Epiphany Sunday – A Great Light


IS 60:1-6; PS 72: 1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13; EPH 3:2-3a, 5-6; MT 2:1-12

Sunday we celebrated the feast of the Three Kings. (It ought to be on Wednesday, Jan. 6, but we move it because organizing solemnities is difficult in some places. Perhaps, like me, you are inclined to get annoyed about things like this. If so, join me in trying to be patient with our priests and bishops: unless you’ve lived their vocation, try not to complain. Meekness is good for us.)

We know the story of the kings. We can see the superficial similarities in the Old Testament readings: our reading from Isaiah says, “Caravans of camels shall fill you . . . bearing gold and frankincense”; our Psalm says, “the kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts; the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute.” But what is this all about? And do these readings have more than a superficial connection to the birth of Christ?

There are hints to the deeper point in several places. Before the reading from Isaiah gets to the camels, it says, “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come. . . . Darkness covers the earth . . . but upon you the Lord shines. . . . Nations shall walk by your light.” Our story this week is about a light that shines forth from Jerusalem.


The theology shines out from the Psalm. “O God, with your judgment endow the king,” it begins. We come face to face with grace. The king is good – endowed also with “your justice,” so that “he shall govern your people with justice and your afflicted ones with [good, divine] judgment” – because God has enlightened him.

There is a beautiful ambiguity about who, which king, this Psalm has in mind.

First, it seems to talk about the Messiah. “Justice shall flower in his days, and profound peace, till the moon be no more. May he rule from sea to sea.” This is apocalyptic, the ultimate king. It is Jesus who is first anointed with the grace of divine wisdom.

But then it speaks of “the kings of Tarshish and the Isles . . . the kings of Arabia and Seba. . . . All kings. . . . all nations.” From Christ’s anointing flows ours. From his fullness of grace we receive. As he is anointed with divine wisdom, so are we. God is with us in the baby in the cradle – but God is with the kings, too, enlightening them to come find this baby.


The same theme rings out in our reading from Ephesians. First he speaks of “the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for your benefit, namely, that the mystery was made known to me by revelation.” St. Paul has special knowledge – “it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” He can write the Bible for us because he knows what others do not. We are illumined by his rays.

(In evening prayer we pray, from the same Ephesians, “God has given us the wisdom to understand fully the mystery.” Our reading today seems to explain why the tradition thinks St. Paul is speaking about himself here: God has given him the wisdom. He has special insight, special light – to enlighten us.)

The specific mystery Paul is discussing here, however, is the diffusion of this light: “the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body.” The Church gives us this reading for the Three Kings, first, because the Three Kings show that the revelation of Christ is not just for the Jews, but even for the Gentiles. With the Three Kings, all nations begin to stream into Jerusalem.

But this calling of the Gentiles is connected to Paul’s one calling. It is all about grace. Paul knows by grace, the Gentiles know by grace. It is not by family ties, not by human wisdom – it is by the light streaming out from Christ.


With this in mind, we can draw more from the Gospel. Most of the story is about King Herod. This is remarkable. He too is a king – but even better, he is a Jewish king, king of the Jews. He has the revelation – he has the books where “it has been written through the prophet” where to find the Messiah, the true king, “a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

But he does not have the light. This king has not been endowed with God’s justice. Revelation is not just about having a book – a Bible, or a Catechism, or anything else, though those books to reflect some of the light shining from the faces of the apostles. We learn a lot from those books (as we are learning now from our Bible readings).

But we can only see if the light of Christ shines in our hearts. The true light is not a privilege of birth, not a matter of human power. The true light is the grace of Christ.

What part of your life could you see better if you let Jesus enlighten you?

The Holy Family: Off-Balance

fra angelico nativityThe first Sunday after Christmas, we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family.  As Jesus enters into a family, and we celebrate Christmas together as family, it seems appropriate to celebrate the beauty of family, the original vocation.  But all is not as expected.

The first reading, from Samuel, is the dedication of the child Samuel.  Hannah has prayed for a child – prayed for the gift of family.  It says she called him Samuel, “since she had asked the Lord for him” – implying that in Hebrew “Samuel” means something like, “I asked, God answered.”  But when God grants her prayer, she turns it upside down.

Our Gospel reading will have the Holy Family praying together.  “Each year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover.”  Family and faith in beautiful unity.

