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.

See What the End Shall Be – A Homily for Palm Sunday

The Passion, which we read in the liturgy for Palm Sunday, is too long to comment on in detail, so we will only examine a portion of it here.

It may be of some value to examine the problems associated with the more moderate range of personalities involved. The usual villains (the Temple leaders, Judas, and the recruited crowd shouting, “Crucify him!”) are unambiguously wicked and display their sinfulness openly. But there are others involved whose struggles and neglectfulness are more subtle, yet no less real. It is in examining these figures that we can learn a great deal about ourselves, who, though we may not openly shout, “Crucify him,” are often not as unambiguously holy and heroic as Jesus’ persecutors are wicked and bold.

As we read the Passion we must understand that this is not merely an account of the behavior of people long gone, they are portraits of you and me; we do these things.

I. The Perception that is Partial – Near the beginning of today’s Passion account, the apostles, who are at the Last Supper with Jesus, are reminded of what the next days will hold. Jesus says,

This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed.” But after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.

Note that the apostles are not being told these things for the first time; Jesus has spoken them before on numerous occasions:

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life (Matt 16:21).

When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief (Matt 17:22-23).

We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life” (Matt 20:18-19).

Thus we see that the Lord has consistently tried to teach and prepare them for the difficulties ahead. He has told them exactly what is going to happen and how it will end: not in death, but rising to new life. But even though He has told them over and over again, they still do not understand. Therefore He predicts that their faith in Him will be shaken.

Their perception is partial. They will see only the negative, forgetting that Jesus has promised to rise. Because they cannot see beyond the apparent defeat of the moment they will retreat into fear rather than boldly and confidently accompanying Him to His passion and glorification (for His passion is a lifting up; it is His glorification). Instead they will flee. He has shown the “what the end shall be,” but they can neither see nor accept it. Thus fear overwhelms them and they withdraw into a sinful fear, dissociating themselves from Jesus. Only a few (Mary, His Mother; John; Mary Magdalene; and a few other women) would see Him through to the end.

As for the rest, they see only what is gory and awful, missing what is glory and awesome. Their perception is quite partial. Paradoxically, their blindness comes from not hearing or listening to what Jesus has been telling them all along.

We, too, can easily suffer from a blindness caused by poor listening. The Lord has often told us that if we trust in Him, then our struggles will end in glory and new life. But, blind and forgetful, we give in to our fears and fail to walk the way of Christ’s passion boldly. We draw back and dissociate ourselves from Jesus, exhibiting some of the same tendencies we will observe in the people of that day.

Next, let’s examine some of the problems that emerge from this partial perception and forgetful fear.

II. The Problems Presented – There are at least five problems that emerge. They are unhealthy and sinful patterns that spring from the fear generated by not trusting Jesus’ vision. Please understand that the word “we” used here is shorthand and does not mean that every single person does this. Rather, it means that collectively we have these tendencies. There’s no need to take everything here personally.

1. They become drowsy – A common human technique for dealing with stress and the hardships of life is to become numb and drowsy; we can just drift off into a sort of moral slumber. Being vigilant against the threat posed to our souls by sin or the harm caused by injustice (whether to ourselves or to others) is just too stressful, so we just “tune out.” We stop noticing or really even caring about critically important matters. We anesthetize ourselves with things like alcohol, drugs, creature comforts, and meaningless distractions. Prayer and spirituality pose too many uncomfortable questions, so we just daydream about meaningless things like what a certain Hollywood star is doing or how the latest sporting event is going.

In the Passion accounts, the Lord asks Peter, James, and John to pray with Him. But they doze off. Perhaps it is the wine. Surely it is the flesh (for the Lord speaks of it). Unwilling or unable to deal with the stress of the situation, they get drowsy and doze off. Grave evil is at the very door, but they sleep. The Lord warns them to stay awake, lest they give way to temptation, but still they sleep. Someone they know and love is in grave danger, but it is too much for them to handle. They tune out, much as we do in the face of the overwhelming suffering of Christ visible in the poor and needy. We just stop noticing; it’s too painful, so we tune out.

The Lord had often warned them to be vigilant, sober, and alert (Mk 13:34, Matt 25:13, Mk 13:37; Matt 24:42; Luke 21:36, inter al). Other Scriptures would later pick up the theme (Romans 13:11; 1 Peter 5:8; 1 Thess 5:6, inter al). Yes, drowsiness is a serious spiritual problem.

Sadly, God described us well when He remarked to Isaiah, Israel’s watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are all mute dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep (Is 56:10).

We do this not only out of laziness, but also out of fear. One strategy is to try to ignore it, to go numb, to tune out. But despite the sleepiness of the disciples, the wicked are still awake; the threat does not go away by a drowsy inattentiveness to it. Thus we ought to be confident and sober. Life’s challenges are nothing to fear. The Lord has told us that we have already won if we will just trust in Him. The disciples have forgotten Jesus’ promise to rise after three days; we often do the same. So they, and we, just give in to the stress and tune out.

2. They seek to destroy – When Peter finally awaken, he lashes out with a sword and wounds Malchus, the servant of the high priest. The Lord rebukes Peter and reminds him of the vision: Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me? (John 18:11) Jesus then heals Malchus, who tradition says later became a follower.

In our fear, we, too, can often lash out and even seek to destroy our opponents. But if we are already certain of our victory, as the Lord has promised, why do we fear? Why do we need to suppress our opponents and enemies ruthlessly? It is one thing to speak the truth in love, boldly and confidently. But it is quite another to lash out aggressively and seek to win a debate. In so doing, we may lose a soul. The Lord healed Malchus, seeing in Him a future disciple. The Lord saw what the end would be. Peter did not. In fear, he lashed out with an aggression that did not bespeak a confidence in final victory.

It is true that we are required to confront evil, resist injustice, and speak with clarity to a confused world. But above all, we are called to love those whom we address. There is little place for fear in our conversations with the world. The truth will out; it will prevail. We may not win every encounter, but we do not have to; all we must do is plant seeds. God will water them and others may well harvest them. In Christ, we have already won. This confidence should give us serenity.

Peter has forgotten Jesus’ promise to rise after three days; we often do the same. So Peter, and we, give in to fear and lash out, driven by a desire to win when in fact we have already won.

3. They deny – Confronted with the fearful prospect of being condemned along with Jesus, Peter denies being one of His followers or even knowing Him at all. He dissociates himself from Christ. And we, confronted with the possibility of far milder things such as ridicule, often deny a connection with the Lord or the Church.

Regarding one of the more controversial Scripture teachings (e.g., the command to tithe; the prohibition against divorce, fornication, and homosexual activity) some might ask, “You don’t really believe that, do you?” It’s very easy to give in to fear and to respond, “No,” or to qualify our belief. Why suffer ridicule, endure further questioning, or be drawn into an unpleasant debate? So we just dissociate from, compromise, or qualify our faith to avoid the stress. We even congratulate ourselves for being tolerant when we do it!

