Sunday, May 31, 2015

The necessity of the Trinty

From the beginning, literally, Gn 1:1, the Trinity is revealed to us. The Hebrew uses a plural word for God (Elohim) but pairs it with a singular verb. There were many attempted explanations over the centuries but only in Jesus do we see it fully explained. More specifically it is John ( 1 Jn 4:8) who explains it in three words

Θεός αγάπη έστιν - Theos agape estin- God is love.

If God is love there have to be two. After all, a person loving themselves completely is not love; it's narcissism. Love by definition requires an other. True love is also creative and so the love between the Father and the Son comes forth as the Holy Spirit. In the creed we say "who proceeds from the Father and the Son".

To call them "Creator, Redeeemer, and Santifcier" is just plain wrong because even in that first act of creation all three participated. Read Genesis Chapter 1 and the first chapter of John's Gospel.

If we listen to our prayers during mass, we will notice that they are almost always addressed to the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit. Only three times do we regularly address prayers to the Son: the Penitential Rite, the Peace prayers, and the prayers before communion (Lamb of God, Lord I am not worthy).

Years ago I worked with the deaf community, and there is some evidence to suggest that they have a more difficult time with abstraction. It was then that I conceived a way of thinking about the Trinity that at least works for me.

In prayer Jesus taught us to say, "Our Father who art in heaven" and so I locate the Father in heaven, a reminder that God exist outside time and space.

In every Cathoic Church there is the candle that burns 24/7 near the tabernacle to remind us that the Son is always there. Those prayers after the consecration and before we receive communion are addressed to the Son because by that point in the mass, he is present on the altar.

And of course St. Paul tells us that we are the temples of the Holy Spirit. So I can find the Holy Spirit in every baptized Christian in the world.

The truth is that no human words can explain the reality. It will always be, in this life, beyond our full comprehension. There are three and yet in everything they truly co-operate. They are one.

Even harder that comprehending the Triinity, may be living it. In John chapter 17 Jesus prays that we should be one as he and the father are one. And he made the unity possible by giving us the same spirit, the one Holy Spirit. As we celebrate the Trinity, may we strive to imitate the Trinity.

Friday, May 29, 2015

whatever you ask for ?

Today we have another of those problematic promises of Jesus

Therefore I tell you, all that you ask for in prayer, believe that you will receive it and it shall be yours.

Really? "all that you ask for"- Most of us know that this is not our experience.  My guess is that many of us have opposite experience. Rarely do we get what we pray for. 

Sitting with this text from Mark 11:24 I found the key in a single word. proseuchomenoi, translated here as "in prayer" 

For most of us the sequence is: we want something, and then we pray for God to give us what we want. 

What the gospel presents here is something quite different. The starting point is prayer.  The "pros" prefix means toward. The idea of this word is wishing, longing for, or even craving, with our minds being turned toward God. It is the kind of prayer in which Jesus engages when he goes off alone, and turns his heart and mind completely toward the Father. 

Jesus promises that what we ask for in this state, we will be given. 

How often are we in this state? How often are we willing to turn our hearts and minds towards God and God's will?  The truth is, more often than not, our prayer is "my will be done" and then we are upset when God doesn't do it. 

In our hectic world, many of us have almost lost the ability to be still, quiet ourselves, and turn our minds and hearts away from the busyness of life and toward our God and Father. The good news is that with practice we can learn how not just to pray, but to truly be "in prayer." 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Ask and you shall receive?

Chapter 10 of Mark's gospel ends with two very similar stories. In both Jesus asks the same question,

What would you have me do for you?

What precedes and follows the question is however very different.

In the first story the sons of Zebedee approach Jesus and tell him,

We want you to do for us whatever we ask.

In the second story, Bartimeus is called by Jesus.

In the first story, the brothers want places of honor.
In the second Bartimeus answers the question with the word, anablepo.

This word means both to see again or to look up, like one looking up to heaven.

In the first story the request is denied.
In the second story, Bartimeus is assured by that his faith has made him whole and immediately he is given precisely what he asked for and in response the gospel tells us

He followed Jesus on the way.

While we may not be as blunt as the brothers in saying we want Jesus to give us whatever we ask  for, we can often have the same attitude.

Yes, the Bible does say ask and you shall receive but St. Mark puts these two stories back to back to remind us that what we ask for and the way we ask matters.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

What happened to joy?

The saint whose memorial we celebrate today, Philip Neri, was according to one author known for three things: love of the poor, gospel simplicity, and joy in service of the Lord. The Church underscores the latter by having as the first reading for the memorial St. Paul telling us to

Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice. (Phil 4:4)

Literally, be happy!