But that is not the case with Hannah.  “The next time her husband Elkanah was going up with the rest of his household to offer the customary sacrifice to the Lord and to fulfill his vows, Hannah did not go.”  God grants her prayer for family, and she responds by not praying together with her husband.

And then she gives up her family: “Once the child is weaned, I will take him to appear before the Lord and to remain there forever; I will offer him as a perpetual nazirite.”  As a small boy she will send him away forever.  (A tradition says Mary’s parents did the same with her.)

This is a strange reading for a celebration of family.


The key is in the Gospel, the Finding in the Temple, from Luke.  It begins with family togetherness.  But this time, it is not the mother, but the child – Jesus himself, God from God, Light from Light – who breaks the unity of the family: “the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it.”

In their attempt to resolve the problem, we see the unity of the family: they “looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances.”  Such a joyful procession of family and acquaintances, a village of human affection, going up to pray in Jerusalem.  And Jesus is not there.

Mary’s words when at last they find him, three days later, in the Temple, are a key to understanding St. Joseph’s place in the love of the Holy Family.  “Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.”  Mary speaks for the heart of Joseph.  She and Joseph share one anxiety for their child.  Heart speaks to heart; this is a marriage of profound friendship.

And a depth of family, too.  It is of course biologically untrue to call Joseph “your father.”  And yet in the love of the Holy Family – for example, in their loving anxiety for one another – Joseph is Jesus’s father.  These are not cold, formal relationship.  In Mary’s short words are a whole world of humanity, of family affection.

But Jesus is not there.  The anxiety of the parents for their child is tied to the words, “Why have you done this to us?” – forever the words of parents to children who do not respect their family ties.

And Jesus responds with disrespect: “Why were you looking for me?”  Why indeed!  “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Here is the heart of the matter: Jesus is Son of Man, but also Son of God.  He who takes flesh and blesses this world comes from outside of this world, and calls us beyond this world.

At the end of the story, “he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.”  He entered back into human family, his self-emptying marked by his obedience to human parents.  But that obedience always teeters on the edge of a higher calling: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

This is what “his mother kept . . . in her heart”: the tension of man and God, human family and divine vocation.


For the Epistle, we had a choice between Colossians and First John – but the message of both is about the same.  On the one hand are the virtues of family love: “heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another” (Col. 3); “love one another just as he commanded us” (1 Jn 3).

But in both, that human love is rooted in the divine: “let the peace of Christ control your hearts . . . .  Let the word of Christ dwell in your richly. . . . Do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

In short, the only way to discover family is through holiness; we can only know the beauty of father, mother, child, and love if we keep foremost the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Our families can only thrive if we live a calling higher than family.

In what ways does your family need you to look beyond family, to your divine vocation?

All Saints and the Transformation of Halloween


REV 7:2-4, 9-14; PS 24:1bc-2, 3-4ab, 5-6; 1 JN 3:1-3; MT 5:1-12a

Every year my wife and I have a big discussion about how we should deal with Halloween.  I’ll let you know if we ever come up with a good answer.  We have five little kids.  We don’t want them embracing the world’s standards of good and evil, beautiful and ugly.  We’re not excited about lots of candy.  And – on the other hand – we think that somehow, somewhere, there’s a good insight in Halloween, and we’re not into just ignoring our culture.

Halloween is, of course, really All-Hallow’s Eve, the night before All Saints.  The original insight is something along the lines of, All Saints (Nov 1) remembers those in heaven, All Souls (Nov 2) remembers those in Purgatory – and Hallow’s Eve (Oct 31) remembers the forces of Hell.  There’s something to that.

Our readings for the feast take us deeper.


The first reading is from Revelation.  All Saints is an apocalyptic feast.  It introduces November, the month of the dying of the year, by turning our gaze toward the end of time.

The reading from Revelation speaks of the great battle between the forces of heaven and the forces of hell.  It begins with “the four angels who were given power to damage the land and the sea” – the great destruction at the end of time.

The saints are gathered around the Lamb, singing his praises.  If we read more of Revelation, we know that its central image is “the Lamb who was slain,” a magnificent apocalyptic vision of Christ as victim.

The saints themselves are described here as “the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.”  Already we are turning the gore of Halloween inside out: the ax murderers and the zombies are replaced with those bathed in the blood of the Victim.

