So far, this strange year continues with even more challenging and disturbing events that are far beyond unsettling. The ghastly shootings in Highland Park on the Fourth of July were followed by the brutal assassination of Shinzo Abe, the former prime minster of Japan, but also with other shootings that did not cause as much a ripple in the news media, so inured we have become to weekly shocks and disasters. Governments have toppled, war rages on horribly in Ukraine, and even the climate seems to worsen weekly.
We manage to distract ourselves by sports and amusements, but even our popular superhero films are filled with catastrophes and the longing for a savior. Life goes on, but in the meantime we may be changing, growing less friendly and helpful to strangers and even to our neighbors in need. And so today’s gospel speaks to our hearts at a crucial moment.
Today’s second reading, a glorious excerpt from the Letter to Colossians, proclaims that even for the very earliest Christians, Jesus was not only a historical figure, not just our leader and teacher for all times, but the very embodiment of the unseen and unknowable God who fills the universe with his presence and power. This remarkable passage is most likely from an earlier hymn used to introduce the letter. It is especially important for its exalted Christological affirmations, one of several hymns cited in the letters ascribed to St. Paul, but likely written by disciples in the years following his martyrdom. (The others appear in Philippians 2:6-11 and Ephesians 1:2-10.)
With this great affirmation as prelude, today’s gospel reading calls us to learn from Jesus, especially to attend to the needs of those around us — all of them, but especially those neglected and often despised as outsiders, aliens, or even enemies, a radical advance on ancient morality that must startled Jesus’ hearers considerably:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:43-45).
In today’s gospel, Jesus picks up on the scripture verse cited by the Doctor of the Law challenging him on this point. Found near the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, the last of the five books of the Torah, it includes part of Moses’ final discourse, from which our first reading is taken. It contains the beloved verses that the doctor of the Law cites in his exchange with Jesus:
“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut 6:5-9).
To this is customarily added the injunction from Leviticus 9:18 — “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”
Deuteronomy frequently enjoins duties and obligations to our neighbor, that curious English word that originally meant “nigh” or “near boor,” our “bower-mate,” our fellow countryman. But in what is probably the most well-known of all Jesus’ parables, he is about to broaden the notion considerably and, to the ears of some (even today), alarmingly.
“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asks, “wishing to justify himself,” to push the point. Jesus responds with what is the most well-known of all his parables, the tale of how the despised Samaritan rescued his Jewish enemy, a merchant beaten and robbed on his way to Jericho.
Who was his neighbor? Not the priest, not the Levite, but “The one who showed him mercy,” the lawyer replied. And Jesus said, simply, to him and to us, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).
The United States was born in war, nearly split in half by war, and entered into a whole century of wars less than fifty years later. As the country prepares to celebrate its Declaration of Independence 246 years ago, our warlike past should not escape notice beyond remembering the sacrifice of life and treasure over our relatively brief history as nations go (and come). Conflict has preoccupied us far more than peace. Now would be a suitable moment to rededicate ourselves to the pursuit of that elusive goal in a continually troubled and warlike world.
Jerusalem, the focus of attention in our first reading today, means something like “possession of peace.” The principal city of the Kingdom of Judah and of Israel from the tenth century BCE, its history stretches back to about 1400 BCE, during the Late Bronze Age. Over its long history, Jerusalem has been fought over, seized, occupied, destroyed, and rebuilt by successive rulers, from the ancient Canaanites to the British. It is the “Holy City” of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Even so, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem” is not an exhortation to be taken lightly. But Isaiah’s promise of prosperity and peace awaits to be fulfilled.
If peace is an elusive goal, war is the worst disaster human civilization knows — although I worry about the eventual impact of global climate change. As the present war in Ukraine shows, the waste of life, treasure, and natural resources is appalling. And in the end, despite war, we are fortunate to have preserved the vestiges of freedom and prosperity after centuries of struggle. Not only democracy but civilization itself often seems frighteningly fragile. While nations are focused on conquest and defense, tyranny and oppression lie festering in the shadows along with the hunger, squalor, and lasting misery war brings in its wake.
