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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Fourth Sunday of Easter: the Good Shepherd

Last Sunday celebrated the Good Shepherd.  The first three Sundays of Easter remember the Resurrection, the fourth turns to the Good Shepherd, and then as we move toward the Ascension and Pentecost, we recall Christ’s promises to stay with his Church, in the Last Supper discourse in John’s Gospel (13-17).  Together these Gospels summarize the Acts of the Apostles and the foundation of the Church.

This year, our readings for Good Shepherd emphasize the strange way Jesus continues his Incarnation through the Apostles.

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In our first reading, from Acts, Paul and Barnabas proclaim, “the Lord has commanded us, I have made you a light to the Gentiles, that you may be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth.” 

Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church begins with the same dynamic.  “Christ is the Light of nations [Lumen Gentium]. Because this is so, this Sacred Synod gathered together in the Holy Spirit eagerly desires, by proclaiming the Gospel to every creature, to bring the light of Christ to all men, a light brightly visible on the countenance of the Church.”  Christ is the light.  His Gospel is the light.  But the Holy Spirit is present in the Church, so that the light of Christ’s face is reflected on the face of the Church. 

The same confusion between the prophet and the messiah—which one is “the light of the nations”—is in the texts Paul and Barnabas are quoting, from Isaiah 42, 49, and 60.

The Fathers of the Church call this “the mystery of the moon.”  The moon shines with a light not its own, reflecting the light of the sun. 

Jesus is the Good Shepherd.  Anyone else can be a good shepherd only by reflecting his light.

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Our second reading, from Revelation, takes us deeper into the strange confusion between Jesus and the Church.  The Shepherd is the Lamb (that’s a paradox).  The righteous are those who have washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb (another paradox).  “The Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water.”

He is the shepherd because he is the lamb, who knows the suffering of his sheep and dies for them.  They are his people when their purity is not to hide from suffering, but to immerse themselves in his blood.

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And so we come to our short Gospel, from John 10. 

The Good Shepherd discourse in chapter 10 is as strange as they come.  In vv. 1-5, Jesus introduces the door, the shepherd, the gatekeeper, and the sheep.  Which one is he?  In vv. 7-10, he is the door.  In vv. 11-13, he is the good shepherd, who lays down his life.  In vv. 14-16, he is the good shepherd who knows his sheep, and whose sheep know him.  In vv. 17-18, he again lays down his life. 

Verse 22 begins a new discourse, when “The Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem.  It was winter” (or more literally, at “the renewal,” Hanukkah, the celebration of when they renewed religious services in the Temple, after the Antiochene persecution, “in the rainy season”).  But he picks up the same theme again: “You do not believe because you are not my sheep,” he says.  “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”  It is there that our reading picks up.

“No one can take them out of my hand,” he says.  Without the previous verses, it is less clear that he has just said that some of the Jews of Jerusalem, God’s chosen people, have taken themselves out of his hand, though we got that message in Acts: “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first, but since you reject it and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.”  The message is not that everyone is fine.

Rather, the message is that we are fine, if we are in Jesus’s hands.  It’s not that we don’t need a Shepherd, but that we have one. 

Thus the short reading quickly takes a new turn.  From his sheep knowing his voice, he segues to them never perishing, and then to the Father: “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand.  The Father and I are one.”

He is pointing forward to chapter seventeen, where Jesus will say to the Father, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them,” and he prays, “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Jesus and the Father are one.  Jesus and the Church are one.  Jesus preaches through the Church, when the Church clings to Jesus.  The Church is united to the Father, when the Church is united to Jesus.  And the Church can have good shepherds only when they cling to the Good Shepherd.  It all depends on union with Jesus.

Do you find yourself searching for security apart from Jesus?

Why Are They So Nervous about Pope Francis?

Another group is out calling Pope Francis a heretic.  That group’s

claims are truly outrageous, but they fit into a pattern of nervousness about Pope Francis’s orthodoxy.  But we shouldn’t be nervous.

First, because that’s Protestant.  For me, a central part of becoming Catholic was deciding that, when my opinions clash with the Magisterium, I assume I’m wrong.  I believe in Christ’s promises to Peter.

