Knowing the Trinity

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the-holy-trinityReflecting on the reality of baptism, Diadochus – a theologian of the early church – writes, “Before a person comes to be baptized, grace is at work, from without, encouraging the soul toward the good, while Satan is at work, from within. After baptism, the contrary is the case. Grace works from within and the demons from without. These continue their work, and work even more evilly than before, but not as present together with grace. The only way they can work is through the promptings of the flesh.”

Today, we as church, reflect on that most profound of mysteries – the Trinity. As Christians we believe and we profess that God is one and that God is three. We are not Unitarians and neither are we Jehovah Witnesses – both of which deny the Trinity. Through the revelation of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit we have been brought to the realization that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one God.

I believe that the quote by Diadochus concerning baptism can help bring us to the only point by which we can begin to contemplate this mystery – from within.  “After baptism, the contrary is the case. Grace works from within and the demons from without.”  The mystery of the Trinity is not a problem to be objectively solved or a riddle that can be puzzled through by our wits alone. The Trinity is a mystery to be lived. This mystery demands the involvement and engagement of the whole person – mind, body and spirit.

God initiated the invitation to this mystery. In John’s gospel we are reminded that, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son … For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17) Through God’s love and God’s initiative (as known in baptism) we are brought into communion with God and into the relationship that is the Trinity.

It is here, in this reality of lived relationship, that we begin our awareness of God as three. Paul – in his second Letter to the Corinthians – writes, “Mend your ways, encourage one another, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you.” (2 Cor. 13:12) Paul firmly connects how we live our lives with the presence of God: “Mend your ways … and the God of love and peace will be with you.” Awareness and knowledge of God can only begin from within. Paul is calling for a sincere examination of conscience here. Are we living our lives in such way that Father, Son and Spirit are welcome to come, reside and be present?

In God’s great revelation to Moses the Lord defines himself by proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity.” (Ex. 34:6) Again, awareness and knowledge of God can only begin from within. If God defines himself as “merciful” and “slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity” then why would he make himself present and known in a heart that lacks these qualities?

God has taken the initiative and invites us into relationship with himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit but this mystery, to be authentically known, must first be lived.

It has to begin from within; from how we choose to live our lives.

The film “A Man Called Ove” and its pro-life/pro-community witness.

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a-man-called-ove-us-posterOn the recommendation of a parishioner, I recently watched the Swedish movie, “A Man Called Ove” – based on the 2013 novel by the same name written by Fredrik Backman.  It is a very thoughtful and uplifting film and probably one of the most pro-life films I have ever seen.  

The film tells the story of the widower Ove who daily visits his beloved wife’s grave and who is lost in grief.  Ove has become the grouchy, old man of his neighborhood – barking at people and living an isolated existence.  Wanting to end it all and be with his wife again he comedically attempts suicide in different ways but keeps getting interrupted in the act.  The movie poster has the short quip, “Misery hates company” and this is at the heart of the story.  Uninvited, community keeps knocking at Ove’s door and community is what saves him and heals his pain ultimately.  Community comes in the form of a new and loud young family moving in next door, a young man who was a student of Ove’s late wife and his gay friend, a stray cat and a now-paralyzed old friend of Ove’s to whom he must make amends. 

As the movie unfolds we learn Ove’s story and learn that he is much more than just an angry, old man.  He was a beloved son who experienced great tragedy.  He was a young man who met and fell in love with a girl.  The young couple had the hope of a child which was tragically taken away in an accident leaving the wife in a wheelchair, yet they persevered.  Ove is a man with an amazing life and story.  Bit by bit, we learn his story and see him for who he really is – a good man with a big and courageous heart.  