As many towns and cities in the United States prepare to parade battalions of veterans and ever more sophisticated weapons of war down our festive main streets during the annual Independence Day celebrations, pause for a moment to pray for the peace not only of Jerusalem, but of the world.
In our first reading, Isaiah’s address to the exiles after they return to Jerusalem following their long imprisonment in Babylon begins with the promise of shalom. An almost untranslatable term, it is usually rendered by the single English word “peace,” but embraces good health, prosperity, welfare, tranquility, friendship, and well-being in general. Today it is still used as a personal name and a daily greeting in both Hebrew and Arabic. It envisions not only freedom from anxiety and distress, but also harmony among men and women and between them and their God. In today’s gospel Jesus instructs his disciples to bless their hosts with such shalom on entering their houses. Later, it is his first greeting to the grieving and frightened disciples when he suddenly appears in their midst (Luke 24:36, John 20:19-26).
In our second reading, Paul includes it as a blessing of his Galatian converts as they struggle to reconcile Jewish ritual observance with the freedom of the Gospel that Paul preaches: “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! Peace and mercy on those who will follow this rule — and upon the Israel of God” (Gal 6:15-16).
The world still manages to beat the same drums of war that have forestalled peace for millennia, a simple fact of life that I reflected on just before Independence Day twenty-one years ago, two months before the terrible events of that early September:
It’s foolish to think that God loves one nation more than all others; the question we face is whether we love God — whether we have responded wholeheartedly to the graces and blessings God has bestowed on us as a nation. Are we a beacon of hope and freedom to the oppressed people of the earth? Or have we also fallen back into yoke of slavery to the sinful social structures of the world — expedience, self-service, exploitation, and even tyranny?
Tomorrow, in this year of heightened conflict and the ever-elusive quest for a just and humane world order, can we at least pray that by the tender mercy of God, the dawn from on high will yet break upon us, bringing light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and guide our feet into the way of peace (Luke 1:78-79).
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]
Christians in many parts of the world are celebrating the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus, deferred from the preceding Thursday. Today, we are once more called to ponder the affirmation we make so often, “I 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.”
Even in presently sunny Ireland, it is difficult not to turn our eyes away from the carnage in Ukraine and the slaughter of the innocents in Texas and look to heaven for solace, for Jesus to come and save us. We may dote on films about superheroes and pagan heroes of ancient mythologies, but what we deeply want is a glimpse of Jesus returning in glory. But the men in white tell us not to look up into the sky. The mystery is much deeper than that and so is our mission.
The Ascension of Jesus is often taken as the penultimate climax of the Easter mysteries, a prelude to Pentecost — the coming of the Holy Spirit into a world still longing for redemption. But the final act, the return of Jesus in glory, is not yet. We live in hope.
According to St. Luke, the Ascension occurred between the Resurrection and the Jewish feast of Pentecost, which for Christians now celebrates the coming, the parousia of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, into the hearts and minds of the early disciples and of all disciples. But that lies ahead. Here, like those disciples on the hillside near Jerusalem, we are left wondering about Jesus’ “ascent into heaven.” Did he go up into the sky? Is he someplace up above the clouds, somewhere over the rainbow? Or are we still looking in the wrong place, or at least in the wrong way, as the mysterious men said.
The sciences of astronomy and cosmology have shown that the realm of space is vast, the habitat of thousands of billions of galaxies, stars and planets. The “heavens” described in scripture are not some physical location up above the ozone layer somewhere, on the moon or perhaps on some distant planet. Semitic descriptions are poetic, both symbolic and metaphorical, like the notion of sitting on a throne at God’s right hand – not if what we believe about God is true. God is not an old bearded man on a white throne, like some Jupiter of Roman mythology. God is the Creator of the universe, a pure and perfect spiritual power and presence, as even the old catechisms affirmed. God does not have arms and legs and toes and fingernails. That great artists may have portrayed God so does not make it true.
But Jesus, on the other hand (so to speak) is human – fully human. But we believe that his physical presence has been transformed by the Resurrection and Ascension.