Second, there are lots of factually incorrect assertions about Francis.  I know the temptation we all have—including theologians—to skim a document and claim we’ve read it closely.  But I teach Francis’s main documents, and every time I see a new controversy, I check his words carefully.  He isn’t saying the things people are afraid he’s saying. 

Third, what I find when I read him is that he’s saying really important things.  It’s not just that I tolerate him because he’s the Pope.  I think he’s a great, much-needed Pope.  It’s too bad people aren’t reading him.

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There are a lot of parallels between Francis and Vatican II—and the problems in how people (don’t) read both.  St. John Paul II spent his great papacy uncovering Vatican II, showing that the actual teaching of the Council was way richer than the politicized stuff a lot of people say about it.  JPII said, read the documents, and what you will find is the riches of the Catholic faith.

Benedict XVI was a great teacher, too, on how to read Vatican II.  One of his most important teachings was his lecture on the “hermeneutic of rupture.”  Hermeneutics is a fancy way to say that often what we get out of someone’s teaching says more about us than about the teaching.  We tend to hear what we want to hear, or what we expect to hear.  If you approach Pope Francis, or Vatican II, with the assumption that they’re saying something wrong, you’re going to tend to hear something wrong even where it isn’t being spoken.  People even did that to JPII.

That’s what Benedict XVI meant by “hermeneutic of rupture.”  Without even having read Vatican II, a lot of people assumed it was a break with the

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traditional Catholic faith.  But people don’t get that idea from Vatican II, they bring that idea with them, and it can keep us from reading what the Council actually says.  Ironically, that’s true of both liberals and conservatives: liberals are delighted to think that Vatican II is a break from the past, conservatives are horrified—and neither of them are reading what Vatican II actually says, they’re just bringing their assumptions.

The same is true with Pope Francis.  If you read what he says, there’s no rupture.  There is, as Benedict XVI says of Vatican II, reform, an effort at rediscovery and living things better—Benedict says the proper “hermeneutic” for Vatican II is not just “continuity,” but “reform in continuity.”  Reform is significant, and difficult, but it is not rupture.  But we can be so eager to find rupture that we never read what Francis actually says.

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So why do we bring that assumption of rupture to Francis?  A reforming Pope—it was true of JPII, also—can be challenging, and there are legitimately difficult ideas that Francis talks about.  I need to find time to talk about those ideas, too. 

But for now, I just want to suggest some alternative explanations, to suggest why we might be imposing a “hermeneutic of rupture” on a good Pope.  I want to emphasize at the beginning that the following suggestions are very different from one another.

1. Separation anxiety.  St. John Paul II spent several years dying.  We knew we would have to move on.  When he died, there was a funeral, a huge

mourning experience.  But when Benedict XVI resigned, he just walked away, quickly—we only had a month—and we didn’t get to mourn.  Instead, we have the weird situation of the previous pope still sitting there, walking-distance from the new pope.  Popes are different—Benedict XVI was very different from John Paul II, despite their friendship—and it’s hard to adjust to a new one.  We’re emotionally invested in Popes: that’s why they announce a new one with “Gaudium magnum, great joy,” and why we have a mourning period before the conclave.  We should have an emotional attachment to Pope Benedict—but we shouldn’t let it prevent us from reading what Pope Francis says.

2. The 24/7 media.  We see a lot more than we used to see, and spend a lot more time dissecting it.  Take Cardinal Kasper’s infamous contributions to the Synods on marriage.  Cardinals have always had a lot of opinions, but we didn’t use to hear them quite so much; part of the problem with Vatican II was that people weren’t used to so much press coverage—and now we have the internet.  The sausage was always made, but not we watch it over and over again on the internet.  On the personal level, even popes make mistakes—but the internet, like People magazine, makes us focus on that personal level more than on the level of actual papal teaching, which is much better.  In between the personal level and the doctrinal is the way of expressing things.  In any dialogue or writing process (this is my second draft of this post!) the first version won’t be the best.  But where we used to only hear the final statement, the official papal document, now we’ve spent so much time discussing the first, clumsier statement that we have trouble setting it aside to read the official version.  A perfect example is Kasper’s initial statement on communion for the divorced and remarried: it was riddled with theological problems.  What Francis finally said in Amoris Laetitia is NOT what Kasper said—but by the time the real document came out, we were all so exhausted and invested in the Kasper argument that we didn’t have the energy for a clear discussion of what the Pope really said.