A truth that I walked away with from this film is that to truly be pro-life means one must also be pro-community because it is in community where life is found and experienced in all its beauty.  The film is chock full of pro-life moments and they are all wrapped in community – the promise of new life found in pregnancy as well as the pain of that life being taken away, the dignity of the disabled person as well as the dignity of the immigrant, the elderly and the person who is different from us, the danger of social isolation which can be going on right in front of our eyes and we don’t even notice, the possibility of youth and the need to encourage the dreams of the young as well as the life-changing gift of the teacher.  Gratitude for the sheer gift of life.  All of these find expression in the story and they are all poignantly nuanced within community. 

The film “A Man Called Ove” is a story full of life and it is a story that challenges us (just as life does) to move out of self and isolation into community.  The story gets beyond all the pat phrases, slogans and often hollow clamor of the culture wars and takes the viewer into the real stuff of life and because of its willingness to “go there”, it rings authentic. 

Misery does hate company.  There is truth in this.  True community heals, even as it challenges and unsettles.  To be pro-life and be authentic about it means we also must be willing to risk being pro-community even in all of community’s sometimes messiness and imperfection. 

There is something very incarnational, very true and very Christian about the pro-community connection to being pro-life.    

“Father, I thank you for hearing me.”

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Jesus-Raises-Lazarus-from-the-Dead-540x300There is almost an ordinariness to the way our Lord goes about his mission of proclaiming and living God’s Kingdom.  Even his miracles and the raising of his friend Lazarus are not exceptions.  Our Lord takes his time in getting to the scene of Lazarus’ illness and death.  He takes time in speaking with both Martha and Mary.  Arriving at the tomb he asks that the stone be rolled back.  He addresses the Father and then, with a loud voice, cries, “Lazarus, come out!”  The once-dead man walks out. 

There are no flashes of light or rolling thunder.  Our Lord does not need to make strange incantations or weave any sort of spell.  He does not even seem to have to fast in preparation for such an extraordinary thing.  There is no burning of incense or sacrifices offered.  Jesus simply gives honor to the Father, calls Lazarus forth and his friend is restored to life.  

This is not a feat of our Lord’s own will at work.  Jesus is not a comic book superhero saving the world through his own strength and determination nor is he a wizard overcoming by his own intellect and perseverance (a.k.a., “will to power”).  Scripture tells us that Christ let go of his own glory and power and took on the form of a slave.  The salvation won through Christ is through the “letting-go” of the divinity which allows the humanity to live in full relationship of love and trust with the Father.  Jesus tells us that he can do nothing apart from the Father.  Jesus does not heal, or feed the multitude, or cast out demons or walk on water or raise the dead through his own, independent and isolated exercise of will but through his relationship with the Father.  Therefore he does not need the trappings of the superhero or of esoteric magic.  It is all through relationship and relationship is often one of the most ordinary of things. 

St. Paul in his letter to the Romans reminds us that we also have been invited into this relationship.  “But you are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.  Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.  But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive because of righteousness.  If the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the One who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.”  (Rom. 8:8-11) 

How often and how easily we overlook the grace we have been given, that is indeed active within us!  We easily we get lost in the noise and distractions of our world.  The Spirit of the One who raised Christ from the dead has been given us and dwells within us – giving life and transforming us.  God does not need the trappings of the extraordinary to accomplish his purpose.  The sacraments are a prime example of this.  Water, bread, wine, oil, the words of the priest, the love of a couple – yet underneath the ordinary divine grace, relationship and life is found and given.  

We should not disdain the ordinary and the grace and new life found there.  Just as Christ emptied himself of glory and held to his relationship with the Father so should we.  Life is not found in our control, our ego, our own little “wills to power”, living within our own little bubbles.  Life, salvation, healing, grace is found through relationship – recognizing God’s presence given and within and seeking to live always in the amazing ordinariness of that relationship. 

“Father, I thank you for hearing me.  I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me.”

