[Summer may be acumin in, even on Tuesday according to meteorologists, but my fingers are stiff with the chill temperature of the day. So I am taking the easier way out and reposting a version of what you might now call my “annual Trinity Sunday homily.” Actually, I haven’t much more to say that I didn’t say already. So if you were around these parts in 2018, I’ll understand if you skip to the end…]
Trinity Sunday is a difficult feast to preach on – even the name seems abstract and theological, with little to do regarding the struggle and hardship, the quest for love and understanding, the inevitable loss and sorrow of daily life. It’s not too surprising if people wonder what difference it makes how many persons there are in God. (Some of my beginning students think that “person” means “people,” and wonder how there can be three people in one God. It’s hard enough to get three people into an elevator.)
As you might expect, belief in the Trinity has its place in the Christian story, as does the Feast itself that we are celebrating. But it was not until 1331 that Pope John XXII created a feast for the whole Church. He was the same pope who canonized St. Thomas Aquinas, if that helps any.
Devotion to the Blessed Trinity goes back much further, of course. In the third century, the Christians of Alexandria, in Egypt, prayed to the Trinity. But it took a long time for the Church to work out what “Trinity” meant, both for belief and for worship. The word doesn’t appear in the New Testament. It seems that it wasn’t invented until the beginning of the third century in the writings of Tertullian, who also began using the word “Person” in regard to God. He had a way of stirring up trouble. It took the church over a hundred years to work out a language that might make sense of it all.
In the end, around 300 years after that, the Trinitarian theology of the early church represented a great accomplishment — although it’s easy to get lost in all the strange terms. It’s hardly surprising that ordinary people as well as great scholars have done so ever since. (And no, Virginia, St. Patrick did not use a shamrock to explain the Trinity to the heathen Irish. That would have been very bad theology and if he was no great theologian, he was too well versed in scripture and theology to make such a fundamental error.)
“Trinity” is not even mentioned in the conclusion of Matthew’s Gospel with its threefold baptismal formula [Matt 28:19]. No
mention of three persons in one nature or anything of the kind. In the Gospel of John, it even seems that the Trinity is somehow denied — when Jesus says strange things such as: “The Father is Greater than I,” “The Father and I are One,” and “he who sees me sees the Father.” In today’s readings not even St. Paul’s references to Spirit of God, ‘Abba,’ or Christ contain a hint of what might be called Trinitarian doctrine. And yet it is all there, perhaps especially in the Gospel of John, which is actually the most Trinitarian of all.
Thomas Aquinas, who with St Augustine is the most Trinitarian of theologians, makes two especially important points worth considering: first, the Trinity is a mystery, something hidden from the foundation of the world and now made known only by divine revelation. That’s to say that we could never think ourselves to the Trinity, nor can we get to the bottom of it once we accept it as divine revelation — a real mystery is not like a detective novel. The more that is revealed, we find that even more is still hidden from us. We can never uncover all of it. The inner life of God is more than anyone can ever comprehend. As the great St. Augustine said, Those who think they truly understand God know nothing at all. Only those who know they do not know, begin to understand.
The second point St Thomas makes concerns Creation. In all creatures, he says, there is found a trace of the Trinity just because each and all together are the result of God’s wise and loving creation and providence — each exists in its own unique form by which it reflects its origin in its cause and principle. [Summa Theologiae, I, Q. 45, A. 7.] Each creature represents the Word of God as a work of art proceeding from the mind of the Divine artist, and it images the Holy Spirit, as Divine Love, reflecting the order that proceeds from the Divine Will. But human creatures especially reflect the Trinity because in us is found consciousness, intelligence, and love. We are spiritual persons just as God is a trinity of spiritual persons. That which makes us most human also makes us most like God.
Perhaps even more important for Thomas and, I would suggest, us, is what the Trinity of Persons in God is not like: quite a lot of things — in fact everything. It is not like a family, despite the words we use and some hearty but doomed efforts in the very early days of the Church to portray the inner life of God as Father, Mother, and Child – but there is no bigger or smaller, older or younger, orders and obedience, and no wet diapers or tantrums.
The first artistic portrayal of the Trinity is found on a Roman sarcophagus of the 4th century — three bearded gentlemen creating Eve from the body of Adam. But the Trinity is not a committee. There are no votes to be taken, or minutes, no resolutions to be passed, no apologies from absent members, and especially no bungled projects or shredded documents, much less beards. And no bird.
Ultimately, the impression I get of the Holy Trinity is that of a great dance of love in which everything is perfect action and perfect poise. No one stumbles, no one falls, no one steps on anyone’s toes. It’s not beside the point to note that when those early theologians looked for a term to describe the inner dynamism of the shared nature of the three Persons, they used the Greek word ‘perichoresis,’ which means “to dance around.” In any case, the Holy and Blessed Trinity is a model for us, a model of community in perfect accord, of individuality and perfect acceptance of otherness without division, a model of total understanding and love. And the Universe as a whole is nothing less than a great mirror of this perfection. Perhaps that is why everything in the universe – stars, planets, comets, galaxies, and the great cosmos itself all revolve…
But the dancing universe still does not give us the Trinity — in the end, it is Jesus who gives us the Trinity. The Trinity is in this sense a Christological doctrine — it shows us why we can say that God was present in Christ, that Jesus and the Father are one, but that the Father is greater than He, and that he who sees Jesus sees the Father.
For Jesus was, we believe and profess, fully God but not wholly God, the Incarnate Word of God, not the Incarnate Father, not the Incarnate Spirit of Love. Jesus is our way in truth to the Father in the Holy Spirit.
To believe Jesus, to believe IN Jesus, requires some way of speaking about God before and beyond our speech about Jesus. That is why, however foundational it proved to be, the Trinity is not the central doctrine of Christian revelation. It expresses what had to be the case for Jesus to be what he said, to do what he did, to give himself for us and, in our Eucharist, still to give himself to us completely as the very life of our life. It comes at the end, not the beginning of our pondering.
And so it is that celebrating communion with each other — with all others — is the most fitting way to acknowledge our belief in God as three in one and one in three, a perfect inter-communion of Persons, whose everlasting supper party is our goal and destiny. Let us pray that God will make sure we get there, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Tonight, after Vespers, the paschal candle will be snuffed out, bringing to a close the great Easter cycle of celebrations that began fifty days ago. It will be rekindled on special occasions, such as baptisms and burials, a reminder that the Spirit of God, while not visible has not departed.
The world has changed in these fifty days, not entirely for the better to be sure, but our faith tells us that no matter how we grieve the Spirit by our violence, rapacity, and carelessness, the tender, life-giving breath of God lives and plays among us in unseen ways, bringing life and hope to a world sorely in need of them. But that is now our mission as well.
The readings open with Luke’s account of the Coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples, gathered with Mary, Jesus’ mother, in the upper room. It is perhaps not surprising that Luke, whose account of the good news begins with an angelic annunciation to Mary when she was hardly more than a child, reaches a climax in her presence – the last we hear of her by name in the gospel tradition. She, who birthed the Messiah, is now present as the ‘ecclesia,’ the church, is born. It is more than fitting.
The gospel is taken from the Gospel of John, when Jesus, risen from the dead, manifests himself to gathered disciples. He breathes on them and endows them with the Holy Spirit, first of all to forgive and also to resist sin and evil. Breath, we know well by now, is the English word for ‘pneuma’ in Greek and ‘ruach’ in Hebrew, the words used to signify God’s creating and healing presence in the world, and, importantly, in us. These are also words for ‘wind,’ something Luke uses to great effect in his account of events on the Jewish feast of Pentecost, the fiftieth day after Passover. Anyone who has ever had the wind knocked out of them will grasp the connection.
God’s breath, whether gentle or mighty, brings Creation to life, animating and reviving. These great words come to signify life itself, as we sang in today’s response:
O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
These all look to you to give them their food in due season;
when you give to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the earth. [Ps 104:24-30]
The earth. ‘Adamah’ the Hebrew has here, which also roots the name of the first human. ‘Adamah’ signifies a specific area of earth, the land, the ground, we would say, not the whole earth [‘erets’ – Gen. 2:7]. St. Paul will later use the imagery in his account of the meaning of the Incarnation [1 Cor 15:47]. In this time of environmental crisis, it is theme worth reflecting and acting on!
If the world is no better than it was fifty days ago, if the awful slide toward social violence and the excoriation of Nature itself has not lessened, that is not because of the Spirit’s absence, but our failure to hear that gentle voice, to feel the warming presence in our hearts, to act boldly and lovingly in this world. As the Spirit God once moved over the primordial chaos, bringing order and life to the world, so that Spirit will enliven and heal Creation now through us if we heed that presence within us and still within the living planet itself. And so we can and must still pray,
Come, Holy Ghost, Creator, come
from thy bright heav’nly throne;
come, take possession of our souls,
and make them all thine own.
Thou who art called the Paraclete,
best gift of God above,
the living spring, the living fire,
sweet unction and true love.
Today, as the Holy Land finds itself again embroiled in savage and indiscriminate slaughter, many Christians are celebrating the Ascension of Jesus. Formerly known as Ascension Thursday, it was moved to the following Sunday by the Conference of Bishops for pastoral reasons. It signals the culminating event of the Easter cycle next Sunday, the Feast of Pentecost. In some respects, it is a difficult subject for a homily because the scriptural accounts are definitely a scramble of variant texts. This may be appropriate for such an astounding claim, much like the various descriptions of the appearances of Jesus after the Resurrection. Mark’s gospel is the most elusive of all, as the brief reference appears in the “second ending” of his gospel, a text that seems to have been added and altered years after its composition. It is also tantalizing short.
That is a fundamentally a matter for scripture scholars to worry over. From very early times, Christians simply affirmed “We believe… that he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father, and will come again to judge the living and the dead.” These three events seem to have been linked from the very earliest times: the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the Return of Jesus in glory. We live between the second and third of these events in the world to whom the good news of salvation was to be preached. That world often seems not to care and may resist, but that is reason enough for Mark to add his postscript about surviving potentially lethal obstacles. For the Spirit of Jesus will be with his followers, his preachers, confirming their message.
We are left, however, wondering like the disciples on that hillside outside Jerusalem, what does it all mean? Where did Jesus go? Somewhere up in the sky, beyond the clouds?
Centuries ago, perhaps even decades ago, the idea would not have seemed absurd. Heaven didn’t seem so far away. Thanks to the reach of today’s incredibly powerful telescopes and space probes, we now live in a much vaster universe, bounded not by clouds and even the daily routines of the sun and moon, but galaxies and mind-boggling galaxies of galaxies. For anyone alert to the challenge of finding heaven, it is more important than ever to understand clearly what Christians believe and what that belief means.
A good place to start is by paying attention to the exasperated question of the two otherworldly figures who appear rather suddenly in Luke’s account: “Why do you stand here looking up at the skies?” God dwells in Light, and that realm is not a place, it is everywhere.
The Ascension does not mean that Jesus went into orbit like some ancient astronaut. Luke says, simply, “a cloud hid him from their sight.” Rather, the Ascension affirms the cosmic sovereignty of Christ. It means that Jesus, raised from the dead and exalted by God, has fully entered into the fundamental reality of Creation itself. The author of the letter to the Ephesians makes the astounding claim that Jesus is now co-extensive with the universe itself. God, he says, “has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” [Eph. 1:22-23].
This is the famous ‘pleroma’ (fullness, completeness) passage, which one translation has as “the fullness of him who fills the universe in all its parts.” However we interpret it, clearly the author portrays Christ as universal Lord, majestic in triumph over every cosmic force and principle, over the angels and every spiritual power. To celebrate the Ascension is to affirm that Jesus has become Lord of the Cosmos.
As I have said before on this great feast (and I haven’t found any reason to change my mind), the meaning of the Ascension is the completion of the paschal mystery, the return of Jesus to the heart of God, the triumph of innocence over the guilt of the world, the final victory of life over death, of grace over sin. It is the culminating moment of the passage of Christ to the Father, but also of salvation history itself. Yet the Ascension is also preparation and prelude, the necessary movement prior to the descent of the Spirit, the beginning of the transformation of the world’s history and its very structure, a spiritual transformation leading to universal jubilation.
Jesus has not gone away anywhere. He is present everywhere, hidden from our sight only by clouds of inattention. Like those bewildered disciples on the hillside, we tend to look in the wrong places or we simply look wrongly. When we see with the eyes of faith, or, as St. Paul had it, “having the eyes of our hearts enlightened,” we see him in a myriad of ways, as the poet insists,
I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.
I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice-and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words.
All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree.
Mother’s Day dawned here on a chilly, drizzly morning, but that didn’t matter to the thousands of mothers and their children who at last are able to see each other again, to hug, and kiss each other’s cheeks. For those of us who have lost our mothers, it is a time to remember and reflect, and to share of the joy of reunion as the pall of separation is gradually lifted from the lives of those under the threat of pandemic. Today, more than ever, we see, and touch, and feel the mighty power and tender touch of love, the strongest force in the universe.
Fittingly, the readings for this sixth Sunday of Easter are about acceptance, love, and union. This is especially true in the second and third readings, which
reflect on the great love that God has shown in the life, ministry, and death of Jesus. And Jesus charges us, as we heard, to love as God loves and whom God loves – fully, without stint or measure. And thus to save the world.
The opening story of the welcome of the Roman centurion Cornelius and his whole household into the community of faith shows us how God’s love joins together differing peoples into one great household of salvation. In Peter’s words, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him … he is Lord of all.” [Acts 10:34-36]. Divine love includes all human beings regardless of race, national origin, gender, social class, or any other barrier that people set up that creates division. As we are commanded to do likewise.
Today’s second reading and the gospel are specifically about love — God’s love for us manifested in the love of Jesus so wonderfully portrayed in the long farewell discourse during his Last Supper with his friends.
Throughout scripture, God’s love is likened to that of a mother concerned for her children. One of the most endearing passages comes from the Book of Isaiah where the voice of God promises, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” [Isaiah 49:15]. Jesus also compared himself to a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings to protect them [Matthew 23:37].
In the fourteenth century, the anonymous mystic we call Julian of Norwich, who was, by the way, the first woman to write a book in English, wrote simply enough in her great work, Revelations of Divine Love, “As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother” [Chapter 59].
That should be a steadying idea, a wonderful source of hope for us on this Mothers’ Day, and throughout the world. At some point today, we should offer a prayer for the mothers in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Palestine, and Myanmar who stand every day outside the prisons where sons and daughters, husbands, fathers, and even mothers themselves languish for months without contact with their loved ones or access to legal counsel, or even international agencies. And we should think of the mothers of our own soldiers who wait daily, praying that their children and husbands will be safe, that they will escape the physical and spiritual horrors of war. We should also bear in our hearts the love as well as the sorrow of the multitude of mothers in our own land who daily bury their children killed by gun violence.
And on this Mother’s Day, so long anticipated as this nation and much of the world begins its emergence from the long night of pandemic, we should not forget our original mother, Nature herself – “Mother Nature” to whom the whole world of living creatures owes for its existence. The description of Nature as our mother has a long history, one that was abruptly curtailed in Western Europe with the beginning of the Industrial Age, when Creation was increasingly denuded of its maternal attributes, exploited, ravaged, and rendered less and less hospitable to life. And her children continue to inflict grave harm on mothering Nature by the industrial poisoning of the land, seas and air, causing potentially irreversible global climate change, and the likely onset of the Sixth Great Extinction of living species on earth.
Humanity and all the other creatures on Earth are paying a terrible price for our callowness and rapacity. And the cost will only go up unless we act globally and swiftly. We can do better. Much, much better. And we must. Like our own mothers, Nature deserves and sometimes demands respect and protection. Humanity stands at a great crossroads in that respect — just as the many mothers of our own land and throughout the battle-torn and violent world require and deserve justice.
The message of Easter and the Easter season now drawing to a close remains simple but far, it seems, from the desperate grasp of far too many mothers: “Death shall have no dominion.” For all our mothers and for the Earth, we can and must give life, restoring those values that we associate with this sweetest of days – care, peace, hope, love, and beauty. Then we will all have a truly Happy Mother’s Day.
Today’s gospel reading is taken from Jesus’ long exhortation to his disciples at the Last Supper, one of the great Johannine parables or similes about his relationship to his followers. Jesus portrays himself as the central, supportive part of the vine that supports and nourishes the rest. Much has been made of his comparison, and much more will undoubtedly be said.
Familiarity has robbed us of the oddness of the comparison. Jesus seems to have been fond of depicting himself and his relationship to his followers in sometimes unusual ways — as a corral gate, an oil lamp, bread, water, or more conventionally to Jewish ears, a shepherd. But the grapevine had particular meaning in Judaism.
Beginning with the book of Genesis, Israel itself was compared to a grapevine. The prophets, Isaiah in particular, created a number of parables, some about the vineyard itself, some about the vine, some about the gardeners, but always about Israel and her relationship to God. Jesus continued that tradition with several parables, especially about the workers in the vineyard. But here, there is a difference. Now, Jesus himself is the vine, and we are his branches, drawing life and productivity from our union with him.
In the second reading, the writer tells us that we are to love one another as Jesus commanded us. Love holds us together, it makes us one, it is the life flowing through all the members of the community, it is in fact the Holy Spirit at work in each of us because we are part of the whole of us. It is the Holy Spirit of Love, the Spirit of Jesus himself, that makes our lives effective, that brings our good works to fruition. John says, finally, it is from the presence of the Spirit of Love that we know Jesus remains with us.
The shared love Jesus promises is nourished and perpetuated by communion with each other. It is surely no accident that this great discourse is taken from the account of the Last Supper in which Jesus says, simply, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” [John 13:34-35] That commandment and the bond of our love, our unity is the Eucharist, the bread Jesus was about to give for the life of the world [John 6:51-58].
Once again we are hearing episcopal threats of withholding eucharistic communion from those holding problematic views in the political realm, something that especially arises when Catholics rise to political leadership roles. Such threats were made to so excommunicate President John Kennedy, his brother Ted, Geraldine Ferraro, John Kerry, Patrick Kennedy. and now Joe Biden, usually over the fraught issue of abortion.
Withholding the Eucharist to force Catholic politicians to submit to ecclesiastical pressure and in effect to violate their oaths of office and consciences is equivalent to spiritual terrorism, the prospect of which has so alarmed generations of Protestant and other Americans who fear untoward interference in American politics by “Rome.” Suspicion of what was regarded as inevitable ecclesiastical coercion played a large part in the defeat of Al Smith, the first Catholic candidate for presidential office in 1924. That hoary suspicion is not allayed by reiterations today of episcopal demands and threatened punishment by excommunication.
Opposition to abortion is not limited to Catholics of course. And while many Catholics are fundamentally opposed to abortion, as I am, it remains an extremely complex issue morally and politically. Shibboleths and loyalty oaths will not resolve the problems. Neither will weaponizing the Eucharist.
As with his image of the good shepherd, Jesus portrays himself as the true vine, the real vine, the source of everlasting life, Israel itself. Whatever threatens to disrupt our unity as members of his body, threatens our unity with him. If we create divisive issues about the rich and poor, those of different races, so-called illegal immigrants, or anyone else of whom we disapprove or differ from, we are to that extent no longer sharing the same life and love that is the sign of the presence of Christ’s Holy Spirit. That is a much deeper and more tragic “excommunication.” What makes us one with Jesus, makes us one with each other. When we forget that, we wither and fall away or get cut back.
And that takes us back to the first reading, which, at the end, describes what happened when the Spirit of Christ transformed Saul of Tarsus, the enemy of the Church, into Paul, the greatest missionary the church has ever seen. The church, Luke says, was then at peace, making steady progress in the fear of the Lord, and enjoyed the consolation of the Holy Spirit [Acts 9:31]. Here, surely, we hear advance echoes of the great feast of Pentecost which is coming soon.
On this Mother’s Day, let us pray that our community, our nation, and the wider world too, will continue to strive to overcome whatever divisions threaten that unity, and so become a living vineyard of true friends, animated by the loving Spirit of Jesus living within us and among us.