The passage from the Acts of the Apostles does not claim that Jesus went into orbit like some ancient astronaut, but that a cloud hid him from sight. The Ascension was never a crude, physical doctrine that asserted that Jesus was hanging around above the clouds, “up” on some other planet, or, much less, out in space somewhere. Belief in the Ascension affirms the Cosmic Lordship, the Leadership, of Christ spiritually, but also sacramentally. It means that Jesus Christ, raised from the dead and exalted by God, has fully entered into the fundamental reality of Creation itself. Christ’s presence, St. Paul tells us, is now co-extensive with the universe. 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]. There is no “where” that Jesus Christ is not present.
To celebrate the Ascension is to affirm that Jesus has become Lord of the Cosmos, but is no less present to us now and always in spirit and sacrament, the “mysteries” of Christian life .
The Ascension completes 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.
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus said, “ it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” [John 16:7]. And, the text goes on, “When the Spirit of truth comes, it will guide you into all the truth…. Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. …I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
Jesus has not gone away anywhere. He is present everywhere, hidden from our sight only by clouds of inattention. When we look with the eyes of faith, or, as St. Paul had it, “having the eyes of our hearts enlightened,” we see him in manifold ways, in the rising sun, the beauty of the rose, and, as the poet proclaims, through the features of human faces.
We may wonder, of course, what is Jesus waiting for? Why doesn’t he come soon, as we repeat directly and indirectly with our maranathas hidden in the movies and television cartoons about superheroes arriving to save us in the nick of time. Not because he is not ready. In his Spirit, he is here already. We believe that Jesus will also return as the Disciples saw him depart, but now, we are told, keep your eyes on what is happening around you, in your midst. There are hearts to mend, people to serve, a planet to save. Time to get on with it.
Today, many Christians around the world will be anticipating the great Feast of the Ascension of Jesus on Thursday, the 40th day following Easter. Others will delay until the following Sunday, and Eastern Christians will celebrate it on June 2nd. Exactitude is not the point, obviously. What is shared is the belief that after the forty days during which Jesus appeared to his followers, he ascended into heaven where, following the ancient creeds, he is seated at the right hand of the Father and from whence he will come to judge the living and the dead, and, as we heard last Sunday, “make all things new.”
But we are not on our own. Jesus also promised his disciples, as we hear in the gospel reading, that in his name the Father would send the Paraklete (which means Advocate or Comforter), the Holy Spirit who will instruct us “in everything”… Pentecost is the name of the feast on which the Spirit erupted in the midst of gathered disciples – on the fiftieth day following the Resurrection and also the Feast of Weeks, celebrated in Judaism fifty days plus one after Passover. “Pentecost” is simply the Greek word for “fiftieth.”
All that remains to come. At the moment, we are effectively ending the Sundays of Easter with readings that begin by describing a critical moment in the life of the early Christian community and, in the climax of the Book of Revelation, which has been our daily reading during this joyful season, the ultimate triumph of God, the gift of a new heaven and earth.
The first reading for today details the resolution of a crisis first faced by Jesus’ early followers – whether to impose the full weight of Jewish law on the gentile converts of southwest Asia we heard about last week. In the Spirit of peace and reconciliation, the “Apostles and Elders,” and “the whole Jerusalem church” required only that the very minimum be imposed, that no burden be laid on the converts beyond that which was strictly necessary – a far cry from the more than 600 tenets of the Law.
Jesus himself made clear that his yoke was easy and his burden was light (Mat 11:30). Christian history sadly reveals that as time went on, more and more burdens were imposed, the yoke made increasingly heavy until the Spirit of Freedom periodically broke through the human tendency to constrict rather than liberate, even to weaponize the faith. Even today, one needs a degree in canon law to grapple with the thousands of accumulated rules, laws, and prescriptions, a welter of legislation that would astonish the early Christians and undoubtedly their Lord.
The gospel reading today is taken from Jesus’ “farewell discourse” at the Last Supper in the gospel of John. It is a charter of hope and love in which he promises not only God’s constant presence but the gift of the Paraklete, that Holy Spirit who is the very spirit of Jesus himself.
And then, Jesus endows his disciples with the gift of peace. His peace. He tells his them not to feel distressed or fearful. Challenges and disasters lay ahead, and we certainly seem plagued with them at present. We, too, need not only comfort but instruction and guidance, just as we still need “tidings of joy” once proclaimed on a dark hill near Bethlehem. Here, what we hear Jesus saying is, simply, do not fret: the reins of time and human history are ultimately in the hands of God.