St. Paul commands us to be happy always, and for emphasis he repeats the command. And yet if you asked to average person to describe Christians would happy/cheerful even be in the top five adjectives. Sadly, part of what has made Pope Franics so popular is his cheerful demeanor. I say sadly because the cheerful demeanor shouldn't be exceptional it should be the norm for all Christians. The response should be "Of course, he's cheerful, he's a Christian."

We are cheerful not because we ignore evil but because we know that

In all these things we are more than conquerors

Evil cannot win.

Today let us all imitate St. Philip Neri and show our joy to the world


Sunday, May 24, 2015

New Possibilities

Today we celebrate not only the beginning of the Church but a new beginning for the world. The story of the Tower of Babel (Gn 11) reminds us that God created us to be one human family and that divisions of language which lead to division into nations, tribes, etc. were the result of hubris, the punishment for sin. The story of Pentecost is the great reversal. The same God who confused language in Genesis is the same God who sends the Holy Spirit and makes it possible for "devout men from every nation (ethnos) under the heavens" (Acts 2:5) to all hear and understand. Acts 2 is precisely the undoing of Genesis 11.

But if that is true why do we not see it? Why does our world seem as torn apart as ever, if not more?

With the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the instrument of our unity was made available. The unity of the human family was once more a possibility, but for that possibility to become a reality we must choose. God will at the end of time impose the Kingdom, but until that time, we have the freedom to choose.

It is not coincidence that God chose Jerusalem as the city from which he would sent out the Spirit. It remains a spiritual center for the three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). For those who do not know it is believed to be the site of the furthest mosque (al-aqsa) and place from which the prophet was take up to heaven.

The great battle of our time is not however with ISIL or Islam. It is the battle within the human heart. If there is to be peace in the world, we Christians, the bearers of the Spirit must first allow that Spirit to create peace within us. Yes, we received the Holy Spirit at baptism, but day to day, moment to moment we must make a choice. As St. Paul tells us, there are two options. We can live according to the flesh or according to the Spirit.

Look at our own nation. We are so divided that our government has affectively lost the ability to function. 92% of the 114th Congress self-identified as Christian (31% of those are Catholic), and yet what in their behavior would demonstrate that. When the congress reconvenes which will be more important to the 92% percent, their common faith, or their political party? Sadly, I think we know the answer. And we wonder why our young people are cynical about religion.

As Christians gather in churches around the world to celebrate the first outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, let us pray not only for the continued outpouring the Spirit but that every one who has received the Spirit will choose to live according to the Spirit.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Transformed by the Spirit

Knowing that people are not going to attend both masses, pastors often ignore the fact that there are two sets of readings for Pentecost, one for the vigil and one for the day. Practically speaking it is understandable but the vigil readings are valuable. They provide an image of the world and of humanity before the coming of the Spirit.

St Paul in the eighth chapter of the Letter to the Romans describes all creation groaning (like a woman in labor) and us groaning inwardly, waiting. The object of our waiting is described in two ways

Adoption - the Greek word literally refers to putting someone in the place that belongs to a son or daughter.

The Redmptipn of our bodies (soma) - literally the ransoming from slavery of our physical bodies. This is the most clear suscint biblical statement of our belief in the ressurection of the body.

The part about us becoming children of God is fairly well accepted among Christians. The Redemption of our bodies seems to me to be less accepted and the participation of " all of creation" even less so.

Our third Eucharistic Prayer captures this part of St. Paul beautifully when we pray

by the power and working of the Holy Spirit, you give life to all things and make them holy,

But how many Christians still walk around with a dualistic notion of the universe where the physical world and our bodies are bad and only the spiritual is good? They talk as if only our souls are saved by Christ and all the rest of the world belongs to Satan.

On the solemnity of Christ the King we do not proclaim Christ as King of a few good spirits and souls but Our Lord Jesus Christ King of the Universe.

On this last day before we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit St. Paul provides us with a beautiful image of an entire universe waiting and groaning for a transformation, a universe that had been ravaged for millennia by sin, waiting in hope for the transforming power of the Spirit.

What parts of each of us are yet to be transformed? The Holy Spirit can completely transform us but because God has given us free will, we must allow it. Too often there are pieces of our old self that we hide away in corners, we cling to. We say we want to be sons and daughters of God but we are not ready to really let go of it all, to allow God to transform us completely.

