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.

Love Lifted Me: A Homily for the Ascension of the Lord

In more dioceses than not, the Feast of the Ascension is celebrated this Sunday. The liturgist in me regrets the move from Thursday, but here we are any way. Let’s ascend with the Lord, three days late!

This marvelous feast is not merely about something that took place two thousand years ago, for though Christ our head has ascended, we the members of His body are ascending with Him. Because He was ascended, we, too, have ascended. In my own life as a Christian, I am brought higher every year by the Lord, who is drawing me up with Him. This is not some mere slogan, but something I am actually experiencing. An old song says, “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore. Very deeply stained with sin, sinking to rise no more. But the master of the sea, heard my despairing cry. And from the waters lifted me. Now safe am I. Love Lifted me when nothing else could help. Love lifted me!”

If we are faithful, the feast of the Lord’s Ascension is our feast, too. Let’s look at it from three perspectives.

I. The Fact of the Ascension – The readings today describe a wondrous event witnessed by the Apostles. By His own power, the Lord is taken to Heaven. In so doing, He opens a path for us, too. The gates of paradise swing open again. Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in! (Psalm 24:7) In Christ, man returns to God. Consider three things about the Ascension:

A. The Reality – Imagine the glory of this moment! Scripture says, As they were looking on, he was lifted up and cloud took him from their sight … they were looking intently in the sky as he was going (Acts 1:9). So impressive was the sight that the angels had to beckon them to get along to Jerusalem as the Lord had said, “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Yes, it was glorious. Jesus had once said as a summons to faith, What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? (John 6:62) He had also encouraged them saying, Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man (John 1:51). So here is a glorious reality and a fulfillment of what Jesus had said.

B.The Rescue – In the Ascension, it does not seem that the Lord entered Heaven alone. As we have remarked, in His mystical body we also ascend with Him. Consider this remarkable text that affirms that: Therefore it is said, When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men. In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things (Eph 4:8ff). Yes, the Lord had earlier (just after his death) descended to Sheol, awakened the dead, and preached the Gospel to them (cf 1 Peter 4:6). Now for those He had justified came the moment to ascend, with Jesus as a “host,” as an army of former captives now set free. Behold the great procession that enters behind Christ through the now-opened gates of Heaven: Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, Judith, Deborah, David, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Malachi, John the Baptist, … and, one day, you! Yes, this is a great rescue. Adam and his descendants have not simply been restored to some paradise-like garden; they have entered Heaven.

C.The Rejoicing – Consider how this once captive train sings exultantly as they follow Christ upward to Heaven. The liturgy today puts before us a likely song they sang: God mounts his throne to shouts of Joy! The Lord amid trumpet blasts. All you peoples clap your hands, shout to God with cries of gladness, for the Lord the most high, the awesome is the great king over all the earth. God reigns over the nations, God sits upon his holy throne (Psalm 47:6-7). I also have it on the best of authority that they were singing this old gospel song: “I’m so glad Jesus lifted me!” as well as this old Motown song: “Your love is lifting me higher than I’ve ever been lifted before!” More on this tomorrow from the Fathers of the Church.

II. The Fellowship of the Ascension – We have already remarked that, when Christ ascends, we ascend. Why and how? Scripture says, Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it (1 Cor 12:27). It also says, All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. By baptism we were buried together with him so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of God the Father, we too might live a new and glorious life. For if we have been united with him by likeness to his death we shall be united with him by likeness to his resurrection (Rom 6:3ff). When Christ died, we died. When Christ rose, we rose. When He ascends, we ascend.

But, you may say, He is in glory while I am still here. How is it that I am ascended or ascending? Consider a humorous example using our physical bodies. When I get on an elevator and press the button for the top floor, the top of my head gets there before the soles of my feet, but the whole body will get there unless some strange loss of integrity or tragic dismemberment takes place. In an analogous way, so it is with Jesus’ mystical body. In Christ, our Head, we are already in glory. Some members of His Body have already gotten there. We who come later will get there too, provided we remain members of His Body. Yes, we are already ascended in Christ, our Head. We are already enthroned in glory with Him, if we hold fast and stay a member of His Body. This is the fellowship of the Ascension.

III. The Fruitfulness of the Ascension – Jesus does not return to Heaven to abandon us. He is more present to us than we are to ourselves. He is with us always to the end of the age (cf Matt 28:20). In ascending, without abandoning us, He goes to procure some very important things. Consider four of them:

A. Holy Ghost power – Jesus teaches very clearly that He is ascending in order to send us the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you (Jn 16:7ff). He also says, These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you (Jn 14:25ff). I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come (Jn 16:13-14). So the Lord goes in order that with the Father, He might send the Holy Spirit to live within us as in a temple. In this way, and through the Eucharist, He will dwell with us even more intimately than when He walked this earth.

B. Harvest – Jesus says, And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me (John 12:32). While the immediate context of this verse is the crucifixion, the wonder of John’s gospel is that he often intends double meanings. Clearly Christ’s glorification is His crucifixion, but it also includes His resurrection and ascension. So, from His place in glory, Christ is drawing all people to Himself. He is also bestowing grace on us from His Father’s right hand to be His co-workers in the harvest: But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8). Yes, from His place in glory, Christ is bringing in a great harvest. As He said in Scripture, Do you not say, “Four months more and then the harvest”? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying “One sows and another reaps” is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor (Jn 4:35-38). Harvest! It is the Lord’s work from Heaven in which we participate.