 

The Transfiguration and the voice of the Father

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transfiguration-of-JesusIn the gospel (Mt. 17:1-9), our Lord takes Peter, James and John up on a high mountain and is transfigured before them.  Our Lord’s face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.  Moses and Elijah appear and converse with our Lord.  Peter wants to build three tents on the spot but while he is speaking we are told that a bright cloud cast a shadow over them.  This immediately gets our attention, something utterly unique is occurring.  How can a cloud be “bright” and what does it mean that it casts a shadow over them?

From the cloud comes a voice, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”  Immediately upon hearing this voice the apostles fall prostrate and we are told that they were very much afraid.  The “falling prostrate” was automatic.  There was no question.  It had to be done.  The fear also was automatic.  It too was the most appropriate and really only true response that could be given.  The fear given was not our so common little fear of saving our own skin and preserving our little self and ego.  No, it was the visceral fear of the sinful creature suddenly brought into the presence of the One with no sin, the One who alone is holy.

In the very beginning we are told that humanity (in Adam and Eve) walked in the garden in the company of God and freely talked with Him.  Through sin, we were cast out of the garden, we lost that free and intimate relationship with God not because God is wrathful as we so often are but because God is truth and cannot abide the un-truth of sin, because God is good and cannot abide the un-good of sin, because God is beauty and cannot abide the un-beauty of sin.

Humanity’s deepest yearning is to once again abide in the garden with God and to live in that free relationship.  The history of the people of Israel can be read, in part, as a striving to regain that intimate friendship.  Moses (the one person so highly favored by God) begged to see the glory of God and God only granted him the briefest view “of his back” because God knows that no creature wounded by sin can look on his face and live (Ex. 33:18-23).

Jesus Christ is that greatest and most sacred mystery of the Word of God enfleshed (who emptied himself of glory and took the form of a slave) who has come to take upon himself the weight of our sin and be that bridge, that sheep gate and shepherd to return us to intimate relationship with the Father.

It is no coincidence that in our Lord’s discourse of the Last Judgement (Mt. 25:31-46) it is the Son who returns in glory to judge humanity.  Even the sinner can look on Jesus Christ who is the Word enfleshed.  The one we looked upon and who was pierced for our offences.  But only those found righteous through Christ, who have been thoroughly washed clean of sin will enter the presence of the Father who can abide no sin.

Our deepest yearning for full friendship with God is so entwined with our deepest fear of knowing how far we have indeed fallen.  But God is merciful.  Christ comes over to the three disciples locked in fear.  He touches them and says, “Rise, and do not be afraid … Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” 

We walk toward Jerusalem with our Lord…

Learning to worship God alone

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tempationsIn Adam and Eve, the devil trips humanity up not just through the temptation to exalt ourselves by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (the sin of pride) but also through the temptation to reduce God to our limits.  The serpent plants the seed for this second sin in his reply to Eve, You certainly will not die!  No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is evil.

The devil introduces a doubt about God and God’s goodness.  There is some reason God does not want them to eat of this tree…  There is something God is holding back…  There is something that even God is fearful of…

If God is fearful then God is not God because there is then something beyond God which causes fear within God.  Scriptures tells us that God is love (1 Jn. 4:16) and also that perfect love casts out all fear (1 Jn. 4:18).  In God there is no fear, only love.  God is not bound by our limits.

During his trial in the desert, our Lord overcomes the temptations of the devil and the doubts the serpent seeks to plant by holding to the truth of a God beyond our limits.  When the devil took our Lord to the parapet of the temple and seeks to plant doubt by saying, If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down and then even quotes scripture; our Lord quotes scripture back, You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test. 

We do not put God to the test in the way that we can test one another by trying each other’s patience and resolve.  God cannot be tested this way.  We put God to the test when we seek to bind God by our limits.  When, in this sense, we put God to the test we, in fact, show our limits, we do nothing to God.  God remains God whether we fully understand Him or not.  Christ will not put God to the test.  He will not limit God but will live rather in full trust of the love of the Father and full obedience to the Father’s will.

