continues as Abram suggests that the Lord (singular) rest “yourselves” (plural) under the tree. The same thing happens in the next sentence, in which Abram wants to fetch bread so that you may refresh “yourselves” (plural). In the end, the Lord (singular) answers, but it is rendered as “So they said.” Plural, singular … which is it? Both. God is one and God is three. For me as a Christian, this is a picture of the Trinity. Because the reality of God cannot be reduced to mere words, this is a grammatically difficult passage, but I can “see” what is going on: God is one and God is three; He is singular and He is plural.

4. Having come down in a cloud, the Lord stood with Moses there and proclaimed his Name, “Lord.” Thus the Lord passed before him and cried out, “The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity” (Exodus 34:5).

When God announces His name, He does so in a threefold way: Lord! … The Lord, the Lord. There is implicit a threefold introduction or announcement of God. Is it a coincidence or is it significant? You decide.

5. In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the Seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Is 6:1-3).

God is Holy, Holy, and yet again, Holy. Some say that this is just a Jewish way of saying “very Holy,” but as Christian I see more. I see a reference to each of the three persons of the Trinity. Perfect praise here requires three “holys.” Why? Omni Trinum Perfectum (all things are perfect in threes). But why? As a Christian, I see the angels praising each of the three persons of the Trinity. God is three (Holy, holy, holy …) and yet God is one (holy is the Lord …). There are three declarations of the word “Holy.” Is it a coincidence or is it significant? You decide.

6. Here are three (of many) references to the Trinity in the New Testament:

  1. Jesus says, The Father and I are one (Jn 10:30).
  2. Jesus also says, To have seen me is to have seen the Father (Jn 14:9).
  3. Have you ever noticed that in the baptismal formula, Jesus uses “bad” grammar? He says, Baptize them in the name (not names (plural)) of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). God is one (name) and God is three (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).

Thus Scripture exhibits the teaching of the Trinity, going back even to the beginning.

III. The Teaching of the Trinity Experienced – We who are made in the image and likeness of God ought to experience something of the mystery of the Trinity within us, and sure enough, we do.

  • It is clear that we are all distinct individuals. I am not you; you are not I. Yet it is also true that we are made for communion. We humans cannot exist apart from one another. Obviously we depend on our parents, through whom God made us, but even beyond that we need one another for completion.
  • Despite what the Paul Simon song says, no man is a rock or an island. There is no such thing as a self-made man. Even the private business owner needs customers, suppliers, shippers, and other middlemen. He uses roads he did not build, has electricity supplied to him over lines he did not string, and speaks a language to his customers that he did not create. Further, the product he makes was likely the result of technologies and processes he did not invent. The list could go on and on.
  • We are individual, but we are social. We are one, but we are linked to many. Clearly we do not possess the kind of unity that God does, but the “three-oneness” of God echoes in us. We are one, yet we are many.
  • We have entered into perilous times where our interdependence and communal influence are under-appreciated. The attitude that prevails today is a rather extreme individualism: “I can do as I please.” There is a reduced sense of how our individual choices affect the community, Church, or nation. That I am an individual is true, but it is also true that I live in communion with others and must respect that dimension of who I am. I exist not only for me, but for others. What I do affects others, for good or ill.
  • The attitude that it’s none of my business what others do needs some attention. Privacy and discretion have important places in our life, but so does concern for what others think and do, the choices they make, and the effects that such things have on others. A common moral and religious vision is an important thing to cultivate. It is ultimately quite important what others think and do. We should care about fundamental things like respect for life, love, care for the poor, education, marriage, and family. Indeed, marriage and family are fundamental to community, nation, and the Church. I am one, but I am also in communion with others and they with me.
  • Finally, there is a rather remarkable conclusion that some have drawn: the best image of God in us is not a man alone or a woman alone, but rather a man and a woman together in the lasting and fruitful relationship we call marriage. When God said, “Let us make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26), the text goes on to say, “Male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). God then says to them, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28). So the image of God (as He sets it forth most perfectly) is the married and fruitful couple.

We must be careful to understand that what humans manifest sexually, God manifests spiritually, for God is neither male nor female in His essence. We may say that the First Person loves the Second Person and the Second Person loves the First Person. So real is that love that it bears fruit in the Third Person. In this way the married couple images God, for the husband and wife love each other and their love bears fruit in their children (See, USCCB, “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan”).

So today, as we extol the great mystery of the Trinity, we look not merely outward and upward so as to understand, but also inward to discover that mystery at work in us, who are made in the image and likeness of God.

Harrison Butker’s Commencement Address Is a Necessary Part of our National Conversation.

