The Mystery of the Trinity

Today is Trinity Sunday, when the Church celebrates one of its greatest mysteries. We affirm our belief in this mystery every time we recite the Nicene Creed. The mysteries of the Church are supernatural truths. These are realities that we know to be true, and we accept the fact that we cannot fully define them because they are above and beyond our human nature. We admit we simply don’t have the words.

Now, we need words for definitions, but they are not so important for contemplation. Trinity Sunday is a day for us to ponder the infinite, eternal, triune God. All the mysteries of the Church, including the mystery of the Trinity, are invitations to contemplation. And a good place to begin contemplation of a mystery like the Trinity is the writings of the Church Fathers.

St. Athanasius was a deacon at the Council of Nicea in 325, where the Church met to respond to the heretical claim that Jesus was not truly the same as God the Father. Athanasius soon became Bishop of Alexandria, and he spent the rest of his life defending the truth of the Holy Trinity.

Athanasius was firm on the “oneness” of God. In the Athanasian Creed it says, “the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity.” God the Father is God, God the Son is God, God the Holy Spirit is God.

The Athanasian Creed is also firm on the “three-ness” of God, for it says, “there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.” Now, when I add one (for the Father) and another (for the Son) and another (for the Holy Spirit), I get a total of Three. Which is probably why the next line in the Creed is this: “But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal.”

The three persons are all of the same substance so they are three yet they are one. If you think of the Trinity as an equilateral triangle, imagine the triangle as being a triangle that is also a circle at the same time because you cannot tell one of the three faces of the triangle from the other two because they are all one thing.
If you have some difficulty picturing a triangle that is a circle without losing its basic triangle-ness, then you are beginning to contemplate a mystery.

St. Augustine wrote a book on the Trinity in which he showed that we can understand the Trinity better when we consider Love. God is love, and when we think of love we realize for love to be there must be a lover, one who is loved by the lover, and the love between the lover and the beloved. Thus, we can better imagine the trinity if we imagine a communion of love: the lover, the beloved, and the love between them.

The mystery of the Trinity is only one of the mysteries that are central to our faith. We also believe Christ is both fully God and fully human at the same time, that he was born and died as a human being but is eternal as God. And we believe in the mystery of the Eucharist, that our sacrifice of the Mass today participates in the sacrifice at Calvary over 2,000 years ago and at the same moment participates in the eternal Mass in Heaven.

Why does God choose mysteries to be so central to our faith? We’ve just made an effort to understand the mystery of the trinity, and we have to accept that we don’t have either the words or the concepts necessary to fully comprehend this teaching of our faith.

What does God want from us? It’s not that he wants to test us. He wants to help us. He wants us to be his children and to let Him be our God. He wants us to accept the gift that he has given us, our salvation through the Cross and the Easter Resurrection. And he wants us to do the work that he has given us.
The gift is that we do not need to worry so much about performing well enough to deserve heaven. We will go to heaven because he has already paid the price. We don’t have to earn our way into Heaven, and indeed, none of us could ever be good enough to deserve it on our own merits. All we have to do is accept the gift.

Accepting the gift is our life’s work. Imagine you’re sitting hot and thirsty and you would love a glass of lemonade. And your father puts a bowl of lemons in front of you and gives you a knife. “There’s your lemonade,” he says. If it were me, I’d look at him and say, “No, I have lemons. I want lemonade.” And he would smile and say, “cut the lemons, squeeze the lemons. You’ve been given lemonade if you’ll accept it.”

To get the gift – lemonade or salvation – I have to accept the gift as given to me by the giver. I don’t get to set the terms of the gift or redefine the gift. I just take it as given.

Now I could spend time arguing with him. And I could raise one issue after another about how I deserve lemonade and want lemonade yet find myself surrounded by lemons. And my Heavenly Father would smile, and with love, he would say, “Pick up your knife. Cut the lemon. Squeeze the lemon. Enjoy your lemonade.”

This is what we do to accept the gift. This is how we prepare to drink the lemonade – the gift of eternal salvation. If we can do that work of the Christian disciple, if we can pick up the lemon of anger and squeeze it into the lemonade of kindness. If we can choose to love when presented with the opportunity to hate, or we can choose the path of humility instead of vainglory. If we can sit and squeeze each of these lemons then we will end up with a beautiful glass of delicious lemonade, the very thing we had been hoping for. And each lemon we squeeze we should squeeze as if it were our first lemon, our last lemon, or even our only lemon. Because we don’t know how many opportunities we are going to be given.

But we do know that when run out of lemons, we will have a full glass of delicious lemonade that we can enjoy for all eternity. That’s the work of the Christian disciple. And if we do that, we will manifest our own personal mystery of the faith: how a sinner can grow in holiness, how a servant of the Lord can grow closer to his God.