In these last hours before Pentecost can we dare to open ourselves completely to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Preparing for Pentecost

One of the many unforgettable moments in my years in Rome involved something very simple, attending mass on Pentecost at the church that used to be the Pantheon. A friend had told me I should go, without telling me what was going to happen. At the end of mass, red rose pedals began to rain down on us through the large circular opening in the roof. While some may see it as Italian kitsch, it certainly caused a moment of wow!— a more emotional response than most Chrisitian have on Pentecost today.

All this week the readings are calling us to prepare for Penecost Sunday by looking at the place of the Holy Spirit in our own lives. We may not be quite as ignorant as the disciples at Ephesus who told Paul they didn't know there was a Holy Spirit, but on most days we may not be too far ahead of them. The Father and the Son we seem to know how to relate to, but the Spirit with the image of the dove does not touch us in the same way.

Step one may be to let go of the dove image. The Holy Spirit is not a thing but a person, the third person of the Trinity. Interestingly the Greek pneuma is neither male nor female but neuter. The word means breath air, or spirit. In the Old Testament the first use of the word is Genesis 1:2. It is the Spirit of God that begins the creation of the universe. With Pentecost we are witnessing a new creation. But that too is a bit abstract.

In the Gospel today Jesus brings it home when he tells his disciples how they will run off snd abandon him but,

I am not alone.

Here the text uses what is called an absolute negative. He is absolutely never alone, so perfect is his unity with the Father.

For us, that state of never being alone comes with our baptism when we first receive the Holy Spirit. We too are absolutely never alone.

Perhaps this week is a good time to return to the original meaning of the word pneuma. Whenever we find ourselves aware of our breathing let us not think of ordinary air that passes in and out of our lungs but of the pneuma hagion, the Holy Breath, the Holy Spirit that constantly provide us with our truest life. And let us constantly remember that we are never alone.




Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Another dimension of apostolic

When we profess that the Church is "one, holy catholic and apostolic", by apostolic we mean

she was and remains built on "the foundation of the Apostles,"the witnesses chosen and sent on mission by Christ himself;

—with the help of the Spirit dwelling in her, the Church keeps and hands on the teaching, the "good deposit," the salutary words she has heard from the apostles;

—she continues to be taught, sanctified, and guided by the apostles until Christ’s return, through their successors in pastoral office: the college of bishops, "assisted by priests, in union with the successor of Peter, the Church’s supreme pastor" (Catechism n. 857)

But today's first reading picks up on a dimension mentioned in the first paragraph but easy to overlook, "witnesses chosen and sent on mission." One of the things that distinguished the apostoles from other ministers in the Church was the itenerate nature of their ministry. As we follow the journies of St. Paul in the Acts of the Apostles, we are reminded that as apostles they never settled down.

The apostles moved from city to city, as they established a community they appointed presbyters/bishops and then moved on. The presbyters/bishops (presbyteros/episkopos) would be the stable leaders of the community. Even today we struggle with finding the proper balance of the two values: stability and mission.

The presumption of the present Church is that a bishop once named Diocesan Bishop will remain until age 75 when he is warmly encouraged to submit his letter of resignation to the Pope. A priest once named Pastor is presumed to enjoy that same stability of office and is requested to submit his resignation at age 75 (c. 838). The norms of the universal church see stability of a diocese or parish as a particular value for the good of the bishops, priests and most of all the people.

In 1984 the U.S. Bishops were allowed to establish a different policy for the dioceses of our country. In the U.S. pastors may be appointed indefinitely or for a six year term which can be renewed. It stuck the balance between the two extremes of the irremovavable pastor of the old days and thinking that a pastor serves at the pleasure of the bishop.

As human beings we like stability. We like predictability. Unpredictable scares all of us. On the other hand, we must remember as a Church that we are always called to be apostolic, constantly missionary. And we should never forget that the word misson or missionary doesn't refer to going, it refers to being sent. I go on vacation. The Bishop sends me to my next mission.

For a parish the change of mission may come in the form of a change in the neighborhood around it. How many churches have died because they refused to embrace the new mission?

Paul and his companions never ceased to move on from one city to the other, from one mission to the other spreading the good news. We may pause for a brief time and settle down but God is always calling us to move, to change. Our pilgrimage, our apostolic journey does not end until we reach the end of this life.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015


We often speak of Christianity being counter-cultural, but today's reading strike at the very heart of our American culture, freedom and democracy. The central problem is the childish way in which we tend to define freedom as doing whatever we please. Throughout the gospel even Jesus demonstrates the opposite.

I do just as the Father has commanded me.