C. Help – At the Father’s right hand, Jesus intercedes for us. Scripture says, Consequently he is able, for all time, to save those who draw near to God through him, since he lives always to make intercession for them (Heb 7:25). The Lord links his ascension to an unleashing of special power: Amen, amen, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son (Jn 14:12).

We must not understand asking in the name of Jesus as a mere incantation, for to ask in His name means to ask in accord with His will. Yet we must come to experience the power of Jesus to draw us up to great and wondrous things in His sight. Despite the mystery of iniquity all about us, we trust that Christ is conquering, even in the puzzling and apparent victories of this world’s rebellion. In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Though, at present we do not see everything subject to him, yet we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor … so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb 2:8-9; 14-15). Thus, from Heaven we have the help of the Lord’s grace which, if we will accept it, is an ever-present help unto our salvation.

D. Habitation – Jesus indicates that in going to Heaven, He is preparing a place for us: In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also (Jn 14:2ff). Yes, Jesus has the blueprints out and the hard hat on. He is overseeing the construction of a mansion for each of us that we may dwell with Him, the Father, and the Spirit forever.

Here, then, are the ways that Christ, by His love, is lifting us higher than we’ve ever been lifted before. Yes, love lifted me when nothing else could help; love lifted me.

Here’s a modernized version of the hymn:

 

The Cross Wins, It Always Wins. A Meditation on the Gospel of the Fifth Sunday of Lent

The Gospel today is, to the world and to those who are perishing, utter madness, utter foolishness. For Christ, in effect, declares that dying (to this world) is the only way to true life. While the world’s so-called wisdom declares to us that the way to life is power, prestige, possessions and popularity, Jesus says, die to all that and you’ll find true life.

The word “paradox” refers to something that is contrary to the usual way of thinking. And the true gospel, (not the watered down, compromised one) is a real insult to the world.

Indeed, most of us struggle to understand and accept what the Lord is saying. But the Lord can give us a heart for what really matters, a heart for God, for love, and for the things waiting for us in heaven. But the way to this new life is through the Cross. Jesus had to go to the cross and die to give us this new life. And we too must go to his cross and die with him to this world’s agenda in order to rise to new life.

To those who would scoff at this way of the Cross there is only one thing to say, “The Cross wins, it Always wins.

Let’s examine the Lord’s Paradoxical Plan to save us and bring us to new life.

I. The Plan of Salvation that is Acclaimed: As the Gospel opens we find a rather strange incident. The text says,  Some Greeks who had come to worship at the Passover Feast came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.

What is odd is the apparent “over-reaction” that Jesus has to the simple fact of some Greeks wishing to speak to him. From this seemingly simple and unremarkable (to us) fact, Jesus senses the stunning fact that his “hour” has now come. Yes, now the time for his glorification, that is, his suffering, death and resurrection, to take place. He goes on later to say, “I am troubled now. Yet what should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour. Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” He said this indicating the kind of death he would die.

Yes, all this from the simple fact that certain Greeks, i.e. certain Gentiles wish to speak to him.

Even more remarkable, is that nothing in the text indicates that Jesus in fact goes over to speak to them. Having given this stunning soliloquy and announced that the drama was to unfold, there is no evidence that he eagerly goes to the Greeks to evangelize them. We will see why this in a moment.

But first let us examine why this simple request throws the whole switch on for Holy Week to unfold. In effect, the arrival of the Gentiles fulfills a critical prophecy about the Messiah wherein He would gather the nations unto himself and make of fractured humanity one nation, one family. Consider two prophesies:

  1. I come to gather nation of every language; they shall come and see my glory. just as the Israelites bring their offering to the house of the Lord in clean vessels. Some of these I will take as priests and Levites says the Lord….All mankind shall come to worship before me says the Lord. (Is 66:18, 23)
  2. And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, every one who keeps the Sabbath, and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant– these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. (Is 56:6-7)

Thus we see that one of the principle missions of the Messiah would be to save, not only the Jewish People, but all people and to draw them into right worship, and unity in the one Lord. Jesus explicitly states elsewhere his intention to gather the Gentiles:

I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd (John 10:14).

And so it is that this apparently simple request of the Greeks (Gentiles) to see Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, carries such significance for him (and us).

But why not run and greet them at once? Simply put, the call and salvation of the Gentiles must wait for the death and the resurrection of Jesus to be accomplished. It will be his atoning death that will reunite us with the Father and with one another. A simple sermon or slogan like “Can’t we all get along” isn’t going to accomplish the deeper unity necessary. Only the Blood of Jesus can bring true Shalom with the Father and wit one another, only the blood of Jesus can save us.

Consider this text from Ephesians:

But now in Christ Jesus you [Gentiles] who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both {Jews and Gentiles] one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. (Eph 2:13ff)

Thus, nothing but the Blood of Jesus can make us whole, can save us or make us one, either with the Father or each other. There is no true unity apart from Christ and he secures it by his blood and the power of his cross. Only by baptism into the paschal mystery do we become members of the Body of Christ and find true and lasting unity, salvation, and true peace.

