Ordinary Time – Most Holy Trinity

There’s a phrase that was quite common when I was attending catechism class as a child, and people in my generation or older will likely recall it (we don’t hear it much anymore –like the word ‘catechism class’ – and most younger people may not be familiar with it)

That phrase or description is ‘a mystery of faith’.  One of the more common things that would fall into that category was the nature of the very feast day we celebrate today, the Feast of The Most Holy Trinity.  When we talk about the Most Holy Trinity, we are of course, referring to God; God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.  We invoke the Holy Trinity every time we bless ourselves and make the sign of the Cross.  We praise the Holy Trinity each time we say the prayer, Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit…

When we baptize anyone and welcome them into the Church as adopted children of God, we use the formula given to us by Jesus Himself as quoted in the Gospel of St. Matthew, ‘baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’

The Cathechism of the Catholic Church expresses “The Incarnation of God’s Son reveals that God is the eternal Father and that the Son is consubstantial with the Father, which means that, in the Father and with the Father, the Son is one and the same God… the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father in the name of the Son), reveals that, with them, the Spirit is one and the same God. “With the Father and the Son He is worshipped and glorified” (Nicene Creed).

But we sit and scratch our heads sometimes as we grapple with the idea that we worship one God, but a single God in whom there are Three persons; Father, Son and Spirit – the Most Holy Trinity.  When we were children, or for many of us even later in life, when we asked, ‘how does that work- three persons in one God?” we usually received the response, ‘oh, that’s a mystery of faith’……somewhat similar to the answer a father gives a child who asks an uncomfortable question; ‘go ask your mother.’….that answer never satisfied.

In fact, those outside the Church, or those who refuse to be open to God, often use that response as their rationale for why they don’t believe in God.  They see the response, a ‘mystery of faith’ as a “cop out” – as if by calling something a ‘mystery of faith’ we are saying no only that ‘we don’t know’ something, but also that there is no answer.

But the Catechism of the Catholic Church is just as clear about what the nature of a ‘mystery of faith’ is, particularly when it applies to the Holy Trinity;”The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of the Christian faith and of Christian life. God alone can make it known to us by revealing Himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

In other words, this great mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is something that only God can reveal to each and every one of us, and He reveals that to us when we open ourselves or prepare ourselves to receive that revelation.

In our passage today from the Gospel of St. John, Jesus Himself tells the apostles that He has many things to tell them, but that ‘they cannot bear them’ right now.  He goes further to explain that the Spirit will reveal these things to them over time, things handed to them by the Father.  He’s not saying that these other ‘things’ – these mysteries – are not understandable on any level by the apostles – He’s telling them that on their own, right now, they are not able to ‘bear them.’ That at that moment, they are not capable of understanding these mysteries; He’s not saying ‘never’ – He’s saying, ‘not yet’. They need to grow in their faith lives and in the Spirit.

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes, “endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit …” – even St. Paul acknowledges that we need to go through stages of growth, but that this growth is powered or fuelled by our willingness to receive God’s love, our openness to the Holy Spirit. Our knowledge of God has to grow; our prayer life has to grow.

We need to first understand that because we don’t fully comprehend a mystery does not mean there is no possibility of understanding anything about it.  Quantum Physics is a complete mystery to me, but it is not completely unknowable, provided I am willing to take the time to read or study or speak to someone who might provide me with some basic understanding of its principles.  And just because I have no understanding of it right now, does not mean that it’s principles don’t exist, or that I will never understand anything about them.

A mystery doesn’t mean we can’t understand anything; it means we can’t understand everything, and there is a world of difference between those two things. 

Take for example, a major art gallery; there will be works of art in the main lobby, and a real student of art could spend all day simply studying those artworks; but when we enter the building and look past the lobby, we realize there are halls and corridors throughout the building and there are rooms off of all of those corridors, and there are pieces of art in each of those rooms;  we cannot absorb all of the art in the building , simply from entering the lobby.  And even if we could, there is more and more to each piece of art;  a person could spend an entire lifetime studying one painting by one of the ‘masters’; they could even study and develop their own skills to the point where they might even be able to reproduce an exact copy of one of these paintings.  But they will never completely understand the artist’s experience and know what was in their heart or going through their minds at the moment they touched brush to canvass simply because they are not the artist; their own experiences are as distinct as they are;   they can come very close to understanding that one painting, but they will never completely understand it; they can know something – they just cannot know everything.

