Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Receive

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Our Gospel this week continues the Gospel from last week.  Last week Jesus set his face for Jerusalem, and told those who wanted to follow him that, regardless of whether they went to bury their dead or say farewell, they must keep their face set on that goal: to heaven through the cross.  This week begins with him sending others “to every town and place he intended to visit.”  The verb for sending is the word for apostles, but I think it’s not so much that these are “other” apostles, as that even those of us who are not apostles are still sent. 

The first reading, from the end of Isaiah, sets the tone in a surprising but helpful way.  “Rejoice with Jerusalem . . . .  Oh, that you may suck fully of the milk of her comfort, that you may nurse with delight at her abundant breasts!”  The Lord strangely unites himself to Jerusalem: “You shall be carred in her arms . . . ; as a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.”  Through Jerusalem, the image of the Church and the heavenly city, God comforts us.

The rest of the readings will be about the crosses we face.  But we can face those crosses because we know that God comforts us.  We set our face joyfully towards Jerusalem, the place of our crucifixion, because the cross seems like nothing, knowing that God is there.

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So too at the end of Galatians, in our second reading, Paul says, “I never boast except in the cross” and “neither does circumcision mean anything, nor does uncircumcision, but only a new creation.”  There are all these sides issues that people get really focused on—but all that matters is passing through the cross with Jesus, entering into God’s new creation, the power of his Spirit and his comfort.  (Paraclete is Greek both for the Holy Spirit and for comfort.)

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In the second part of our Gospel, Jesus talks about going into the cities.  “I am sending you like lambs among wolves.”  Yes, the world is hostile.  Yes, the world is full of the cross.  But he doesn’t say, “so you’d better get ready to fight.”  He says the opposite, “Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals.”  This is the freedom of the children of God: to march toward the cross fearlessly, knowing that we have God, and God’s comfort, and nothing can hurt us.

There’s a scene where Plato describes Socrates wandering around a battle field with his head in the clouds.  He was a terrifying warrior, because he didn’t care what happened to him.  That’s not a perfect parallel, but it’s kind of like what Jesus describes.

Go into the houses.  Offer peace.  Sure, you can eat, “for the laborer deserves his payment,” but don’t seek out great opportunities, don’t worry.  Just proclaim, “The kingdom of God is at hand for you” and “Peace”: and the kingdom and the peace of God will be at hand for you, whether or not they receive it.  If they don’t receive it, shake the dust from your feet—no big deal—and move on. 

There is a kind of carefree attitude of the disciples of Jesus. 

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The third part of our Gospel (after the Lectionary skips a couple verses of extended scolding of those who haven’t received Jesus) says that when the seventy-two returned, they rejoiced, saying, “Even the demons are subject to us because of your name.” 

Jesus responds, sure, yes. “I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky.”  You are winning a cosmic battle—or, sharing in my victory, which obviously you can’t make happen on your own.  And you will win earthly victories, “tread upon serpents and scorpions.”  Nothing can hurt you.

And yet, again, the attitude is care free. Jesus is not saying, “you have almighty power!  Strike them!”  He is saying, “don’t worry, I have the victory.”  And so he concludes, “Do not rejoice because the spirits are subject o you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”

Keep your face set on Jerusalem.  Find your comfort there.  The battle is won not by focusing on the battle, but by focusing on the Lord.  Satan can do nothing to you if you live for Jesus Christ.

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The first part of our Gospel had the line, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.”

Often we read this line in terms of evangelization: we need missionaries to go bring people to Jesus.  And that’s fine, sure.  And the seventy-two are somehow “apostolic.”

But it isn’t just about evangelization, the harvest isn’t just converts.  (And anyway, if it is effective to pray for God to send out other apostles, then it doesn’t sound like God exactly needs our help.) 

The harvest is also all God’s goodness.  He sends us out into a world brimming with his presence, if we want it, a world where the kingdom is near and his peace is there for the taking.  Receive, and pray that others will gather the same riches for themselves.

Do you get so focused on the fight that you forget to be grateful?

Thirteenth Sunday – Follow Me: Death and the Kingdom

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We finally return to Ordinary Time, and our orderly reading through Luke’s Gospel. 

We begin at the defining turning point of Luke’s Gospel, Luke 9:51: “When the days of Jesus’ being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined [literally: set his face] to journey to Jerusalem.” 

(Much of the material from Matthew and Mark comes before this turning point: Luke 1-4, like Matthew 1-4, is the infancy and then the temptation and baptism, but Luke 5-9 crams in the rest of Matthew 5-25: calling the disciples, cleansing lepers, healing paralytics, questions about fasting, Lord of the sabbath, the sermon on the mount/plain, the centurion’s servant, the widow’s son, the woman who anoints his feet, the parables, the storm, the demonaic, the sending of the apostles, the five thousand, the confession of Peter—phew.  From Luke 9:51 until chapter 22, the last supper and the crucifixion, we find all the exciting, unique parts of Luke: the Good Samaritan, Martha and Mary, the midnight begger, the rich fool with his barns, “come up higher,” inviting the poor to your feast, the prodigal son, the dishonest steward, the rich man and Lazarus, “we are unworthy servants, only doing our duty”, the persistent widow, the Pharisee and the tax collector, let the children come to me, Zacchaeus the tax collector, weeping over Jerusalem, the widow’s mite.)