The destroying angels stand for God’s condemnation of the standards of this world.  Or, to put it more positively, all things are passing, God alone remains.  It is not God who condemns this world, but this world that condemns itself, by clinging to what does not remain and forgetting the one thing necessary.  The blood-stained saints have held on to Jesus when all else collapsed.


We need to be in this apocalyptic frame of mind to appreciate fully our Gospel reading.  It is perhaps the most profound reading in all of Scripture, all of literature: the Beatitudes.

We can read them against Halloween.  Against pirates and princesses, Christ proclaims, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  The world dresses up as the powerful and the plunderers – and Christ calls us to imitate him, the powerless who was plundered.

While the world celebrates conquest, Christ celebrates those who mourn.

The closest the world can get to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, and the peacemakers is superheros.  But as the world decides whether to dress up as Batman or a zombie, we see that Christ calls us to a very different kind of heroism, our strength not in superpowers or high-tech weapons, but in the suffering of the Lamb.

bergognone-peter-the-martyrThe multitude of saints in Revelation have axes in their heads, not in their hands.


In this apocalyptic light we also read our epistle, from First John.

“See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called children of God.”  How fascinating that, as our children dress up as adults, Christ calls us adults to become as children.

Yet avoiding the worldliness that affects our children, too.  “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.”  We are not called to become children in the sense that we mindlessly embrace the world’s standards of glory and go seeking after candy.  We are called to become children in the sense that we take God as our Father, Christ as our model, and the Holy Spirit as our soul and way of life.

Halloween reminds us of the world’s standards, the world’s mistaken views of good and evil, of glory and gory.  It reminds us that the saints live by an entirely different standard, one that turns worldly values inside out.

“Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure.”  But part of that purity is seeing the foolishness of this world, associating ourselves with the victims, and the Victim, of this world’s crimes.

Like I said, I’ll let you know if I ever figure out how to turn these ideas into a children’s party.  But I think it means something deeper than just turning our backs on Halloween, or just embracing it.  To truly appreciate All Saints, and the fabulous new standards that it sets before us, we need to look Halloween in the face, and turn it on its head.

How does Halloween help you think about the Beatitudes, or the Apocalypse?

Religion of the Heart

our-lady-of-sorrows-05_0For whatever reason, the priest at the Mass I attended today left the feast out of the Liturgy of the Word.  He did the prayers for Our Lady of Sorrows, but for the Gospel, instead of either option listed in my Missal (either John 19, at the foot of the Cross, or Luke 2, the prophecy of Simeon), he just did the Gospel for Tuesday of this week, Luke 7:11-16.  He didn’t preach on it, but for me, it was a very happy coincidence.

The reading was the widow of Nain.  “When he drew near to the gate of the city, behold, there was carried out one that was dead, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow: and many people of the city were with her.  And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her, ‘Weep not.’ . . . And he said, ‘Young man, I say unto thee, Arise.’”

It is a splendid Gospel for Our Lady of Sorrows.


Jesus has compassion on the heart of the mother.  The Greek word here for compassion is one of my favorites.  It’s the word for how Jesus felt when he saw they were like sheep without a shepherd, and when he wanted to feed the hungry thousands.  It’s the word for the lord in the parable who forgave his servant’s debt.  And it’s the word for what motivates both the good Samaritan and the father of the Prodigal Son.  Nice.

Even better, it’s the verb form of the word in the Canticle of Zechariah when he says, “through the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us.”

But to really understand this word, we need one ugly use of it.  When Peter is talking about replacing Judas at the beginning of Acts, he says, “Now this man obtained a field with the reward of his iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out.”

The word is splagchna, a delightfully splattery word for “guts.”  The pleasant way to translate it might be “viscera,” which we use in English mostly as “visceral.”  Something is “visceral” when you have an emotional reaction in your splagchna, your guts.  It’s deeper down than your heart – more visceral.  The liturgy is a bit too tender when it says “tender compassion.”  The words are “the guts of his mercy,” the visceral gut-wrenching of his compassion.


Christ’s reaction to the widow of Nain – as his reaction to us, his wandering sheep – is gut-wrenching.  He has a compassion that makes him sick.  “I am sick with love,” says the Bride in the Song of Songs.  It’s “langueo” in Latin: I languish, I’m dying.