But in order to understand anything, we have to take that first step, like studying Quantum Physics, or examining those paintings; we need to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s action in revealing that understanding – that experience.  The first way to do that, is to enter into prayer, to actually take the time to say to God, ‘ I desire to know You better Lord’.  But we cannot expect to have all the answers immediately – because like the apostles, we cannot bear them yet.  Just as we can’t expect to know everything there is to know about a new friend until we get to know them better by spending time with them and talking with them, we shouldn’t expect to know everything about God if we aren’t willing to spend ‘quality time’ with Him.  And even in spending ‘quality time’ with God, we shouldn’t expect to be able to know ‘everything’ because, quite simply, we are not God and in this lifetime, we cannot fully comprehend the mind of God.

One of my favourite saints, St. Augustine a doctor of the Church who wrote extensively in the 5th century, considered much about the Holy Trinity.  He had a deep desire to understand more fully this mystery of three persons in One God, and more importantly –to be able to explain it.  There is a story told , how while he had spent considerable time trying to understand this mystery, one day he walked along a beach and suddenly saw a small child alone on the shore.  He watched while the child made a hole in the sand, took a little cup and ran to the sea, filling the cup and pouring it into the hole in the sand.  After watching the child go back and forth over a period of time, St. Augustine went up to the child and said, ”what are you doing?”  The child replied, ‘trying to empty the sea into this hole.”

Augustine, amused said, ‘how do you think you can empty this immense sea into this tiny hole with this tiny cup?’

To which the child answered,” how do you suppose that with your small head you can comprehend the Immensity of God?” and then the child promptly disappeared.

As people of faith we need to spend time considering the Triune God who so blesses us as Father, who redeems us as His Son, and who makes us holy through His Spirit. But to do that, we need to pray, and pray often; not simply when we come to Mass on Sunday, but at other times and at any time we feel that movement of the Spirit to think of or speak to God.

Ultimately, as St. Augustine also wrote once; it is far more important to worship the Holy Trinity, than to understand the Holy Trinity.

And so, I would invoke God’s blessing on all of us here, that each of us will grow in a deeper knowledge, understanding, and love of God and each other in all of life’s ‘mysteries’ In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

trinity icon

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Easter – Pentecost

So often when we look at today’s passage from the Acts of the Apostles, with its description of tongues of fire and the sound of something like a whirlwind, we expect that this is the hallmark of the movement of the Holy Spirit.  We look to see God’s activity in the world as monumental or spectacular.  It’s as if we are saying, ‘if the Holy Spirit is active in my life, surely that would be accompanied by sights and sounds and actions that are certain to amaze and impress.’  The logical conclusion to this would be, of course, that in the little things, the ‘ordinariness’ of our lives, that the Holy Spirit of God is not active or moving through us.

But nothing could be further from the truth.  Of course God can move and inspire us to great heights, and throughout salvation history, God performed great signs and wonders – we can think of things like the parting of the Red Sea during the Exodus of the Israelites when they left Egypt; or Jesus calming the stormy sea with a word – but more often, God’s presence and the action of the Holy Spirit appear in less dramatic fashion – think of the prophet Elijah and God’s revealing of self to him in the still, small breeze; or perhaps the resurrected Jesus walking quietly beside the disciples on the road to Emmaus as an unknown stranger.                 

We should never confuse the outward flash and show of something with its importance.  We have two accounts today in our readings of the Holy Spirit being received by the Apostles – the first from the Acts, with the whirlwinds and fire and the result of the Apostles being filled with courage and conviction; going out and preaching to the crowds in Jerusalem; no longer afraid and remaining in hiding, but boldly proclaiming the resurrected Jesus.

Contrast that account with the passage from St. John’s Gospel – Jesus appearing to his disciples in the upper room where they are still hiding, and breathing on them, saying ‘receive the Holy Spirit’;  here we have God in the person of Jesus, the Son, imparting the Holy Spirit in a quiet, calm and intimate way;  quite apparently unspectacular.

 But the results are most certainly spectacular; here this small group will take this Gospel – this Good News of Salvation through Jesus – and spread it throughout the Roman Empire and beyond in a few short decades.

And all because they are moved, inspired, empowered by the Holy Spirit of God which has been given to them.

We might see these examples from Scripture, though, and whether we look at the ‘big production’ of Pentecost in Acts, or the low-key handing on of the Spirit in St. John, we might be tempted to think that the movement of the Spirit is restricted only to historic figures that had a physical encounter with Jesus, or perhaps the great saints in the history of the Church who undertook and performed great works.