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A New Commandment of Love

Our gospel reading picks up right after Judas has left to bring back the soldiers to arrest Jesus and begin the trials that will lead to crucifixion on Good Friday. And now that the passion is definitely under way Jesus proclaims to the remaining apostles, “Now is the son of man glorified.” And the next thing he says is, “I give you a new commandment: love one another.” He tells us that as he has loved us so we should love one another. And it is through our loving each other that the world will know we belong to Christ.
The new commandment replaces the old covenant of the Mosaic law. Let us remember that we received the law from Moses because our forefathers had rejected the original relationship of loving harmony with God and neighbor. Adam and Eve had an intimate relationship with God, for the book of Genesis tells us that they walked naked with God in the evening in the garden of Eden. And they had no sense of shame at their nakedness. Shame came with the fall, with the decision to listen to the serpent and turn away from God.

When we hear Jesus announce a new commandment of love, we might be tempted to think that the message of the Old Testament is somehow different than the message of the New Testament. But the Old Testament and the New Testament are both parts of one message: our God loves us, he made us in love, and he made us for love. It was we who turned our backs on God and had to leave the garden of Eden. He didn’t kick us out, we did it to ourselves. But even as we were leaving the garden, God was planning on how to get us back. The rest of the Old Testament after that first couple of chapters in the book of Genesis is God reaching out to us through messengers and prophets calling us back to be in an intimate relationship with him. Sometimes it worked, but we could not maintain the relationship that he made us to have with him.

Continue reading

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Thomas and Truth

Caravaggio_Saint_ThomasThis gospel story today about Thomas speaks to us about the nature of truth and how we know it. In his homily last Sunday, Fr Neil spoke about the many ways that people come to decide as adults that they want to be Catholic, whether they are coming into Christianity for the first time or being received into the Church from another Christian tradition. As Fr Neil noted, there are many attractive aspects of our faith — from examples of personal holiness, to art, and liturgy — but ultimately those people made that decision because they came to believe that what the Catholic Church teaches is the truth.

This raises the question: How do we know something is true? Continue reading

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Into Your Hands – The Seventh Word


Into your hands I commend my spirit.

St. Anselm taught that the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross was something only a man must do and only God could do. Jesus is true God and true man, one person of the Trinity with two natures. Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped but came down in love and took on the form of human flesh. He was obedient unto death, even death on a cross. He shared with us in everything but sin. His sacrifice is now complete. His establishment of the new Passover meal is now complete. His earthly ministry is now complete. Sharing in our humanity he will endure death.

With this last word he continues to teach his children. Perfect in every way, he is the perfect rabbi. He reminds us that death is – even for us – a temporary condition. Our spirit will live forever. Our soul is immortal, and Jesus shows us the way because he is the Way. He says into your hand I commend my spirit. Jesus has shown through the passion that he is not merely the victim but is also the priest. He is choosing his path at the end of his life. He chooses to be with his father in Heaven forever. We need to choose our destination. If we participate in the life of Christ, if we take up our cross and carry it to our Calvary, if we choose mercy over judgment, then we choose to commend our spirits into the care of our heavenly father. We choose to spend eternity in heaven with Jesus and the father. Continue reading

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Behold Thy Son – The Third Word


“Woman, behold thy son … Behold thy mother.” [John 19: 26, 27]

As Jesus hangs from the Cross, his body weak from the night being tried by the Sanhedrin and Herod before being flogged by Pilate and sent to carry his Cross to Golgotha, he is naked and alone. Thieves on either side, Roman soldiers standing guard, he has none of his disciples to comfort him in his last hours of earthly life. Only two are there close to him.

His mother Mary is there with the youngest apostle, John the baby brother of James who are the sons of Zebedee. Mary knew more than anyone on Mount Calvary that this crucifixion was the execution of an innocent man. How her mother’s heart must have ached as she saw her son mistreated, whipped and finally hung upon the Cross to die slowly in the cruellest public death imaginable. Yet she has joy even at this darkest hour. She chooses to share in Jesus’ suffering, standing at the foot of the Cross. St. Ambrose writes, “I read of her standing, but not of her weeping.” Yes, she grieves, but it is a fruitful and mysteriously joyful grief. Continue reading

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Pretty in Pink


This is the Fourth Sunday in Lent, and you have probably noticed that we swapped out the regular Lenten purple vestments for these special rose colored vestments. The Fourth Sunday in Lent is also known as “Laetare” Sunday because Laetare is the first word in Latin of the entrance antiphon for today. It means “Rejoice!”

Years ago, before we began to sing hymns at the start of Mass, the first word you would have heard would have been the cantor singing “Rejoice!” As the procession moved toward the altar, the people and the choir would sing the entrance antiphon. Since an entrance hymn is more common today, this Sunday is better known for the very well-known parable of the prodigal son, which we just read.

We’ve all heard many times the story of the younger son who desires right now the inheritance that will be his when his father dies at some point in the future. We see the hard justice of that younger son blowing through his inheritance on various forms of dissipation. We nod in acknowledgment at the younger son’s growing wisdom, when he realizes that the servants at his father’s house have a better life than he has, and he commits to swallowing his pride, and going back home, and asking to be treated not as a son but as a servant. We understand the father’s joy at seeing his son, and we marvel at his immediate forgiveness of the son’s misbehavior, and we can see the love behind the decision to reclaim the boy as his son despite the bad things he has done. We can empathize also with the older son, and his peevishness when he learns that the prodigal son is welcome back into the family. And we can sympathize with his sense that justice does not seem to have been served.