3. The new media.  As recently as when John Paul II died, media was handled by massive centralized companies, including the big Catholic newspapers and EWTN.  Those centralized companies had their own dangers: they tended to promote centralization, from the New York Times’s big government to EWTN’s big papacy or the Wall Street Journal’s big business.  But in the blogosphere, there’s something almost Darwinian about the most negative, outlandish sources rising to the top: why click on responsible reporting when you can click on something exciting, true or untrue.  (Trump, of course, is a genius at manipulating this system, getting media exposure by being outlandish.)  And just as big media is inherently centralizing, the new media is inherently anti-authoritarian.  Again, this has more to do with media than with Francis: no matter who is Pope, outlandish and anti-authoritarian things on the internet are going to get a lot of clicks.  Readers need to be savvy.  So do writers: it’s awfully tempting to be flattered by the traffic, and think that if people are clicking on us, we must be saying something important.  Pray for your new-media authors.

4. Us vs. them.  As to the substance of what he says, Francis is harder on people inside the Church than on people outside.  We are a tribal race, and we live in tribalist times: we all prefer to hear that we are right and everyone else is wrong.  When Pope Benedict said “dictatorship of relativism,” it felt great to us who oppose relativism.  (Though if you read what he actually said, it’s not as tribalist as people think.)  Francis is kind to non-Catholics and hard on Catholics—and he has been more successful than JPII and Benedict XVI at making us hear that criticism.  But if you read the prophets, or the saints, or the Gospels, you realize that God’s word is always harder on “us” than it is on “them.”  The prophets who said, “we are fine and everyone else is bad” were false prophets, whom the true prophets condemn.  Whereas Jesus constantly warns us against being Pharisees.  Francis is in the best prophetic tradition—but none of us like to hear the message that we need to be better Catholics than we are.

5. Poverty.  Opposition to Pope Francis did not begin when he started talking about marriage.  It was strong from day one, when all we knew was that as a cardinal, he rode the bus and cooked his own dinner, and that as Pope he said, “How I long for a Church that is poor and for the poor!”  The

Church’s teaching on money is hard for us to accept.  When Francis was elected, I had only just come around to those ideas.  When Benedict XVI wrote his encyclical on economics, I was one of the many people who rejected it—until I had to teach it, and discovered that Church teaching on economics is (a) presented by the Magisterium as magisterial, not optional, (b) about moral obligations: not macroeconomics, and not an endorsement of one secular political party or economic system over another, but the moral responsibility of each of us to care more about other people than about money, and (c) not trying to replace personal prudence, or microeconomics: the Church doesn’t tell a businessman exactly what wage to pay his employees, any more than it tells a father what to feed his children or how exactly to teach them—though it does assert, contrary to the secular world, that a businessman has a moral responsibility to his employees and customers, just as a father has a responsibility for his children.  Unfortunately, our hostility to misrepresentations of Church teaching on economics often makes us close our ears to the real teaching of the popes.  Pope Francis has been more successful than Benedict XVI, John Paul II, and other recent popes at making sure we know that he is talking about economics, but because we still don’t know what the Church teaches about economics, he makes people nervous.  (The same could be said about mercy, or clericalism.)  So ironically, because Francis is boldly proclaiming traditional, orthodox Church teaching on an issue that makes American Catholics nervous, too many of us fear him, instead of welcoming his magisterial voice.

Poverty, us vs. them, the new media, the 24/7 media, and separation anxiety: some of the opposition to Francis is rooted in rejection of previous papal teaching, but I think much of the opposition is from people who just haven’t thought through their emotional attachment to the last pope.  We should pray for all of them, and recognize our own tendencies to thoughtlessness and self-righteousness.

I love the Pope because he’s the Pope.  I love Pope Francis.  And I’m sad that all these issues are keeping people from hearing the important things he has to say to us.

Third Sunday of Easter: Torn from Our Nets

The Third Sunday of Easter rounds out the Resurrection stories: Easter Vigil is from the Year of Matthew, Mark, or Luke, Easter morning is John (or optional Luke), and the Second Sunday is the appearance to Doubting Thomas, which John tells us occurs a week after.  The Fourth Sunday will be Good Shepherd, and the rest of Easter is from the farewell discourse in John 13-17.