The remarkable thing in the story of the widow of Nain is that she too is languishing with love.  Christ has compassion on the gut-wrenching pain of the mother for her son.  His heart is poured out for hers – just as his heart is poured out for Mary at the death of her son.  Heart speaks to heart.


Now, as I hope becomes clear as we focus on the compassion of Christ, the mystery here is really more about love than sorrow.  In our Italian parish, there seems to be a desire to portray Our Lady of Sorrows – she seems to be a favorite Italian image (I don’t know, I’m sure not Italian) – as overwhelmed with tears.  As I’ve said before, I prefer the tradition that insists that Mary stands at the Cross: she is strong in her sorrow.

And she is strong for the same reason she is sorrowful: because of love.  So too, the love of Jesus makes his guts churn, yes – but in a way that leads him to action: like the Good Samaritan (Jesus is the Good Samaritan) or the father who runs out to meet his son.

The point isn’t that they collapse in tears.  The point is that they are overwhelmed with love.


The heart – understood in this visceral way – is the heart of our religion.  Catholicism is profoundly personal.  (We have ritual, in fact, to create the space for truly personal encounter with Christ.)  The hearts of Jesus and Mary are essential to understanding who they are, and who we are meant to be.

Christ became flesh so that he could pour his heart out for us.  We who are flesh receive the love of God in our hearts to make them fleshy hearts, so that we will pour out our hearts for him.  Heart speaks to heart, splagchna to splagchna.


The first reading for today, it just so happened, was from Paul’s instruction on bishops, deacons, and their wives.  The place of the women here is a little awkward: their behavior matters (especially at a time when many bishops and deacons, the text makes obviously, were married).  But they are not in charge.

Ah, but there’s the point.  Our religion has nothing to do with being in charge.  Jesus is moved with compassion for the widow of Nain not because she is in charge, but because she loves, and he loves.  That love is everything.

That is the true lesson of Our Lady at the foot of the Cross.

Where do you experience the viscera of Jesus and Mary?  What moves your splagchna to mercy?


The Assumption: Our Feast

dormitio2Today’s feast, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, is in a sense the biggest feast of the year.

Of course, Easter is the biggest feast of the year, and Christmas is close behind.  But whereas Easter and Christmas celebrate the actions of Christ, the feasts of the saints, and above all today’s feast, celebrate the consequences of Christ’s actions, the victory he has won.

It is like celebrating the painter and his paintings.  Of course there are no paintings without the painter; everything great about the paintings merely reflects the genius and technique – the wisdom and power – of the painter.  On the other hand, we know precious little about the painter without studying his paintings.  The paintings express his greatness, and they are the reason for his work.

Protestantism rightly underlines the centrality of Christ.  But all the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is on display in our celebration of the saints, and their failure to celebrate them.  The Protestant Jesus doesn’t accomplish much; he gets sinners to heaven, but he doesn’t make them holy.  The Catholic Jesus creates masterpieces.

Mary is nothing, nothing at all, without Jesus.  She receives everything from him – as a blank canvas does not paint itself.  But Mary is Jesus’s greatest masterpiece, the clearest splendor of his wisdom and power, and the promise of what Jesus offers to us.  In this sense, Mary, and especially her Assumption, is the Gospel.


We celebrate the saints on their death days – the day of their birth into heaven.  This is that day for Mary.  (We don’t know if Mary died before her Assumption; the Tradition tends to say she did, though modern devotion tends to assume she did not.)

Mary has many feasts, but this is the feast of her victory, her ultimate feast: the ultimate feast of the saints, the ultimate feast of Jesus’s work.  The other Marian feasts celebrate particular aspects of Mary – even January 1, the feast of Mary, Mother of God, is a celebration of her maternity, her role in Christmas.  Today we celebrate her sanctity, her victory, Jesus’s ultimate gift to her.

It is a feast, first of all, of sanctity.  We can say she “earned” the Assumption through her sanctity – as long as we hear those words the way Catholic theoloy calls us to hear them.  First, sanctity itself cannot be earned, it is a gift.  It is Jesus’s work in her soul.  That’s the most important reason we celebrate the Immaculate Conception: to remember that Jesus worked in her before she even existed, intervened in her very coming to be.