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The second half of our Gospel reading is more memorable: “foxes have dens,” “let the dead bury their dead.”  But the deeper point is in the first half.

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Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem.  That is his identity: focused on his mission, facing the cross, pressing on.  For Luke, this is the heart of the Gospel.  But as he goes through Samaria (the region between Galilee and Judaea, where Jersualem is), “they would not welcome him because the destination of his journey was Jerusalem”—or, literally, “because his face was of one going to Jerusalem.” 

Now, part of of the Samaritans’ problem was that they were the location of the Lord’s temple before David and Solomon built the capital and the temple in Jerusalem; they dispute the importance of Jerusalem.

But in our context, the bigger point is that Jesus was facing his destiny—and they didn’t want that.  They were comfortable where they were.  That’s the setup for what’s coming, about foxes having dens, etc.

Then Luke gives a brilliant flipside.  James and John respond, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?”  (What an odd question!)  Ironically, in their opposition to the Samaritans, James and John are a lot like them: they too are focused on here and now, on winning battles, on control—whereas Jesus is focused on going to meet his destiny in Jerusalem.  James and John—and all of us, in our nasty anger—want to have dens like foxes, and to destroy anyone who tries to invade our comfort.  That is not Jesus.

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In the second half, Jesus is not as contrary as we think.  (This is impotant, because there’s a tendency to say Jesus is using “Semitic exaggerations,” and he doesn’t really mean what he says.  I think it’s better to look at what he actually says, which tends to be true, and to demand that we take him literally.)

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The first guy says, “I will follow you wherever you go.”  Jesus responds, “Foxes have dens . . . but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”  That’s not a rebuke, it’s only a warning.  Yes, good, follow me.  But know that you’re not following me to a place of comfort and rest, but to the cross.  That’s what it means to follow.

The second guy, on the other hand, says nothing—till Jesus says, “Follow me.”  He responds, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.”  We read too fast, and we think Jesus says, “No, you’re not allowed to bury your father, you have to follow me”—and we think, on the one hand, that Jesus doesn’t seem to appreciate the goods of this world, and on the other hand, that we can’t possibly take him literally.

But that isn’t what Jesus says.  Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their dead.  But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”  Notice the details.  Jesus tells him to “go.”  In fact, it’s the same word the man says, “Let me go.”  In the Greek, it’s even specific, in both cases, “let me go away.”  Jesus does let him go away—he commands him to go away, which is, on the literal level, the opposite of “follow me.”  Jesus was setting him up: he says, “follow me,” and then lets the guy discover what that following means: for him, yes, it does mean “going away,” instead of following Jesus to Jerusalem.

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But what Jesus changes is what the man is going away to do.  He doesn’t tell him not to bury the dead.  He does tell him to “proclaim the kingdom of God.”  Since Jesus has his face set toward Jerusalem—and one of the last things he said before he set his face toward Jerusalem was, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men,” he understands death.  Yes, whether you go with me to Jerusalem or whether you stay to bury your father, you are entering into death.  But proclaim the kingdom of God.  That’s what it will mean for you to “follow me”: whether in Jerusalem or right where you are, death and the kingdom.

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And so when the third guy says, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home,” Jesus does not say, “nope, you’re not allowed to say goodbye,” but “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”  In plowing, as in sailing, you cut a straight line by keeping your eye on your destination—your face set on Jerusalem.  If you look away, you go off course. Just as with the previous man, he doesn’t tell him to ignore his family.  He does tell him that, wherever he goes, he needs to keep his face set on Jerusalem.  It’s as if, just as the first man says, “I will follow you wherever you go,” Jesus says, “I will follow you, wherever you go.”

It will take Jesus thirteen chapters to make his way to Jerusalem.  There’s plenty for us to do between here and there, and Jesus is not denying that we should do it.  He is saying that we must keep our face resolutely set on the goal, facing death and the kingdom of God without flinching, no matter what we do.

Are there parts of your life where you think you need to take your eyes off of Jesus?

Corpus Christi: Give Him Thanks

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Yesterday we celebrated the feast of Corpus Christi.  As in the late twentieth century the Pope accepted a visionary’s call to make a feast to emphasize the ever-present Divine Mercy, so in the thirteenth century, a Pope accepted a similar call to make a feast for the Eucharist.  It’s supposed to be the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday—that is, the first Thursday after Holy Thursday, except (it’s kind of funny) after Easter and Pentecost week.  But of course we usually switch it to Sunday.  (But maybe instead of griping over days of the week, we should focus on loving Jesus in the Eucharist.)

The original liturgy was written by none other than Thomas Aquinas.  The opening prayer, which he wrote, and which we also use for Benediction, is interesting: grant that we may so venerate that we may perceive (sentiamus) the fruits in ourselves.  Our act of veneration is, on the one hand, a gift from God, and on the other hand, a way that we can “experience” God’s goodness to us.