So the door has opened from the Gentiles side, But Jesus knows the way through door goes by way the Cross. His apparent delay in rushing to greet the Gentiles makes sense in this light. Only after his resurrection he will say, Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.... (Matt 28:19) for now there is the power through baptism to make all one in Christ. The Price of our salvation, our new life, our peace with each other, and the Father, is the death and Resurrection of Jesus. And thank the Lord, Jesus paid that price. An old songs says Oh, the love that drew salvation’s plan! Oh, the grace that brought it down to man! Oh, the mighty gulf that God did span! At Calvary!

II. The Plan of Salvation Applied – Jesus goes on to say Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me.

Now while it is true that Jesus pays the price for our peace and unity, with the Father and which each other, it is also true that he sets forth and prescribes a pattern for us and applies it. Note that Jesus says, Amen, Amen I say to YOU….and again he says, Whoever serves me must follow me.

Thus the pattern of his dying and rising to new life must also be applied to the pattern of our life. And if we seek unity and peace and to enjoy this new life with the Father, we must die to rise again. We must follow in the footsteps of Jesus. If we want peace we have to be willing to accept the pattern of dying fro it and rising to it.

How must we die for this? Well we have to die to:

  1. Our ego
  2. Our desire for revenge
  3. Our hurts from the past
  4. Our desire to control everything
  5. Our sinful and unbiblical agendas
  6. Our irrational fears rooted in ego and exaggerated notions
  7. Our hatreds
  8. Our unrealistic expectations
  9. Our stubbornness
  10. Our inflexibility
  11. Our impatience
  12. Our unreasonable demands
  13. Our greed
  14. Our worldliness

Yes, we have to be willing to experience some sacrifices for unity and to obtain new life. We have to let the Lord put a lot of sinful and unhealthy drives to death in us. New life does not just occur, Peace and unity do not just happen. We have to journey to them through Calvary. We too must allow the Lord to crucify our sinful desires and thereby rise to new life.

But remember, the Cross wins. It always wins.

III. The Plan of Salvation At day’s end. – Jesus speaks of a great promise of new life but presents it in a very paradoxical way. He says: Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.

In other words, if we are not willing to follow the pattern he sets forth above of dying to ourselves and to this world, we cannot truly live. And if we go on clinging to our worldly notions of life and live only for ourselves, and for power, possessions, popularity, and prestige, we are already dead. For indeed, if we live only for the things of this world (and many do), ours is a cruel and laughable fate, for we die and lose all. Yes, total losers.

But if we allow the Lord to help us die to the this world’s agenda, to its pathetic charms, then, and only then do we pass increasingly to real life, to true unity with the Father and to deeper unity with one another in Christ.Only then does a newer, deeper life dawn upon us and do we see our lives dramatically transformed day to day.

Jesus had to die to give this to us. And in order to have it bestowed on us, and we must be configured to Christ’s death to this world in order to live in him and find this new life. We die to a sinful and overrated world, to live in a whole new way in a life open to something richer than we can ever imagine.

Note too, Jesus calls this new life, “eternal life.” But eternal life means far more than to live forever. Rather “eternal,” while not excluding the notion of endless length,  more deeply means “to become fully alive.”

And for those who know Christ, this process has already begun. At age 50, my bodily life has suffered setbacks. But spiritually I am more alive than I ever was at 20, and wait till I’m 80! Our bodies may be declining, but our souls are growing younger and more vibrant, more fully alive, if we love and trust Christ. Yes, I am more joyful, more serene, more confident, less sinful, less angry, less anxious, more compassionate, more patient, more alive!

But all of this comes from dying to this world, little by little and thus having more room for the life Christ offers.

What is the price of our Peace and our new life? Everything! For we shall only attain to it by dying to this world. And while our final physical death will seal the deal, there are all the ten thousand little deaths that usher in this new life even now. Our physical death is but the final component of a lifelong journey in Christ. For those who know Christ, the promise then will be full. For those who rejected him, the loss will be total.

An old song says, Now I’ve given Jesus everything, Now I gladly own Him as my King, Now my raptured soul can only sing Of Calvary!

Yes, the promise is real, but it is paradoxically obtained. The world calls all this foolishness. But you decide. Choose either the “wisdom of this world” or the folly of Christ. As for me, call me a fool, but make sure you add I was a fool for Christ. I do not mind. The cross wins, it always wins.

This song says:

Years I spent in vanity and pride,
Caring not my Lord was crucified,
Knowing not it was for me He died
On Calvary.

Refrain:
Mercy there was great, and grace was free;
Pardon there was multiplied to me;
There my burdened soul found liberty
At Calvary.

By God’s Word at last my sin I learned;
Then I trembled at the law I’d spurned,
Till my guilty soul imploring turned
To Calvary.

Now I’ve given Jesus everything,
Now I gladly own Him as my King,
Now my raptured soul can only sing
Of Calvary!

Oh, the love that drew salvation’s plan!
Oh, the grace that brought it down to man!
Oh, the mighty gulf that God did span
At Calvary!

 

The Urgent Theme of Ash Wednesday

There is a great sense of urgency in the readings for Ash Wednesday. It is as if some great event is looming that could be awesome, but only if the warning is heeded. Pondering the last year, this may make us cringe, “Oh no! What else?!”  But the great event that looms is far more significant and, if we are ready, it will be glorious. Consider this selection from the first reading (Joel 2:12-18):

“Even now,” says the LORD, “Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God.”