Second, the Catholic theology of “merit” is about congruence, not earning.  It isn’t that Jesus “owed” her heaven.  It’s that he made her worthy of heaven.  Heaven means standing in the presence of God, worshipping him forever.  The Protestant theology of heaven without merit – if we understand merit appropriately – is a contradiction, as if we could enjoy God’s presence without loving him.  Mary “merited” heaven in the sense that her heart was truly converted to love of God; it made sense for her to be in heaven, whereas we, with our sin, wouldn’t fit: sin means that we don’t really want to be in God’s presence.

Today we celebrate that Jesus has made Mary fit for heaven.  We celebrate the joy of heaven, and we celebrate the Gospel promise that Jesus can do that “great thing” for us, as well.


Today we celebrate, alongside Mary’s soul ascending to heaven, Jesus bringing her body to heaven, too.

In this, we celebrate above all the humanity of heaven.  We celebrate, in fact, the image of God.  It’s tempting to think we would have to be something different to fit into heaven.  That’s Satan’s greatest lie, one he tells us over and over again: holiness is no fun, holiness means denying your nature, not really being you.

Jesus did not have to take Mary’s body into heaven.  But in doing so, he proclaims that our whole selves fit into heaven.  Our body is not the obstacle.  Sin is not about our bodies; holiness is not about being less bodily, or less human.  Jesus (the Word through whom all things were made) created us in the beginning in his image and likeness; he created us so that we, in the fullness of our humanity, can ascend to the presence of God.  We haven’t done that yet – but in the Assumption of Mary, Jesus shows us that our bodies are no obstacle to heaven.


Finally, like everything else about Mary, the Assumption proclaims Christocentrism.  It is only our proximity to Christ that can save us.  Again, Jesus didn’t have to do anything.  But he chose to make her “full of grace,” and to give her the unique privilege of the Assumption, as a way of proclaiming the Gospel.  By giving this special privilege to Mary, to rise before the General Resurrection, he reminds us that everything flows from our closeness to him.

How does devotion to the Assumption of Mary help you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called (Eph. 4:1)?

The Sacred Heart and the Filioque

Holy Trinity, Rublev

Holy Trinity, Rublev

As we considered Pentecost and the Feast of the Holy Trinity, we thought a little about the Filioque.  In the original, Greek version of the Creed, they said the Holy Spirit, “proceeds from the Father; with the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.”  But in the Latin Church we add Filioque, and the Son: “proceed from the Father and from the Son.”

Today we can consider how this Latin-Church insight goes together with the Sacred Heart.

The simple point is this: the Holy Spirit pours out to us from the Heart of Jesus.


Consider some really simple line-drawings of the Trinity.  Sometimes people seem to think the Trinity is kind of like this:


/          \

Son     Holy Spirit

Sometimes people seem to think that the Holy Spirit is an alternate way to God.  Then we sort of end up with a “conservative” Son-religion and a “liberal” Spirit-religion, in tension with one another.  There are those who think you need the Son, and all the dogmatic baggage he brings with him – and those who think you just need the Holy Spirit, who frees us from the Son.

This can cut various ways.  For some people, the Son-religion seems to be the religion of judgment and rules, and the Spirit-religion is the religion of no rules.  But an interesting reverse side of this is that sometimes the Son-religion seems like the religion of mercy, and the Spirit-religion leaves you to do it yourself.


Well, neither of these are right.  (And I don’t think the Eastern Orthodox who deny Rome’s right to add the Filioque to the Creed would be happy with these alternatives, either.)

First, the Holy Trinity is inseparable.  That’s kind of the central point of the Trinity: not three gods but one.  You cannot have the Son without the Spirit, or the Spirit without the Son, or the Father without both.  Thinking through the details of this is tricky, but basic simple orthodoxy has to realize that Father-Son-Holy Spirit is a package deal.

Second, the Son and the Spirit are inseparable.  In fact, we don’t follow the Son-religion or the Spirit-religion, we follow the Christian religion.  But in the early Church (especially the Greek-speaking Church: “Christos” is a Greek word) it was clear that the “Christ” is the “anointed one” (in Hebrew, Messiah), and what he is anointed with is the Holy Spirit.  This is one of the main points of John Paul II’s encyclical on the Holy Spirit Dominum et Vivificantem.  To call him Christ is to see the Holy Spirit as the one who dwells on the Incarnate Son, and the Incarnate Son as the one on whom the Holy Spirit dwells.