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The Vatican II Lectionary uses the readings Thomas picked, including John 6, only for Year A (though we also read John 6 during August of year B, and every year at the weekday Masses of Easter Week Three).  Year B for this feast we read Mark’s account of the Last Supper, and this year, Year C, we read Luke’s account of the feeding of the Five Thousand.  John 6, in fact, is also the feeding of the Five Thousand, teaching us to think of that miracle in terms of the Eucharist.

The theme throughout this year’s readings is precisely the idea, in Thomas’s opening prayer, that we experience God’s work in us by celebrating it.

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Genesis 14, when Melchizedek sacrifices bread and wine for Abraham, is at the beginning of his story: before his name is changed from Abram to Abraham, before the covenant, circumcision, the visitation at the oaks of Mamre, the destruction of Sodom, or the promise and sacrifice of Isaac—and long before the establishment of the priesthood of the Levites.  Melchizedek is the original priest, and this sacrifice is the root of Abraham’s story.

They are celebrating a military victory, and Abraham is refusing to attribute that victory to the king of Sodom.  Instead, Melchizedek says Abraham is blessed by “the creator of heaven and earth . . . who delivered your foes into your hand.”  Melchizedek offers bread and wine, and Abraham gives him a tithe, as a sign of his own sacrifice.

The point of their acts of sacrifice, their acts of reverence, is what the opening prayer says: by venerating God, by these actions of giving thanks, they increase their awareness, their perception of God’s work in their life.  God has no need of our thanks, but we are blessed by acknowledging that every good and perfect gift comes from him.

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So too in 1 Corinthians 11, when Paul gives his account of the Last Supper, and says that “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.” 

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The Last Supper itself was an act of thanksgiving.  By lifting up bread and wine, and the Paschal Lamb, Jesus proclaimed the goodness of God, both in his daily giving of bread and in his historic saving action.  When he gave that action to us—“do this”—he added to it a memorial of his own death, so that we give thanks for the “fruit of the earth and work of human hands” and also for his saving action for us on the Cross, for creation and redemption.

The Real Presence does two things: sacrifice and communion.  First, it perfects the sacrifice, so that what we lift up and offer really is the saving work of Jesus Christ himself, and somehow participates in his own self-offering on the Cross.  Second, through communion it unites us to him, so that our act of veneration is itself his gift to us: he is the one we offer, and he himself offers in and through us, by uniting us to himself in communion.  He perfects our act of thanks, he “grants us” that act of veneration.

But what we do with the Real Presence is this act of sacrifice, this lifting up, that just as with Melchizedek, makes us more deeply aware of God’s goodness in our life precisely through our giving thanks to him for it.

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This post is long enough, so in the Gospel, I will only point out one nice little thing from the Greek.  The Twelve say, “Dismiss the crowd so that going away [poreuthentes] they can go to the surroundingvillages and farms and find lodging and provisions.”  When Jesus says, “Give them some food yourselves,” they reply, “unless we ourselves going away [poreuthentes]buy food for all these people.” 

They think they need to find sustenance somewhere else, to go away from Jesus to get what they need.  But he tells them to “have them sit down”: stay right here.  (The groups of fifty must have some deep significance, but I like how it makes a hundred groups of fifty, as if just to emphasize what a huge crowd Jesus can provide for.) 

Jesus provides.  We don’t need to go away.  We need to stay close.  He provides our deepest, sweetest food in the Eucharist.  He provides himself, and his grace, and his love.  And, as Creator, he provides all our other needs, too.  What we need to do is to stay close and become aware, perceive, through our acts of thanksgiving and sacrifice and Eucharist, how good he is to us.

What parts of your life do you try to solve by “going away” from Jesus?

The Good News of Holy Trinity

Proverbs 8:22-31, Psalm 8, Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15

I said on Sunday that one way to preach about the Trinity is just to look at what the readings say.  This year’s readings were wonderful.

The first reading, from Proverbs, assumes we know the prologue to John: “In the beginning was the Word . . . all things were created through him.”  Here, “Thus says the wisdom of God”: that is, his Word, his great act of intelligence.  Most of the reading walks us through the beauties of nature—the depths and the springs, the mountains and hills, the earth and fields, and the sky—and says, “I was there.”  The Word, the “Second person of the Blessed Trinity,” was the wisdom God used in creating the world.

That’s heady stuff.  But it does a couple things for us.  First, it affirms the divinity of Christ: what it means to say Jesus is God is to say that he too is “creator of heaven and earth.”  Second, it affirms God’s wisdom, and God’s plan—and Jesus’s part in that wisdom.  God isn’t random and thoughtless (like we are), everything is wonderfully made, wonderfully laid out, to culminate in Jesus.  Third, “I was his delight day by day, playing before him all the while . . .and I found delight in the human race”: the idea of “play” affirms the joyfulness and gratuity of God’s love in Jesus Christ.  This is good news!