Jesus says, If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels (Mk 8:38). But too easily we are ashamed. And so, like Peter, we engage in some form of denial. Peter is afraid because he has forgotten to “see what the end shall be.” He has forgotten Jesus’ promise to rise after three days; we often do the same. We lack confidence and give in to fear; we deny in order to avoid suffering with Jesus.

4. They dodge – When Jesus is arrested, all the disciples except John “split.” They “get the heck out of Dodge.” They are nowhere to be found. After Jesus’ arrest, it is said that Peter (prior to his denials) followed the Lord at a distance (Mk 14:54). But as soon as trouble arose, he “scrammed.”

We, too, can run away. Sometimes it’s because of persecution by the world. But sometimes it’s our fear that following the Lord is too hard and involves sacrifices that we are just not willing to make. Maybe it will endanger our money (the Lord insists that we tithe and be generous to the poor). Maybe it will endanger our playboy lifestyle (the Lord insists on chastity and respect). Maybe we don’t want to stop doing something that we have no business doing, something that is unjust, excessive, or sinful. But rather than face our fears, whether they come from within or without, we just hightail it out.

The disciples have forgotten that Jesus has shown them “what the end shall be.” In three days, he will win the victory. But, this forgotten, their fears emerge and they run. We too, must see “what the end shall be” in order to confront and resist our many fears.

5. They deflect – In this case our example is Pontius Pilate, not one of the disciples. Pilate was summoned to faith just like anyone else. “Are you a king?” he asks Jesus. Jesus responds by putting Pilate on trial: “Are you saying this on your own or have others been telling you about me?” Pilate has a choice to make: accept that what Jesus is saying as true, or give in to fear and commit a terrible sin of injustice. The various accounts in Scripture all make it clear that Pilate knew Jesus was innocent. But because he feared the crowds he handed Jesus over.

Note that Pilate did this. The crowds tempted him through fear, but he did the condemning. Yet notice that he tries to deflect his choice. The text says, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility” (Mat 27:24). Well actually, Pilate, it is also your responsibility. You had a choice and you made it. Your own career and your own hide were more important to you than justice was. And though you wanted to do what was right and were sympathetic with Jesus, merely wanting to do what is right is not enough.

So, too, for us. We also often favor our career or our hide over doing what is right. And in so doing, we often blame others for what we have freely chosen. “I’m not responsible because my mother dropped me on my head when I was two.”

We are often willing to say, in effect,

“Look, Jesus, I love you. You get my Sundays, and my tithe, and I obey you (generally, anyway). But you have to understand that I have a career; I need to make money for my family. If I really stand up for what’s right, I might not make it in this world. You understand, don’t you? I know the company I work for is doing some things that are unjust. I know the world needs a clearer witness from me. I’ll do all that—after I retire. But for now, well, you know… Besides, it’s really my boss who’s to blame. It’s this old hell-bound, sin-soaked world that’s to blame, not me!”

We try to wash our hands of responsibility. We excuse our silence and inaction in the face of injustice and sin.

And all this is done out of fear. We forget “what the end shall be” and focus on the fearful present. We lack the vision that Jesus is trying to give us: that we will rise with Him. We stay blind to that and only see the threat of the here and now.

III. The Path that is Prescribed – By now you ought to know the path that is prescribed: see what the end shall be. In three days we rise! Why are we afraid? Jesus has already won the victory. It is true that we get there through the cross, but never forget what the end shall be! Today we read the Gospel of Friday, but wait till Sunday morning! I’ll rise!

We end where we began with this Gospel: This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed;’ but after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.

Yes, after He has been raised He goes before us into Galilee. And for us, Galilee is Heaven. Whatever our sorrows, if we are faithful we will see Jesus in the Galilee of Heaven. Never forget this vision. After three days, we will rise with Him and be reunited with Him in the Galilee of Heaven.

So take courage; see what the end shall be! The end for those who are faithful is total victory. We don’t need to drowse, destroy, deny, dodge, or deflect; we’ve already won. All we need to do is to hold out.

I have it on the best of authority that Mother Mary was singing the following gospel song with St. John for a brief time while at the foot of the cross, as they looked past that Friday to the Sunday that was coming:

It’s all right, it’s all right.
My Jesus said he’ll fix it and it’s all right.

Sometimes I’m up sometimes I’m down.
But Jesus he’ll fix it and it’s all right.

Sometimes I’m almost on the ground.
My Jesus said he’ll fix it and it’s all right.

The Bountiful Blessings of Baptism—A Homily for the Baptism of the Lord

Today’s Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is a moment to reflect not only on the Lord’s Baptism but on our own. In an extended sense, when Christ is baptized, so are we, for we are members of His Body. As Christ enters the water, He makes holy the water that will baptize us. He enters the water, and we who are members of His Body go with Him. In these waters He acquires gifts to give us.

Let’s examine today’s Gospel in three stages:

The Fraternity of Baptism – The text says, Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?”

John is surely puzzled when Jesus requests Baptism. Why? John’s Baptism of repentance presumes the presence of sin, but Scripture is clear that Jesus had no sin.

      • For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin (Heb 4:15).
      • You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin (1 John 3:5).

So, why does Jesus ask to be baptized? Before answering, let’s consider this dramatic fact: Jesus identifies with sinners, even though He never sinned. As He comes to the riverside, He is not concerned with what people think. He is not embarrassed or ashamed that some might think Him a sinner. He accepts a remarkable humiliation in being found in the company of sinners like us and even in being seen as one of us. He freely enters the waters despite the likelihood of being numbered among the sinners by those who do not know Him.

Consider just how amazing this is. Scripture says, He is not ashamed to call us his Brethren (Heb 2:11). It also says, God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21).

Jesus ate with sinners to the horror of many of the religious leaders: This man welcomes sinners and eats with them (Lk 15:2). Jesus was a friend of sinners, had pity on the woman caught in adultery, and allowed a sinful woman to anoint His feet. He cast out demons and fought for sinners. He suffered and died for sinners in the way reserved for the worst criminals. He was crucified between two thieves and He was assigned a grave among the wicked (Is 53).

Praise God, Jesus is not ashamed to be found in our presence and to share a brotherhood with us. There is a great shedding of his glory in doing this. Again, Scripture says, [Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself (Phil 1:3).

The Fulfillment of Baptism – The text says, Jesus said [to John] in reply, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed him.

The Fathers of the Church are of varying opinions as to what exactly Christ means by fulfilling all righteousness.