You may have heard other preachers recast this story as the parable of the loving father, for the father’s act of love and mercy is the hinge of the parable and his words of welcome give it its power. I’m going to go in a different direction today. I am struck by the theme in the readings today of the power of God’s word to cause change. This is Laetare Sunday, or “Rejoice” Sunday. The power of God’s word should cause us to rejoice.

In the first reading from the book of Joshua in the Old Testament, the Israelites have crossed the Jordan River and are now in the promised land. And the Lord said to Joshua, “today I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you.” With the word of the Lord, the sins of the Israelites are wiped away. They can go into the new land rejoicing, just as we were called to come into the Lord’s house today rejoicing.

We chanted today from the 34th Psalm, and one of the verses reads: I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears. The voice of the Lord freed me. The word of God has more power than the strength of any single man or indeed of all men combined together. The Psalmist rejoices at his deliverance, just as we should be filled with joy as we head toward the Passion of our Lord in a couple of weeks.

St. Paul, in the second letter to the Corinthians, tells those Christians, “the old things have passed away.” When we put on Christ, when we confess Jesus Christ to be our Lord and Savior, when we call on the word of God, the old things of our lives have passed away. The word of God makes all things new.

The parable of the prodigal son shows the same power of the holy word and the joy that it brings. Remember why Jesus chooses to tell this parable. Jesus tells this parable in response to complaints from the good religious people of the day that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them. These good religious people were in those days trying to follow the Mosaic Law, which detailed the many ways a person could become ritually unclean and outside of the law and therefore officially, a sinner. And tax collectors were the worst kind of sinners. Tax collectors were empowered by the Roman state to shake down the people of the region to whatever degree was needed to bring in the revenue they had promised to Rome. The religious leaders were like the older brother in the parable: not joyfully living the law but grimly following the letter of the law.

At the invitation of Jesus, these sinners — and even worse, tax collectors — are invited to share a meal with the famous Rabbi. It’s a scandal. When you think of the older brother’s reaction to the father’s decision to welcome back into the family the younger brother, it’s the same sort of scandal as having a meal with sinners. The older brother’s outrage is understandable.

It is the word of the father in the parable of the prodigal son that has removed the reproach from the younger son. When the father tells the servants to bring the finest robe and put it on him, and to put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet, it is the same as the Lord saying to Joshua, “today I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you.” The younger son experienced the words of the psalmist: “I sought the Lord and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.” The father joyfully answers the younger son and delivers him from all his shame and humiliation.

Our God is calling to us. If we approach him, and if we listen to him, in humility, he will share his word and make all things new in our lives. This is the power of the sacrament of reconciliation. We go in that box and we declare our faults, and in the person of Christ the priest shares the word of reconciliation, and breathes new spiritual life into us. This is the power of the sacrament of baptism. Our godparents declare for us our faith in God, and the minister shares the words of baptism, and breathes new spiritual life into us. This is the power of the sacrament of the Eucharist. Standing in the person of Christ, the priest says the words that Christ said at that first mass on Holy Thursday, and we receive into our bodies the bread of new life.

This can be the power of Christian charity. With the father in the parable of the prodigal son as our model, we can make all things new in our families and in our lives when we choose the word of mercy, or the word of love, or the word of peace, when there is injustice or discord. St. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians implores those people on behalf of Christ to be reconciled to God. If we are reconciled to God, we can be his instrument of peace and mercy.

Our God is calling us to rejoice here in midst of the penitential season of Lent. Laetare Sunday is not like a holiday of pretty pink in the middle of penitential purple. It’s not a day off. It’s a reminder that we are called to joy even as we follow Jesus Christ to the Cross on Calvary. It is our Lenten joy that will make Palm Sunday the beginning of Holy Week rather than the beginning of a death march. It is this joy in the power of the mercy of God and his Word that will make Good Friday a solemn exaltation of the Holy Cross rather than a gruesome day of execution of an innocent man.

Rejoice today on Laetare Sunday while we wear rose vestments. Rejoice tomorrow when we put on purple. Rejoice all the way through the Passion of Our Lord because the Word of God brings with him new life.

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From the fullness of the heart

This is the eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, and this year it is the last Sunday before we start the penitential season of Lent. The three pillars of Lent are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Today’s readings really drive home the importance of prayer as the foundation of a life in Christ.

You’ve probably been told that you should not judge a book by its cover, but when you go into the bookstore, it’s the cover that catches your eye. Publishers know this. That’s why they spend so much time designing the cover the book. Romance novels seem to have a couple embracing. Thrillers have a completely different look, and political memoirs are always at least 800 pages. You kind of know what you’re getting into by the cover of the book.

Jesus uses parables and everyday images in his teaching because they are easy to grasp but also have very deep meanings. Instead of books and their covers, He uses fruit trees. He tells his disciples that nobody picks figs from a thornbush. Of course they don’t. You know it’s a fig tree because you find figs on it, and you find thorns on a thornbush. Continue reading

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