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The second reading, from Romans, concludes, “the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”  Where the first reading called Jesus God’s wisdom and Word, the second reading calls the Holy Spirit God’s love.  And it affirms, simply, that God’s love has been poured into our hearts.  This is the Gospel—I tell my seminarians that I think this line is THE finest statement of what Christians believe.  It’s not just that God loves us, but that he shares that love with us, lets us love with his heart, by giving us the Holy Spirit.

The rest of that reading leads up to this proclamation by saying we are justified by faith, have access by faith to this grace in Jesus, and that have endurance.  What does faith in Jesus mean?  What does grace mean?  It means that the love of God is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.  Good news!

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Our Gospel this year is from John, and typical for John, it’s heady stuff. 

First, Jesus calls the Holy Spirit “the Spirit of truth,” who will teach us what we “cannot bear now.”  He is the teacher, and the teacher about Jesus.  The Spirit gives us strength, too, and love, but we should rejoice also in this contemplative aspect, where the Spirit gives us a different perspective, helps us see in a new way.

Then come three “declare’s.”  The word is an-angelei, and it is related to both “angel” and Gospel, ev-angel.  The Spirit brings us glad tidings.

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First, he will declare “what is coming.”  What we do not yet know, what we are not yet ready for, the Spirit will open the way for us.  It’s not so much, I think, that he will tell us the future as that he will tell us the present: The Holy Spirit is with us every step of the way to reveal God’s presence here and now.

Second, “He will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.”  He declares the now, by declaring Jesus.  The Spirit, need it be said, is not an alternative route, not, as some older people seem to think, a way to God that bypasses Jesus.  He is the one Jesus gives us, and the one who reveals Jesus to us, because he and Jesus are One, and Equal, and he is equal to the task of revealing the fullness of Jesus to us.  And because Jesus, in the Incarnation, is one with us, revealing our “now” and revealing Jesus go hand in hand: the work of the Spirit is to show me how this moment in my life is the moment of union with Jesus.

And third, “Everything that the Father has is mine; for this reason, I told you that he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.”  The Spirit declares Jesus to us because Jesus and the Father are one; the reason we want to know Jesus is because he is One and Equal with the Father.

What a nice little meditation on the Trinity: The Spirit reveals his presence in our life so that he can reveal Jesus’s presence in our life, which is to reveal the Father.  That’s good news!  Glory to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit! 

How does the Holy Spirit reveal Jesus present in your life today?

Preaching Holy Trinity

Today was the feast of the Holy Trinity, an awkward day for priests everywhere. For a variety of reasons we need not explore today (from nominalism to pelagianism to the sixties), few priests seem clear on the connection between dogma and the life of their parishioners. A feast like this, then, which is obviously dogmatic–the very word Trinity is an abstraction neither in Scripture nor obviously connected to life–leaves priests grasping at how to preach, for once, about doctrine. It often doesn’t go well. Perhaps in giving advice to priests, I can help the rest of us too.

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The first step is the distinction between explanation and proclamation. The Holy Trinity (or any other dogma) does not need our explanations, especially not the explanations of people who haven’t given it much thought. Explanation of anything is irrelevant until people know that it exists and matters to them.

Even some of the things we think are explanations are really proclamations. Our parish is St. Patrick’s, and there’s a marvelous statue right where we sit of Patrick gazing thoughtfully at a shamrock. Shamrocks are a terrible explanation of the Trinity. Patrick wasn’t telling them the Trinity is “like” a shamrock. He was using the shamrock as a reminder, a symbol, a pointer, to make them think about the triune God. I don’t even think Augustine’s deep meditations on how the human memory-intellect-will is “like” the Trinity was meant as an explanation of the Trinity, so much as a way of getting very thoughtful people to gaze even more thoughtfully at their shamrocks.

What the Trinity needs is not explanation, but proclamation.

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One way to proclaim the Trinity is with the creed. It begins with “I believe.” Not “I understand,” or “it was proven to me,” or “I learned in school.” The first thing to proclaim is that Christians believe some things about God.

I believe there is only one God, only the Creator of earth. He created not only what is seen, but even what is unseen, even the heavens: absolutely everything. That’s the “unity” part of the Trinity: I believe in only one God, and that matters.

But I believe that God the Creator is also a Father. That is a proclamation. Other religions don’t believe that. Even the Old Testament doesn’t call God Father. We are so inured to our faith that we don’t realize what an awesome thing it is to call God Father, we think everyone must do that. Proclaim it! Believe it!

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We believe in Jesus Christ, that the one who was born of the Virgin Mary and crucified also rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, and is our Lord and judge. Those are things we believe about his humanity, and those things need to be proclaimed and believed. You don’t need to “explain” the resurrection, you need to proclaim it: hey, Christians, this is what we believe!

But we also believe that the man Jesus Christ is the Son who makes God Father, the only-begotten, one in being, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God! When we talk about the Trinity, we’re not talking about how you explain how something can be both one and three–that’s not the important part of the Trinity. What we’re talking about is the proclamation that Jesus is God. One and three isn’t that important on its own. But that Jesus is God is a Big Deal. That God is Father and Son is a Big Deal.

In fact, historically, the debates about the Trinity, especially in the fourth and fifth centuries, when most of this stuff was first hammered out, had very little to do with whether you could explain the connection between one and three. The debates were about whether Jesus is God or not. Who do you say that I am? When we talk about the Trinity, that’s what we’re talking about.