This year our story is Peter and the guys out fishing.  Peter puts his clothes on and jumps in the water when he hears Jesus call.  It’s one of my family’s favorite slapstick moments in the Gospels—Peter’s enthusiasm is infectious—and I have been thinking about the humor of John’s Gospel, which returns again and again to the confusions of fleshy people trying to think about Jesus’s words.

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But I did a little research about fishing on the Sea of Galilee, and what strikes me even more than the humor is Peter’s vocation.

Peter is a fisherman.  Jesus sends them home to Galilee, and Peter says, “I am going fishing”—all night.  It’s who he is.

He has no luck that night.  But Jesus’s ability to give them fish points to how much providence there is in fishing.  I don’t think it suggests that Peter was a bad fisherman.

Our translation says, “He tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad.”  That’s polite.  It’s more like, “he pulled on a pull-over, and tied a belt around it”—casual fishing clothes, I think—“because he was naked.” 

Modern fishermen in Galilee, from https://ferrelljenkins.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/fishermen-galilee_fjenkins110505_52t.jpg?w=768&h=576

Now, it’s fair enough to conjecture that “naked” just meant “under-dressed.”  Okay.  But it sounds like the way this kind of fishing worked, you’d throw a net in the water with weights on one side and floats on the other, and then use your boat to pull it around in a circle, so you have a kind of cylinder.  Then someone has to dive down and pull the bottom of the net closed: my favorite Bible dictionary describes seeing fishermen do this in late nineteenth century Galilee, so it’s not impossible, and it might just be the traditional way to do it.  It would explain why Peter was naked—swim trunks are a new thing—and why he thinks nothing of jumping back in.  Peter was a serious swimmer.

Then we hear that Peter swam to land, while the others rowed.  Yes, Peter’s swimming is enthusiastic.  But it’s also athletic.  It says they were a hundred yards from shore, which was short for their little boat.  But for a swimmer, that’s two lengths of an Olympic-size pool, or four lengths in a normal pool—fully clothed, just after grabbing that net from the bottom.  That’s athletic.

Then Peter rushes over and single handedly drags ashore a net full of one hundred fifty-three large fish—these were probably Mango Tilapias, about eighteen inches long and three and a half pounds each, so five hundred thirty-five pounds of fish, plus soaking wet netting: no wonder the guys couldn’t get that net into the boat.  Peter is really athletic.  Perhaps he has the miraculous strength of the Resurrected One, but he is really athletic.

“St. Peter’s fish,” in Galilee today

Then they eat fish and bread over a seaside fire, as if to drive home Peter’s natural environment.  Peter was a fisherman, the kind who fished with big nets.

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But the Lectionary, always brilliant, pairs that story with the next one, “Do you love me?”  People are right to focus on the love part—and perhaps that love is the perfect explanation for Peter’s swimming enthusiasm. 

But I’m interested in the fisherman.  It’s fascinating that in such a fisherman context, Jesus changes the subject, mixes the metaphor.  He

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doesn’t tell Peter to be a fisherman.  He says, “Feed my lambs.”  (The threefold repetition brings out three parts of shepherding: food for the baby lambs, watch over the big sheep, and feed the big sheep.)  Peter is not a shepherd, he’s a fisherman.  I imagine shepherds and fishermen didn’t understand each other.

And then the punchline: “When you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted.”  In fact, we have just seen Peter’s athletic youthfulness, his dressing himself and freedom with his clothes—naked, wet clothes, he does whatever he wants—and his going where he wants: fishing, not shepherding. 

Nice that Jesus calls him, “Simon, Son of John,” pointing to his origin—and tearing him from it. 

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John tells us this was Jesus’s third appearance to the apostles.  He had appeared to Mary Magdalene (not the apostles) and said, “Do not touch me.”  He appeard to the Apostles the first time in the Upper Room, and showed them his hands.  He appeard to Thomas and the Apostles the second time and let Thomas touch his hands.  And now he is helping them fish and eating with them.  He gets fleshier and fleshier.

And the more real he is, the more the power of the Resurrection tears Peter from his comfortable home place and drags him out, to pastoral concern for others instead of fishing with the guys whenever he wants—“I am going fishing!”—and to his own crucifixion.