      • Chromatius links the righteousness to all the sacraments and the salvation they confer: This is true righteousness, that the Lord and Master should fulfill in himself every sacrament of our salvation. Therefore, the Lord did not want to be baptized for his own sake but for ours” (tractate on Matthew 13.2).
      • Chrysostom links it to the end and fulfillment of the Old Covenant: He is in effect saying, “Since then we have performed all the rest of the commandments, this Baptism alone remains. I have come to do away with the curse that is appointed for the transgression of the Law. So I must therefore fulfill it all and, having delivered you from its condemnation, bringing it to an end” (Homily on Matt 12.1).
      • Theodore of Mopsuestia interprets Christ to mean that He is perfecting John’s Baptism, which was only a symbol of the True Baptism. The Baptism of John … was perfect according to the precept of Law, but it was imperfect in that it did not supply remission of sin but merely made people fit of receiving the perfect one …. And Jesus makes this clear saying, ‘For thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness’ (Fragment 13).

From another perspective, the word righteousness refers, biblically, to God’s fidelity to His promises. In this sense, Jesus would mean that His Baptism would be the sign of the fulfillment of God’s righteous promise of salvation. God had promised this, and God is faithful to His promises. Jesus’ Baptism indicates this. How?

St. Maximus of Turin speaks of the Old Testament prefigurement of Baptism at the Red Sea and then shows how Christ fulfills it:

I understand the mystery as this. The column of fire went before the sons of Israel through the Red Sea so that they could follow on their brave journey; the column went first through the waters to prepare a path for those who followed …. But Christ the Lord does all these things: in the column of fire He went through the sea before the sons of Israel; so now in the column of his body he goes through baptism before the Christian people …. At the time of the Exodus the column … made a pathway through the waters; now it strengthens the footsteps of faith in the bath of baptism (de sancta Epiphania 1.3).

So, what God promised in the Old Testament by way of prefigurement, He now fulfills in Christ. They were delivered from the slavery of Egypt as the column led them through the waters, but even more wonderfully, we are delivered from slavery to sin as the column of Christ’s body leads us through the waters of Baptism. God’s righteousness is His fidelity to His promises. Hence, Jesus says that in His Baptism and all it signifies (His death and resurrection), He has come to fulfill all righteousness and thus fulfills the promises made by God at the Red Sea and throughout the Old Testament.

The Four Gifts of Baptism – The text says, After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Ephesians 5:30 says that we are members of Christ’s body. Thus, when Jesus goes into the water, we go with Him. In going there, He acquires four gifts on our behalf:

      • Access the heavens are opened. The heavens and paradise had been closed to us after Original Sin, but with Jesus’ Baptism they are opened. Jesus acquires this gift for us. At our Baptism, the heavens open for us and we have access to the Father and to the heavenly places. Scripture says, Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand (Romans 5:1). Scripture also says, For through Jesus we have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God (Eph 2:17). Hence, the heavens are opened at our own Baptism giving us access to the Father.
      • Anointing the Spirit of God descends on him like a dove. Here, Jesus acquires for us the gift of the Holy Spirit. In Baptism we are not just washed of sins; we also become temples of the Holy Spirit. After Baptism there is the anointing with chrism, which signifies the presence of the Holy Spirit. For adults, this is Confirmation, but even for infants there is an anointing at Baptism to recognize that the Spirit of God dwells in the baptized as in a temple. Scripture says, Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? (1 Cor 3:16)
      • Acknowledgmentthis is my beloved Son. Jesus receives this acknowledgment from his Father for the faith of those who are there to hear it but also to acquire this gift for us. In our own Baptism we become the children of God. Because we become members of Christ’s body, we now have the status of sons of God. On the day of your Baptism, the heavenly Father acknowledged you as His own dear child. Scripture says, You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ (Gal 3:26).
      • ApprovalI am well pleased. Jesus had always pleased His Father, but now He acquires this gift for us as well. Our own Baptism gives us sanctifying grace, the grace to be holy and pleasing to God. Scripture says, Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in his sight (Eph 1:1-3).

Thus, at His Baptism, Christ acquired these gifts for us so that at our own Baptism we could receive them.

Consider well the glorious gift of your Baptism. Perhaps you know the exact date on which you were baptized. It should be a day as highly celebrated as your birthday! Christ is baptized for our sake, not His own. All of these gifts have always been His. In His Baptism, He fulfills God’s righteousness by going into the water to get them for us. It’s all right to say, “Hallelujah!”

The Journey of Faith – A Homily for Epiphany

There are so many wonderful details in the Epiphany story: the call of the Gentiles, their enthusiastic response, the significance of the star they seek, the gifts they bring, the dramatic interaction with Herod, and their ultimate rejection of Herod in favor of Christ.

In this meditation, I would like to follow these Magi in their journey of faith to become “Wise Men.” As magi, they followed the faint stars, distant points of light; as wise men, they follow Jesus, who is the ever-glorious Light from Light, true God from true God.

We can observe how they journey in stages from the light of a star to the bright and glorious Light of Jesus Christ. And, of course, to authentically encounter the Lord is to experience conversion. All the elements of this story ultimately serve to cause them to “return to their country by another route.” Let’s look at the stages of their journey from being mere magi to becoming, by God’s grace, wise men.

Stage 1: The CALL that COMPLETES – The text says, When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”

Notice the identity of these individuals: they are labeled magi (μάγοι (magoi) in Greek) and are from the East.

Exactly what “magi” are is not clear. Perhaps they are learned men; perhaps they are ancient astronomers. We often think of them as kings, though the text of this passage does not call them that. It also seems likely that Herod would have been far more anxious had they been actual potentates from an Eastern kingdom. We often think of them as kings because Psalm 72 (read in today’s Mass) speaks of kings coming from the East bearing gifts of gold and frankincense. However, for the record, the text in today’s Gospel does not call them kings, but rather “magi.”

Yet here is their key identity: they are Gentiles who have been called. Up until this point in the Christmas story, only Jews had found their way to Bethlehem. This detail cannot be overlooked, for it is clear that the Gospel is going out to all the world. This call completes the Church, which needs both Jews and Gentiles.

In today’s second reading, St. Paul rejoices in this fact, saying, the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Eph 3:6). Because most of us are not Jewish by ancestry we ought to rejoice, for the call of these Magi prefigures our call.

Notice that God calls them through something in the natural world: a star. God uses something in creation to call out to them.

We do well to wonder what is the “star” that God uses to call each of us? Perhaps it is Scripture, but more typically God uses someone in our life in order to reach us: a parent, a family member, a friend, a priest, a religious sister, or a devoted lay person. Who are the stars in your life through whom God called you?

God can also use inanimate creation, as he did for these Magi. Perhaps it was a magnificent church, or a beautiful painting, or an inspirational song that reached you. Through something or someone, God calls each of us; He puts a star in our sky. These Wise Men, these Magi, followed the call of God and began their journey to Jesus.