Proclaim that! Believe it! This Jesus, who gives himself to us in the Eucharist, whose face and wounds we adore on the crucifix, whose words we hear in the Gospel: he is God himself, come to speak with us, come to all us into communion with himself!

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And then a corollary is about the Holy Spirit. Historically, this issue came up at the same time. What about the Holy Spirit? What about the Spirit who, in the second half of the third part of the Creed, has inspired the prophets, who makes the Church one and holy and catholic and apostolic, who is given to us in Baptism, and is the forgiveness of our sins, who raises the dead and gives us life everlasting? What’s the deal with him?

He is God too! If God the Creator of heaven and earth is the kind of thing that can be both Father and Son, heck, why not, he can be Holy Spirit, too. It’s not that first we came up with an abstract theory about threeness and oneness, and then we realized that we could plug Father Son and Holy Spirit into that formula. The only reason we believe three and one is because we believe in these three, Father, Son, Holy Spirit.

The Son who saved us is God! The Holy Spirit who speaks to us and makes the Church and enters into our hearts, he is God! That’s what we are proclaiming, when we proclaim the Trinity. No explanation necessary, but we do need to believe that God is active in our life, in this distinctly Christian way.

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Equality and unity? I noticed those words in some of today’s liturgy. Abstract, mathematical words. But their point is not to manipulate numbers. Their point is to talk about Father Son and Holy Spirit. Equality means that the Son is nothing less than God the Creator, that’s who we’re talking about when we talk about Jesus. And the Holy Spirit, too, is nothing less. Equality doesn’t mean “three equals one” it means “Jesus and the Holy Spirit are no less than God himself.”

And unity means that they are one with God–they are one-ness with God, and what they offer to us is to enter into that oneness, to be not sorta kinda vaguely in relationship with God, but to be one with him. And not in a way that destroys our individuality, but as in the Trinity, so with us, there is perfect Unity while the individual plurality of persons remains.

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What we need to talk about is not numbers but persons. What we need to do is not explain how it works or makes sense–and certainly not how it makes sense in the abstract, apart from Father Son and Holy Spirit–but to proclaim that what it means to be a Christian is to believe these awesome things, about the Creator, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. That’s why in our baptismal promises we say, not “Do you understand how three-in-one works?” but “Do you believe in the Father . . . and the Son . . . and the Holy Spirit?”

One way to proclaim that, as I have done here, is with the Creed. We’d all do well to start praying the Creed as the awesome meditation it is meant to be, in the Mass, in our rosary, maybe even elsewhere in our prayer life.

But another way to proclaim that is just by reading Scripture. We have an awesome Lectionary, which gives readings about who the Son and the Holy Spirit are: this year they were about the plan of God’s creation, the love of God poured into our hearts, and the Son who receives everything from the Father, and the Spirit who leads us into the Son. You wouldn’t have to explain anything about Three-in-One just to meditate on those awesome words which “he has spoken through the prophets.”

How do you nurture your faith in Father-Son-Holy Spirit?

Pentecost: A Spirit of Wisdom

I am happy to say that I had excellent experiences of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal when I was in college.  I have seen it as a place where people learned to live their faith to the fullest, and I learned there to believe in the Holy Spirit as a real force in our lives. I learned a lot about Pentecost there.

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I am sad to say, then, that in one respect, Charismatic prayer serves as a perfect example of what the Holy Spirit is not.  I think there is something to the modern phenomenon of “speaking in tongues,” meaning gibberish, as a way of discovering prayer that transcends our minds.  But in the New Testament, speaking in tongues is the opposite: not gibberish nonsense, but sense.  In defense of charismatics, I can only add that, ironically, Traditionalists make the same mistake, thinking that prayer is more legitimate if it’s in a language you don’t understand.  So does a certain kind of “contemplative” spirituality that thinks that silence is truer prayer than the Liturgy or lectio divina. 

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“When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled . . . there came from heaven a noise like a strong driving wind.  Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them.”  Thomas Aquinas points out that one of the main characteristics of tongues of flame is that they stretch upward.  When the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of the Son, comes upon us, he becomes a power within us leaping upward toward heaven.

But in a pun (that doesn’t exactly work in English), Acts then says they “began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.”  Charismatics, Traditionalists, and contemplatives are all correct in thinking that the Holy Spirit is tongues of fire leaping upward, in a way that transcends human strength, toward heaven.

But they fail to see that what happens then is not gibberish but intelligence.  The most confusing thing of all is that we become intelligent: “they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language” (or “tongue”).  “We hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”

The Spirit does not make the apostles dumb.  He makes them intelligible.  And in so doing, he binds together what man had separated.

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For the second reading, we have a choice between 1 Corinthians 12 or Romans 8, two of Paul’s greatest passages on the Holy Spirit.  In both, we learn that the Spirit teaches us to speak: “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.”  “A spirit of adoption, through whom we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’”  Mumbo jumbo is mysterious.  But the greater mysteries are to call God Father and Jesus Lord.  Nothing that empties the mind can fill us with deeper awe than these words.