Sound the trumpet in Zion! Proclaim a fast, call an assembly; gather the people! Assemble the elders; gather the children, even the infants at the breast.

Let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep, And say, “Spare, O LORD, your people!”

And consider this passage from the second reading (2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2):

We are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.! Behold, now is the very acceptable time.

What is this awesome yet potentially catastrophic event about which we are warned? The Church supplies the answer as she distributes ashes:

Remember, O Man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.

In other words, you’re going to die, and you don’t get to say when, where, or how. So, what are you doing to get ready to appear before the judgment seat of Christ? Mother Church is figuratively shaking us and saying, “Do you understand how significant this is and how serious you ought to be in preparing for it?”

Sadly, many people are not serious about their spiritual life nor are they preparing for death. They are not praying; they do not read Scripture; they are not receiving the sacraments; they do not attend Mass; they are not repenting of their sins. In fact, many celebrate and call “good” or “no big deal” what God calls sin. They are majoring in all the minors, pursuing the ephemeral while neglecting the eternal.

Yes, a trumpet must be sounded; an urgent summons must go forth. It is time to repent and to get serious about the judgment day that awaits us all. Now is a time of grace and mercy, when God provides remedies for sin and graces for holiness. The time for these will end, however: 

It is appointed to man to die once, and thereafter to face judgment (Heb 9:27).

So we aspire to please the Lord, whether we are here in this body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive his due for the things done in the body, whether good or bad. Therefore, since we know what it means to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men (2 Cor 5:9-11).

Sound the trumpet in Zion! It’s time to get ready to meet the Lord before the door of this life closes. Mother Church cries out, “Now is the time. This is the place. Turn from your sins and return to the Lord!”

This song asks, “Where Shall I Be When the First Trumpet Sounds?”

Sinner Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass – A Homily for the 27th Sunday of the Year

There is an urgency and clarity about today’s Gospel that is often lacking in modern Christians, including the clergy. In this Gospel, the message is urgent, provocative, and clear: there is a day of judgment coming for every one of us and we simply must be ready. The message is a sobering one for a modern world that is often dismissive of judgment and certainly of Hell. Yet Jesus says clearly that the Kingdom of God can be taken from us for our refusal to accept its fruits in our life.

Parables used by Jesus to teach on judgment and the reality of Hell are often quite vivid, even shocking in their harsh imagery. They are certainly not stories for the easily offended. And they are also difficult to take for those who have tried to refashion Jesus into a pleasant, affirming sort of fellow rather than the uncompromising prophet and Lord that He is.

No one spoke of Hell more often than Jesus did. Attempting to reconcile these bluntly presented teachings with the God who loves us so, points to the deeper mysteries of justice and mercy and their interaction with human freedom. But this point must be clear: no one loves us more than Jesus does and yet no one spoke of Hell and its certainty more often than Jesus did. No one warned us of judgment and its inescapable consequences more often than did Jesus. Out of love for us, Jesus speaks of death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. As one who loves us, He wants none of us to be lost. So He warns us; He speaks the truth in love.

Historically, this parable had meaning for the ancient Jews that had already come to pass. God had established and cared for his vine, Israel. He gave them every blessing, having led them out of slavery and established them in the Promised Land. Yet searching for the fruits of righteousness he found little. Then, sending many prophets to warn and call forth those fruits, the prophets were persecuted, rejected, and even murdered. Finally, God sent His Son, but He too was murdered. There comes forth a sentence: He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times … Therefore, I say to you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit. By 70 AD, Jerusalem was destroyed; the Temple was never to be rebuilt.

The Jewish people are not singled out in the Scriptures, for we all, like them, are a vineyard, and if we are not careful, their story will be our own story. We, like the ancients, have a decision to make. Either we accept the offer of the Kingdom and thereby yield to the Lord’s work and bring forth a harvest, or we face judgment for the fact that we have chosen to reject the offer of the Kingdom. God will not force us to accept His Kingship or His Kingdom. We have a choice to make and that choice will be at the heart of the judgment we will face.

Let’s take a closer look at the Gospel and apply it to the vineyard of our lives.

I. THE SOWING – The text says, There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower.  Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey.

Note the care and providence of the landowner (God) who has given each of us life and every kind of grace. The image of the vineyard indicates that we have the capacity to bear fruit. This signifies the many gifts, talents, and abilities that we have been given by God.

The hedge calls to mind the protection of His grace and mercy. Though the world can be a tempting place, God has put a hedge of protection around us that is sufficient to keep us safe from serious sin, if we accept its power.

But note, too, that a hedge implies limits. And thus God’s protective graces, though sufficient, mean that we must live within limits, within the hedge that keeps the wild animals of temptation from devouring the fruits of our vine.

The tower is symbolic of the Church, which stands guard like a watchman warning of dangers to us who live within the boundaries of the hedge. And the tower (the Church) is also standing forth as a sign of contradiction to the hostile world outside, which seeks to devour the fruit of the vineyard.

That the landowner leases the the vineyard is a reminder that we are not our own; we have been purchased at great cost. God and God alone created all these things we call our own. We are but stewards, even of our very lives. We belong to God and must render an account and show forth fruits as we shall next see.