Stage 2: The CONSTANCY that CONQUERS – Upon arriving in Jerusalem, the Magi find a rather confusing and perhaps discouraging situation. The reigning king, Herod, knows nothing of the birth of this new King. The Magi likely assumed that the newborn King would be related to the current king, so Herod’s surprise may have confused them. And Herod seems more than surprised; he seems threatened and agitated.

Even more puzzling, Herod calls in religious leaders to get further information about this new King. They open the sacred writings and the Magi hear of a promised King. Ah, so the birth of this King has religious significance! How interesting!

But these religious leaders seem unenthusiastic about the newborn King, and after providing the location of His birth, make no effort to follow the Magi. There is no rejoicing, no summoning of the people to tell them that a longed-for King has finally been born, not even further inquiry!

So the wicked (Herod and his court) are wakeful while the saints are sleepy. How odd this must have seemed to the Magi! Perhaps they even thought about abandoning their search. After all, the actual king knew nothing of this new King’s birth, and those people who did know about it seemed rather uninterested.

Ah, but praise the Lord, they persevered in their search; they did not give up!

Thanks be to God, too, that many today have found their way to Christ despite the fact that parents, clergy, and others who should have led them to Jesus were either asleep, ignorant, or just plain lazy. I am often amazed at some of the conversion stories I have heard: people who found their way to Christ and His Church despite some pretty daunting obstacles (e.g., poor religious upbringing, scandalous clergy, and poor role models). God sometimes allows our faith and call to be tested, but Those who persevere to the end will be saved (Matt 24:13).

To persevere is to open the door to wisdom, which often must be sought in spite of obstacles. This constancy is often what it takes to overcome the darkness and discouragements of the world.

Stage 3: The CONDESCENSION that CONFESSES – The text says, After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage.

With what little information they have, the Magi set out and continue to follow the call of God through the star.

Note that they enter a “house.” We often think of the Magi as coming that same Christmas night to the cave or stable, but it seems not; Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are now in a house. Apparently they have been able to find decent lodging. Has it been days or weeks since Jesus’ birth? Regardless, it is likely not Christmas Day itself.

Notice, too, that they “prostrate” themselves before Jesus. The Greek word used is προσεκύνησαν (prosekunēsan), which means “to fall down in worship” or “to give adoration.” This word is used twelve times in the New Testament and each time it is clear that religious worship is the reason for the prostration.

This is no minor act of homage or sign of respect to an earthly king; this is religious worship. It is a confession of faith. The Magi manifest faith! The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. And these Magi are well on their way from being mere magi to being wise men!

But is their faith a real faith or just a perfunctory observance? It is not enough to answer an altar call or to get baptized. Faith is never alone; it is a transformative relationship with Jesus Christ. So let’s look for the effects of a real and saving faith.

Stage 4: The COST that COMES – There is a cost to discipleship. The Magi are moved to give three symbolic gifts that show some of what true faith includes. They are costly gifts.

Gold symbolizes all of our possessions. In laying this gift before Jesus, they and we are saying, “I acknowledge that everything I have is yours. I put all my resources and wealth under your authority and will use them only according to your will.” A conversion that has not reached the wallet is not complete.

Frankincense is a resin used in incense and symbolizes the gift of worship. In the Bible, incense is a symbol of prayer and worship (e.g., Psalm 141). In laying down this gift, we promise to pray and worship God all the days of our life, to be in His holy house each Sunday, to render Him the praise and worship He is due, to listen to His word and consent to be fed the Eucharist by Him, to worship Him worthily by frequent confession, and to praise Him at all times.

Myrrh is a strange gift for an infant; it is usually understood as a burial ointment. Surely this prefigures Jesus’ death, but it also symbolizes our own. In laying this gift before Jesus we are saying, “My life is yours. I want to die so that you may live your life in me. May you increase and may I decrease. Use me and my life as you will.”

Yes, these three gifts are highly symbolic.

The Magi manifest more than a little homage to Jesus. They are showing forth the fruits of saving faith. And if we can give these gifts, so are we.

In their holy reverence for God is wisdom in its initial stage!

Stage 5: The CONVERSION that is CLEAR – The text says, And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.

Here, then, is essential evidence for faith: conversion. It is not enough to get “happy” in Church; we have to obey. These Wise Men are walking differently now. They are not going home by the same way they came. They’ve changed direction; they’ve turned around (conversio). They are now willing to walk the straight and narrow path that leads to life rather than the wide road that leads to damnation. They are going to obey Christ. They are going to exhibit what St. Paul calls the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5; 16:26). They have not just engaged in perfunctory worship; they are showing signs of a true and saving faith. They are not just calling out to Jesus, “Lord, Lord!” They are doing what He tells them (cf Luke 6:46).

No longer mere magi, they are now wise men!

So there it is. Through careful stages, the Lord has brought the Gentiles (this means you and me) to conversion. He called these Magi to wisdom. They remained constant, confessed Him to be Lord, accepted the cost of discipleship, and manifested conversion. Have you? Have I?

Walk in the ways of these Wise Men! Wise men still seek Him; even wiser ones listen to and obey Him. Are we willing to go back to our country by another route? Is ongoing conversion part of our journey home to Heaven? Epiphany means “manifestation.” How is our faith made manifest in our deeds and conversion?

I have it on the best of authority that as the (now) Wise Men went home by another route, they were singing this gospel song:

It’s a highway to heaven!
None can walk up there
but the pure in heart.
I am walking up the King’s highway.
If you’re not walking,
start while I’m talking.
There’ll be a blessing
you’ll be possessing,
walking up the King’s highway.

Lessons in Humility from The First Christmas – A Homily For Christmas

Feature-122413The Christmas Gospel from Luke provides us with many teachings. One thing that surely stands out, however, is the permeating theme of humility. Throughout the account, God confounds our prideful expectations and insists on being found in the lowest of places.

The newborn Christ is not found where we expect Him to be nor does His birth conform to any script we would design. Right from the start, He gives us many lessons in humility and begins His saving work of healing our wound of pride. Let’s look at these lessons in four stages.

I. The Procession to the Place In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. So, all went to be enrolled, each to his own town. And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.

There is a sort of “cast of thousands” that leads Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to be in Bethlehem. The distant Caesar Augustus sends out a decree affecting millions. He wants a census taken in order to update his tax rolls. He also likely wants to measure his power and may have military deployments and a draft in mind. Soon enough, dozens of governors deploy thousands of troops to enforce the edict. Even in the small town of Nazareth, a town of barely 300 people, Roman troops enforce the decree. Mary is nine months pregnant, but there will be no exceptions.

For many of us, this offends our sense of what should justly happen. Jesus, who is Lord and Savior, should be born in comfort; Mary should be surrounded by loving family and in the care of midwives.

The first lesson in humility is our surprise and even indignation at the events surrounding Jesus’ birth.