Where is the power of the Resurrection drawing you?

Passion Sunday: The Silent Teacher

In this time of waiting, between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, a thought on Jesus the teacher, from Palm Sunday.

I was struck by an odd connection in Palm Sunday’s reading from Isaiah 50.  On the one hand, it is about suffering: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard.”  But it is also about proclamation: “The Lord God has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them.”  Somehow he teaches through suffering: the training of his tongue is in the plucking of his beard.

That’s key to Psalm 22, as well.  It’s a long Psalm, and though it has much of “My God, my God, why have you abondened me?”—“All who see me scoff at me,” “Many dogs surround me,” “They divide my garments amount them”—it also talks about preaching.  The Liturgy gave us the final verses: “I will proclaim your name to my brethren; in the midst of the assembly I will praise him.”  One point is that the one who asks the question about being abandoned does not in fact thing he is abanonded—he prophesies his own triumph.  But another point is that the one who suffers triumphs through preaching.

The Christ hymn from Philippians hit a similar theme.  The Liturgy often takes the verses out of context, so that it only tells us about “Christ Jesus,” who “though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.”  But Philippians introduces the hymn, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus . . . .”  His emptying himself and taking the form of a slave is his preaching.  It preaches to us both the mind we should have, and also his glory: “Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name.” 

He preaches by emptying himself.

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I was struck, when we read Luke’s account of the Passion, by all the questions.  Way back when he was twelve, we “found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions,” and then heard him ask his mother, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  “And they did not understand the saying . . . .  And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart.”

This was the way the rabbis taught, by asking questions.  I know as a teacher (though I wish I was better) that it’s easy to talk and talk while your students sit glassy-eyed and wait for you to finish.  What’s hard is getting them to think about what you say.  Often the best way to do that is with questions they have to treasure in their hearts.

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Central to Luke’s account of the Passion is his trial by the Sanhedrin.  “If you are the Christ, tell us,” they say, like students who just want Teacher to give the answers without making them think.  Jesus says, “If I tell you, you will not believe,” and adds, oddly, “and if I question, you will not respond.”  There is something here about teaching, in the style of the rabbis.  You won’t believe what I tell you—but also, if I just tell you the answers, I will rob you of the opportunity to make an act of faith.  Jesus’s silence, his inaction, calls forth our active participation, our act of faith. 

He calls himself only “the Son of Man,” but provokes them to ask, “Are you then the Son of God?”  He replies, “You say that I am.”  They respond, “We have heard it from his own mouth”—but how odd, that it doesn’t come from his mouth, it comes from theirs.  By his silence, he makes them speak.

He does the same thing to Pilate.  Pilate asks the question that matters to him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”  And Jesus responds, “You say so.” 

Jesus doesn’t want to do it for us.  He wants to draw us to an act of faith.  That is how he teaches through the silence of the Cross.

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In fact, the whole long reading, 113 verses, is a series of questions.  “I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes,” he says.  And then after supper, he takes the cup, and says, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood”—and we are left to question what just happened.

“The hand of the one who is to betray me is with me on the table”—“And they began to debate among themselves who among them would do such a deed.”  Good question.

They argue who is greatest, and he asks, “Who is greater: the one seated at table or the one who serves?”  Good question.

Peter says, “I am prepared to go to prison and to die with you”—and Jesus lets the statement hang pregnantly: are you?

“When I sent you forth without a money bag or a sack of sandals, were you in need of anything?”

“Pray that you may not undergo the test.”  “Father, if you are willing, take this cup.”  Statements that raise questions.

“Are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?”  “Have you come out as against a robber?”

He leads Pilate to ask, “What evil has this man done?”  Good question.

When the women weep, as if they see what’s happening, he turns it around: “If these things are done when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

When he is on the cross, they say, “He saved others, let him save himself”—and we ask, yeah, why doesn’t he?

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But the story ends with two other people answering the questions.  “We have been condemned justly,” says the Good Thief.  “This man was innocent beyond doubt,” says the Centurion.

On the Cross Jesus empties himself, and questions us with his silence.  The good teacher leads us not by giving us all the answers, but by leaving us to ponder, and to make an act of faith.

How could you give Jesus more space to ask you questions?