But this point must be emphasized: God has given us great care; He has given us His grace, His mercy, His very self. As the text from Isaiah says, What more was there to do for my vineyard that I had not done? God loves us and does not want us to be lost. He gives us every grace and mercy we need to make it. The Lord says, 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) This must be emphasized before we grumble too quickly about the subsequent judgment that comes. God offers every possible grace to save us. It is up to us to accept or reject the help.

II.  THE SEEKING – The text says, When vintage time drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce.

There come moments in our lives when God looks for fruits. Remember that He is the owner and the fruits are rightfully His. He has done everything to bring forth the fruit and now deserves to see the produce of His grace in the vineyard of our life, which is His own.

And what fruits does the Lord seek? The values and fruits of the Kingdom: faith, justice, mercy, peace, forgiveness, chastity, faithfulness, generosity, love of the poor, love of one’s family and friends, even love of one’s enemy, kindness, truth, sincerity, courage to speak the truth and witness to the faith, and an evangelical spirit.

Note, too, that the text says he sends servants to obtain the produce. Here also is evidence of God’s mercy. Historically, God’s “servants” were the prophets. And God sent the prophets not only to bring forth the harvest of justice, but also to remind, clarify, and apply God’s Word and warn sinners. God patiently sent many generations of prophets to help Israel.

It is the same for us. God sends us many prophets to remind, clarify, apply, and warn. Perhaps they are priests or religious, parents, catechists, teachers, or role models. But they are all part of God’s plan to warn us to bear fruit and to help call forth and obtain some of those very fruits for God. Each in his own way says, as St. Paul did in today’s second reading, 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 (Phil 4:8-9).

Yes, God seeks fruits, and rightfully so. And He sends His servants, the prophets, to help call them forth in us.

III. THE SINNING – The text says, But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned.  Again he sent other servants, more numerous than the first ones, but they treated them in the same way.  Finally, he sent his son to them, thinking, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and acquire his inheritance.’ They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.

Thus, despite all God has done by sending His servants, the prophets, the tenants reject them all, and with increasing vehemence. Their hearts grow harder. The landowner (God) even goes so far to demonstrate his love and his will to save, that he sends his own son. But they drag him outside the vineyard and kill him. Yes, Jesus died outside the city gates, murdered for seeking the fruit of faith from the tenants of the vineyard.

And what of us? There are too many who reject God’s prophets. They do so with growing vehemence and abusive treatment. Many today despise the Church, despise the Scriptures, despise fathers, mothers, friends, and Christians in general who seek to clarify and apply God’s Word and to warn of the need to be ready. It is quite possible that, for any of us, repeated resistance can cause a hardening of the heart to set in. In the end, there are some, in fact many according to Jesus, who effectively kill the life of God within them and utterly reject the Kingdom of God and its values. They do not want to live lives that show forth forgiveness, mercy, love of enemies, chastity, justice, love of the poor, generosity, kindness, and witness to the Lord and the truth.

We ought to be very sober as there are many, many today who are like this. Some have merely drifted away and are indifferent. (Some, we must say, have been hurt or  are struggling to believe, but at least they remain open.) Still others are passionate in their hatred for the Church, Scripture, and anything to do with God, and they explicitly reject many, if not most of the kingdom values listed above. We must be urgent to continue in our attempt to reach them, as we shall see.

IV. THE SENTENCING – The text says, What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes? They answered him, ‘He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.’ Therefore, I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.

Here then is the sentence: if you don’t want the Kingdom, you don’t have to have it. At one level, it would seem to us that everyone wants the Kingdom, i.e., everyone who has any faith in God at all wants to go to Heaven. But what is Heaven? It is the fullness of the Kingdom of God. It is not just a place of our making. It is that place where the will of God, where the Kingdom’s values are in full flower. But as we have seen, there are many who do not want to live chastely, do not want to forgive, do not want to be generous to and love the poor, do not want God or anyone else at the center, do not want to worship God.

Self exclusion – Having rejected the Kingdom’s values, and having rejected the prophets who warned them, many simply exclude themselves from the Kingdom. God will not force the Kingdom on anyone. If you don’t want it, even after God’s grace and mercy and His pleading through the prophets, you don’t have to have it. It will be taken from you and given to those who do want it and appreciate its help.

The existence of Hell is rooted essentially in God’s respect for our freedom, for we have been called to love. But love must be free, not compelled. Hence, Hell has to be. It is the “alternative arrangement” that others make for themselves in their rejection of the Kingdom of God. At some point, God calls the question, and at death our decision is forever fixed.

Yes, Hell and the judgment that precedes it, are clearly taught here and in many other places by Jesus (e.g., Matt 23:33; Lk 16:23; Mk 43:47; Matt 5:29; Matt 10:28; Matt 18:9; Matt 5:22; Matt 11:23; Matt 7:23; Matt 25:41; Mk 9:48; Luke 13:23; Rev 22:15; and many, many more). This is taught by a Lord who loves us and wants to save us, but who is also well aware of our stubborn and stiff-necked ways.

What is a healthy response to this teaching? To work earnestly for the salvation of souls, beginning with our own. Nothing has so destroyed evangelization and missionary activity as the modern notion that everyone goes to Heaven. Nothing has so destroyed any zeal for the moral life or hunger for the Sacraments, prayer, and Scripture. And nothing is so contrary to Scripture as the dismissal of Hell and the notion that all are going to Heaven.