In my experience as a confessor as well as through my own stumblings in life, I have learned that one of the most corrosive aspects of sin in our lives is the seed of doubt in the goodness and true nature of God that can be planted by the evil one in our hearts.  God is like us.  God is fearful.  God needs to control.  God is jealous as we are often jealous.  God is a God of wrath.  God is somehow opposed to my freedom and fulfillment.  God is angry with me.  God is somehow “put off” by my weakness and failures.  Ultimately, God is not truly love…

The season of Lent and its disciplines offers us a time of both repentance and renewal.  As we begin this season I think it would be most beneficial to begin where our Lord begins – by not limiting God to our limits, by not putting God to the test.  To trust that God is love and that perfect love has no fear.

At the last temptation our Lord is taken to a high mountain and promised all the kingdoms of the world if he would but serve the devil.  Our Lord responds, Get away Satan!  It is written: “The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.”  Only God shall we worship and serve.  Lent is an invitation to follow our Lord and let go of any god we might be carrying around in our wounded hearts made in our limits in favor of the true God we are called to worship.

God is love and in love there is no fear.

The Law of Generosity: Be holy as God is holy.

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Jesus - way, truth, lifeThe “eye for an eye” teaching that our Lord refers to in today’s gospel (Mt. 5:38-48) was actually an attempt to restrict violence in a time when revenge was indiscriminate and excessive.

In the revenge culture of the time not only was it the perpetrator of a violent act who became a possible target for reprisal but any member of the same family, clan, ethnic group or even someone “thought” to be responsible or connected.  The culture of revenge was excessive.  An “eye for an eye” therefore was an attempt to limit the continuous cycle of revenge and violence.  With this understanding it would almost be better to read the injunction as “one eye for one eye and no more”.

For our Lord though it was not enough.  His desire is not just to limit the cycles and structures of violence but to actually heal the human heart from which all evil desires spring.  Evil and violence can never overcome evil and violence, even when co-opted for a good.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had an astute awareness of this truth.  In his writings and speeches we certainly find the call to end the massive injustices that the African-American community faced but we also find Dr. King reflecting on how the path of non-violence was also meant as a means to help heal those white brothers and sisters whose hearts were hardened by racism and prejudice.

God says to Moses, Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.  You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart.  Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen, do not incur sin because of him.  Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people.  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  (Lv. 19:1-2, 17-18)

In contrast to the law of co-opted violence, our Lord calls us to the law of abundant generosity – to be holy as God is holy, who makes the sun to rise on the bad as well as the good.  God is love; he is abundant in his mercy.  Our Lord is not naïve; he knows the full weight of evil and violence.  On the cross, Jesus took on the full weight of sin and its structures.

In the law of abundant generosity, Jesus is calling us to a pragmatism of generosity.  Evil and violence cannot heal the human heart (even when co-opted in an attempt for the good).  Evil and violence cannot end the cycles of revenge and violence … only love can.  When someone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other one.  When someone wants your tunic, give your cloak as well.  When someone presses you into service for one mile, go for two.  Our Lord proposes to us the pragmatism of generosity.  It is through this pragmatism that is found true healing for hearts that are wounded and hardened.

There is a story told of a painter who arrived one day in a small town and set himself up in the town square offering portrait paintings. For a few days he sat in the square with no one purchasing a portrait.  On the fourth day the artist approached the town drunk (whom he had noticed earlier) and said, “Listen, come and let me paint your portrait.  I need to keep my skills up and at the end you will have a free portrait.”  The man agreed.  He sat in the portrait chair and straightened himself up as best he could.  The painter looked at him silently, reflected for a few moments, smiled and began to paint.  The painting continued for a few days but the painter would never allow the man to view the painting while it was in progress.  Finally, the portrait was completed.  The painter handed the portrait to the man and the man’s mouth fell open.  Pictured in the painting was not a town drunk but an accomplished man – there was a gleam in his eyes, he held a steady gaze.  Instead of scruffy clothes and a disheveled appearance, the man was clean shaven and wore a nice suit.  “What is this?” demanded the man, “You have not painted me.”  “You are right,” replied the painter calmly, “I have not painted you as you now are but as the man whom you might become.”

