Feast of the Most Holy Trinity: The Name of God

This Sunday’s feast, Most Holy Trinity, is underappreciated.  I think there are two reasons for that, both amounting to it seeming trivial.

Studying the Faith

First, it seems useless.  We love the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but the mechanics of the Trinity seems like trivia, debates for theologians but unconnected to our practical or spiritual lives.

But worse than useless, it seems almost hurtful.  It seems like the only use for the Trinity is to catch someone making an error that doesn’t matter.

Simple saints (pick your favorite), it seems, wouldn’t care about these technicalities, and might even get in trouble for explaining them wrong.  The Trinity seems like an academic test designed to get in the way of our relationship with God.

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Our Gospel, from John 3 (“God so loved the world”) responds to the second problem.  “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. . . . Whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

The name of the Trinity, like the name of Jesus itself, is not there to condemn, but to save.  Put it this way: it’s not that life is going along smoothly, and then along come these theological concepts to get us in trouble.  It’s not that we were already basically in heaven, and then it turns out that they’ll kick you out, or even punish you, if you don’t learn these obscure facts.

To the contrary, “whoever does not believe has already been condemned”: that is, life before the Gospel, life without God – especially unending life without God – is pretty empty.  There’s only so much television you can watch, so many donuts you can eat, before you realize that you were made for something better, and you wish you could reach it.

God tells us his name not to push us lower, but to raise us higher.  That knowledge is liberating.

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The story begins in the Old Testament.  In our reading from Exodus 34, God begins to tell Moses his name.  The Old Testament doesn’t tell us everything, but it tells us some wonderful things.

A chapel atop Sinai

“Moses went up Mount Sinai as the LORD had commanded him.”  The Lord commands – but what he commands is intimacy.  He isn’t asking Moses to jump up and down and pat his head; he isn’t asking for trivia.  He is telling Moses where to meet him.

And he tells Moses good news: “The LORD, the LORD, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity.”  It’s easy to believe in a God who is “slow to anger”; our culture has no problem believing that God ignores our sin.  What is harder to believe is that God is kind and faithful, that he actually does something for us.

The Lord is telling Moses his name: merciful and gracious, rich in kindness.  He is telling Moses good news.

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In our reading from Second Corinthians, we learn more about the name of the Lord.

Here we learn that his name is peace.  But this peace is more than an absence of war, it is active communion.  “Encourage one another, agree with one another, live in peace”: this is an active peace.  “And the God of love and peace will be with you.”  Who is God?  He is a God of love, a God of friendship, a God of fellowship: active peace.

And so the next sentence is, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”  The Greek for “greet” is “embrace,” or even better, “pull one another in.”  Handshakes and waves are nice, but the Biblical kiss of peace is not a gesture for strangers.  This is active love.  Paul moves back and forth between the God of love and the love of God’s people to show us what this name of God, “peace,” means.

And then comes a greeting that should amaze us: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”  This is our feast day: the Trinity.  And we find that the name of God is grace and love and fellowship.  The Father is love, the Son is grace, the Holy Spirit is fellowship.

This isn’t a secret code to keep people out, and it isn’t trivia.  This name of God is the good news.

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The first line of our Gospel is, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” It’s not “Loved the world so much”: it isn’t talking about the quantity of God’s love.  It’s talking about the way of God’s love, how God loves us.

He loves us by sending his Son, “so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life . . . believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

The way God loves us is by telling us his name, Father-Son-Holy Spirit, and by inviting us into the unfathomable love that name describes.  The Trinity is good news.

How do you go about pondering, or contemplating, who God is?

Pentecost: Go Out to All Nations

Sorry for the late post this week.  Saturday I worked for hours, and got lost in all the amazing readings, in the Old Missal and the New, for the Vigil and Ember Days, and all the rest.  Sunday I stay away from the computer.  Monday I had a kid in the hospital.  Today I’m finally ready to focus on the Sunday readings.

 

Bishops who were there called Vatican II a “new Pentecost.”  Like Pentecost, it is misunderstood.