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The Spirit brings order, too.  In Romans 8, he “raised Christ from the dead” and “will give life to your mortal bodies also,” for “the spirit is alive because of righteousness.”  It is not mindless chaos that the Spirit brings; rather, he undoes that chaos by teaching us to live as sons.  So too in 1 Corinthians 12 the Spirit binds the many together in one body, the body of Christ.  “To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.”  The Spirit teaches us to speak, and to bring order.

***

We have two options for the Gospel, as well, one from John’s Last Supper discourse, the other from Jesus’s appearance on Easter night (at the same supper table, in the upper room).  In the first, Jesus says the “Advocate” (or “Paraclete” or “comforter” or “helper”: all the same word in Greek) will lead us to “keep my commandments”: not to be unruly, but ruled.  So too we will “keep my word.”  “The word you hear is not mine but that of the Father who sent me,” for the Father is an intelligent, wise God, a God of words, who speaks his word in Jesus Christ.  And their Spirit “will teach you everything”—that is “remind you of all that I told you.”  The Spirit does not replace Scripture, but takes us deep into the words of Jesus.

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And this is the way of “peace.”  On Easter night he twice says, “Peace be with you.”  He shows them his hands his side, reveals to them who he is, not in a cloud of mystery, but in the deeper mystery that can be spoken in words, and infinitely transcends any cloud of mystery.  And then he gives them the Spirit of peace: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”  The balance creates an orderly ministry: not a lawless chaos where sin doesn’t matter, but an orderly ministry of forgiveness.  And the conclusion of that forgiveness is not sin, but peace, union, intelligence, and order.  

Are there any ways that you under-appreciate the wisdom of God?

Ascension: “Stay in the City”

Somewhere I got the idea—have you heard this?—that from the time of the Ascension until Pentecost, the Apostles were “hiding” in the Upper Room for fear of the Jews.  The point of Pentecost, then, would be to overcome their fear. 

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Now, it’s true that in John’s Gospel, he does say that on Easter night, when Jesus first appeared to them in the Upper Room, “the doors were locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews.”  But John’s not talking about Ascension and Pentecost, he’s talking about Jesus’s ability to get through locked doors (as well as another theme about how the people of Jerusalem—not “the Israelites,” but specifically “the Judeans”—were opposing Christ). 

Ascension and Pentecost are uniquely themes of Luke-Acts.  John talks about the coming of the Holy Spirit, but not Pentecost—and in John, when Jesus gives them the Holy Spirit on Easter evening, it’s to forgive sins, not to be courageous.

***

For Ascension, our first reading is the beginning of Acts (written by St. Luke), the Ascension.  And each year we read the last verses of the Gospel for the year.  In Matthew, it’s the Great Commission, with no mention of the Ascension.  Mark’s version of the Great Commission includes tongues, snakes, and poison, as well as the Ascension.  And this year, the Year of Luke, we get the Ascension story proper.

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An interesting detail of Luke is his insistence that they stayed in Jerusalem.  In Matthew, the angel tells the women, “Tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goes before you into Galilee; there shall you see him,” and for the Great Commission it says, “the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.”  (Galilee is the far north, where Jesus and most of the disciples come from, whereas Jerusalem is the far south.)  In Mark, too, he tells them to go to Galilee.  In John he meets them twice in the Upper Room in Jerusalem (the second time a week later, for Doubting Thomas), but the whole last chapter is fishing on “The Sea of Tiberias,” one of the names for the main lake in Galilee. 

But Luke emphasizes something different: The Road to Emmaus is about seven miles from Jerusalem, and when they recognize him they return to Jerusalem; then as they tell their story there he appears again in Jerusalem, and it is there that Luke says he ate fish with them.  In Luke, the Ascension is at Bethany, less than two miles from Jerusalem, where the Mount of Olives is. 

(I don’t know when the disciples were where, but I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to figure out that the four Gospels are just telling different parts of the same story, and they can all be true.)

***

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More important, in Luke Jesus commands them, in his last words: “I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high,” because “repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”  Again in Luke’s Acts, “he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father”; “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” 

The disciples are not afraid.  They are not running away to Galilee, or locking themselves away.  To the contrary, they are staying in the middle of it all.  The last words of Luke are, “they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.”  In Acts 1 they go to the Upper Room not to hide, but to pray, and then to attend to business: “one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection,” to replace Judas. 

***

A couple of thoughts on staying in Jerusalem. 

First, Luke-Acts is very much like Paul in its theology.  A central theme is that Christianity is not a different religion, but the fulfillment of the religion of the Old Testament.  On the one hand, Luke and Paul insist, it’s wrong to remain a Jew and to seek religious fulfillment in the cultural limitations of the pre-Jesus religion.  But on the other hand, it’s wrong to dismiss Judaism, because it is Judaism that Christianity fulfills.  Above all, it is the Law that Jesus finally brings to its fulfillment, so that Christians offer the true sacrifice in the true temple, and Christians are finally able to live to the fullest the Old Testament’s love of God and neighbor, with all its social and natural-law implications.  The Church is the true Israel, and so the Church begins in Jerusalem.