But rather than panic or despair, we ought to get to work and be more urgent in our quest to win souls for Christ. Who is it that the Lord wants you to work with to draw back to Him? Pray and ask Him, “Who, Lord?” The Lord does not want any to be lost. But, as of old, He still sends His prophets (this means you) to draw back anyone who will listen. Will you work for the Lord? Will you work for souls?  For there is a day of judgment looming and we must be made ready for it by the Lord. Will you be urgent about it, for yourself and others?

Photo Credit: Jean-Yves Roure

This video features the words of an old spiritual: Sinner please don’t let this harvest pass, and die and lose your soul at last. I made this video more than a year ago and in it there is a picture of Fr. John Corapi preaching. Since I made it long before his recent “troubles,” please do not attribute any implication from me by its inclusion; it is simply indicative of the “age” of the video.

It is Easier to Wear Slippers than to Carpet the Whole of the Earth. A Meditation on the Gospel for the 18th Sunday of the Year

We have today the very familiar miracle of the loaves and fishes. One is tempted to say, “Oh that one…and tune out.” But, if we allow it, the gospel today contains a very personal appeal from the Lord’s lips to your (my) ears: “There is no need to dismiss the crowds, give them some food yourself.”

Immediately all the objections swim through our minds, but be still, and let us allow the Lord to instruct us and apply this Gospel in five stages.

I. THE IMAGE THAT IS EXTOLLED – The text says, When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.  The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns.  When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.

The text begins with a very sad note of the death of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. We should not simply dismiss the kind of human grief he must have experienced, and the text says he wants to go apart for a while, presumably to pray and grieve. It would seem, at the pinnacle of his public ministry, he could only get apart by going out on a boat, and so he does. The text is unclear how long he was out on the water, but it implies a short time.

Approaching the opposite shore Jesus sees a large crowd, and is moved with pity. He teaches them at great length and heals the sick. And here is the image that is extolled. If Jesus has allowed himself this moment of grief, he also shows that the way out of it is love and concern for others. For it is too easy for us, in our own grief, anger, sorrow, or anxiety to retreat, to hide away. As an immediate reaction this is understandable. But it is not a disposition we ought to maintain for long. For others have need, and even in our grief and our limits, we are still called to reach out. And that very reaching out, often contains our own healing too.

That we have needs, does not mean others stop having them. Jesus shows the courage and the love to still recognize the needs of others, even in his own grief. So he goes ashore and shares love with others.

II. THE ISSUE THAT IS EVADED – The text says, When it was evening, the disciples approached him and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.”

There is a human tendency, that when people are needy, we want them to go away, to disappear. Hence, the apostles, noticing the needy crowd, a crowd about to have a hunger problem, they want the crowd to go away before they become a problem.

We too, both individually and collectively, often desire the needy and poor to just disappear. If we see a beggar, we may cross the street, or refuse to look at him. If our caller ID indicates a troubled family member who may ask for money or want to talk a long time, we let the call go to voice mail. In society we tend to segregate the poor and needy. The “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) syndrome seeks to segregate the poor, the mentally handicapped and others to certain marginal sections of the city largely out of sight, and out of mind. The sick and the dying too are often relegated to nursing homes. Perhaps this is necessary for proper care, but the thought of an elderly relative living and dying in our homes is too much for many, even when it is possible. So, generally people go away to die.

Notice the threefold basis of the disciples evasion:

  1. They are DESPAIRING – for they say, this is a deserted place and it is already late.
  2. They are DISMISSIVE –  for they want Jesus to dismiss the crowd, to send them away.
  3. They are DETACHED – for instead of wanting to help, they want the crowd to go away and get food for themselves.

Yes, it is a sad human tendency to want to be rid of people who have problems. And so the disciples beg Jesus to send the increasingly troublesome crowd away. The Issue is evaded, rather than accepted as a shared problem to be solved together.

III. THE INSTRUCTION THAT ENSUESJesus said to them, “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.”

Uh oh! This is starting to get personal. Jesus is not willing to keep this merely as a problem “they” have, he wants me to do something!

Yes, he rejects their premise by saying there is no need for them to go away. And he redirects plan by saying, give them something to eat yourselves.

Refusing to accept the presence of the poor and needy, is simply not a viable option for Jesus, or for us who would be his disciples. He wants and expects us to get started with a solution, a solution that includes both “them” and us. It looks like we are our brother’s keeper.

This is the instruction that ensues when the apostles, or when we, try to evade the issue.

IV. THE INSUFFICIENCY THAT IS EXPRESSED the text says, But they said to him, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.”

But we can’t possibly pull this thing off, the needs are far too great! The Lord is not interested in our excuses, he just says, “Let’s get started.”

Observe two things about the five loaves and two fishes.

  1. First, as John’s Gospel notes, (6:9), the loaves and fishes came from among the poor themselves. Hence this is not mere do-goodism. The teaching here is not to be a “limousine liberal” who rolls down the window and throws money to the poor, then goes back to his mansion. Neither is it a “we’re from the government and we’re here to help you” solution. For we should not do for others what they can reasonably do for themselves. Rather we ought to work with the poor, engaging them in what they do have, in the talents and leadership they do possess, and solve problems with them, rather than merely for them. There are loaves and fishes among even the poor, there are talents and resources to be included in the solution.
  2. Secondly, wherever the loaves and fishes come from, they are not nothing, and the Lord expects all of us to be part of the solution. Simply telling God or, (these days), the government, to go and do something, is not a full or authentic Christian response.