God, however, is neither surprised nor stymied. All this fits into His plan to get Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and all of us to the place of blessing. Whatever evil the Emperor intends, God intends it for good (see Genesis 50:20). The Messiah, it was prophesied, would be called a Nazarene (Matt 2:23), be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), and die in Jerusalem (Lk 13:33). God is setting things in place for the blessing.

And here is the second lesson in humility: Your life is not just about you. You and I are part of something far larger. Just as millions were set on the move at the birth of Christ, so you and I are part of the larger plan and providence of God involving billions of people now living, countless others who have lived, and still others who will live in the future. God sees the bigger picture, yet not one detail is lost to Him. Humility! God has more in mind than our comfort and personal agendas. We are part of something bigger as well.

The third lesson in humility is that God must get us to certain places in order to bless us. And they may be strange places, ones we would not choose. Getting us there may involve hardship for us: disappointment that our own plans have not come through, and the painful loss of places, things, and people we love. Yes, God has blessings waiting for us in strange places, involving circumstances we never imagined.

For Joseph and Mary, the procession to the place called Bethlehem involved hardship. But this procession is necessary for them and for us. Bethlehem was where the blessing would be found—there and no other place. And the same is true for us in so many ways.

God has been good to me and blessed me in ways and in places I never expected or planned. God must get us to certain places in order to bless us. I am and have been blessed; I am a witness.

Don’t miss the procession to the place that opens this Gospel. It is a paradigm for our lives. Where is your Bethlehem? Where does God need to get you in order to unlock your blessings? Are you humble and teachable enough to go there?

Remain humble and don’t quickly despair when the surprises and vicissitudes of life emerge. God may be up to something. He can make a way out of no way and write straight with crooked lines.

II. The Paradox of His PovertyWhile they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Don’t miss the poverty that is manifest here—it is a chosen poverty. St. John Chrysostom said,

Surely if [the Lord] had so willed it, He might have come moving the heavens, making the earth to shake, and shooting forth His thunderbolts; but such was not the way of His going forth; His desire was not to destroy, but to save… And, to trample upon human pride from its very birth, therefore He is not only man, but a poor man, and has chosen a poor mother, who had not even a cradle where she might lay her new born Child; as it follows, and she laid him in the manger (Quoted in the Catena Aurea – Lection 2 ad Luc 2:6).

The paradox of poverty is the fourth lesson in humility! We who are worldly think that poverty is the worst thing, but it is not—pride is the worst thing. And thus the Lord teaches us from the start that greatness and blessings are not found merely in what is high, mighty, pleasant, or pleasing. Blessings are often found in unusual ways and under unexpected circumstances.

The greatest blessing ever bestowed is not found in a palace, or in Bloomindales, or on beachfront property; He is not even found in a cheap Bethlehem inn. He is found in a lowly manger underneath an inn. It is poor and smelly and He rests in a feeding trough. But there He is, in the least expected place, the lowest imaginable circumstances. In this way He confounds our pride and our values.

Are we humble enough to admit this and to stop being so resentful and crestfallen when things don’t measure up exactly to our standards?

He chooses this poverty. Whatever its unpleasant realities, poverty brings a sort of freedom if it is embraced. The poor have less to lose and thus the world has less of a hold on them. What does a poor man have to lose by leaving everything and following Jesus? Wealth has many spiritual risks. It is hard for the rich to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. Wealth is too easily distracting and enslaving. And even knowing all this, we still want it. In choosing poverty, Jesus confounds our pride, greed, lust, and gluttony.

The Lord does not just confound us; He also chooses this to bless us. St. Paul said,

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich (2 Cor 8:9).

He also said,

Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be clung to, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:5).

Bede, the 7th century Church Father, wrote,

He who sits at His Father’s right hand, finds no room in an inn, that He might prepare for us in His Father’s house many mansions; He is born not in His Father’s house, but [under] an inn and by the way side, because through the mystery of the incarnation He was made the way [for us back to our Father’s House] [Catena, Ibidem].

Thank you, Jesus, for the paradoxical perfection of your poverty. Through it you confound our human ways and bless us more richly than we could ever expect! Thank for this lesson in humility.

III. Proclamation to the People Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

The fifth lesson in humility throws into question our overemphasis on politics and worldly power. This section of the nativity narrative serves to strongly remind us that our salvation is not to be found in the statehouse, the courthouse, or the White House. We are not to put our trust in princes. Our salvation is in Jesus, only in Jesus. Are we humble enough to admit this and stop exalting worldly power?

Note that in this Gospel, lots of “emperor words” are used to describe this newborn infant, Jesus. Yet here He is in a lowly manger!

Emperors had heralds that preceded their arrival and summoned their subjects. The infant Jesus has the angel of the Lord to announce Him. Later, this heralding angel will be joined by a “host” of angels. The Emperor Augustus has his Legions, but Jesus has His myriad angels.

The angel also uses words appropriate for an emperor. He says, “I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” This is how the declarations of emperors began. The Greek text makes this even clearer: the angel uses the word εὐαγγελίζομαι (evaggelizomai), which means “I evangelize you,” “I announce good or life changing news.” This word for “evangelize” was associated especially with an edict or announcement from the Emperor. But what the emperors questionably claimed for their edicts is really true with Jesus!

The emperors also claimed the titles “savior” and “lord.” The angel calls Jesus Savior (σωτὴρ – Soter) and Lord (κύριος – Kyrios), and He alone deserves these titles.

Here is the irony that we must humbly accept: this true Lord and Savior, this God of Armies with plenary authority, is not in some palace drinking from goblets and being fanned by slaves. He is lying in a lowly feed box, attended to by animals.

It is a divine comedy. One can almost imagine the shepherds wrinkling their noses or scratching their heads as they hear this great announcement of a King, Savior, Lord and Messiah, and then hearing that He is to be found in a stable, lying in a feeding trough. Perhaps one shepherd said to the other, “Did that angel say ‘manger’?” And another replying, “Yup, a feeding trough.”

It’s a bit anticlimactic! But thank the Lord, they humbly accept the procession that they must now make to the place of true blessing. It is an unexpected place to be sure, but that is where He is to be found. He is King and Lord to be sure, but He is humble and comes to serve and to save. He will wash the feet of the worst sinners and die for the love of them.

Humility!

IV. Praise that is Perfect And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Note the praises of the angels! Who or what could ever match them? They are a multitude. They are perfected in their glory and acclaim God’s praises more gloriously than any human choir could ever hope to do.

Yet even here there is a humility to consider. For the Lord has taken a human nature to Himself, not an angelic one. In the order of creation, angels are far higher and more noble than we are. Their mere appearance overwhelms us and strikes fear in us. Yet to none of these did God ever say, “You are my Son. This day I have begotten you” (See Hebrews 1:5).