The second reading comes very near the end of the Book of Revelation. It is not a horror story but a testament of hope, a promise of the ultimate victory of God in Christ, which is conveyed so well in the passage we have just read. Despite sin, oppression, and suffering, God triumphs in the end when every tear is wiped away and there is no more death or mourning. God makes all things new.
It is important to recall that the City of God, the New Jerusalem that descends from heaven, is not only beautiful. As I mentioned last Sunday, it is mind-bogglingly enormous, more than half the size of the moon! Roomy enough to fit everyone inside — everyone who ever lived, is living today, and will ever live.
And so, to repeat myself, our fears may be real but they are ultimately groundless. We have no reason to be afraid of the dark forces that threaten our peace. If the world turns from God, Jesus overcomes the world. And in the gift of the Spirit, sent from God as the earnest of Christ’s return, we have the pledge of an everlasting home. A very big one. The return of Christ to the Father that we will soon celebrate is the beginning of the end, a prelude to the coming of the Spirit of Christ that fills the whole world, the Lord and Giver of Life, making all things new. And in that Spirit we struggle build our human city, which one day will be taken up, healed, and transformed into the true and eternal City of God.
The events of past few days remind us, tearfully, that the world is in greater need than ever of salvation. Natural disasters seem to be proliferating. News of war and rumors of war are interspersed with accounts of domestic violence as shocking as they are now becoming more prevalent than ever. This year alone in the US, over 7,000 innocent people have been shot and killed in acts of unspeakable cruelty. Yesterday, the nation was horrified to see the 198th mass shooting. Last year there were 693 such mass shootings, and hundreds more suicides and homicides, 15,945 gun deaths in all, including 8,910 suicides. The US seems poised to equal or surpass that number this year.
By comparison, in Ukraine, since the beginning of the Russian invasion, the official UN civilian death toll is estimated to stand at 3,381, as well as 3,680 injured, although the actual figures are thought to be much higher. Most deaths and injuries are the result of aerial bombardment and artillery shelling, but many are the result of direct gunfire.
It has been said that guns do not kill people. No, people kill people with guns. And our nation especially and much of the world is, as they say, awash in guns, both legally purchased and illegally obtained. Over a billion of them. And the United States is outstanding in the proliferation of guns among the civilian population — 393,347,000, almost one per person, the highest percentage in the world.
It is not terribly surprising that in a period of tension and anxiety, anger and hatred explode in gunfire. But it is terrible. Someone is making a fortune manufacturing and selling such weapons in a country not at war. That the leaders of our nation seem unable to stem the tidal wave of the arms trade is itself a terrible indictment. Even a Supreme Court justice should be able to realize that the Second Amendment to the Constitution was never intended to entitle the citizens of this country to murder innocent fellow citizens – including children, women, the aged, and defenseless.
Such is the grim backdrop of the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 2022. Yes, the world is in need of redemption. Still.
The first reading takes us back to the foundation of the Christian churches in southwest Asia. Of all those ancient cities and towns Luke carefully identifies, most are now mounds of ruins, including several of the seven cities whose churches are addressed in the Book of Revelation.
The second reading, from near the end of that wonderful and often hair-raising and usually misunderstood work, describes the future of the Church rather than its past — the new Jerusalem, the holy city that is God’s gift to all the world, not a human creation. It is described as impossibly larger than any structure ever designed by human beings, larger than any structure human beings will likely ever build.
We tend to miss that, because the dimensions are given in a different chapter. But when you work out the volume, as I have my students do, it describes a cube 1,500 miles on each side and 1,500 miles high – about 3,375,000,000 cubic miles –- approximately three-fifths the volume of the moon by our standards. It is the largest construction ever imagined by the human mind. But the simple point the author is making is that there is enough room for everyone. Everyone who ever lived, who is living now, and will ever live. Salvation is inclusive.
But that is another story. Here, the promise is what is important — God will dwell there with the people, always with them, beyond death and mourning, beyond all pain and suffering. All that will be gone. And here, the whole book of Revelation comes to a point in that simple phrase, “See, I am making all things new.”