Jesus is obedient unto death.

In theory we like this. We like the idea of doing God's will. The game we can play is sitting by ourselves and telling ourselves that God's will is what I say it is. I do what I say God is calling me to do. Obedience is not obedience if the person you are listening to is yourself.

In contrast we have the model of the early church in the Acts of the Apostles. The apostles, including Paul go out, they meet with groups of disciples, strenghtening them is times of persecution, and appointing for them "presbyters." The people of the local church do not choose their own leaders. Leadership in the Church is not a popularity contest. From its inception the Church had a hierarchical structure.

A part of imitating Christ is a willingness to be obedient to others. Twenty-six years ago this month I knelt in the Cathedral and promises respect and obedience to the bishop and his successors. Do I believe that every decision of the Bishop or even the Pope is magically correct? No. But that is not the point.

Obedience goes hand in hand with another virtue, humility. I am humble enough to admit that when it comes to matters of faith the bishops and the Pope know more than me. Two thousand years of theology is a better measure of the proper interpretion of the Bible than me.

If we are going to imitate Christ, we can't simply cherry pick the virtues of Jesus that we like. Today's readings invite each of us to ask how we model obedience in our own lives.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Role Models

In the Acts of the Aposles today we see the too extremes. One crowd wants to stone Paul and Barnabas. The other crowd wants to worship them. These two images call to mind what seems to be a tendency within us. We set people on pedestals and then when they fall we are filled with anger and disappointment.

One response is to become cynical and abandon the idea of role models all together. This has the unfortunate effect of making us even more self-centered.

Another less problematic but still problematic path is the "What would Jesus do?" approach. One the hand we should do this. One of the key images for the Christian is the "mimetes" or imitator. We are told to be imitators of Christ. Th only problem is that while we say we should imitate Christ, on a subconscious level we remember that he was perfect, without sin. We know that we are not perfect, and so something inside us sees imitating him as the unacheivable goal. It's like going on a diet and telling yourself you are going to loose 7 pounds per week. You have set a goal you cannot reach or maintain. So, soon you give up and go back to your old ways

While St. Paul tells us to imitate Christ. He opens chapter 11 of his First Letter to the Corinthians with what is perhaps his most sage advice

Be imitators of me, as I am also of Christ.

Here St. Paul establishes the role of all the people we call saints. He strikes the perfect balance and sets an absolutely obtainable goal. We recognize that Jesus was unique and none of us can ever be like him. But we can all be like Paul. After all, Paul had no special gift that is not available to each of us. He knows his own fragile humanity well, and is not ashamed to tell us about it, and yet he was able to be a saint

We do not worship St. Paul or any other saint, but we do need to keep them before us as models for us to imitate. Read any of the lives of the saints (except the most romanticized versions) and you will see the flaws in each of them. Part of what made them saints was their self-awareness regarding sin. Saints know their limitations, they know the place of temptation in their lives. They also know the power of God's grace.

We learn best by example. We need role models. Some people complained about the large number people St. John Paul II canonized in his time as Pope. If you look at the list you will see people from all walks of life. Maybe it's time for each of us to find a couple of saints in particular whom we can imitate. Never doubt that you can be a saint too.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Bearing Fruit

Reflecting on today's gospel from John. 15. One part of a verse was irreconcilable,

Apart from me you can do nothing

On the one hand it sounds like a good rule for life and certainly we should try to live our lives constantly in union with Jesus, but as it is written it seems factually incorrect. After all, are there not lots of people who go through their whole lives apart from Jesus and they do lots of things. The people looting and destroying their own neighborhood in Batimore did lots apart from Jesus.

Once more one has to zoom out and see this part of a verse in a larger context: first the whole verse then the whole of John's gospel.

The whole sentence reads:

Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing

Jesus is not taking about doing just anything. He is talking about doing one specific thing, bearing fruit. And the word for nothing ouden means literally "not one."

A more precise translation of the phrase might be, "apart from me you can make not even one", one piece of fruit. Can we do lots apart from him? Oh yes, we can do lots and lots of things but we cannot bear fruit, not even a single piece.

You may well ask, Are you saying that non-Christian can't do anything good? Not at all. Here is where we have to zoom out even further and look at it in the context of John's whole gospel.

Jesus say "apart from me you can do nothing." He is talking specifically to his disciples.

Remember that in John's gospel there are two kind of life simple biological life (bios) we get from mom and dad, and eternal life (Zoe) we get from Christ. At our baptism our bios is buried and we rise with a new life. "You have become a new creation."