We might think that the movement of the Spirit is something outside our experience or our own ‘reach’ because, quite honestly, our lives are ordinary, or unspectacular. 

Don’t sell yourselves or the Holy Spirit short.  In the first letter to the Corinthians, our second reading today, the Apostle tells us, “No one can say, ’Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.’

In other words, just the urge to pray aloud or affirm that we believe Jesus is God, is a movement of the Holy Spirit within.  It may not seem spectacular, or feel particularly exciting immediately, but it is a movement of the Spirit just the same.

There’s perhaps something that we need to understand at this point as well.  As rational, practical beings, humans are given to thought and analysis and problem-solving through a whole process.  In a strictly rational, practical existence, it would make absolutely no sense to pray. 

And yet, we do.  Often times we feel moved to have that conversation with our Creator God – and this conversation, this is what prayer is; and it is this prayer that is certainly not a rational exercise. 

We feel a need or desire to converse with the One who loved us into existence; and it is this very desire which in and of itself, is a movement within us of the Holy Spirit.  And when we surrender to this movement, the deeper we feel invited into this relationship; and the deeper we are drawn into this relationship, the more we show outwardly our inner journey with God – the more we are inclined to show in our actions and our words that ‘Jesus is Lord’ – a claim that we can make only through the power of the Holy Spirit.

And while we may not immediately see some spectacular or dazzling result in our circumstances from this movement, there will most definitely be an influence on others around us – and it is in that influence that the Spirit continues to move outward, reaching out through us, drawing us and others closer to God the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit.  That is indeed something spectacular and amazing.

We can’t let the notion take hold, that we are not participating in the mission of the Church, brought into being by Christ who is the head of the Church, unless we are doing something huge and impressive. 

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta thought of herself as anything but “big or impressive”.  But she understood that each of us, surrendering in our own ordinary lives to the power of the Holy Spirit, had the potential to do great things for God; and that great things for God were not determined by numbers of converts or monumental buildings or statues; one of her more famous quotes was ‘We can do no great things; only small things with great love.”

But one of her lesser known quotes was this; ‘Little things are indeed little; but to be faithful in little things is a great thing.”

Every time we participate in the Mass; any time we spend in prayer; each time we reach out to help a neighbour- to feed the hungry; to shelter those who have no place to live; to comfort someone in sorrow; to support those suffering emotional or physical illness – each time we do any of these things, we are responding to the movement of the Holy Spirit within us.

We are living out the inheritance that was first given to the disciples by the very breath of Jesus as He breathed on them –  this breath of Christ is the breath of God; the same breath of God that gave life ‘in the beginning’ ;the same breath which gives life as the Church is born on that feast of Pentecost;  that breath is the Holy Spirit and continues to move – to breathe -through the Church and all of her members – through you and me, urging us to proclaim ‘Jesus is Lord’ in so many ways – and every one of these ways is extraordinary, because they are inspired by God; and in that, in each of us,  there is greatness in the Holy Spirit.

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

so what do we call you anyway?

Often, one of the first questions a newly ordained deacon hears from people in the parish he serves is, ‘what do we call you now?’

In 2nd Corinthians, we read, ‘if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.’  Perhaps this is a good place to start in explaining what happens to a man at ordination to the diaconate – as well as at ordination to the priesthood.  That man receives the Sacrament of Holy Orders (deacon, priest or bishop), and as in all the other Sacraments, we believe Christ is present and grants grace; something is changed, made new, made ‘a new creation’. 

Think about it this way; in Baptism we are changed into an adopted son or daughter of God; in the Eucharist, bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ.  In much the same way, at the very core of his being, in Holy Orders a man is changed – configured to Christ.  He is no longer, ‘his own man’; as long as he is open to the graces of the Sacrament, he is configured, transformed interiorly, to Christ.  A priest or bishop is configured to Christ the head; the deacon, to Christ the suffering servant. This is emphasized in that, not only is a deacon an ordinary minister of baptism and celebrant at weddings; not only is he to proclaim the Gospel and preach; but he is to be a minister of service to the poor – wherever the poor may be found (materially, socially, spiritually, etc.).

This ‘newness of creation’ is a reason why a priest is no longer ‘Joe’ but rather, ‘Father Joe’ or a deacon is no longer ‘Bob’, but rather ‘Deacon Bob’. It is a recognition that he is no longer who he was before ordination (and it actually helps in holding himself to account in that new reality).

