May 26, 2018

Feast of the Most Holy Trinity: "Abba!" - Father

"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

Matthew 28: 16-20

Back in the early days of my priesthood, I had the chance to share with other priests a pilgrimage to Athens, Greece, Israel and Rome.  I was excited of course by the whole journey and we shared much along the way.  But one unexpected, yet I believe profound experience on a city bus in Jerusalem, gave me pause. 

A couple of us were going to move on to the museum of the Holocaust, Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem and so we caught a city bus, very crowded with Israelis. As we squeezed through the crowd towards the back of the bus suddenly I heard a loud cry from a little Jewish boy in front of me, I would say around eight or nine years old, who was clearly frantic.  He cried out, “Abba, Abba” which of course means “daddy, daddy” as he reached out his hand in front of me. The little boy had gotten separated from his Father in the crowd and he was desperately looking for him down the packed isle of the bus.  I remember the boy’s father was standing behind me so he called his son’s name and he reached around me as I let the now much calmer boy pass and they were quickly reunited.

Immediately what came to my mind were the words of Jesus, mentioned by Paul in our second reading this Sunday from Romans: “. . . you received a spirit of adoption through whom we cry, “Abba, Father!” Hearing that little boy yell out for his Daddy made those words of Jesus all the more personal and startling.  God is like a Father to us; we are reaching out to connect with him, to find him because we are his adopted sons and daughters.  And so, this Sunday’s Feast of the Most Holy Trinity, I think in that simple example, brings it home. Jesus used such an everyday word that was spoken even in his own time to open up for us a window to the nature of what God is like.

Yet, after the wonder of Pentecost and the sound of wind, the startling appearance of “tongues as of fire,” the bold proclamation of formerly indecisive disciples, and the conversion of thousands, we are stopped short in our tracks. We’re tempted to take our faith from the tangible to the abstract and theological as we reflect on the meaning of the Trinity yet we desire to wrap our head and heart around this great truth that all Christians profess.  It’s the stuff of shamrocks and united triangles and circles in order to explain the unity of the Trinity.

How did we come to believe and profess this great, yet mysterious, truth about the nature of God as three persons yet one?  Well, it didn’t come about instantly.  Sure, our Lord implied in his teaching of what God is like and we are many centuries after the final composition of what is called the “Nicene Creed” spoken each Sunday at Mass.   But it was through the lived experience of the Christian faith that the early Christians began to see and understand the meaning of the words of Jesus in the Gospels.  By living out the teachings of Jesus in their everyday life, by gathering in prayer and reflection, the Church gradually over time began to formulate this dogma. Jesus used, and Paul remind us, that God is an “Abba” to us, tells us something about what we hear in the first reading as the author of Deuteronomy writes.  He has a relationship with us that is akin to a parent and a child, and in particular a desperate child in search for his Abba.

In short, Deuteronomy reminds us of what God has done in creation, that God has reached out to communicate with us and with a people he specifically chose to reveal himself to, and that no other “god” can compare to the true and only God who has proven his love to his people through mighty works and a covenant of laws he has handed on to us.  What we hear is that God collects or gathers us to himself.  That God is searching for us like that child and father searched for each other. This is not a Trinity of Persons who desires to remain distant and mysterious but a God who reaches out to communicate.

These readings and the experience of the Church over time showed them the deeper implications of Jesus’ teaching about the Father and the Spirit.  So, by the time the now common Creed we proclaim at Mass was written, three centuries later, it simply reflected and finally clarified what the Church had come to know and already believed over time about the nature of God.

Our Gospel from Matthew brings this all home for us and forever sets the mission of the Church forward to proclaim to the entire world, for all time, not only who God is but that he desires to gather us to himself in community with one another and with him.  Jesus approaches his disciples before his ascension and sends them out to: “. . . make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you . . .”

Each time we gather for holy Mass, we direct all of our prayers to the Father, through his Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit.  To imagine that we share in the life (love) he enjoys, that he comes to us in the intimate and real presence of the Eucharist is to bow in adoration of his mystery as his spiritually adopted sons and daughters.