So our picture could instead be something like:

Father -> Son -> Holy Spirit

This still isn’t exactly right, but it’s a lot better.  (And again, it’s something the Eastern Orthodox would be perfectly happy with.)

The Holy Spirit is our gift from the Son – poured out from the pierced Heart of Jesus – and what the Holy Spirit does is to draw us into union with the Son.  And this is the only path to the Father: we know the Father precisely and only by receiving the Spirit from the Son, and receiving union with the Son through union with the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is the outpouring of the heart of Christ.  He is the Spirit of Christ.  We could even in a sense say the Holy Spirit is the heart of Christ.


The Incarnation, particularly the Sacred Heart of Jesus, shows us the glory of the Spirit.  Without the Sacred Heart, Spirit-religion can be a bit vague.  But the glory of the Spirit is precisely that he can make us as deeply human as the Son.  The heart of Jesus is the pattern that the Holy Spirit works in us, the image of our own “spiritual” transformation.  The Holy Spirit doesn’t just make us vaguely “spiritual”; he makes our hearts like unto Jesus’s.

And the Holy Spirit shows us the glory of the Sacred Heart.  Jesus is not just a guy who loves a lot.  Without the Holy Spirit, or at least, without a clear sense divinity resting on Jesus, we can fall into the mirror heresies of Arianism and Pelagianism.  Arianism means Jesus isn’t really God – orthodox people know that’s not right.

But Pelagianism is the sneaking suspicion that we’re supposed to make ourselves righteous (with its own converse, that Jesus is somehow an excuse that we don’t have to be righteous); I think orthodox people are much more susceptible to this heresy.  Thinking of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of the Heart of Jesus, reminds us that it is only God who makes us holy.  It is always a gift of God.

At least for us, the Holy Spirit proceeds not only from the Father, but also from the Son, Filioque.  To perfect our understanding of this, we need only to add that so it was in the beginning, and ever shall be.

Do you ever find yourself thinking of Jesus without the Holy Spirit, or the Holy Spirit without Jesus?




Corpus Christi – “The Blood of the Testament”


EX 24:3-8; PS 116:12-13, 15-16, 17-18; HEB 9:11-13; MK 14:12-16, 22-26

This Sunday we celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi.  In the simplified liturgy after Vatican II, it is called “The Body and Blood of Christ,” though in the past there was a separate feast for the Blood, July 1, and there is still a tradition of thinking about the Eucharist in June and the Precious Blood in July.

The Gospel reading takes us back to Holy Week.  This year we are reading Mark, so we get Mark’s account of the Last Supper.  This backward reference is the liturgical key to the feast.  Holy Thursday is a busy day: such an important feast, and there are so many things to think about.  So a separate Thursday was set aside to think just about the Eucharist.  But we celebrate Easter for seven weeks, and then Pentecost for a week after that, so really, this week is the very first free Thursday.  (That’s kind of funny.)

Yes, it should be on Thursday, and yes, the Bishops always transfer it to Sunday.  But until we have been bishops (that is, never) let us lay off criticizing their prudential judgments.  That could be a nice way of remembering the feet-washing part of the Eucharist: Christ doesn’t give us his body so that we can tear one another apart.  Let us focus not on our judgment of the bishops, but on this great gift to us.


This year, the readings focus on the Precious Blood.  In the Gospel, let us just notice two points.  First, in the Synoptic Gospels, the Last Supper is introduced with “when they sacrificed the Passover lamb.”  We imagine the blood of Christ shed.  Perhaps when we hear “a man will meet you, carrying a jar of water” we should think of the union between the blood of Christ and Baptism – and Baptism as our preparation for the Eucharist.

Second, Jesus’s words about his blood are more complicated than those about his body.  First he simply says, “Take it; this is my body.”  But then he says, “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many.  Amen, I say to you, I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

The Roman Canon used to make it clear, too, that the blood specifically is the “mystery of faith.”  The blood is significant. . . .

And so in the reading from Hebrews, too, we hear, “he entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.”  What is going on with this “blood of the covenant”?


The richest reading this week is perhaps the first, which tells us of the original Passover, in Exodus.  This is the symbolic world that Jesus perfects with his own blood.