To use the image from today's gospel we are grafted onto the vine that is Jesus Christ. Once grafted onto the vine, all of our true nourishment comes from him. "In you we live and move and have our being." Once grafted onto the vine of Jesus Christ we have no life apart from him. If we chop ourselves off from the vine, we die. It's that simple. This is why he commands us "remain in me."

Our ability to bear fruit comes directly from him. Just as each of the branches draws its nourishment through the vine, our very life from moment to movement comes through him. The sooner we accept this reality the better off we are. Everything else is self-deception, delusional thinking.

If you are a baptized Christian, you were transformed into a new kind of being. You can't undo it. There is no going back. You can walk through the day drawing your strength from Christ or you can let yourself starve. You can bear fruit or just do stuff all day long. The choice belongs to each of us. Today is a gorgeous day here in Richmond. But whatever the weather is where you are, let your self walk through this day drawing your strength from Christ and see what kind of fruit it bears.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Books of the New Testament

We are so accustomed to the Bible as is, we can forget that it is made up of distinct documents that were over time compiled and a list was composed of those that the Church believed to be the inspired word of God, the list we refer to an the canon.

Today we celebrate the Saint whom many attribute with first circulating the list of books that make up what we now call the New Testament. St. Athanaius, bishop of Alexandria who passed from this life on May 2 373, in what is called his 39th Festal Letter in 367 included the list of 27 books that we still use today. Pope Damasus then promulgated the same list in 382. And the New Testament as we know it was fixed.

Over the centuries there would continue to be some debates. Luther attempted to remove Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation but found few willing to follow him in this modification of the New Testament. To this day some writers and television programs will suggest that there are other books that should have been included. It was the Holy Spirit that guided the early church through a process of prayerful discernment of which of all the writings floating around at the time were the ones truly inspired by God and which contained things which were contrary to the teaching of Jesus.

As we pick up our Bibles and read, let us remember Athanasius I, from Alexandria Egypt.

What books in the NT?

We are so accustomed to the Bible as is, we can forget that it is made up of distinct documents that were over time compiled and a list was composed of those that the Church believed to be the inspired word of God, the list we refer to an the canon.

Today we celebrate the Saint whom many attribute with first circulating the list of books that make up what we now call the New Testament. St. Athanaius, bishop of Alexandria who passed from this life on May 2 373, in what is called his 39th Festal Letter in 367 included the list of 27 books that we still use today. Pope Damasus then promulgated the same list in 382. And the New Testament as we know it was fixed.

Over the centuries there would continue to be some debates. Luther attempted to remove Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation but found few willing to follow him in this modification of the New Testament. To this day some writers and television programs will suggest that there are other books that should have been included. It was the Holy Spirit that guided the early church through a process of prayerful discernment of which of all the writings floating around at the time were the ones truly inspired by God and which contained things which were contrary to the teaching of Jesus.

As we pick up our Bibles and read, let us remember Athanasius I, from Alexandria Egypt.

Friday, May 1, 2015

The place of worker

Today the Church asks us in a special way to turn our attention to the plight of the worker. On this day dedicated to St. Joseph the Worker in 1991 Pope John Paul II published an encyclical marking the 100th anniversary of what is considered the first of the social encyclicals Rerum Novarum.

In 1991 he drew special attention to the events of 1989 which seem to some to be ancient history. But it is worth looking back and remembering the transformation that was possible, the transformation which seemed impossible, the transformation that was carried out without war and bloodshed.

As we look around us almost 25 years later we see the signs of the continuing struggle to balance to fundamental truths. On the one hand there is the fundamental human right to private property and this includes that property which is part of businesses. On the other side is our belief in the universal destination of goods. All these things are created by God, and destined for the benefit of all.

All human beings have a right and obligation to work. In exchange for that work they have the right to a just wage, and the right to use that wage to obtain property that is rightly theirs. The state has a duty to assist its citizens to protect the rights of all.

As we look at a situation like Baltimore, the warning of St. John Paul rings true. We see what happens when morality is pushed from the public sphere, when at every level the fundamental truth of the human person is disregarded, when people loose faith in the power of non-violent change. From the most basic unit of society, the family, to the multi-national cooperation we must recover or basic understanding of human dignity, work, and the proper ordering of a society.

The events of 1989 did not bring perfect societies into place, and many gains were followed by losses because no earthly society will be the Kingdom of God. Nevertheless this Feast of St. Joseph the Worker calls on us all to renew our efforts to insure that every human being have dignified work from which they can build up their part of the larger human family.