Sunday, May 27, 2018

Trinity Sunday

                                    The Most Holy Trinity 

                                   

*** see note
           
On Trinity Sunday one is reminded of the great saint and philosopher, St. Augustine. There is a well-known story that one day Augustine was thinking about the Trinity while walking upon the seashore. He came upon a little boy who was busy emptying pails of water into a hole he had dug upon the beach. Augustine asked him what he was doing, and the boy replied that he was trying to empty the sea into the hole. When Augustine told the boy that he was attempting the impossible, the boy replied that Augustine in trying to understand the mystery of the Trinity was also attempting the impossible.

Nevertheless, the boy's advice did not stop Augustine from writing a treatise on the Trinity. Nor has it stopped theologians and homilists from writing millions of words about the Trinity ever since. None of these words would ever have been written if our Lord had not repeatedly referred to the Trinity during His time on earth. The Church did not invent the idea of the Holy Trinity, our Lord did.

For example, in today’s gospel passage from the final episode of St. Matthew’s gospel Jesus explicitly refers to the Trinity. Jesus has risen from the dead and now, before his ascension to heaven, he gives the disciples their marching orders.

Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,
Baptizing them in the name of the Father,
And of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…

These words we repeat practically every day when we make the Sign of the Cross.

If Jesus had not uttered these words or referred to the Father and the Spirit on so many occasions we would never have come to the idea of three persons in one God by the use of reason alone. Reason had led even the pagan philosophers to conclude that the many gods of antiquity were fraudulent, even comical. Reason had led them to conclude, even before the time of Christ, that there could only be one God. Of course, the Jews had come to this realization even before the philosophers.

Still, only the words of Jesus opened up the idea that this one God contained three Divine Persons. Let's pause for a minute and consider the meaning of the word "person." The Latin word "persona" means the mask or masks that ancient actors wore to express different characters or emotions. We've all seen pictures of these masks, some with smiles and others with frowns, which the actors held over their faces while playing their roles. It's similar to the way our TV newsmen will look glum while reporting a tragic story but then smile when the next story deals with the rescue of a cat from a tree.

We often today think of our "personality" or "persona" as something different from ourselves. No matter what we are like inside, our personality is the way we appear to the world outside of us. Looking at it this way, couldn't we say that there are many persons in any one of us. A man could be a husband to his wife, a father to his children, a son to his own parents, a friend to his friend, etc. A woman would not be the same person to her husband as she is to her children, or her parents, or her friends.

Certainly Jesus meant much more when He talked about the relationship of the Persons of the Trinity. And I don't mean to suggest that God wears masks. I am merely saying that He has chosen to appear to us in different ways. I know that this is not a scientific explanation but if we consider the Trinity, we will see that our Lord is telling us that it is possible to have a warmer, more intimate relationship with God than our reason could ever imagine. Just imagine that the same God who created not only this world but also all the worlds keeps them in existence by love alone. He actually came into our world as one of us. Then after He suffered, died, and rose from the dead, He sent His own Spirit to dwell in us and guide us.

Some poor heretics throughout history have been unable to accept this divine intimacy. For some Jesus was God but never truly a man. How could God lower Himself in such a way?  For others, Jesus was a good man but certainly not God. How could a man be God?
We say, however, that what kind of a God would it be who couldn't do it, or who wouldn't do it?

Who would want a different God? God is not a white haired old man sitting on some mountaintop waiting to zap us with lightning bolts when we do wrong. He is not some force of nature that guides our evolutionary progress. Neither is He some kind of unconcerned creator who made the world and then ignored it. St. John tells us that God is Love. The Book of Proverbs says that God "found delight with the human race." Our creed tells us that God sent His Son to be one of us, and to suffer and die for us.

In today’s second reading from the letter to the Romans, St. Paul says that our hope is in the Trinity.

            The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit
            That we are children of God,
And if children, then heirs,
Heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ,
If only we suffer with him
So that we may also be glorified with him.