Second, Christianity is not about heading for the hills.  It is not about fear of men or building an enclave.  Jesus commands the disciples—and he commands us—to go into the city, and then go forth from the city of Jerusalem to the cities of the world.  Christianity is about missionary advance, not retreat.

Our second reading, from Ephesians, sums it up with overwhelming riches.  The Spirit of Pentecost is “a Spirit of wisdom and revelation, resulting in knowledge of him”: Jesus and his Spirit complete the Old Testament revelation.  We are “enlightened” to “the hope that belongs to his call,” “the riches of glory in his inheritance,” “the surpassing greatness of his power,” which is “far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion.”

The Spirit of Christ sends us into Jerusalem: into the fullness of Revelation, and in mission to the cities of the world.

Are you running away to Galilee to hide?

Sixth Sunday: Dwell with Me

In my archdiocese (the densest in the country), we celebrate Ascension on Thursday, forty days after Easter and a novena before Pentecost.  But in most of the wide United States, to make sure everyone can make it to Mass, they move it to Sunday: the Church is still figuring out how holy days work in a non-Catholic society.  Since moving Ascension displaces the seventh and last Sunday in Easter, this sixth Sunday has the option of doing the seventh Sunday’s readings.  But I’ll just comment on the ones scheduled for this day.

The first reading, from Acts 15, is important.  It’s the first Council of the Church, the gathering at Jerusalem where “the apostles and elders, in agreement with the whole church,” solve the first great pastoral-doctrinal problem: whether to make Gentile converts follow the Jewish law.  This year it strikes me that, very much as in Paul’s letters, the central theme of Acts seems to be the complicated relationship between Christianity and Judaism: the prophets are the ones who tell us who Jesus is, and the Law tells us who we are supposed to be—but the Gospel takes us beyond the cultural limits of the Jewish covenant.

“There arose no little dissension and debate” about the following proposal: “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.”  “Practice” is in Greek “ethos”; it is also translated “custom.”  But “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities” (which mainly pertain to avoiding idol worship, as well as maintaining Old Law determinations about marriage). 

This is an issue that doesn’t go away—that lives, in fact, even in perennial fights over things like when to celebrate the Ascension.  There have always been those who want to reduce the Gospel to a human “custom,” to “practices.”  A lot of “traditionalism” interprets Catholicism as a sort of Latin-language nationalism, a set of “practices,” a “culture.”  Galatians and Colossians are about people in Paul’s time who wanted to reduce Christianity to Jewish cultural practices—but I am always amazed at how contemporary those letters are, how they sound like they’re speaking to people today who are more interested in “practices” than in Jesus Christ.

Look, I love the liturgy as much as anyone.  But we’re missing something if we reduce the Ascension to how many days we can count between Easter and Pentecost.  Something much bigger is going on.

***

Our reading from Revelation 21 continues our review of the final vision.  John sees “the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.”  It is not the earthly Jerusalem—or the earthly Rome.  (Ironically, it is Rome, and the papacy, which keeps reminding us that our religion is more Catholic than Roman, more about Christ than about culture.  But the culture warriors keep opposing the popes.) 

This is not a religion we build with human hands, and with human culture.  It is God.  The Temple is replaced: “I saw no temple in the city for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb.  The city had no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb.”  It’s not about human customs and practices.  It’s about letting our whole life be illuminated by the Lamb.

***

John’s Gospel is a bit loose about post-Resurrection chronology.  He collapses Pentecost into Easter: Jesus gives the Holy Spirit on Easter night.  In this account, Jesus appears the second time, to doubting Thomas, the week after Easter, and then the third and last time John reports is at the seaside, which concludes with Jesus twice referring to “until I come.”  Before all that, when he told Mary Magdalene, “Do not touch me,” he said, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father”—but it’s not clear when that happens. 

On the other hand, before the Crucifixion, at the Last Supper, Jesus is already giving his Pentecost discourse, about it being better “if I go” “to prepare a place for you.”  The whole paschal event seems to be his Ascension.  It’s not about dates and numbers, it’s about the union of Father and Son.

He talks about “whoever loves me” and “will keep my word,” because “the word you hear is not mine but that of the Father who sent me.”  The Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Paraclete, “will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.”  It’s a matter of loving him so much that we cling to his words.

If we do, “we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.”  The word for dwelling, whence the Latin “mansiones” (from re-main), could be translated dwell, or remain, or abide.  It’s one of John’s favorite words: we abide in him, he abides in us, stay with me.  That’s the key, later in the reading, to “My peace I give to you” and “Do not let your hearts be troubled”: “I will come back to you.” 

Christianity is not a matter of practices.  Don’t water it down.  Don’t over humanize it.  Christianity is about dwelling with the God who dwells with us, the God who ascends to heaven and descends to us, in the Incarnation and in the sending of the Holy Spirit.  It is about God with us.  It has less to do with counting how many days till the next custom than with loving his Word, loving his commands, loving the people for whom he died—and loving him enough just to dwell with him. 