From my recent reading I have come to appreciate the comparison.  They were not saying that Vatican II was really exciting, or a new beginning, or the birth of the Holy Spirit.

They were saying something specific.  At Pentecost, the Church went out to all the nations because the Church learned from the Holy Spirit to speak all their languages.  Both literally and figuratively, Vatican II is a new Pentecost because Vatican II put the Liturgy in the vernacular.

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Let me trace this dynamic through last Sunday’s readings.

In the reading from Acts 2, there are two parts.  In the second part, pilgrims from many nations say of the Apostles, “Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans?  Then how does each of us hear them in his native language?”  It is exactly parallel to Our Lady of Gaudalupe: “Isn’t Jesus the God of the Spaniards?  How then does his mother appear as one of us?”

“Yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”

Notice that they are not speaking in our own tongues whatever makes us comfortable.  That is not why the Church uses the vernacular.  They are speaking “of the mighty acts of God”: the vernacular is important because it allows people to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And that is the subject of the first part of our reading.  “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.”  It is the power of the Spirit, not the power of human accommodation.  They speak in tongues – but tongues of fire.  They speak, but – the pun is obvious in Greek – they speak not with human breath, with the breath of God, a strong driving wind (in Greek, “breath”) breathed into them from outside.

Pentecost isn’t about dumbing things down.  It is about the Spirit transcending our weakness.

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So too in 1 Corinthians 12.  The Gospel transcends “Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons.”  “Jews or Greeks”: that means insiders and outsiders, and it means different cultures.  You don’t have to speak Latin, or be European, or a Spaniard, or brought up and educated as part of the club.  “Slaves or free persons”: and you don’t have to be rich and powerful.

But why not?  Again, not because we dumb things down; that is not the meaning of Pentecost or Vatican II.  Unity comes by the power of Baptism, the work of Christ and his Holy Spirit: “we were all baptized into one body.”  The Unity is the Unity of the Body of Christ: “all the parts of the body.”

Knowing Christ through faith in his Word

And we are talking only about the Spirit who lets us say, “Jesus is Lord.”  Vernacular is about proclaiming Jesus, not about affirming difference for its own sake.  “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts” – “but the same God who produces all of them,” and they are all “given for some benefit.”  It is Jesus building up his body.  The Gospel is preached in many languages by the power of Jesus building up the Body of the Church.

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And then we had John 20. “The doors were locked where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews.”  There are different ways to deal with the divisions in the world.  One way is to lock yourself up, to build barriers and set yourself apart from the world.  (This is a popular reading of the “Benedict Option,” though I don’t think Rod Dreher, or St. Benedict, or Pope Benedict, would read it that way.)

But Jesus bursts through their doors.  And though preachers often focus on the “fear” and so assume that Jesus’s gift must be courage, what he says, twice, is “Peace.”  He gives them the peace of his presence within them.  The peace to face martyrdom.  The peace which binds people together.

He shows them his hands and his side, invites them to find peace in his Cross.  Again, not to paper over differences and try to be popular, but to set aside fear by being united to him, by the proclamation of his

Receive the Holy Spirit

Cross.

And he breathes on them, giving the ministry of forgiveness – above all, the ministry of Confession.  But his words are tough: not, “don’t worry, everyone’s going to heaven, forget about sin,” but “whose sins you retain are retained.”  They have a saving mission, a power that only Jesus can give, to work for the reconciliation of man with man and man with God, to give the peace that only Jesus can give.

Christianity – and Pentecost, and the right response to Vatican II – isn’t about locking ourselves behind closed doors.  But neither is it about capitulating to the culture.  It is about the power of Christ, staking everything on the power of the Gospel, proclaimed to all nations, to build up one body.

Do you lock yourself behind closed doors?  Why?

 

Glory be to the Holy Spirit

Glory Be and Devotion to the Holy Spirit

As we approach Pentecost, we should think about devotion to the Holy Spirit.  One approach is to pray the Glory Be.