In my own journey to this vocation, my own life took many twists and turns; married with five children, I have been an army reservist, factory labourer, forest firefighter, journalist, and police officer.  Through all of that, there was a calling, very quiet at first, which drew me deeper into a life marked by wanting to serve others, and deeper into a desire to serve God in a permanent way.  It hasn’t been smooth, and it hasn’t always been easy; it required a lot of discernment, patience and trust – it required an openness to following God’s call and the teaching of the Church – and a willingness to accept whatever decision those responsible for my formation came to – whether to recommend the bishop ordain me or not. 

But through all of this, there developed an understanding that this is not about a ‘job’ or a volunteer ‘opportunity’ or a liturgical ‘function’.  Responding to God’s call to service is really all about relationship; a relationship of love with God expressed in a relationship of love and service to others.         

The canonical title may be ‘Reverend Mr. …’ ; this may sound somewhat formal and wordy for deacons you may know.  Quite simply, you can’t go wrong with ‘Deacon Chuck’ –  whatever your deacon’s name might be.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Easter – Ascension

One of the most typical reactions we have to a deeply moving experience is to hang on to it; to cling to it. This is especially true in the spiritual or interior life.  When we have a particularly insightful moment or an awareness of God, we might be tempted to cling tightly to that insight. Often we want to revisit these experiences, sometimes even trying to escape from thinking about certain trials or struggles we go through by ‘summoning up’ a previous happy ‘moment’.

There is something to beware in this, though, especially in the spiritual life.  There is a real temptation to want to ‘re-live’ or ‘re-create’ the event that brought about a particular experience – it may have been a real sense of the power of the Holy Spirit, or an insight into the unconditional love of God, or a deeply felt awareness in our own hearts of the presence of Christ in others.  Rather than simply accepting this insight or experience as a grace moment, or a gift from God, we cling to it and try to duplicate the conditions so that we can have this experience again, and again, and again.  The fact is, when we are deep in prayer, and if we are blessed enough to have one of these insights, if we try to ‘figure out’ how we got to that point, the moment of that experience begins to slip away from us.

The danger in this, particularly if this involves our prayer life and spirituality, is that we have become focussed on a gift, and have forgotten about the Giver; we are hoping for the ‘high’ that we felt in that momentary experience – rather than simply accepting a gift with a sense of gratitude.  We try to cling to that grace as if it is something private and meant only for us, and we become defensive if anyone should ‘intrude’ into that grace.  We forget that God gives us these grace moments to draw us deeper into a relationship with Him, and subsequently to draw others into that relationship.

Jesus did not teach his disciples to seek the kingdom of God solely for their own benefit.  Time after time he reminds them, and us, of the responsibility to be witnesses to the kingdom, to invite others into the kingdom – to make the love of God and the mercy of Christ known to everyone.  The whole point is to go out and bring others into that loving companionship of Jesus – and not simply by quoting a few catch-phrases or nice-sounding slogans; we are to do so by a lived example; by being visible signs, by being witnesses to the very real and precious love of God moving through our own lives.

The disciples had numerous deep and moving experiences and an intimate knowledge of the power and the presence of Jesus in their own lives.  The Acts of the Apostles, in our first reading on this Ascension Sunday, tells us how after his resurrection, Jesus spends an additional forty days with his friends; teaching them, comforting them, sharing with them.  To say that they have had a deeply spiritual experience in the presence of Jesus, who they have seen raised from the dead, would be an understatement.  But here they are, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and Jesus is lifted up.

(Luke is quite specific here – he says lifted up and that they lose sight of him in the clouds – it’s not as if Jesus kind of faded into nothingness on the ground in front of them, or ‘metaphorically’ ascended to a ‘higher consciousness’ – Luke who takes great pains in the detail of his gospel and the Acts, says Jesus was lifted up and they lost sight of him in the clouds)

But while they are ‘caught up’ in this experience, standing in awe and not moving, two strangers in white robes (we’re given the impression they are angels) say to the disciples, “Men of Galilee why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go to heaven.”

In other words, the angels seem to be reminding the disciples; you’ve had a wonderful experience. Now instead of standing here and clinging to it, do something with it!

The reality of the love of God in our own lives is not restricted to single experiences or grace moments; the love of God is something that moves and lives and breathes in and around and through us every day, all the time, if only we have eyes to see it.  The Holy Spirit, who Jesus promises to his disciples at His Ascension, teaches us how to receive the most precious gift of all, the love of God, so that we can do something wonderful with it.