Are there ways you leave God out of your Catholic practices?

Fifth Sunday of Easter: New and Disconcerting

My children and I sing from time to time in an Anglican church choir.  It is an interesting experience, something like going to the Cloisters museum in New York City.  On the one hand, this parish preserves Catholic artistic traditions, especially music, far better than anywhere Catholic that I have experienced.  On the other hand, they do not share the Catholic faith, from submission to Peter to the unique necessity of Jesus Christ to various moral teachings.  (Interesting: like a museum, it is natural that a place uniquely focused on traditional practices will preserve those practices better than a Catholic parish that is more interested in preaching the integrity of the Catholic faith.) 

Easter was a fascinating example.  We sang the Gregorian introit (or entrance antiphon): “I have risen, and I am with you, alleluia.  You have laid your hand upon me, alleluia. Too wonderful for me this knowledge, alleluia, alleluia.”  Our choir director—I mean no disrespect when I say he is an excellent musician who does not believe what the Catholic Church teaches—made the very true observation that the traditional, Gregorian musical setting of this text isn’t very happy. 

It struck me that Easter is a little scary.  The Glorious Mysteries are not just Joyful.  They’re disconcerting.  They throw us off our balance.  Part of the reason people don’t accept the teaching of the Catholic Church—and why they rejected Jesus when he lived on this earth—is that the joy of Christian faith calls us far out of our comfort zone.  “You have laid your hand upon me” is good news—and also kind of scary news.  The Resurrection, far from eliminating death, calls us to pass to life through death.  It is frightening.

***

The same thing struck me with last week’s readings, for the Fifth Sunday of Easter.

In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas are “proclaiming the good news.” But the good news is, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”  They report what God has done for them—but it involves an awful lot of travel.  “He had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles,” which is great—but also means Paul’s whole conception of life, and culture, and home is turned upside down.  Christianity is not about being comfortable.

The reading from the second-to-last chapter of Revelation has the good news that God “will dwell with them” and “He will wipe every tear from their eyes.”  But he says, “I make all things new.”  It is “a new heaven and a new earth.  The former heaven and the former earth had passed away.”  We are not left in our cozy homes.  Jesus pulls us out of our place of comfort and takes us somewhere new.  We pass to the Resurrection, but only through the loss of what we thought life meant. 

“A new Jerusalem [is] coming down out of heaven from God”—a new way of life, in which we receive from God what we cannot attain by our own strength and would not have planned.  We are “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband”: and like any wedding, joy must be mingled with the fear and confusion of leaving our father and mother.

***

And so our Gospel, from the beginning of Jesus’s long Last Supper discourse in John, talks about glory.  “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.”  But why?  How?  The key is in “when”: “Now” is “When Judas had left them,” to go betray Jesus.  His glory comes through the Cross.  And we realize that glory is a different thing from comfort; the glorious mysteries are more unsettling than the joyful.

“If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself.”  Glory is the work of God, and that’s disconcerting.  Glory means God’s glory, and that is also disconcerting.  Glory takes us from a merely human life to a share in the divine.  Very disconcerting.

***

And then Jesus shifts his theme: “I give you a new commandment: love one another.  As I have loved you, so also should love one another.”  St. Thérèse points out that loving one another is not a new commandment; that was already the heart of the Old Testament.  And frankly, there are lots of ways that we naturally love one another: love our friends, our family, etc., at least when it’s convenient. 

The new commandment is to love “as I have loved you.”  That kind of love is so new, so distinctive, that “This is how all will know that you are my disciples.”  (He says, “If you have agape for one another”: that new love.)  Such a crazy change of life that it will make you look different from the world.

That’s disconcerting.

Easter is good news.  But it is a bit frightening.

What newness does the glory of Easter demand in your life?

A brief update

Readers and friends:

I’m sorry my posting has been so behind. Tonight, at the last hour of Sunday, I finally post my reflections for last Sunday and this.

As I have noted in a couple posts (here and here), the last six months have overwhelmed me. On my first day back from sabbatical, we began a comedy of errors with our upstairs tenant’s plumbing that lasted about a month.

A month and a half later, the week before Palm Sunday, a crazed neighbor drove his Audi down our narrow one-way quiet residential city block fast enough that when he clipped the big truck parked across the street from us, the Audi rolled, and landed upside-down, with its rear end through the back door of our family minivan. No one was hurt–my upstairs neighbor and I got outside to see the driver miraculously climb out of his upside down window with only a bloody nose, and boy was I relieved, when I stooped to see if there was another bloody body in the car, to find it empty. But we began a less humorous comedy of errors with our cheapo car insurance company that only ended a couple days ago: seven weeks driving around with a black garbage bag tied to our back window, trying to get the door replaced.

And that’s not even to mention the real excitement of my semester, which I’m afraid I can’t share, and which resulted in nothing, but was a huge amount of upheaval in the meantime.

I hope all of these things somehow make me a better Christian, and might filter down to my writing. But I haven’t gotten to write as much as I’d like. Now it’s summer, the plumbing and the car are fixed, the big drama of our spring is over, and I hope I’ll be back to something more ordinary!