I find myself in the odd position of agreeing with Whoopi Goldberg on a matter of cultural diversity. More on that in a minute. But most all of us have heard of the uproar regarding Harrison Butker’s commencement address at Benedictine College. Of course he also has many supporters, of which I am one.

The negative reaction on the “woke” left is, sadly, more of the same “cancel calls” from those who so often shout, diversity, equity and and Inclusion. As is most often the case, they don’t really mean “DEI” for those who oppose their views. Theirs is a very qualified and limited diversity and inclusion.  It is one thing to oppose what Harrison Butker said, but it is another to demand he be sanctioned, fired, or severely fined. In effect, too many of the “woke” demand that he must not be allowed any access to the public square, the NFL or any public forum; he must be silenced.

Clearly his speech touched on many major “heated” issues such as abortion, euthanasia, In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) , surrogacy and the  views of the LGBTQIA+ community. Most notably, according to negative reviews,  there is  his view that women have been ill-served by feminism’s  insistence of careerism over vocation  and that it was understandable that many young women want to embrace being a “homemaker,” mother and wife.  These views are not those that the woke left thinks should be tolerated or accepted as part of a “diverse” and inclusive landscape of ideas. With the very religious fervor they attribute to us, they demand a kind of “excommunication” of Butker, and those of us like him, from the community of “decent, open-minded” people.

Enter into the debate an unlikely opponent of all the demand for inquisition and excommunication. I was quite surprised to hear audio of Whoopi Goldberg, generally no fan of our side of the cultural aisle.  Consider what sounds almost like the voice of reason in her remarks on Harrison Butker.

I like when people say what they need to say. He’s at a Catholic college, he’s a staunch Catholic. These are his beliefs and he’s welcome to them. I don’t have to believe them, I don’t have to accept them, the ladies that were sitting in that audience don’t have to accept them.”

She continued,

“The same way we want respect when Colin Kaepernick takes a knee, we want to give respect to people whose ideas are different from ours,  because the man who says he wants to be president, You-Know-Who, he says the way to act is to take away people’s right to say how they feel. We don’t want to be that. We don’t want to be those people.”

Not sure that’s true of Mr. Trump or his followers, but, be that as it may, she expresses what we ought to hear from those who say they champion diversity and inclusion. Too often what we get is a kind of asymmetrical outrage from this group when their own views are challenged and moralistic demands for tolerance when it is about a matter with which they agree. Surely this is a human problem and tendency. But when your foundational platform and premise righteously claims diversity and tolerance for itself, the double-standard is highlighted. Ms. Goldberg is right when she says, “We don’t want to be those people.”

Those of us on the cultural right may be on the “outs” right now, but most of what we say was agreed upon by the vast majority of Americans even ten to twenty years ago. And while it is currently easy in our culture to scoff at us traditional Christians and Catholics, it might be good for the diversity/inclusion community to at least consider that many, if not most of these views emerge from our sincerely held religious  beliefs. Many widely and simplistically ascribe hate to us, along with arrogance. But what if it is humility that bids us to accept what we believe God clearly teaches, even at the cost of ridicule and outrage?

St. Paul summarized the biblical stance of the Christian faithful who often stand athwart the norms of worldly culture:

By open proclamation of the truth, we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Cor 4:2)

So here is our task and witness. Christians, yes, even traditional Catholics, have the same right as any other group to be part of the national conversation. Our goal is to commend the Gospel message, with its entire moral vision to the conscience of every one, with the hope that we can reach some or all.

Harrison Butker and others like him want to see the world through the lens of the gospel. Others, sadly some of them even within the Church, claim our lens is smudged. But time will prove where truth and wisdom lie.

In the more than two millennia of the age of the Church, empire have come and gone, nations have risen and fallen, epochs along with trends and fashionable views, even heresies and schisms have all come and gone. But here we still are, preaching from the same ancient truths of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. We can do no other and stay faithful to what we firmly believe God has revealed.

We cannot compel agreement, and all are free to agree or disagree. But calls to silence our message or cancel our access are un-American and can’t work anyway. Jesus said to the cancel culture leaders of his day who demanded he silence his disciples:

“I say to you that if these could be silenced, the very stones would cry out!” (Lk 19:40).

Yes, the Gospel will go forth. Even if Harrison Butker, or your current writer could be cancelled, there is no chaining of the Gospel (2 Tim 2:9). God loves the world too much to permit total darkness. His truth is marching on, and always.

In the days ahead I hope to make some comments on his remarks on clergy. He’s spot on and we need the kickstart.