The pragmatism of generosity sees and responds to the other person in terms of who he or she is meant to be.  Jesus calls us to live this law of generosity – to be holy as God is holy.

The choices we make and their consequences.

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sermon02The first reading from the Book of Sirach (Sir. 15:15-20) begins with a very direct statement,

If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live; he has set before you fire and water to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.  Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him.  

We all have been given the ability and the freedom to exercise our will.  We can each one of us make choices and all choices have consequences.  We are all free to make choices but no one is free to deny the consequences of his or her choices.  How we choose to exercise our will can lead to either more life or can lead to death (in a variety of forms).

Earlier this week the priests of our diocese gathered for our annual study days and at one point the presenter talked a little about the physiological effects of prayer.  He shared that there are studies which indicate that the discipline of prayer is a factor in the development of the areas of our brain connected with attention, focus and compassion.  Prayer (a spiritual discipline) can positively affect our minds, our biology.  This makes sense for Christians because we hold mind, body and spirit together.  It is all connected.  The choice to pray and to enter into the things of faith, which is an exercise of the will, is a choice that leads to more life. 

Interestingly, the presenter also shared that there are studies coming out indicating that there is another choice we can make that negatively impacts the biology of the brain and that is the choice for porn.  Studies are demonstrating that persons who fall into this habit experience an over-development of the lowest level of brain functioning (the reptilian area of the brain) and less development of the areas connected with attention, focus and compassion. 

All choices have consequences – some lead to life and some lead to death.

Our God is a God of life and not death. 

Our Lord goes deep in today’s gospel.  (Mt. 5:17-37)  He is not content to remain on the surface but wants to go to the heart where healing is needed.  Christ is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets and he wants us to know that in our keeping of the commandments is found life.  So Christ calls us to look within – to look at the anger, the greed, the judgmentalism, the pride, the lust that can dwell there – and to begin making choices (by his grace) beyond those sad realities and temptations.  Choices made for sin all leave us locked within our small selves.  God does not want this for us.  God wants us to be turned outward – towards Him and towards our brothers and sisters.  Here is where life is found. 

One final thought.  It begins today – by the choices we make now.  Some of you know that I am not the most consistent in my jogging routine (more than partly due to my own choices, some poor) but I have been around enough joggers to know that you don’t just get up one morning and say, “Today, I will run a marathon.”  It doesn’t work that way.  To run a marathon you prepare months in advance and during those months you make daily choices – some choices are not “fun” and some are downright painful.  The choice to watch what you eat, the choice to plan and chart miles, the choice to run even when you don’t want to, the choice to not do other things when you need to get your running hours in, etc…  The race does not begin the day of the marathon; it begins the months before and it continues with all those daily choices.

We will all face “marathons” in life – times of struggle that will try and test us.  To begin trying to make the choices for life when the struggle is upon us is often just too late.  The choices for God and His commandments that we make today and parents, the choices you help your children to make today, are the choices that will see us through the marathon when it comes. 

Each one of us is free to make our choices but no one is free to deny the consequences of the choices we make. 

Before man are life and death, good and evil…

But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.   

Salt and Light: the straightforward nature of discipleship

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christ-and-disciplesIn Matthew 5:13-16, our Lord gives us two very distinctive images of what it means to live the life of discipleship – salt and light.  We can say that part of the distinctiveness of these images is that both express a sense of “straightforwardness”.

The taste of salt is immediately known.  It is not a flavor that hides under other flavors.  When salt is added the effect on the taste of something is unmistakable.  The same can be said for light.  It also is immediate in its effect.  Either it is there or it is not.  When light shines in a dark space it is known.  Both salt and light are straightforward in their nature.

