Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Most Holy Trinity


The Most Holy Trinity

                                   


           
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 along 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 the 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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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 24, 2015

Pentecost Sunday

                                    Pentecost
                                  

Descent of the Holy Spirit
Stained Glass Window
Assumption Church
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”!

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


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

Monday, May 11, 2015

Love One Another

                                    6th Sunday of Easter
                                  

Stained Glass Window
Assumption Church
Fairfield CT*



Today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles contains one of the most important passages in all of Holy Scripture. The Roman centurion Cornelius, a Gentile but a god-fearing man had sent messengers to summon Peter to his house. Before the messengers arrived Peter had a vision in which God had shown him that no one, whatever their race or nation, could be called unclean or unworthy. When Peter arrived at the home of Cornelius, he realized that the vision had meant that he could share a meal with a non-Jewish person. He says,

In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightlyIs acceptable to him.

Is that all there is to it? Do we just have to fear God and act uprightly? What does it mean to fear God? Maybe, respect is a better word. But how do we respect God and act uprightly?  Today’s gospel provides the answer. This passage is taken from the last words of Jesus to his disciples before his Passion and Death. Last week, he referred to Himself as the vine and told us to remain attached to Him like the branches of the vine. This week he tells us that the way to remain attached to Him is to keep his commandments.

If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love,Just as I have kept my Father’s commandmentsAnd remain in his love.

Ordinarily, we don’t like commandments. We get our backs up at a long list of do’s and don’ts. But the commandment of Jesus seems remarkably simple.

This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.No one has greater love than this,To lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

It is true that Jesus is predicting his own suffering and death in this passage but I don’t think he is saying that we all have to suffer a cruel persecution like so many Christian martyrs suffer even in our own time. He is saying that his disciples will have to lead of life of selflessness, not selfishness. If we want to love Him, we will have to love one another. Throughout the gospels Jesus deflects our love to our neighbor.

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.

In today’s second reading from the first letter of John we are again told that to fear God and live uprightly means simply to love one another, especially those entrusted to our care.

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God…


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* Image by Melissa DeStefano

Reading 1. Acts 10: 25-26, 34-35, 44-48
Reading II. I John 4: 7-10
Gospel. John 15: 9-17 (love one another)

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Vine and the Branches

                                    5th Sunday of Easter
                                  



In the three Sundays following Easter the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles has mainly followed the activity of Peter. However, the first reading this week introduces the Apostle Paul. In today’s reading we hear that after his conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul returned to Jerusalem to join the disciples of the Lord but did not receive a warm reception.

Because of his past activity as a persecutor of the Church, the disciples “were all afraid of him” and did not believe that he was a true disciple. Only after Barnabas introduced Paul to the apostles and told them of all that Paul had done, did the apostles welcome him into their midst. Paul had seen the Risen Lord, spoken to Him, and “spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus.” The fruits or results of Paul’s conversion were obvious.

Today’s gospel is also about bearing good fruit or getting good results. Jesus compares Himself to a vine.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.
He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit,
And every one that does he prunes so that it may bear more fruit.

So, just as in the case of St. Paul it is not just a matter of saying we believe in Jesus, we must show the results. Jesus says that He and His Spirit will be in His followers and that we will bear fruit even if sometimes we don’t seem to realize it. What are the fruits of the spirit of God? It is clear that Jesus is not talking about grapes, or apples or oranges. In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul gave a partial list.

But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Our tradition has expanded the list a little. Charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, and chastity.

To get a better idea, let’s just consider the opposites. Are we uncharitable? Do we lack joy, or fail to find joy in our lives or the lives of others? Do we possess inner peace, or are we full of anxiety? Are we impatient or easily fly off the handle? Do we fail to exhibit kindness or goodness to others? Are we generous not just with our money but with our time and compassion? Do we sometimes fail to be gentle with even those we love the most? Are we unfaithful? Can others rely on us to keep our word? Has popular culture made us insensitive to immodesty? Rather than self-control do we put the gratification of our selves and our desires ahead of everything else? Finally, do we lack chastity in thought, word and deed?

It is not easy to bear such good fruit and we all need help, even if it involves a constant pruning or cutting back on the things that can easily consume our lives. Look at the effort modern wine growers expend on their vines and vineyards. They must constantly work to keep them free of pests or disease that will destroy them from within. The vines must be properly fed and watered. Even after all their efforts. bad weather can ruin all.

But if we can exhibit the fruit of the Holy Spirit even to a small degree, we can be sure that Jesus is working in us. It might be hard to remember Paul’s whole list but in today’s second reading, Saint John sums it up in one word: Love.

And his commandment is this;
We should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ,
And love one another just as he commanded us.
Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them,
And the way we know that he remains in us
Is from the Spirit he gave us.


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Reading 1. Acts 9: 26-31
Reading II. 1 John 3: 18-24
Gospel. John 15: 1-8 (the Vine and the Branches)