            We have a mystical relationship with the Trinity. Because of the Trinity we can with Jesus call God, "Abba" or "Father." We can call Jesus, "our brother." Finally, we can say that the Spirit of God lives not in the faraway heavens, but in our very selves. 

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*** I mean no irreverence by the image attached to this post.  Artists have had a very difficult time in depicting the Trinity. The image of God the Father as an old white haired man is hardly appropriate, and so is the image of the Holy Spirit as a bird.At least the makers of three-in-one oil claim that the same oil can do three different things.

Reading 1. Deuteronomy 4: 32-34, 39-40
Reading II. Romans 8: 14-17
Gospel. Matthew 28: 16-20 (make disciples of all nations)

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Receive the Holy Spirit

                                    Pentecost
                                   

Pentecost
Assumption Church Window
Fairfield CT *


In today's first reading from the Acts of the Apostles St. Luke gives us the well known account of the extraordinary appearance of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles in the upper room. The Apostles had gathered together for the Jewish feast of Pentecost, a feast which commemorated the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. 

Next week we will celebrate the feast of the Holy Trinity but today's feast is about the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Let's start out by clearing up a few misconceptions that some of us may have about the Holy Spirit. First of all, the Spirit is not a bird. I know that the traditional image of a dove given us by Christian artists is probably ingrained in all of us. It is hard to portray a purely spiritual being in art for a spirit has no body to paint or sculpt. In one gospel passage the movement of the Holy Spirit is likened to the fluttering flight of a dove and so I guess the early artists used the dove as a kind of artistic shorthand.

Speaking about images I have to confess that as a child I thought that the "tongues as of fire" that rested on the Apostles at Pentecost were actually human tongues on fire. It took me years before I realized that the "tongues" were actually similar to the darting flames that we would see in our own fireplaces. Also back then it was more common to refer to the Holy Spirit as the Holy Ghost, which only conjured up images from Abbott and Costello movies.

But in today's readings we see that although we cannot see or feel or hear the Spirit of God, It dwells in us and works through us. St. Luke says of the Apostles that "they were all filled with the Holy Spirit."

So who or what is the Holy Spirit? First, let's think about the word spirit. In my bedroom there is a picture of me as an infant. Next to it is a picture of me as a young man taken a short while after my wedding day. Next to that I can look into the mirror and behold a senior citizen. Which of these three pictures is me? I guess that even though I look different they all are me. In other words my "spirit" is in all of them. My spirit is the real me. Another word for spirit is "soul," a word that is somewhat out of fashion today.

So when Jesus, on the evening of that Easter Sunday when he rose from the dead, breathed on the Apostles, and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit," He was giving them His own self or spirit. He also makes it clear that He is sending them to continue the work that His Father had sent Him to do. "As the Father has sent Me, so I send you." His Spirit will give them the strength and courage to continue the work.

Fifty days later He comes to them again in the roaring wind and in tongues of fire.

If we can't see or feel or hear the Spirit, how do we know that He dwells in us? As Christians we have to learn to read the signs. Just as the shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe knew that there were other men on his lonely island when he beheld their footprints, we will know the Spirit by His signs. St. Paul says in the letter to the Corinthians,

            There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Lord;
            there are different workings but the same God
            who produces all of them in everyone.

Then, talking to us as well as to the Corinthians, Paul says that to "each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit." In other words we all have a role to play in bringing the Spirit of God to each other.

What are the signs that the Spirit dwells in us? In years past we used to speak of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. If you pick a fruit from a tree and it tastes and smells and feels like an apple, then you can conclude that it's an apple tree. The same goes for a peach or pear tree. In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul lists the fruits or signs of the Spirit as charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, chastity." Some of these words might sound strange to us today but we surely get the general idea. Who would not want to receive the Holy Spirit? Would we want to be uncharitable, miserable, quarrelsome, impatient, malicious, bad, mean-spirited, offensive, unfaithful, immodest, wasteful, or promiscuous?