For some reason it’s finally struck me recently, after twenty years of praying the Liturgy of the Hours, how often we say this prayer.  A parallel: the first couple times I went to a Byzantine Mass were in a chapel I stumbled into in Paris.  My French is only okay, and I didn’t understand much.  But I did notice how often they said, “ayez pitié sur nous,” have mercy on us.  Gosh, I thought, the Byzantines love that phrase.  But if you came to a Roman Liturgy of the Hours in the same situation, you might think, “wow, they love to say Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.”

One way to make our life more liturgical might be to run with that.  Love to say Glory be.  Say it often.  Say it well.  Say it like you mean it.  Be a Catholic.

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File:Rom, Vatikan, Petersdom, Baldachin und Cathedra Petri (Bernini).jpgIt’s such a simple prayer.

“Glory.”  There’s an old Christian pop song that my kids like that says, “there’s such a thing as glory.”  What does glory mean?  Oh, I’ve written about that before: it means majesty, it means light, it means awesomeness.  But there’s something to that old pop song: rather than trying to define it, let’s just glory in the reality of glory.  It’s a word that picks us up beyond the ordinary, that gives us hints of heavenly splendor, that says there are beauties of which this world can only dimly hint.  (A better song on the same old album says, “there’s a loyalty that’s deeper than mere sentiment, a music higher than the songs that I can sing”: there’s such a thing as glory.)

We should go there now and then.  We should go there often.  Glory!  Let that word be a moment of joy salting your days.

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Glory to the Father.  Our tradition knows how to pack a lot into a few words.  Mostly, I’m trying to get to the Holy Spirit.  But how can I keep from singing every word of this prayer?  (That’s all Gregorian chant is, you know: an exaltation in the beautiful, glorious words of the liturgy, an effort to hold on for just a few seconds to each of these life-changing, transfiguring words.)

God is glory.  That’s what glory is, and that’s what God is.  Glory to God in the highest means lingering in the sheer gloriousness of God, and recognizing that glory means what God is.

But beyond Glory to God, Glory to the Father.  Glory to a God who is more than Creator.  Creator is pretty awesome – and God is more glorious still.

You can’t have a Father without a Son (or daughter), the two words define one another.  Glory to a God who not only makes a creation, which only dimly hints at his glory, but a Son, who shares in it fully.  Glory to the Son who glories in the glory of his Father, who is nothing else but sharing in that glory.

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Glory to the Son has two sides, one in heaven, one on earth.  It revels in the eternal mystery of the Trinity, of God being two, Father and Son, who share in the same glory, of God the Father being one who glories in sharing his glory.

But Glory to the Son also revels in the Incarnation.  Glory to the Son means, as we look at the baby in the manger, at the strange homeless teacher, at the man on the Cross – and at the Transfiguration, and the Resurrected Christ – this man, one of us, shares in the glory of the Father.  He is “consubstantial with the Father.”  He is nothing less than the awesome glory of God, come among us.

How good God is!  Glory to a God who would bring his glory among us, who would be so close to us. Emmanuel!

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But Glory to the Holy Spirit says more.  It is as if we say, Glory to the Father, to God in heaven; and glory to the Son, to a God who walks among us; and glory to the Holy Spirit, to God who comes even closer to File:Illumination de la Croix du Careme 1.jpgus than the Incarnation.  In the Incarnation Jesus was near us.  But he sends the Holy Spirit to be within us, to be our own heart.  The Incarnation is awesome, but for us, the giving of the Holy Spirit is even greater.

Glory to the Holy Spirit means, all that awesomeness, all that glory we have reveled in in our little glimpse of heaven, all that glory we have given thanks for in the coming of the Son – all of that glory comes to dwell in our hearts, to make the Church the real Body of Christ, pulsing with his heart, living by his soul, branches on his vine, with his sap, the very Holy Spirit, no less glory than the Father himself, pulsing through us.

That’s the Gospel: that glory has come among us.  That Jesus who walks among us shares in the glory of the Father and gives that glory to us.

Where does devotion to the Holy Spirit fit in your day?