God humbly takes up our human nature and bestows on us an astonishing dignity that comes only from Him. It is due to His choice, not our merits. And though the angels can surely praise the Lord in far more glorious way than we, they cannot say, “One of us is God.”

And glorious though the angel’s praise is, there is a perfect praise that only we can give to God. It was beautifully expressed by the poet Christina Rossetti:

Angels and Archangels may have gathered there.
Cherubim and Seraphim thronged the air.
But only his mother in her maiden bliss
could worship the beloved with a kiss.

And thus, our final lesson in humility is to accept that it is our lowliness which the Lord embraced. We have no glory to give that is even close to what the Lord deserves, but a simple kiss will do, a simple act of love. It is our lowly and sinful hearts that the Lord seeks, so as to heal and exalt them. Our palaces, honors, and titles are of no interest or value to Him. It is our humility that pleases Him most, and He desires to meet us there.

Humility!

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.

See What the End Shall Be – A Homily for Palm Sunday

The Passion, which we read in the liturgy for Palm Sunday, is too long to comment on in detail, so we will only examine a portion of it here.

It may be of some value to examine the problems associated with the more moderate range of personalities involved. The usual villains (the Temple leaders, Judas, and the recruited crowd shouting, “Crucify him!”) are unambiguously wicked and display their sinfulness openly. But there are others involved whose struggles and neglectfulness are more subtle, yet no less real. It is in examining these figures that we can learn a great deal about ourselves, who, though we may not openly shout, “Crucify him,” are often not as unambiguously holy and heroic as Jesus’ persecutors are wicked and bold.

As we read the Passion we must understand that this is not merely an account of the behavior of people long gone, they are portraits of you and me; we do these things.

I. The Perception that is Partial – Near the beginning of today’s Passion account, the apostles, who are at the Last Supper with Jesus, are reminded of what the next days will hold. Jesus says,

This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed.” But after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.

Note that the apostles are not being told these things for the first time; Jesus has spoken them before on numerous occasions:

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life (Matt 16:21).

When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief (Matt 17:22-23).

We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life” (Matt 20:18-19).

Thus we see that the Lord has consistently tried to teach and prepare them for the difficulties ahead. He has told them exactly what is going to happen and how it will end: not in death, but rising to new life. But even though He has told them over and over again, they still do not understand. Therefore He predicts that their faith in Him will be shaken.

Their perception is partial. They will see only the negative, forgetting that Jesus has promised to rise. Because they cannot see beyond the apparent defeat of the moment they will retreat into fear rather than boldly and confidently accompanying Him to His passion and glorification (for His passion is a lifting up; it is His glorification). Instead they will flee. He has shown the “what the end shall be,” but they can neither see nor accept it. Thus fear overwhelms them and they withdraw into a sinful fear, dissociating themselves from Jesus. Only a few (Mary, His Mother; John; Mary Magdalene; and a few other women) would see Him through to the end.

As for the rest, they see only what is gory and awful, missing what is glory and awesome. Their perception is quite partial. Paradoxically, their blindness comes from not hearing or listening to what Jesus has been telling them all along.

We, too, can easily suffer from a blindness caused by poor listening. The Lord has often told us that if we trust in Him, then our struggles will end in glory and new life. But, blind and forgetful, we give in to our fears and fail to walk the way of Christ’s passion boldly. We draw back and dissociate ourselves from Jesus, exhibiting some of the same tendencies we will observe in the people of that day.

Next, let’s examine some of the problems that emerge from this partial perception and forgetful fear.

II. The Problems Presented – There are at least five problems that emerge. They are unhealthy and sinful patterns that spring from the fear generated by not trusting Jesus’ vision. Please understand that the word “we” used here is shorthand and does not mean that every single person does this. Rather, it means that collectively we have these tendencies. There’s no need to take everything here personally.

1. They become drowsy – A common human technique for dealing with stress and the hardships of life is to become numb and drowsy; we can just drift off into a sort of moral slumber. Being vigilant against the threat posed to our souls by sin or the harm caused by injustice (whether to ourselves or to others) is just too stressful, so we just “tune out.” We stop noticing or really even caring about critically important matters. We anesthetize ourselves with things like alcohol, drugs, creature comforts, and meaningless distractions. Prayer and spirituality pose too many uncomfortable questions, so we just daydream about meaningless things like what a certain Hollywood star is doing or how the latest sporting event is going.

In the Passion accounts, the Lord asks Peter, James, and John to pray with Him. But they doze off. Perhaps it is the wine. Surely it is the flesh (for the Lord speaks of it). Unwilling or unable to deal with the stress of the situation, they get drowsy and doze off. Grave evil is at the very door, but they sleep. The Lord warns them to stay awake, lest they give way to temptation, but still they sleep. Someone they know and love is in grave danger, but it is too much for them to handle. They tune out, much as we do in the face of the overwhelming suffering of Christ visible in the poor and needy. We just stop noticing; it’s too painful, so we tune out.

The Lord had often warned them to be vigilant, sober, and alert (Mk 13:34, Matt 25:13, Mk 13:37; Matt 24:42; Luke 21:36, inter al). Other Scriptures would later pick up the theme (Romans 13:11; 1 Peter 5:8; 1 Thess 5:6, inter al). Yes, drowsiness is a serious spiritual problem.

Sadly, God described us well when He remarked to Isaiah, Israel’s watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are all mute dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep (Is 56:10).

We do this not only out of laziness, but also out of fear. One strategy is to try to ignore it, to go numb, to tune out. But despite the sleepiness of the disciples, the wicked are still awake; the threat does not go away by a drowsy inattentiveness to it. Thus we ought to be confident and sober. Life’s challenges are nothing to fear. The Lord has told us that we have already won if we will just trust in Him. The disciples have forgotten Jesus’ promise to rise after three days; we often do the same. So they, and we, just give in to the stress and tune out.

2. They seek to destroy – When Peter finally awaken, he lashes out with a sword and wounds Malchus, the servant of the high priest. The Lord rebukes Peter and reminds him of the vision: Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me? (John 18:11) Jesus then heals Malchus, who tradition says later became a follower.

In our fear, we, too, can often lash out and even seek to destroy our opponents. But if we are already certain of our victory, as the Lord has promised, why do we fear? Why do we need to suppress our opponents and enemies ruthlessly? It is one thing to speak the truth in love, boldly and confidently. But it is quite another to lash out aggressively and seek to win a debate. In so doing, we may lose a soul. The Lord healed Malchus, seeing in Him a future disciple. The Lord saw what the end would be. Peter did not. In fear, he lashed out with an aggression that did not bespeak a confidence in final victory.