So the next time we bless ourselves before and after entering into prayer, let’s be reminded about a God of family, communication, relationship, and a God who listens for our “Abba” when we run to find him, we can give thanks for this divine life extended to us, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

God our Father, who by sending in to the world
the Word of truth and the Spirit of sanctification
made known to the human race your wondrous mystery,
grant us, we pray, that in professing the true faith, 
we may acknowledge the Trinity of eternal glory
and adore your Unity, powerful in majesty. 
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, 
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God, for ever and ever. 

(Collect of Feast)

May 19, 2018

Pentecost Sunday: One and Many

"We hear them speaking . . . of the mighty acts of God."

John 20: 19 - 23

In the beautiful second reading from Corinthians this Sunday, among other varied choices, we hear: “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone . . .”

These words of Paul reflect the earliest of Christian communities that Paul had established.  It gives us a window into what Christian communities may have been like, yet certainly not without tension. Yet, aren’t we very much the same. In the experience of their diverse forms of spiritual gifts, varied forms of service, and different works Paul and these enriched communities saw for themselves how and where the Holy Spirit had become concretely obvious to their communities and beyond. 

However, one might say that such diversity is a recipe for chaos that might breed competition, jealously, greed, arrogance, create factions and spawn selfishness. Ordinarily, without some common purpose or some shared vision, that might be the case.  Yet, for Paul and for us still today what is the barrier that prevents such from happening?  It is our common belief that what holds us together and is always a check on our tendency to think of “Me first,” is the power of the Holy Spirit that reminds us that we are sharers in the mission of Christ, something far beyond our selves, yet a very active part of it.  Whether our varied works may be small or more noticed they all contribute to the common good of the community each in their own way. 

Some may be obvious like music, liturgical ministries, teaching, and charitable works and others more behind the scenes like washing dishes, cleaning altar linens, arranging flowers in typical parish life but all are part of a whole and all are needed to build up the Body of Christ, the Church, and to carry that mission beyond our own individual worlds.  To know this and to see that as our common point of focus and source of life is to live in the Spirit. We all share one baptism, one faith, and drink from the same Spirit, where all come together around the altar of sacrifice each Sunday with Christ our Head and our food for this journey.

The second reading choice from Galatians reminds us to seek the fruits, the signs, of the Spirit’s presence among us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  If we see these things expressed in the unity of our community, then the Holy Spirit is alive in our midst.   

The story of the Spirit’s presence through wind, fire, and diverse languages that we hear of in the first reading from Acts, is one that caught the Apostles, gathered with Mary, unaware yet hopeful as they prayed.  It reminds us that the Christian message of salvation in Jesus Christ, the Kerygma as it is called, is meant for a much wider community than the small one gathered in Jerusalem that day.  The diverse language of ancient people spoken by the Apostles unifies the varied crowd gathered outside the room as they all heard of “the mighty acts of God” in one common, united message of hope and salvation in Christ. And so the mission of the Church and the Church itself is born. 

We can see the connection with ourselves today.  All one need do is take a look around at the many gathered on any weekend for Mass.  There may be nothing more expressive of our unity in diversity, our Catholic nature of Christianity, than to be present for a public audience with the Holy Father at the Vatican.  Or to travel to other countries of the world and hear there an unfamiliar language and culture but to see that common form of our Mass which brings us home to one another.  Or to see the multiple forms of Christian service, ministries as they may be called, in any parish, yet to know that unity in Christ Jesus is always our common bond.  To live in the Spirit is to remain connected to the branches of the vine and to follow one Shepherd whose voice we hear. 

Is there any comparison in the world these days to the united diversity of the Catholic Church?  Yes, the Church has been through much, has caused scandal and not behaved the best over the centuries but that is because it is composed of flawed human beings.  As the Second Vatican Council wisely admitted, the Church is constantly in need of reform. And that constant reform has produced saints, scholars, theologians, and holy people literally everywhere across this globe.  It is remarkable and owes it existence to the Spirit's constant presence. 

And so the Church and its varied members constituting hundreds of millions all across the globe are all missionary disciples as Pope Francis has said.  We all share in that common mission given to the Church thousands of years ago at Pentecost.  Let the Spirit blow strong in our lives to bring, as the Gospel from John reminds us, Jesus’ mission of forgiveness and healing to a world broken by sin.  We can stifle, block, or resist the work of God’s grace in our lives for sure but the Holy Spirit’s presence is a life force that will forever be present moving and forming us as the People of God. 