At the end of the reading, Moses “took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, saying, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you.’”  When in Matthew’s Gospel the Jews says, “His blood be on us, and on our children,” they are not embracing their guilt.  In the Jewish tradition, this is about accepting Christ himself.  Those are the words we should say.


Now, there’s a bit of a controversy about translation.  Nowadays we often use the word “covenant,” which talks about mutual relationship.  That’s definitely present in this reading.  The people say, “We will do everything that the LORD has told us.”  They offer sacrifice.  And the book of the Law is called “the book of the covenant.”  “Covenant” nicely describes how this is a two-way relationship.

But we can learn something from the older usage, which translated the same Greek and Hebrew word as “testament.”  Testament seems above all to refer to a will, a promise to give an inheritance to someone when you die.  The New Testament often invokes exactly that idea.  A testament is not a two-way relationship: one side gives, the other receives.

We could almost translate this as “promise”: God’s promise to us.  And then we might think of our moral obligations, and our obligation to sacrifice, not as upholding our half of the deal but as our inheritance.  The Law is not what we give to God – it is what God gives to us, sheer gift.

So too the Eucharist.  It is not our end of the deal.  Christ’s Precious Blood is given to us as sheer gift, his “testament” to us.  The Mass is something we do – and something we give thanks for getting to do.  Thank God we have been given his blood to “splash on the altar.”  His blood be on us and on our children!

How could we express greater gratitude for the Mass in our daily life?


Trinity Sunday: The Mystery of God

massacio trinity with virginLast weekend we celebrated Trinity Sunday, the octave of Pentecost.  We could say that Trinity Sunday is the fulfillment of Pentecost: the last thing to say about the Holy Spirit is that God is Trinity.  Or we could say that the real point of the revelation of the Holy Spirit is to help us discover the Triune God.


One way to approach Trinity is to think about the “Filioque.”  Latin has a funny little thing where you can add “-que” to the end of a word and it’s the same as putting the word “and” before it.  “Filioque” means, “and the Filio” – “and the Son.”

What we call the Nicene Creed was first approved at the Council of Nicaea in 325, then significantly modified at the Council of Constantinople in 381.  The finished product said, “the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father.  With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.”  In the second part he gets “Glory be” with the Father “and the Son,” but he only proceeds from the Father.

Later, Roman Catholics added “Filioque”: “proceeds from the Father and the Son.”  It’s a change, an addition to the Nicene Creed.  It was not approved by a Council, but was adopted by the Roman Church.  (Good enough for me!)

It’s significant that it’s in Latin: like the New Testament and much of the first centuries of the Church, the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople were conducted in Greek.  There’s a whole eastern, Greek-speaking part of the Church; before the rise of Islam, much of the leadership of the Church, both intellectually and spiritually, was Greek-speaking.

But the Greeks don’t say “Filioque.”  In fact, historically, it’s one of the biggest fights between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox: they say we added to the Creed, and that’s not okay!


Here’s the interesting thing: both sides, we Romans who say “Filioque” and the Greeks who think we shouldn’t, are both insisting on how little we know of God.

We agree that the Holy Spirit, the one who comes to sanctify us, is divine: with the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified, “Glory be!”

But the Greeks oppose the Filioque because they fear we Romans think we know too much.  We do know that the Father is the source of everything, even the Son and the Spirit – so we know that the Spirit proceeds from the Father.  But we don’t know how, so it’s not appropriate to start adding lines like “and the Son.”

Interesting, though: the reason we say Filioque is not because we think we know so much.  It too is a way of saying how little we know.  We don’t know much about the Son.  But in Latin theology, we say that the one thing we do know is that he’s exactly like the Father.  We say “Filioque” because we say, look, all we know is that they are exactly alike, so if the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, he must proceed from the Son, too.  In a way, we are saying, don’t complicate things by coming up with distinctions between the Father and the Son: what the Father does, the Son does.

For our purposes, my only point is, when we think about the Trinity, and the Holy Spirit, and the Filioque, etc., the main thing we should think is, God is infinitely beyond what I can understand.  In fact, much of what we say in theology and in the Creed is merely there to remind us how little we can comprehend the wonderful mystery of God.