Perhaps in this particular liturgy we may have one of those grace moments; a sense of the wonder and beauty and nearness of God.  If that happens thank God for it, and rather than clinging to  it tightly as a private possession, release it with an open hand and open heart; to see how God will use this experience to draw us and others closer to himself.  That is, after all, why we were created, and why Jesus entered into our humanity in the first place.

birds over blowing rocks

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Easter – 6th Sunday

I was recently on my annual retreat – a silent retreat, spending five days in prayer and silence, trying to focus exclusively on listening to God and discerning where and how God is at work in my life, and how and where my life can be a faithful and loving reflection of Jesus, to the praise and glory of God.

As is usually the case, I spent a lot of time walking, which in this case was easy because there were many footpaths and hiking trails around this particular retreat centre; it was an opportunity to explore the beauty and goodness of God reflected in His created world.  One beautiful, sunny morning in particular, I was beside a cultivated field which hadn’t been planted yet.  Spaced along the field were posts, about six feet tall, and atop these posts were small bird houses- and most of these had been occupied by barn swallows.  These swallows were beautiful little birds, with dark blue wings, heads and tails, and white chests.  There were two to each house, and it was obvious they had been nesting and there were either young or eggs in the nests.

Whenever I paused on my walk, within ten or twenty feet of these nests though, the adult swallows would begin flying, and swoop down at me, trying to drive me away from their nest.  Now these birds are not very big, and it would have been simple enough to swat them out of the air; but the experience left me with something to reflect on.  These little birds, surely would know that they were no match for any large predator that would come near their nest; yet here they were, throwing themselves completely  in harm’s way for no other reason than to protect their nest – to drive away a threat at the cost of their own safety, maybe even their own lives.  The preservation of their young, the continuation of their species, takes over where common sense ends; these swallows were prepared to sacrifice everything to prevent the loss of that one necessary thing to their species’ survival – their young.

In our Gospel passage today from St. John, we continue hearing the words of Jesus at the Last Supper; that He is going to suffer and die, and rise again; that He is returning to the Father; that He and the Father will send them the Holy Spirit to guide, direct and strengthen them.  This is a promise He gives to them, to the Church, that the Holy Spirit, the Advocate will come to them and remind them of all that He has taught.

But just as in last week’s passage, Jesus gives another example of how the world will know that we are His disciples.  This time He says, “whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come and make our home with him.”  He explains that the Holy Spirit will come and remind His disciples all that He taught them; and it is through this promise that He confers the teaching authority of the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit.

Keeping Jesus’ word, following His teaching as handed down, is not always an easy thing.  In fact, given the world we live in, it is rarely an easy thing.  His word says that we are to love God above all else with our whole being, and love our neighbor as ourselves.  His word says that we are to care for the poor, the marginalized, the weak because He is present to us in them.  His word says we are to support and strengthen each other in prayer, and in concrete ways; His word says we are to live and preach the Gospel without compromising it or watering it down.

Keeping, believing, and living His word is really that one thing necessary for our survival as Church, as the Body of Christ; it is the one thing necessary to ensure that we pass on the truth of the Gospel to our children, and the world around us; it is the one thing necessary to enable us to draw others closer to God – to allow us to play a small part in salvation history!

We should be willing to defend that one thing necessary – to prevent it from being harmed by all of the temptations, worries and threats to it that this world has to offer; as disciples of Christ we should be fearless in holding fast to His teaching, in standing up and defending our faith both in the public forum and in more private settings.

He tells us not to be afraid, because He gives His disciples -those who keep His word- His peace. This is not a temporary worldly sense of ‘peace’ meaning no current conflict in our lives. That ‘peace’ is as temporary as worldly trends, opinions and conditions allow it to be. His peace is not a peace meaning there will be no difficulties, struggles or threats in this world; but it is a peace at the core of our being; a peace that helps keep us in the knowledge that we belong to Him, and that He will not abandon His own, regardless of how the world treats us; that ultimately we will live in and with God and all will ultimately be well.

He doesn’t ask us to do anything that He wasn’t prepared to do first.  He may ask us to be like those swallows, doing everything we can to protect our relationship with Him from the temptations and threats of this world; but we should remember – like those swallows,  protecting their own young He spared nothing ,not even His own life, to protect us – His children – for eternity.

barn swallow

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!