O God, who by the mystery of today's great feast
sanctify your whole Church in every people and nation,
pour out, we pray, the gifts of the Holy Spirit
across the face of the earth
and, with the divine grace that was at work
when the Gospel was first proclaimed,
fill now once more the hears of believers.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, 
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God for ever and ever. 

(Collect of Mass)

May 12, 2018

The Lord's Ascension: From Glory to Mission

"They went forth and preached everywhere . . . while the Lord worked with them."

Mark 16: 15 - 20

I do love good movies and plays.  In order for all to come together, to convey the moral of the story, to be sure the key players are performing as scripted and with enough convincing emotion, and to make the right impact on the audience, it’s what happens on the other side of the camera or behind the scenes on stage that really makes all the difference to success.  In other words, you need a good director.  The one who watches the action, knows in their mind what the point of the story is and moves actors and scenes around to make the most lasting impact. 

But, as skilled as actors are to embrace the character they portray and as thrilling as our scenes may be, it’s all pretend.  Remember how realistic an effort was made with the famed television series “Downton Abbey” and you have a very good example of something so convincing as to seem real.  The story line and the eventual effect of the movie or play is the final point.

This weekend, in a large part of the Catholic world, we celebrate a turning point in the Easter season and the earthly ministry of Jesus: the Feast of the Lord’s Ascension is recalled.  The scene is familiar to us and would certainly make a stunning effect:  The Lord Jesus suddenly lifts off the ground, disappears into the clouds above in a ray of sunlight, angels appear as the Apostles stand staring into the sky above wondering where he went. The risen Lord leaves the company of his Apostles after the glory of the resurrection and commissions them to begin the mission of the Church. He goes from glory to mission.

Yet, what do we often imagine?  Our first reading from Acts relates the event: “When he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up and a cloud took him from their sight . .  .”  Then the angel appeared and asked them: “Why are you standing there looking at the sky?” Our Gospel passage from Mark, states the same: “So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke with them, was taken up into heaven . . .”Isn’t this how we often imagine this moment to be.  Jesus was literally lifted off the ground in his risen body into the sky above?

When Jesus gathered with his disciples for his final communication, he urged them: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature . . .” A tall order indeed!  So our Lord proclaims and passes on his mission to those who would follow and represent him.  “Go” everywhere and tell all humanity what God has done in and through Jesus of Nazareth, his only Son that all are saved and mercy and forgiveness is offered to everyone, everywhere who believe in his name. But then, he leaves them as he disappeared into the clouds above to never be seen again.  He went “to heaven” wherever that is and we remain on earth – left behind.  So heaven and earth are separated, far far away from each other, and Jesus carries on where he went while we simply plod along trying to do the best we can. 

Despite this literal image, as Bishop Robert Barron notes, the Bible implies otherwise.  Our passage from Mark’s gospel ends:  But they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them.”   The implication is clear from this.  Our reading from Acts urges the disciples to return to Jerusalem, pray and wait for, “. . . power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” and then, “. . . you will be my witnesses.”

The implication is that Jesus has not left this earth. Though the Lord Jesus is not visible in his risen body, he remains very much in control and involved from his heavenly place as he works in and through his Church. While we aren’t puppets whose strings are pulled willy-nilly by the divine puppeteer, Christ lives in his Church and directs mysteriously through the constant presence of his Spirit. This director enters the action as he himself becomes the message.  His real Eucharistic presence is the ultimate living encounter with us that convinces us he is anything but passive and uncaring. It embodies his mission.

At the core of that Christian mission is the command of love. He gave it to his disciples at the Last Supper foot washing, he lived it out, he offered it under bread and wine, and he remains involved with his disciple witnesses; with each of us.  To embrace and live fully the truth that we are loved by a merciful God moves us to extend that same fellowship Charity (Agape) for others.  Through that mission of Divine love God’s kingdom is established and his will is done here on earth.  We await its fulfillment in the salvation of Heaven. 