It is true that we are required to confront evil, resist injustice, and speak with clarity to a confused world. But above all, we are called to love those whom we address. There is little place for fear in our conversations with the world. The truth will out; it will prevail. We may not win every encounter, but we do not have to; all we must do is plant seeds. God will water them and others may well harvest them. In Christ, we have already won. This confidence should give us serenity.

Peter has forgotten Jesus’ promise to rise after three days; we often do the same. So Peter, and we, give in to fear and lash out, driven by a desire to win when in fact we have already won.

3. They deny – Confronted with the fearful prospect of being condemned along with Jesus, Peter denies being one of His followers or even knowing Him at all. He dissociates himself from Christ. And we, confronted with the possibility of far milder things such as ridicule, often deny a connection with the Lord or the Church.

Regarding one of the more controversial Scripture teachings (e.g., the command to tithe; the prohibition against divorce, fornication, and homosexual activity) some might ask, “You don’t really believe that, do you?” It’s very easy to give in to fear and to respond, “No,” or to qualify our belief. Why suffer ridicule, endure further questioning, or be drawn into an unpleasant debate? So we just dissociate from, compromise, or qualify our faith to avoid the stress. We even congratulate ourselves for being tolerant when we do it!

Jesus says, If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels (Mk 8:38). But too easily we are ashamed. And so, like Peter, we engage in some form of denial. Peter is afraid because he has forgotten to “see what the end shall be.” He has forgotten Jesus’ promise to rise after three days; we often do the same. We lack confidence and give in to fear; we deny in order to avoid suffering with Jesus.

4. They dodge – When Jesus is arrested, all the disciples except John “split.” They “get the heck out of Dodge.” They are nowhere to be found. After Jesus’ arrest, it is said that Peter (prior to his denials) followed the Lord at a distance (Mk 14:54). But as soon as trouble arose, he “scrammed.”

We, too, can run away. Sometimes it’s because of persecution by the world. But sometimes it’s our fear that following the Lord is too hard and involves sacrifices that we are just not willing to make. Maybe it will endanger our money (the Lord insists that we tithe and be generous to the poor). Maybe it will endanger our playboy lifestyle (the Lord insists on chastity and respect). Maybe we don’t want to stop doing something that we have no business doing, something that is unjust, excessive, or sinful. But rather than face our fears, whether they come from within or without, we just hightail it out.

The disciples have forgotten that Jesus has shown them “what the end shall be.” In three days, he will win the victory. But, this forgotten, their fears emerge and they run. We too, must see “what the end shall be” in order to confront and resist our many fears.

5. They deflect – In this case our example is Pontius Pilate, not one of the disciples. Pilate was summoned to faith just like anyone else. “Are you a king?” he asks Jesus. Jesus responds by putting Pilate on trial: “Are you saying this on your own or have others been telling you about me?” Pilate has a choice to make: accept that what Jesus is saying as true, or give in to fear and commit a terrible sin of injustice. The various accounts in Scripture all make it clear that Pilate knew Jesus was innocent. But because he feared the crowds he handed Jesus over.

Note that Pilate did this. The crowds tempted him through fear, but he did the condemning. Yet notice that he tries to deflect his choice. The text says, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility” (Mat 27:24). Well actually, Pilate, it is also your responsibility. You had a choice and you made it. Your own career and your own hide were more important to you than justice was. And though you wanted to do what was right and were sympathetic with Jesus, merely wanting to do what is right is not enough.

So, too, for us. We also often favor our career or our hide over doing what is right. And in so doing, we often blame others for what we have freely chosen. “I’m not responsible because my mother dropped me on my head when I was two.”

We are often willing to say, in effect,

“Look, Jesus, I love you. You get my Sundays, and my tithe, and I obey you (generally, anyway). But you have to understand that I have a career; I need to make money for my family. If I really stand up for what’s right, I might not make it in this world. You understand, don’t you? I know the company I work for is doing some things that are unjust. I know the world needs a clearer witness from me. I’ll do all that—after I retire. But for now, well, you know… Besides, it’s really my boss who’s to blame. It’s this old hell-bound, sin-soaked world that’s to blame, not me!”

We try to wash our hands of responsibility. We excuse our silence and inaction in the face of injustice and sin.

And all this is done out of fear. We forget “what the end shall be” and focus on the fearful present. We lack the vision that Jesus is trying to give us: that we will rise with Him. We stay blind to that and only see the threat of the here and now.

III. The Path that is Prescribed – By now you ought to know the path that is prescribed: see what the end shall be. In three days we rise! Why are we afraid? Jesus has already won the victory. It is true that we get there through the cross, but never forget what the end shall be! Today we read the Gospel of Friday, but wait till Sunday morning! I’ll rise!

We end where we began with this Gospel: This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed;’ but after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.

Yes, after He has been raised He goes before us into Galilee. And for us, Galilee is Heaven. Whatever our sorrows, if we are faithful we will see Jesus in the Galilee of Heaven. Never forget this vision. After three days, we will rise with Him and be reunited with Him in the Galilee of Heaven.

So take courage; see what the end shall be! The end for those who are faithful is total victory. We don’t need to drowse, destroy, deny, dodge, or deflect; we’ve already won. All we need to do is to hold out.

I have it on the best of authority that Mother Mary was singing the following gospel song with St. John for a brief time while at the foot of the cross, as they looked past that Friday to the Sunday that was coming:

It’s all right, it’s all right.
My Jesus said he’ll fix it and it’s all right.

Sometimes I’m up sometimes I’m down.
But Jesus he’ll fix it and it’s all right.

Sometimes I’m almost on the ground.
My Jesus said he’ll fix it and it’s all right.

The Journey of Faith – A Homily for Epiphany

There are so many wonderful details in the Epiphany story: the call of the Gentiles, their enthusiastic response, the significance of the star they seek, the gifts they bring, the dramatic interaction with Herod, and their ultimate rejection of Herod in favor of Christ.

In this meditation, I would like to follow these Magi in their journey of faith to become “Wise Men.” As magi, they followed the faint stars, distant points of light; as wise men, they follow Jesus, who is the ever-glorious Light from Light, true God from true God.

We can observe how they journey in stages from the light of a star to the bright and glorious Light of Jesus Christ. And, of course, to authentically encounter the Lord is to experience conversion. All the elements of this story ultimately serve to cause them to “return to their country by another route.” Let’s look at the stages of their journey from being mere magi to becoming, by God’s grace, wise men.

Stage 1: The CALL that COMPLETES – The text says, When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”

Notice the identity of these individuals: they are labeled magi (μάγοι (magoi) in Greek) and are from the East.

Exactly what “magi” are is not clear. Perhaps they are learned men; perhaps they are ancient astronomers. We often think of them as kings, though the text of this passage does not call them that. It also seems likely that Herod would have been far more anxious had they been actual potentates from an Eastern kingdom. We often think of them as kings because Psalm 72 (read in today’s Mass) speaks of kings coming from the East bearing gifts of gold and frankincense. However, for the record, the text in today’s Gospel does not call them kings, but rather “magi.”