Hence our complaints about meager resources do not impress the Lord who says, simply, bring them to me. The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. And thus we go to the principle point.

V.  THE IMMENSITY THAT IS EXPERIENCED – the text says, Then he said, “Bring them here to me, ” and he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass.  Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds.  They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the fragments left over— twelve wicker baskets full.  Those who ate were about five thousand men, not counting women and children.

Now this story is so familiar that you and I are not shocked by the outcome. But no matter how many times we hear it, we still do not really accept it’s astonishing truth:

  1. I can do all things in God who strengthens me (Phil 4:13)
  2. All things are possible to him who believes (Mk 9:23)
  3. For man it is impossible, but not with God, for all things are possible with God (Mk 10:27)
  4. Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. (2 Cor 9:10)

Now take special note of that last quote, for this gospel is about more than caring for the poor, (and it is about that). But this Gospel is also about taking this world back for Christ.

We all know that this world is in an increasingly bad state: rampant secularism, moral relativism, and a Church with many self-inflicted wounds.  This has all led to the fact that we have a real mess on our hands. And the problems are overwhelming: sexual confusion, the culture of death, the breakdown of marriage, compulsive sin, compulsive overspending, greed, insensitivity to the poor, deep and widespread addiction to pornography, drugs, and alcohol, abortion, widespread promiscuity, adultery, corruption, cynicism, low mass attendance and on an on.

The problems seem overwhelming and our resources seem so limited to turn back the tide. What will we ever do with only five loaves and two fishes?

Jesus says, bring them to me.

Yet again, the journey of a thousand miles begins with just one step. The conversion of the whole world, begins with me. As I look the huge problems before me, I (this means you) assess my loaves and fishes:

  1. I work on my own conversion. For a holier world has to start with me. If I get holier, the world get’s holier.
  2. I look to the poor I can serve, maybe with money maybe with talents, like tutoring, counseling etc. Maybe just with the time of listening.
  3. I pick up the phone and call a family member I know is hurting.
  4. I love my spouse and children.
  5. I spend time properly raising my own children to know the Lord and seek his kingdom.
  6. I exhort the weak in my own family, and with love, rebuke sin and encourage righteousness.
  7. If I am a priest or religious, I faithfully live my vocation, and heroically call others to Christ by teaching and proclaiming the gospel without compromise.
  8. If I am a young person I seek to devoutly prepare myself for a vocation to marriage, priesthood or religious life.
  9. If I am older I seek to manifest wisdom and good example to those who are young.
  10. If I am elderly, I seek to devoutly prepare myself for death, and to give good example in this, and to witness the desire for heaven.
  11. I will pray for this world and attend mass faithfully, begging God’s mercy on this sin soaked world.

It is too easy to lament this world’s condition and, like the apostles, feel overwhelmed. Jesus just says, bring me what you have, and let’s get started. The conversion of the whole world will begin with me, with my meager loaves and fishes.

And Jesus will surely multiply them, he will not fail. Already there is renewal evident in the Church, through a faithful remnant willing to bring their loaves fishes, some of the things mentioned above and more besides. They are bringing them to Jesus and he is multiplying them. Renewal is happening, and signs of spring are evident in the Church.

There is an old saying that it is easier to wear slippers that to carpet the whole of the earth. Indeed it is. If it is a converted world you want start with yourself. Bring your loaves and fishes to Jesus, bring your slippers, and let’s get started.  It begins with me.

This song says,

If I can help somebody, as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody, with a word or song,
If I can show somebody, how they’re traveling wrong,
Then my living shall not be in vain.

If I can do my duty, as a good man ought,
If I can bring back beauty, to a world up wrought,
If I can spread love’s message, as the Master taught,
Then my living shall not be in vain
.

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.

Love Lifted Me: A Homily for the Ascension of the Lord

In more dioceses than not, the Feast of the Ascension is celebrated this Sunday. The liturgist in me regrets the move from Thursday, but here we are any way. Let’s ascend with the Lord, three days late!

This marvelous feast is not merely about something that took place two thousand years ago, for though Christ our head has ascended, we the members of His body are ascending with Him. Because He was ascended, we, too, have ascended. In my own life as a Christian, I am brought higher every year by the Lord, who is drawing me up with Him. This is not some mere slogan, but something I am actually experiencing. An old song says, “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore. Very deeply stained with sin, sinking to rise no more. But the master of the sea, heard my despairing cry. And from the waters lifted me. Now safe am I. Love Lifted me when nothing else could help. Love lifted me!”

If we are faithful, the feast of the Lord’s Ascension is our feast, too. Let’s look at it from three perspectives.

I. The Fact of the Ascension – The readings today describe a wondrous event witnessed by the Apostles. By His own power, the Lord is taken to Heaven. In so doing, He opens a path for us, too. The gates of paradise swing open again. Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in! (Psalm 24:7) In Christ, man returns to God. Consider three things about the Ascension:

A. The Reality – Imagine the glory of this moment! Scripture says, As they were looking on, he was lifted up and cloud took him from their sight … they were looking intently in the sky as he was going (Acts 1:9). So impressive was the sight that the angels had to beckon them to get along to Jerusalem as the Lord had said, “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Yes, it was glorious. Jesus had once said as a summons to faith, What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? (John 6:62) He had also encouraged them saying, Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man (John 1:51). So here is a glorious reality and a fulfillment of what Jesus had said.