St. Augustine, in a commentary on Psalm 112 (the psalm which we hear this Sunday) reflects on the similar straightforward nature of discipleship.  Augustine contrasts the straightforwardness of the disciple with the persons who stumble in their envy of the sinner or who feel that their good deeds perish and are of no worth unless they receive some perishable reward in return – such as the acknowledgement and flattery of others.  But the disciple who is straightforward is the one who does the good simply because it is the right thing to do – whether noticed or appreciated by others or not.  The disciple, “neither seeks the approval of other people nor covets earthly riches…” 

Augustine goes on to note that Psalm 112 proclaims that “glory and wealth are in the house of the just one…”  This “house” of the just one is in fact his or her heart and it is there that the just person dwells in a richer style than anything that the world can afford.  The “glory and wealth” of the just one is his or her righteousness before God.  This is a “house” that no thief can break into and a “wealth” that can never be stolen.

In his words to his disciples our Lord is very specific.  “You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world …” This straightforward nature of discipleship is already within – it has been placed there by God’s grace in baptism.  We are sons and daughters of God!  This truth does not have to be earned or gained.  It is already present in the very makeup of who we are in Christ!  

We, on our part, have to trust, believe and live it out.  We must overcome the temptation to limit ourselves by the narrow horizons that we (through the voices of our world and our own painful experiences) set.  “Salt losing its taste…” and “light being hidden under a bushel basket…” is, in fact, our giving into our limited horizons and not living according to the fullness of God’s horizon.  It is our being overcome by fear.  As a wise man has noted, our playing small does not serve the will of God! 

This straightforward nature of discipleship has been witnessed these past couple of weeks by our U.S. Bishops’ response to the refugee ban recently issued. Here is a little bit of their letter, 

“We must screen vigilantly for infiltrators who would do us harm, but we must always be equally vigilant in the welcome of friends … Our desire is not to enter the political arena, but rather to proclaim Christ alive in the world today.  In the very moment a family abandons their home under the threat of death, Jesus is present.  And He says to each of us, ‘whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’” (MT. 25:40)

It is straightforward.  It is challenging.  It is the Gospel.  

We are the salt of the earth … we are the light of the world … in all things we are called to strive to live according to the horizon that God has set for us. 

Come, let us adore him.

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adoration-of-the-magiDuring the weeks of Advent we hoped for and awaited the coming of the Messiah.  On Christmas we rejoiced in the birth of our savior.  Now, on Epiphany we travel with the wise men from the East in order to “do him homage”, in order to adore Christ. 

Adoration is the proper attitude of today’s feast.  Just as the wise men reveal that the gospel message is meant to go out to all nations and peoples; it also reveals that all peoples and nations are meant to travel to Bethlehem and adore the Christ-child, and do him homage. 

But what does it mean to “adore” and how do we know that we are doing it properly?  Just as the three gifts offered by the wise men reveal truths about Christ so they also reveal truths about our adoration.

Gold is a proper gift to offer a king.  By offering gold the wise men were acknowledging the infant Jesus as the “newborn king of the Jews”.  Gold symbolizes the kingship of Christ.  Gold is our best that we offer to God in gratitude.  God loves us and God wants us to know and experience the joys and beauty of life.  In moments of joy and beauty, if we can just turn to God and say “thank you” then we are adoring, we are offering gold to God.  We ought to thank God for all the blessings, beauty and joys of life.  Gratitude is the gold we have to offer. 

Frankincense accompanies worship and sacrifice.  It is the stuff of priests.  Christ is the High Priest who offers himself as the sinless lamb for us.  The gift of frankincense given at the birth of Christ is a foreshadowing of his great sacrifice and offering of himself on the cross.  We offer frankincense when we offer prayers and a desire to live in relationship with God.  This is part of the great mystery of our faith.  God wants relationship and friendship with us, God seeks us out.  When we are willing to live in relationship with God, when we make the time to pray and just be with God then we are offering frankincense for ourselves and for our world. 