We don't need miraculous, mystical, or ghostly experiences to encounter the Spirit today. After all, we have all received the Spirit at Confirmation. Right after Pentecost the Apostles saw that it was necessary not only to preach the Word but also to lay their hands on all the baptized in order that the Spirit might dwell in them.  Generation after generation have continued this practice. Every confirmation is a kind of Pentecost.

Even though the Apostles had walked with the Lord and had seen His Risen Body, they still needed to receive His Spirit before they could leave the upper room and go out and face the world. St. Paul says the same for us.

            For those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
            For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear,
            but you received a Spirit of adoption,
            through whom we cry, "Abba, Father”!


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*Image by Melissa DeStefano. Click on image to enlarge.

Reading 1.  Acts 2: 1-11
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 12: 3b-7, 12-13
Gospel. John 20: 19-23. (Recive the Holy Spirit).

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Apostolic Ministry

                                    7th Sunday of Easter
                                    




On this seventh Sunday of Easter we are in a kind of limbo. Last Thursday we celebrated the feast of the Ascension of the Lord into Heaven. But his Spirit will not come to us into next Sunday at Pentecost. For the nine days between the Ascension of the Lord and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost the Apostles were alone. These nine days are commemorated in our word “novena” that simply means “nine.” Nevertheless, the Church uses this week to present us with one of the most important of all lessons.

But it is safe to say that the Apostles, just like ourselves, were never alone or deserted. We get an example in today’s first reading. The Apostles are trying to decide on a replacement for Judas, the one who betrayed the Lord. They understand that the successor must come from the ranks of those who have followed Jesus from the beginning.

Therefore, it is necessary that one of the men
Who accompanied us the whole time
The Lord Jesus came and went among us,
Beginning from the baptism of John
Until the day on which he was taken up from us,
Become with us a witness to his resurrection.

It’s good to know that there were others in addition to the Twelve who had followed Jesus and remained faithful from the beginning. Most of their names have been lost to history as most of our names will be. Nevertheless, there are two in their midst who fit the bill: Judas, called Barsabbas or Justus, and Matthias. Rather then take a vote the Apostles prayed and decided to leave the choice up to the Lord by drawing lots. They didn’t believe that they were leaving things up to chance but left it to the Lord to choose between the two qualified candidates. Although Matthias was chosen, one had to suspect that the other was still going to continue in the service of the Lord.

In today’s gospel Jesus makes known how dear the Apostles were to him. It is obvious that he regarded them as his special responsibility. In a prayer he addresses to the Father, he says,

When I was with them I protected them in your name that you have given me,
And I guarded them, and none of them was lost except the son of destruction.

Son of destruction refers to Judas, the one whose place was filled in today’s first reading.

We usually think of the bishops of the Church as the successors of the Apostles, but whenever we hear of the twelve Apostles we should also think of ourselves as their successors. Just as Matthias was chosen by God to succeed Judas we should also consider ourselves chosen by God to carry on his work.

Last Thursday we celebrated the feast of the Ascension of our Lord. Just before he departed from his disciples Jesus told them:

Go into the whole world
And proclaim the gospel to every creature.

We must understand that it is not just up to the Pope or bishops to carry on the work of the Apostles. In today’s second reading St. John makes it clear that we are all called to be apostles.

Beloved, if God so loved us,
We also must love one another.
No one has ever seen God,
Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us,
And his love is brought to perfection in us.

Today is Mother’s day and there is no greater love than the love of a mother for her children even when those children are no longer children. When our mothers took upon themselves the responsibility to care for us, they said yes to a life of self-sacrifice. They said yes just as Mary did at the Annunciation. It might not be fashionable to use the word “handmaid” of the Lord anymore, but when we think of our mothers or look around at all the mothers in church, we can really behold handmaids of the Lord. Mothers are true successors of the Apostles.


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Reading 1. Acts 1: 15-17, 20a, 20c-26
Reading II. I John 4: 11-16
Gospel. John 17: 11b-19 (I sent them into the world)