It’s a steadying idea, a wonderful source of hope. We only have to look at the news in the papers or on television to see what a mess we human beings can make of things. If anything, we have a tendency to go backwards, to undo things or redo them rather than make them truly new. War is perhaps the best example of such regression. So much waste, such vast destruction, sorrow, pain, and loss. War, violence, killing, and ecological destruction is what we too often do. Peace, love, and renewal is what God does… and seems to expect us to do as well.
…“love one another. By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” [John 13:34-35].
The name of waiting is hope. Not passively, but preparing the way of the Lord as best we can in the midst of trials and tears. In the end, today’s liturgy says it all:
“Behold, the dwelling of God is with humanity. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new” [Rev 21:1-5].
Today the celebration of Mothers’ Day in the United States and elsewhere comes as a welcome respite after weeks of violent weather, deadly shootings in neighborhoods, schools, and shopping malls, as well as political upheaval and bitter controversy over the abortion issue. The war in Ukraine drags on mercilessly. That we live in turbulent times is an understatement. We need relief, more than races, no matter how exciting, can provide. We have the Word of God to steady us.
Today is also Commencement for Dominican University graduates. As I will be taking part in the celebration, it will be necessary to get an early start. So I am including here a reprise of my homily from 2019 which also fell on Mother’s Day.
Our readings today remind us of the spread of early Christianity in the decades following the Resurrection of Jesus. In the Acts of the
Apostles, St. Luke documents the spread of the faith throughout Asia Minor, what we now know as Turkey. We are more likely to recall cities like Corinth and Rome, but the original cradle of the Gentile churches was the central and western regions of Cilicia, Galatia, Lycia, and Phrygia, north and west of Antioch, where Paul and Barnabas and other Christian missionaries preached and won enough converts to establish small congregations. It was not an easy task. They met hardship and resistance, but the faith grew town by town, as they made their way west toward Rome, Spain, and Gaul. By the way, the little island in the Aegean Sea where John the Elder received his vision of the risen Christ and may have composed the Book of Revelation, was also in Asia Minor, not far off the southwest coast of the ancient city of Ephesus.
There is a subtext in these readings that is worth noting today, when prejudice, discrimination, and division, even genocide, are in the ascendant. It is highlighted in the opening verses from the reading from the Book of Revelation, where John writes,
“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands…” [Rev 7:9].
This is the inclusion theme, appearing in what you might suspect would be the most unlikely place to find one in Christian scripture. But the phrase appears over and over again in Revelation, like a drumbeat: “every nation, all tribes and peoples and languages,” culminating in the great vision of the New Jerusalem coming from heaven, and the fulfillment of the earlier promise:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among human beings. He will dwell with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new’” [Revelation 21:1-5].
He then gives the dimensions of the City of God, which is so vast it could hold all the people who ever lived and are living now, and will probably live in time to come. The only condition is to live justly with compassion and honesty. It can be a struggle, as we have seen just this week, but the promise stands.
And that is the same subtext we find in the short passage from the Gospel of John: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one” [John 10:27-30].
The story of early Christianity, the struggles, sacrifices, disasters and small triumphs, are fascinating in themselves, but the lesson we can take from these accounts is much more significant than geography. It is not simply that Christianity began as a Jewish sect or rapidly grew into a West Asian religious movement, much less a European one, but that it was from the beginning universal in its embrace. All are equally welcome. All.
A Latin chant once used during the Lenten office begins “Media vita morte sumus…” It sums up much of what has transpired this week, especially in Ukraine:.
“In the midst of life we are in death. Of whom may we seek help but you, O Lord; who for our offenses are justly displeased? Yet, O God most holy, O holy and mighty, O holy and merciful Savior, give us not over unto bitter death.
Cast us not away in the time of age; forsake us not, O Lord, when our strength fails us.”
It is equally and even more true that in the midst of death, as Jesus and John the Elder proclaim, we are alive. For it is the hand of God that sustains us. So long as we remain true, despite everything, no one can ever snatch us away. May we also be sustained on our way by the love and faith of our mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, all the way back to that little band of valiant women who went to the tomb that first bright morning of eternal promise.