Myrrh is used to anoint bodies at burial.  Myrrh given at the birth of our Lord points toward the death Christ would suffer for us.  When we are willing to die to self for Christ, when we offer up our pains, sufferings, and even little annoyances of life we are, in essence, bringing myrrh to our Lord.  This also is adoration – to bring God our pains, sorrows, dying to self and the injustices we bear in life. 

Today, we come to adore.  Epiphany teaches us how to adore our Lord and Savior – to bring our joys and gratitudes–this is gold; to bring our prayers and desire to live in relationship with God – this is frankincense and to bring our sorrows, dying to self and the injustices we bear in life – this is myrrh. 

Today, we adore.    

An invitation from Pope Francis: a Sunday given over entirely to the word of God

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Pope Francis raises Book of Gospels as he celebrates Easter Vigil in St. Peter's Basilica at VaticanBoth of my parents were converts.  My father grew up in the Presbyterian Church and my mother grew up as a Southern Baptist.  There is a story told in my family that once, not long after my father’s conversion, my two great aunts from Mississippi (both spinsters and staunch Presbyterians to boot) visited my grandfather.  Noticing some dust on the cover of the family bible, one great aunt is said to have remarked, “I guess if this Bible cover was not so dusty Jack would never have converted.”  I am not sure how my grandfather and grandmother replied although I would wager that a bit of a chill went through the room.

I, for one, am very grateful for my parents’ conversions and acknowledging that my views would differ from my great aunt’s in this regard (i.e. seeing my father’s conversion to Catholicism as a fulfilling of his faith journey and not a loss); I do believe her remark about the family Bible carries an intuition of truth.  There is a power and a grace to be found in Sacred Scripture.  The Bible is God’s holy word and within it we encounter our risen Lord.

In his Apostolic Letter, Misericordia et Misera given at the conclusion of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis brings to summation the Holy Year and puts forward his hope that the work of mercy will continue and be ever-strengthened in the Church.

(The Holy Year) must continue to be celebrated and lived out in our communities. Mercy cannot become a mere parenthesis in the life of the Church; it constitutes her very existence, through which the profound truths of the Gospel are made manifest and tangible. Everything is revealed in mercy; everything is resolved in the merciful love of the Father. (MM, 1)

The Holy Father reflects on how best to continue the work of mercy and he puts forward some specific thoughts for discernment by the Church – mercy should be celebrated and at the heart of every Eucharistic celebration and every homily, every encounter involving the sacrament of anointing should be guided by mercy and certainly mercy should be found in abundance within the sacrament of reconciliation.  Here the Holy Father grants the authority for every priest to forgive the sin of a procured abortion.  This permission given even gained the attention of the secular media for at least a day or two.

What did not garner as much attention though is an invitation that the Holy Father extended to the Church in his apostolic letter.  It is an invitation worthy of consideration and it is why I began this article by sharing the story of my two great aunts.  The Holy Father invites the Church to consider a Sunday, “given over entirely to the word of God”.

Why not just mandate such a thing?  Certainly the pope has the authority.  Here, I believe, Pope Francis is demonstrating a pastor’s wisdom.  Some things within the Church – especially those liturgical and devotional – are best established and encouraged from the foundation up rather than the top-down.  Pope Francis is inviting the Church into a dialogue regarding this possibility and he is giving his permission as the successor of Peter for this dialogue, this possibility, to occur and to even grow organically from within the life of the Church.  He is encouraging an idea to grow.

It is an idea already present within the full life of our faith and specifically rooted and expressed for our time in the document Dei Verbum of the Second Vatican Council.  Here are three quotes from the final chapter of that document which demonstrate this.  “It follows that all the preaching of the Church, as indeed the entire Christian religion, should be nourished and ruled by sacred Scripture.” (DV, 21)  “Access to sacred Scripture ought to be open wide to the Christian faithful.” (DV, 22)  “Just as from constant attendance at the Eucharistic mystery the life of the Church draws increase, so a new impulse of spiritual life may be expected from increased veneration of the Word of God, which ‘stands forever’.” (DV, 26)

Below are the two paragraphs of Misericordia et Misera specifically devoted to this invitation.  The first paragraph can be viewed as a summation of Vatican II’s Dei Verbum, the second is the invitation given by the Holy Father to the Church universal.