So, one example I ran across was this:  “God loves you, Johnny, so be good.”  It’s not, “Be good, Johnny, so God can love you.”  I found that inspiring, frankly. We neither can earn God’s love nor do we deserve it.  God loves us, so we do good because we realize this great truth.  Last week’s readings reminded us: “Not that we have loved God but that he has loved us.” (1 Jn 4: 9-10). What could be more simple and transforming to know this truth?  As Christ reigns in glory we carry on his mission.

As we prepare for Pentecost next Sunday, we see that moment when Jesus returns in the Holy Spirit and there remains present and active to us:  in his Word, in the Sacraments, in the lives of believers everywhere and within the structure of his Church.  This being so, a search for Christ can only be fulfilled within the body of the Church; you cannot separate Jesus from his Body, his Church.

So, while our imagination may want to visualize what that event was like for the disciples all the more we must recognize that we are not orphans, abandoned or left completely to our own unruly nature.  God is present among us in the here and the now.  Christ is very much in control as his Spirit breaths life constantly upon his Church guarding and directing it. But we must love as we are loved.  Didn’t we see this concretely in the lives of great saints like St. Teresa of Calcutta, St. Vincent de Paul and many others of selfless charity. 

See and imitate the same.  

May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, 
the Father of glory, 
give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation
resulting in knowledge of him . . . 

(Second Reading: Eph 1: 17 - 23) 

May 8, 2018

Never give up!

Paul in prison

If it were possible to capture the spirit of St. Paul in a motto it might be something like: "Never give up!"  A bit like the famed speech of English Prime Minister Winston Churchill who spoke eloquently to his embattled country during World War II when he urged the citizens of England, and London in particular, to "Never, never, never, never give up."

Our first reading from Acts today, Tuesday, and throughout the Easter season has heard from this fascinating book of St. Luke.  He continued the second part of his Gospel when he wrote this account of growth, by the power of the Holy Spirit, of the earliest of Christian communities.  Primarily it offers us an inspirational story of the Holy Spirit's coming on the Apostles and then  soon targets the conversion and subsequent stunning ministry of Saul, now Paul. His missionary journeys are described and the establishment of Christian communities, populated throughout the ancient world of Asia Minor by the non-Jewish Gentile citizens after his somewhat failed attempt to call the Jews to embrace Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. Paul traveled thousands of miles from Jerusalem, to Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, Rome and points inbetween.  Tradition states that he intended to move on to Spain but his journeys were ended in Rome after imprisonment with his martyrdom.

Today in the Acts we certainly see that motto of "Never give up" supported by Paul and Silas, his companion missionary, who are beaten, imprisoned, and fixed to the floor with chains, yet through divine intervention it seems, do not hesitate but push on all the more:

Acts 16: 22-34

Despite his physical injuries, and I find it stunning that he often seems to recover rather quickly, moved by his inner conviction that Jesus is indeed the Savior by his death and resurrection, he carries on boldly without fear or hesitation.  Christ has given him a mission to preach the Good News of the Gospel to the wider world outside Jerusalem and with the help of other companions, he does so in legendary ways.  Paul never gives up and those around him must have been deeply moved by his tenacity.  

What drives Paul?  His youth for one, likely Paul was in his 30's at the most. His physical strength had to play some role here. His conviction and his conversion to faith in Jesus Christ and the Spirit driven force within that compelled him to "never give up" what God had sent him to do. For Paul, all was worth the price he payed. 

I think it should move us to find those areas of our life where we are soft and to strengthen them through the determined grace of the Holy Spirit to stop wining and complaining about my shortcomings or my alleged inconveniences.  

Here at the parish we sadly see this occasionally from various parents who make excuses for their children as to why they cannot participate in various requirements for sacramental preparation. The reason, far more often than not, is involvement in sports. It is a good thing to keep physically active of course and to enjoy the benefits of healthy competition. But, Church is always the last choice, fitting it in where we can. Who gave up here?  Not a condemnation by any means but a point of reflection for some. "We don't have time for Mass and/or preparation for sacraments but we do have time for soccer practice, ballet lessons, and the three hour football or baseball game." Think of Paul, his determination and especially his priorities of what is really important and what will really carry you on. It's simply a matter of choice as to what we feel is more important and where to find time for those activities.  No one has ever died from "terminal Church!"

At any rate, Paul is an inspiration for all of us to "Never give up" in the ways of Christ and his Church.