A few words, then, about Sunday’s readings.  In the Gospel, we read that we are baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Let us just add, on Trinity Sunday, that we are baptized into the mystery of God – into something the greatness of which we cannot fathom.  Try to come up with how amazing Baptism is – and it is way more amazing than that!

The first reading, from Deuteronomy, said, “Did a people ever hear the voice of God speaking from the midst of fire, as you did, and live?”  Let the feast of the Holy Trinity remind us how awesome, how incomprehensible, is that God who speaks to us.  How unfathomable that he should call us into relationship with him!

And above all, in the second reading, from Romans, we read that we have been made “sons of God” by receiving the “Spirit of adoption,” who allows us to speak, to “cry, Abba, Father.”  Let us ponder the awesome mystery of the unfathomable Trinity – and know that it is precisely this mystery that has been given to us – no, that we have been drawn into.

How do you ponder the awesomeness of the Triune God?








The Ascension and the Power of the Spirit

After the hectic end of a hectic school year, I return to this website.

ascensionLast Sunday (or, some places, the Thursday before) we celebrated the feast of the Ascension.  It is in a sense the culmination of the Easter season.  The whole Easter season is the passage from the Resurrection of Christ, the firstfruits, to Pentecost, in which the power of Christ is given to his Church.  This is the whole Christian mystery: the power of Christ is given over to his body, the Church.


The first reading, the beginning of of the Acts of the Apostles, has three key moments.

First, it says, “wait.” “Wait for the promise of the Father . . . in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”  The waiting is key, because it manifests that the power is not theirs, but his.  It is not that the Church is automatically holy – our holiness is a gift from Christ.  At that first Pentecost and again and again in our lives, Christ makes us wait, to experience that it is a gift.

Next, it says, “to the ends of the earth.”  “You will receive power . . . and you will be my witnesses . . . to the ends of the earth.”  Christ, who is the fullness of God, wants to fill the world with his power.  This transition to Pentecost is precisely so that the power of God which was localized in that one man can spread out to the Church throughout the world.  Christ’s body is no longer in just one place, it is everywhere, throughout time – and filled with the same power of his divinity that was present in Christ “under Pontius Pilate.”

And third, it says he “will return” – “in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”  It is another variation on the “waiting.”  We wait for his fullness, wait for his kingdom, wait to see him face to face – but as we wait, his power is at work in us, to build up a worldwide Church that longs for him.


Our Gospel reading in this year of Mark was the end of Mark’s Gospel.  “Go into the whole world,” Jesus tells his disciples, “and proclaim the gospel to every creature.  Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.”

His power in the disciples makes them witnesses: they can speak of him because he lives in them.  And they make his power available to all: “whoever believes.”  Faith is necessary: to know Christ, to know him as Savior.  The power flows only from him.  And yet that power is available to the whole world, “whoever believes” – even “to every creature.”


Mark adds a strange section, one of the strangest in the New Testament: “in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages.  They will pick up serpents with their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them.  They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

The first thing to know is that the first generations actually did these things.  In Acts 28, for example, “when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand . . . .  he should have swollen, or fallen dead suddenly: but after they looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god” (Acts 28:3, 6).

God manifests his spiritual power in physical ways: shows the resurrection of the soul through the resurrection of the body, the giving of the Spirit through physical flames, the power of his witnesses through miracles of serpents and deadly drinks.  These aren’t the point, and so they don’t always happen, but they do serve to show the reality of his power.

But these things point to our spiritual gifts.  We may not be bitten by physical vipers, but the world attacks us in many ways – and the power of Christ, only the power of Christ, lets us pass through unharmed.  We are given many poisoned cups; the world often tries to kill us; but through the power of Christ, and only through his power, we are saved.  These signs make clear to us that it is not our cleverness – no cleverness can save you from physical poison, and no cleverness can save you from spiritual poison.  But Christ is in us.  That’s the point!


The readings are too rich, and we have not the space to consider the readings (there are a couple options) from Ephesians, Paul’s fabulous letter on the spiritual nature of the Church.  Let us only say: it is the Spirit of Christ who builds the Church.  The Spirit who saves us from poison also builds up the faith, the various ministries which give us hope, and the unity in love which is the Church.  This is no natural body, but the power of Christ at work in us who believe.

How is Christ calling you to “wait” for his power to descend on you?