Yet here is their key identity: they are Gentiles who have been called. Up until this point in the Christmas story, only Jews had found their way to Bethlehem. This detail cannot be overlooked, for it is clear that the Gospel is going out to all the world. This call completes the Church, which needs both Jews and Gentiles.

In today’s second reading, St. Paul rejoices in this fact, saying, the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Eph 3:6). Because most of us are not Jewish by ancestry we ought to rejoice, for the call of these Magi prefigures our call.

Notice that God calls them through something in the natural world: a star. God uses something in creation to call out to them.

We do well to wonder what is the “star” that God uses to call each of us? Perhaps it is Scripture, but more typically God uses someone in our life in order to reach us: a parent, a family member, a friend, a priest, a religious sister, or a devoted lay person. Who are the stars in your life through whom God called you?

God can also use inanimate creation, as he did for these Magi. Perhaps it was a magnificent church, or a beautiful painting, or an inspirational song that reached you. Through something or someone, God calls each of us; He puts a star in our sky. These Wise Men, these Magi, followed the call of God and began their journey to Jesus.

Stage 2: The CONSTANCY that CONQUERS – Upon arriving in Jerusalem, the Magi find a rather confusing and perhaps discouraging situation. The reigning king, Herod, knows nothing of the birth of this new King. The Magi likely assumed that the newborn King would be related to the current king, so Herod’s surprise may have confused them. And Herod seems more than surprised; he seems threatened and agitated.

Even more puzzling, Herod calls in religious leaders to get further information about this new King. They open the sacred writings and the Magi hear of a promised King. Ah, so the birth of this King has religious significance! How interesting!

But these religious leaders seem unenthusiastic about the newborn King, and after providing the location of His birth, make no effort to follow the Magi. There is no rejoicing, no summoning of the people to tell them that a longed-for King has finally been born, not even further inquiry!

So the wicked (Herod and his court) are wakeful while the saints are sleepy. How odd this must have seemed to the Magi! Perhaps they even thought about abandoning their search. After all, the actual king knew nothing of this new King’s birth, and those people who did know about it seemed rather uninterested.

Ah, but praise the Lord, they persevered in their search; they did not give up!

Thanks be to God, too, that many today have found their way to Christ despite the fact that parents, clergy, and others who should have led them to Jesus were either asleep, ignorant, or just plain lazy. I am often amazed at some of the conversion stories I have heard: people who found their way to Christ and His Church despite some pretty daunting obstacles (e.g., poor religious upbringing, scandalous clergy, and poor role models). God sometimes allows our faith and call to be tested, but Those who persevere to the end will be saved (Matt 24:13).

To persevere is to open the door to wisdom, which often must be sought in spite of obstacles. This constancy is often what it takes to overcome the darkness and discouragements of the world.

Stage 3: The CONDESCENSION that CONFESSES – The text says, After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage.

With what little information they have, the Magi set out and continue to follow the call of God through the star.

Note that they enter a “house.” We often think of the Magi as coming that same Christmas night to the cave or stable, but it seems not; Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are now in a house. Apparently they have been able to find decent lodging. Has it been days or weeks since Jesus’ birth? Regardless, it is likely not Christmas Day itself.

Notice, too, that they “prostrate” themselves before Jesus. The Greek word used is προσεκύνησαν (prosekunēsan), which means “to fall down in worship” or “to give adoration.” This word is used twelve times in the New Testament and each time it is clear that religious worship is the reason for the prostration.

This is no minor act of homage or sign of respect to an earthly king; this is religious worship. It is a confession of faith. The Magi manifest faith! The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. And these Magi are well on their way from being mere magi to being wise men!

But is their faith a real faith or just a perfunctory observance? It is not enough to answer an altar call or to get baptized. Faith is never alone; it is a transformative relationship with Jesus Christ. So let’s look for the effects of a real and saving faith.

Stage 4: The COST that COMES – There is a cost to discipleship. The Magi are moved to give three symbolic gifts that show some of what true faith includes. They are costly gifts.

Gold symbolizes all of our possessions. In laying this gift before Jesus, they and we are saying, “I acknowledge that everything I have is yours. I put all my resources and wealth under your authority and will use them only according to your will.” A conversion that has not reached the wallet is not complete.

Frankincense is a resin used in incense and symbolizes the gift of worship. In the Bible, incense is a symbol of prayer and worship (e.g., Psalm 141). In laying down this gift, we promise to pray and worship God all the days of our life, to be in His holy house each Sunday, to render Him the praise and worship He is due, to listen to His word and consent to be fed the Eucharist by Him, to worship Him worthily by frequent confession, and to praise Him at all times.

Myrrh is a strange gift for an infant; it is usually understood as a burial ointment. Surely this prefigures Jesus’ death, but it also symbolizes our own. In laying this gift before Jesus we are saying, “My life is yours. I want to die so that you may live your life in me. May you increase and may I decrease. Use me and my life as you will.”

Yes, these three gifts are highly symbolic.

The Magi manifest more than a little homage to Jesus. They are showing forth the fruits of saving faith. And if we can give these gifts, so are we.

In their holy reverence for God is wisdom in its initial stage!

Stage 5: The CONVERSION that is CLEAR – The text says, And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.

Here, then, is essential evidence for faith: conversion. It is not enough to get “happy” in Church; we have to obey. These Wise Men are walking differently now. They are not going home by the same way they came. They’ve changed direction; they’ve turned around (conversio). They are now willing to walk the straight and narrow path that leads to life rather than the wide road that leads to damnation. They are going to obey Christ. They are going to exhibit what St. Paul calls the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5; 16:26). They have not just engaged in perfunctory worship; they are showing signs of a true and saving faith. They are not just calling out to Jesus, “Lord, Lord!” They are doing what He tells them (cf Luke 6:46).

No longer mere magi, they are now wise men!

So there it is. Through careful stages, the Lord has brought the Gentiles (this means you and me) to conversion. He called these Magi to wisdom. They remained constant, confessed Him to be Lord, accepted the cost of discipleship, and manifested conversion. Have you? Have I?

Walk in the ways of these Wise Men! Wise men still seek Him; even wiser ones listen to and obey Him. Are we willing to go back to our country by another route? Is ongoing conversion part of our journey home to Heaven? Epiphany means “manifestation.” How is our faith made manifest in our deeds and conversion?

I have it on the best of authority that as the (now) Wise Men went home by another route, they were singing this gospel song:

It’s a highway to heaven!
None can walk up there
but the pure in heart.
I am walking up the King’s highway.
If you’re not walking,
start while I’m talking.
There’ll be a blessing
you’ll be possessing,
walking up the King’s highway.