B.The Rescue – In the Ascension, it does not seem that the Lord entered Heaven alone. As we have remarked, in His mystical body we also ascend with Him. Consider this remarkable text that affirms that: Therefore it is said, When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men. In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things (Eph 4:8ff). Yes, the Lord had earlier (just after his death) descended to Sheol, awakened the dead, and preached the Gospel to them (cf 1 Peter 4:6). Now for those He had justified came the moment to ascend, with Jesus as a “host,” as an army of former captives now set free. Behold the great procession that enters behind Christ through the now-opened gates of Heaven: Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, Judith, Deborah, David, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Malachi, John the Baptist, … and, one day, you! Yes, this is a great rescue. Adam and his descendants have not simply been restored to some paradise-like garden; they have entered Heaven.

C.The Rejoicing – Consider how this once captive train sings exultantly as they follow Christ upward to Heaven. The liturgy today puts before us a likely song they sang: God mounts his throne to shouts of Joy! The Lord amid trumpet blasts. All you peoples clap your hands, shout to God with cries of gladness, for the Lord the most high, the awesome is the great king over all the earth. God reigns over the nations, God sits upon his holy throne (Psalm 47:6-7). I also have it on the best of authority that they were singing this old gospel song: “I’m so glad Jesus lifted me!” as well as this old Motown song: “Your love is lifting me higher than I’ve ever been lifted before!”

II. The Fellowship of the Ascension – We have already remarked that, when Christ ascends, we ascend. Why and how? Scripture says, Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it (1 Cor 12:27). It also says, All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. By baptism we were buried together with him so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of God the Father, we too might live a new and glorious life. For if we have been united with him by likeness to his death we shall be united with him by likeness to his resurrection (Rom 6:3ff). When Christ died, we died. When Christ rose, we rose. When He ascends, we ascend.

But, you may say, He is in glory while I am still here. How is it that I am ascended or ascending? Consider a humorous example using our physical bodies. When I get on an elevator and press the button for the top floor, the top of my head gets there before the soles of my feet, but the whole body will get there unless some strange loss of integrity or tragic dismemberment takes place. In an analogous way, so it is with Jesus’ mystical body. In Christ, our Head, we are already in glory. Some members of His Body have already gotten there. We who come later will get there too, provided we remain members of His Body. Yes, we are already ascended in Christ, our Head. We are already enthroned in glory with Him, if we hold fast and stay a member of His Body. This is the fellowship of the Ascension.

III. The Fruitfulness of the Ascension – Jesus does not return to Heaven to abandon us. He is more present to us than we are to ourselves. He is with us always to the end of the age (cf Matt 28:20). In ascending, without abandoning us, He goes to procure some very important things. Consider four of them:

A. Holy Ghost power – Jesus teaches very clearly that He is ascending in order to send us the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you (Jn 16:7ff). He also says, These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you (Jn 14:25ff). I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come (Jn 16:13-14). So the Lord goes in order that with the Father, He might send the Holy Spirit to live within us as in a temple. In this way, and through the Eucharist, He will dwell with us even more intimately than when He walked this earth.

B. Harvest – Jesus says, And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me (John 12:32). While the immediate context of this verse is the crucifixion, the wonder of John’s gospel is that he often intends double meanings. Clearly Christ’s glorification is His crucifixion, but it also includes His resurrection and ascension. So, from His place in glory, Christ is drawing all people to Himself. He is also bestowing grace on us from His Father’s right hand to be His co-workers in the harvest: But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8). Yes, from His place in glory, Christ is bringing in a great harvest. As He said in Scripture, Do you not say, “Four months more and then the harvest”? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying “One sows and another reaps” is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor (Jn 4:35-38). Harvest! It is the Lord’s work from Heaven in which we participate.

C. Help – At the Father’s right hand, Jesus intercedes for us. Scripture says, Consequently he is able, for all time, to save those who draw near to God through him, since he lives always to make intercession for them (Heb 7:25). The Lord links his ascension to an unleashing of special power: Amen, amen, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son (Jn 14:12).

We must not understand asking in the name of Jesus as a mere incantation, for to ask in His name means to ask in accord with His will. Yet we must come to experience the power of Jesus to draw us up to great and wondrous things in His sight. Despite the mystery of iniquity all about us, we trust that Christ is conquering, even in the puzzling and apparent victories of this world’s rebellion. In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Though, at present we do not see everything subject to him, yet we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor … so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb 2:8-9; 14-15). Thus, from Heaven we have the help of the Lord’s grace which, if we will accept it, is an ever-present help unto our salvation.

D. Habitation – Jesus indicates that in going to Heaven, He is preparing a place for us: In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also (Jn 14:2ff). Yes, Jesus has the blueprints out and the hard hat on. He is overseeing the construction of a mansion for each of us that we may dwell with Him, the Father, and the Spirit forever.

Here, then, are the ways that Christ, by His love, is lifting us higher than we’ve ever been lifted before. Yes, love lifted me when nothing else could help; love lifted me.

Here’s a modernized version of the hymn: