Today’s liturgical celebration finds us caught in turbulent wake of the controversial and split Supreme Court decision on Friday in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, reversing the judgment issued 49 years ago in Roe v. Wade, which was reaffirmed and later modified in additional rulings. Protests and celebrations ensued, sometimes leading to violent confrontations. The ruling and its aftermath will surely worsen the serious and stressing rifts that are increasingly dividing the American people against each other as noted widely in the world press, making front page headlines here in Ireland and elsewhere.
It is premature to expect healing, but since the end of America’s bitter civil war national healing has never been so sorely needed, given these perilous times, fraught with war, natural disasters, social unrest, and a global climate disaster advancing inexorably in the face of inadequate international response. St. Paul’s exhortation to his hotheaded Christian converts in Galatia is certainly to the point: “… the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (Gal 5:14-15).
On Saturday, Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich issued a carefully worded and nuanced response, particularly in light of the “seamless garment” of Catholic teaching advanced especially by his predecessor, Cardinal Bernardin [https://www.archchicago.org/en/statement/-/article/2022/06/24/statement-of-cardinal-blase-j-cupich-archbishop-of-chicago-on-the-supreme-court-s-decision-in-dobbs-v-jackson-women-s-health-organization]. Cupich began by reiterating the Church’s traditional teaching on the obligation to protect human life in the womb, but, he added importantly, of “promoting human dignity at all stages of life.” He emphasized our responsibility to support women throughout their pregnancies, but crucially “after the birth of their children” and to “support families, particularly those in need.”
The reminder that in the often vitriolic disputes over abortion and human rights, we become so narrowly focused that the wider situation and our responsibilities to protect and support all life are easily overlooked. The Catholic position, and that of many other faiths and religious traditions, is founded on the belief that “every human life is sacred, that every person is made in the image and likeness of God and therefore deserving of reverence and protection.” Each, it may be argued, therefore has a right to such reverence and protection.
This protection, as Cupich points out, demands the elimination of “the systematic poverty and health care insecurity that trap families in a cycle of hopelessness and limit authentic choice.” Clearly, conflict over abortion is a symptom of much deeper problems and divisions that must be addressed before any kind of reasonable solution can be found. It is not beside the point that the United States suffers the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world, one caused mainly by economic inequity.
If we truly believe that all life is sacred, who is to say that one life is somehow more sacred than another? If all life is sacred, any life is sacred, from the soaring redwood trees of California to the tiny creatures in our gardens and the very microbes that enable us to survive. All life must be treated with the respect, compassion, and reverence that the saints have shown us in caring for the poor, the sick, the suffering, and even animals and plants in the natural world. Not by chance did Pope Francis choose his name or base his great encyclical on the “Hymn to the Sun” by St. Francis of Assisi.
Jesus himself, when plagued with the demand to send fire and brimstone on his opponents, as we hear in today’s gospel, chided his disciples and moved on to the fate awaiting him in Jerusalem, the very emblem of vulnerable innocence sentenced to unjust death.
The death of vulnerable innocents has not abated. In the United States, lethal attacks on worshippers in their places of worship, whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim have accelerated in recent times. Elsewhere Uighurs, Rohingyas, Sikhs, and Hindus have been outlawed and often martyred – all in the name of God or political orthodoxy. On June 5th Catholic worshippers at St Francis Church in Owo, south-western Nigeria, were celebrating Pentecost mass when a group of men opened fire, killing 40 people, including four children. A month earlier, Deborah Samuel, a Christian schoolgirl accused of maligning the Prophet Mohammad, was stoned to death and her body burned by a mob of fellow students in Sokota, North Nigeria …
Every day, the world watches in virtually helpless horror as defenseless Ukrainian civilians, including children and infants, are heartlessly killed in bombing and missile fire. Women and children are threatened with inevitable starvation in Yemen as casualties of ongoing domestic warfare.
In our times, we have witnessed the intellectually impaired, the aged, infirm, those suffering from incurable illness, gay and lesbian persons, and the “racially impure” subject to persecution and death in name of a “better society.” Add to this the hundreds if not thousands of innocent victims of unjust conviction and execution by our legal system and those elsewhere.
In the United States, but not only there, for more and more infants and children, as one observer put it, “Life begins at conception and ends in mass shooting.”
Not only is sacred human life in peril. In Africa, South America, Asia, and the Americas defenseless animals are slaughtered by trophy-hunters or poachers, critically endangering several keystone species. Other face extinction by the loss of habitat for commercial purposes. Great forests, the living lungs of the planet, are felled to make shipping cartons and toilet tissue. Any living creature that encroaches on our way of life is in danger of extermination. But are not their little lives also sacred? Shakespeare had it right, I think:
The sense of death is most in apprehension;
And the poor beetle, that we tread upon,
In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great
As when a giant dies [Measure for Measure, Act 3, 1].
Of all the trillions of planets in the universe, only one has ever been found to bear life, likely the rarest and most precious gift in the whole of Creation. Focusing solely on one threat to life is to misunderstand the much wider struggle and human responsibility for its preservation.
Cardinal Cupich’s and other wise voices remind us that, in his words, “This ruling is not the end of a journey, but rather a fresh start. It underscores the need to understand those who disagree with us, and to inculcate an ethic of dialogue and cooperation. Let us begin by examining our national conscience, taking stock of those dark places in our society and in our hearts that turn to violence and deny the humanity of our brothers and sisters, and get to work building up the common good by choosing life…”
In recent years, the Eucharist has become controversial – not in the sense that the real presence of Jesus in the consecrated bread and wine is denied, a fraught opinion that grew to prominence after the Protestant Reformation and persists, of course, today. What we have witnessed lately is what some call the “weaponization” of the Eucharist, denying its reception to members of the Church because of conflicting political positions. We have come a long, long way from the unity and love promised us by Jesus in this sacrament and celebrated for centuries as “agape,” the Greek word for selfless, unconditional love, later rendered by the Latin “caritas,” charity. Agape was the word used for the celebration of the Eucharist itself.
Today’s second reading is taken from a section in St. Paul’s letter to the Christians at Corinth, for whom the Eucharist had already become a source of division rather than unity – in this case a socio-economic divide between the rich and the poor. His account of the institution of the Eucharist is the earliest reference in Christian scripture.
Like the Feast of the Holy Trinity, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi (the Body of Christ) has its origins in the early centuries of the Christian faith. But as we know it, the celebration comes to us from the Middle Ages. That it is one of the richest liturgical feasts in the Church calendar owes much to the man who was commissioned to create the liturgy, a saint whose name might surprise you – Thomas Aquinas.
Thomas is primarily known as the preeminent theologian of the Middle Ages and time after in the Catholic Church. But he was also an accomplished poet, whose carefully-composed and beautiful words are still sung in churches throughout the world and have found settings by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Mozart, Saint-Saëns, Cesar Franck, and Francis Poulanc, among others. When in 1264 Pope Urban IV instituted the Feast of Corpus Christi as a Solemnity for the whole Latin Church, he commissioned Thomas to compose the liturgy, including five extraordinary hymns — Adoro Te devote (Devoutly I adore you), Pange Lingua (Sing O tongue),Verbum supernum prodiens (The Word descending from above), with its well-known final two stanzas known as the hymn “O Salutaris Hostia” (O saving Victim), Lauda Sion (Praise O Sion), and Sacris solemniis, with its famous final stanza “Tantum ergo”).
Thomas’ pastoral concern is subtly but strongly evident both in his election of scriptural passages to be read and his poetry. And for good reason. Already in the thirteenth century, a tendency had developed among many Christians to emphasize adoration of the Eucharist rather than its reception. A century later, elaborate (and costly) portable shrines called “monstrances” which exposed the consecrated host to view were developed. Soon, “Corpus Christi” processions, in which monstrances containing the eucharistic host were transported throughout cities, towns, and villages, became popular social events throughout Europe.
For one reason another, “eating and drinking,” were increasingly reserved to the clergy and vowed religious. The elevation of the host at mass was the climax of the celebration, one marked by the ringing of bells. Alerted, people were known to run from church to church to witness the event – not to receive communion. Actual reception of the Eucharist was infrequent. Daily reception was rare. This began to change in the modern era, most notably when in 1910 Pope Pius X lowered the age for First Communion from twelve to seven years of age. In the following years, increased reception of the Eucharist became a goal of papal instructions, culminating in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.
It is worth noting that in his hymns and teaching Thomas stressed what might be called the edible and potable dimension of the eucharist, so clearly stressed in the words of Jesus and St. Paul’s insistent reminders – “take and eat… take and drink.” Like Paul, he reminds us over and over again that the eucharist is truly the food of the soul, but it is to be taken, received, eaten and drunk, not merely viewed, much less merely thought about. More than that, he recalled that the eucharist provided the life and nourishment of the whole Christian community, the “mystical body of Christ.” For in this sacred meal we enter into union with all the saints and in fact all creation. It is the food of the soul, not a reward for good behavior as Pope Francis reminded us. That’s why the eucharist is called Holy Communion — that’s what it does, because that’s what it is.
Perhaps Thomas’ lovely little antiphon for the Magnificat on the feast of Corpus Christi best summarizes his entire teaching:
“O sacred banquet, in which Christ is received, the memory of His Passion is recalled, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.”
The Eucharist is not just food for the soul. It is food for the world, a cosmic banquet of unity. Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51).
Today’s celebration of the Feast of the Holy Trinity falls outside the Easter season, but in several respects adds the final note to a symphony of celebrations. But to call it “mysterious” is accurate on many levels.
It’s not all that old, as feasts go — there were masses in honor of the Trinity in Italy in the late ninth century. But it was not until 1331 that Pope John XXII created a feast for the whole Church.
Even though the first ecumenical council at Nicaea in 325 was convened and sought to establish the orthodox interpretation of this ancient Christian belief, it was not until the Council of Chalcedon almost 250 years later that a final formula was declared and accepted by all the major churches of the period except the followers of Nestorius, whose doctrine was condemned at that council. Controversies in the Eastern Church would, as a result, continue for several centuries. But in the West, there was virtual unanimity on the matter until the post-Reformation period with the development of Deism and eventually Unitarianism.
The word “Trinity” is nowhere mentioned in the Bible, not even in the conclusion of Matthew’s Gospel with its threefold baptismal formula [Matt 29:19]. In the Gospel of John, it even seems that the Trinity is somehow denied — when Jesus says 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 faith in Christ, the love of God, and the gift of the Holy Spirit contain a hint of what might be called Trinitarian doctrine. And yet somehow it is all there, perhaps especially in the Gospel of John.
The term “Trinity” wasn’t coined until the late second century and the beginning of the third century in the Greek writings of Theophilus of Antioch and the Latin works of Tertullian, who also began using the word “Person” in regard to God. But it took the church over a hundred years even to begin working out a language that might sense of it all.
Perhaps the most notable accomplishment of the centuries of dispute and efforts at clarification is the reminder that the Holy Trinity is a mystery – an imponderable matter forever and fully beyond human understanding. That’s why it’s hard to preach on this Feast. Those who do, especially beginning preachers, can quickly find themselves mired in old quarrels and accidently trip into unknowingly espousing some long-forgotten error. One of my old teachers once said in class that five minutes into a sermon on the Trinity you can expect to have uttered at least one material heresy!
The Trinity is not like water, ice, and steam. It is not like the curious proposal of the family relations of father, child, and mother as was once suggested – not without some cause, as the word for Spirit in Hebrew (ruach) is feminine. And no, Virginia, St. Patrick did not explain the Trinity to his Irish catechumens by holding up a shamrock. He was born and may have died before the Council of Chalcedon in 451 and certainly the final great ecumenical council at Constantinople in 553 that finalized the Trinitarian doctrine of the equality of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son. But he was too good a theologian to fall into the trap of modalism.
Today, we are more prone to differentiate the Persons of the Trinity functionally – as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. But, as even a superficial study of scripture attests, these divine activities inseparably involve each and all the Persons.
Christians have always tried to comprehend the incomprehensible. Some but not many efforts are almost miraculously competent and still a source of deep understanding. St. Augustine’s De Trinitate is possibly the longest and to my way of thinking the most profound work on the Trinity found in all of Christian literature. It is about much more than that, of course. Augustine’s interests on a host of subjects were wide-spread and usually brilliantly articulated. A close contemporary of St. Patrick, he sought and found traces of the Trinity in all of life, especially the workings of the human mind. But he, too, clearly recognized the impossibility of truly grasping this basic mystery of Christian revelation.
“God is ineffable,” he wrote. “We can more easily say what He is not than what he is” [Commentary on Psalm 85,12]. “What then,… shall we say of God? For if you have been able to understand what you would say, it is not God. If you have been able to comprehend it, you have comprehended something else than God. If you have been able to comprehend Him as you think, by so thinking you have deceived yourself. This then is not God, if you have comprehended it; but if this be God, you have not comprehended it. How therefore would you speak of that which you can not comprehend?” [Sermons on New Testament Scriptures, 52, 6, 16].
Today, the old disputes and even the genius of a St. Augustine have little to do with the day-to-day struggles of Christians to make sense out of life and even, as we are increasingly witnessing, even to survive. The jolting but all-too-accurate attitude toward the Blessed Trinity in the libretto of Mass, by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Schwarz, still rings true for many desperate seekers:
I believe in one God
But then I believe in three
I’ll believe in twenty gods
If they’ll believe in me…
As I have said before, in the end, it is Jesus who gives us the Trinity. From the beginning it was and is 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, that one who sees Jesus sees the Father, and his is the Spirit that the Father will send, in whom he abides. For Jesus is, we believe and profess, fully divine but not wholly divine — Jesus is the Incarnate Word of God, the Son, not the Incarnate Father, not the Incarnate Spirit of Love. Jesus is our way in truth to the Father in the Holy Spirit.
But 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. But that comes at the end, not the beginning of our pondering.
This year, the great celebration of Pentecost occurs in a world fraught with anxiety and hurt, unusually so even in this tumultuous century. We feel the pain and distress of a brutal war in Ukraine, the proliferating mass shootings in the United States, the persistence of the coronavirus called COVID-19 and the unsettling appearance of yet another one. The natural world, over which the Holy Spirit broods, as the Poet claims, aches and trembles under the onslaught of humanity’s technological hubris. Time grows short to save the life-giving capacity of the planet itself.
So much for the bad news. The good news is that Holy Spirit has been given to us, sent to heal, restore, and renew. The perennial question remains: are we ready to receive the Spirit?
When we think about the Holy Spirit, we are likely to fall back on graphic symbols that obscure as much as they reveal. At this time of the church year, I can’t help but recall the humorous story told years ago by my Jesuit friend, Tom Gannon, who had recently returned from Japan, where he had given a talk on the Trinity. When he was finished, a well-educated man asked, “I understand Honorable Father and Honorable Son. But can you please explain Honorable Bird?”
Despite the imagery we read about in the gospels about the descent of the Spirit “like a dove” at the time of Jesus’ baptism [Matt 3:16, Mark 1:10, Luke 3:22, John 1:32], Pentecost is not about a bird. Nor is it about “tongues of flame” or a mighty wind – all efforts to describe the indescribable. The Spirit is about power and tender care, about consolation, and the comforting presence of God in the midst of pain, suffering, and struggle.
In the scriptural tradition beginning with the Book of Genesis and in the Christian creeds, Creation itself is often attributed to the Holy Spirit, especially the gift of life itself [Gen 1:2, 2:7]. Some of the most beautiful imagery in this respect comes from the Psalms, especially the concluding verses of the mighty Psalm 104, which gives us a theme synonymous with the life-giving work of the Spirit: “When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the earth” [Ps 104-30].
Theologians and poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins have also noticed that the characteristic influence of the Holy Spirit on life is abundance, diversity, and beauty:
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
“Lord and Giver of Life,” the Holy Spirit is the ecological principle that holds the world together in all its wonderful diversity. That awesome variety is also reflected in the famous passage from Acts that we just read, which describes how, filled with the Holy Spirit, the Apostles not only spoke in tongues, but people heard them in all their own languages, a no less greater miracle. Out of the many, one.
Pentecost is especially about unity in diversity, the richness and glory of diversity. This is especially true with the “gift of tongues” – that is languages, especially the language of prophecy. In the biblical tradition the Holy Spirit is above all the Spirit of Prophecy, sent from God to lead, guide, and guard his followers. In the Christian scriptures, the Spirit is that of Jesus himself, poured out among his followers as they spread the gospel to every corner of the world. The Holy Spirit is also the name we give to our personal experience of God in the real and daily events of our lives. It is the name we place on the ways God acts through us to renew the face of the earth, to lead and guide us, to create life, hope, and unity.
The Spirit is also the bringer of peace. Today’s gospel is from John, selected because of the gift of the Holy Spirit Jesus makes when he appears to his disciples on the night of the Resurrection. Twice Jesus says to them “Peace be with you.” Then, “[Just] As the Father has sent me, even so I send you. And after he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit” [John 20:21-22].
In the biblical tradition, breathing was always spiritually effective, from Genesis, when “God formed a human being of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the human being became a living person” [Gen. 2:7]. It is the same thought uttered in St Paul’s epistle to the Romans: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you. [Rom 8:10-11]”
If ever the world needed the gifts of peace, healing, and unity, it is especially now, when our ability to fragment and destroy seems all but unchecked and extremely powerful. And so we turn to the Comforter, the Advocate, recalling the words of Pope John XXIII as he proposed the Second Vatican Council in September 1959:
“Renew in our own days your miracles as of a second Pentecost; and grant that Holy Church, reunited in one prayer, more fervent than before, around Mary the Mother of Jesus, and under the leadership of Peter, may extend the kingdom of the divine Savior, a kingdom of truth, justice and love and peace. Amen.” [Journal of a Soul]