The Bible is the great story of the marvels of God’s mercy. Every one of its pages is steeped in the love of the Father who from the moment of creation wished to impress the signs of his love on the universe. Through the words of the prophets and the wisdom writings, the Holy Spirit shaped the history of Israel as a recognition of God’s tenderness and closeness, despite the people’s infidelity. Jesus’ life and preaching decisively marked the history of the Christian community, which has viewed its mission in terms of Christ’s command to be a permanent instrument of his mercy and forgiveness (cf. Jn 20:23). Through Sacred Scripture, kept alive by the faith of the Church, the Lord continues to speak to his Bride, showing her the path she must take to enable the Gospel of salvation to reach everyone. I greatly desire that God’s word be increasingly celebrated, known and disseminated, so that the mystery of love streaming from this font of mercy may be ever better understood. As the Apostle tells us clearly: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16).

It would be beneficial if every Christian community, on one Sunday of the liturgical year, could renew its efforts to make the Sacred Scriptures better known and more widely diffused. It would be a Sunday given over entirely to the word of God, so as to appreciate the inexhaustible riches contained in that constant dialogue between the Lord and his people. Creative initiatives can help make this an opportunity for the faithful to become living vessels for the transmission of God’s word. Initiatives of this sort would certainly include the practice of lectio divina , so that the prayerful reading of the sacred text will help support and strengthen the spiritual life. Such a reading, centered on themes relating to mercy, will enable a personal experience of the great fruitfulness of the biblical text – read in the light of the Church’s spiritual tradition – and thus give rise to concrete gestures and works of charity.(MM, #7)

Could this be the beginnings of a liturgical feast for the Bible?  What would it look like?  I am not sure and I do not know if even the Holy Father knows but he is inviting the Church to the possibility and even encouraging a faith-filled creativity.  As both a Christian disciple and a pastor of a parish in the belt buckle of the Bible Belt – where there is such a strong emphasis on Scripture in the surrounding churches – I find this invitation of Pope Francis to creatively dream of such a day to be both exciting and necessary!  One of the great gifts of the Second Vatican Council was in reminding us that the Bible belongs to every member of the Church, that it should be picked up and read and that within Sacred Scripture we encounter Christ.  The Bible is much more than just proof texts for the sacraments and devotions.  A day given over entirely to the Bible would not lessen our sacramental identity as Catholics but would rather root our identity deeper in an awareness that we are a people of both Word and Sacrament!

A day devoted to the Bible would also be a strength and support for the ongoing work of mercy.  “I greatly desire that God’s word be increasingly celebrated, known and disseminated, so that the mystery of love streaming from this font of mercy may be ever better understood,” writes the Holy Father.  God’s word is a “font of mercy” which opens our minds in greater awareness, our imaginations in new possibilities and our hearts in greater charity.  Or, as expressed in Dei Verbum, “This nourishment (of Scripture) enlightens the mind, strengthens the will and fires the hearts of men with the love of God.” (DV, 23) 

Pope Francis, through his life as a Jesuit and priest is someone steeped in the Ignatian spiritual tradition of entering Scripture.  The Holy Father speaks from experience when he refers to Scripture as a “font of mercy” and he is here inviting the whole church to continually turn to this font.

It is a simple and beautiful invitation that the Holy Father puts forward in his letter – a day given over entirely to the Word of God – and within this invitation is found the possibility of innumerable graces and blessings.  I am praying how the parish I serve might answer this invitation of our Holy Father.  I would encourage all members of the Church to take to heart this simple and beautiful invitation of our Holy Father.