Homily on the God as Trinity

I was fascinated to discover recently that tests have shown that sick people recover more quickly if they can see growing things – trees and plants. Seeing them out of the window, or being amongst them, is best, but even a picture of them on the wall makes a difference to recovery times.  Plants, of course, also make a contribution to our health in all sorts of other ways, from what they provide in the way of vitamins and minerals as we eat them, to the drugs that can be made from, or copied from, what the special properties that some of them possess. You probably also know that drinking water is very good for us, and, not least, sunshine – unless we let it burn us.

 

Now why am I saying all this? It’s because today we celebrate that God is Trinity, and what we need to realise is that the Trinity is not a complicated theory but something we experience in our daily lives. So when we pray for God to help us we need to be open to all the different ways this will happen. And the first and most obvious way that God works in us and through us, is in the created world as I have just described. God is the Father, the creative power underlying all things as we heard in our 1st Reading today (Proverbs 8:22-31) – “He made the earth, the countryside… the first grains of the world’s dust..”

 

The second way that God helps us is through one another. When I am sick or sad I do not just need sunshine and medicine, I need people to care for me. We all know the difference between the nurse or doctor who doles out the medicine like a machine, and the one who actually listen to us and shows in all sorts of ways that he or she cares. We are all aware too how the support of family and friends is really important when we are ill or depressed or facing some real difficulty in our life. This surely is why God came to be with us as a real caring human being – Jesus Our Lord. There is a prayer that runs “Christ has no hands but yours.. no feet but yours..”  All the care we humans get from others, or give to others, is an experience of the human face of God.  It is an experience of God the Son, Jesus our Friend and Guide.

Finally we meet God deep within us. We have resources within that are a powerful part of the way we cope with life and make the best of whatever life throws at us. We all know that we are more likely to get better when we are sick if we have a positive attitude to what we are facing. We also all know how irritating it is to be told this when we feel like death, when we are depressed or facing continuous pain. It may still be true, but finding the positive side of things is immensely difficult.  Here, it is God the Holy Spirit that can and will work deep within us giving us hope even when we cannot feel it for ourselves. As we heard in our 2nd Reading, (Romans 5:1-5) “The love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given us.” There it is, that inner strength, and reminding ourselves that it is there even when we cannot feel it, as we pray alone or as we pray together, is why prayer can be so powerful.

 So there we have it. God the Father in creation around us, God the Son in the people who care for us, and God the Holy Spirit in the power within us.

As we hear in that great hymn – St Patrick’s Breastplate – which is based on his prayer:-

 I bind unto myself today The strong name of the Trinity,

By invocation of the same, The Three in One and One in Three,

Of whom all nature hath creation, Eternal Father, Spirit, Word.

Praise to the Lord of my Salvation Salvation is of Christ the Lord.

 

 

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God delighting in the creation

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings:- It appears that the compliers of our lectionary deliberately selected readings for Trinity Sunday which turn our thinking about God in a very Jewish direction. We can all too easily think of God in Trinity in three distinct ways, even, following the Greek sense, as three ‘persons’ in one unique being or essence. But the choice of our first reading from Proverbs (8:22-31) harks back to the personified wisdom of God powerful and active in creation. Wisdom is God’s companion and always party to God’s actions in creating the cosmos. Proverbs appears to have been compiled from very early material assembled together in the late 6th century to the 5th century BCE. As the historians among you will recognise, this places this important Jewish affirmation of the One true God around the time of the Babylonian captivity. As it shares ideas with Second Isaiah and Jeremiah, both prophets of the exile, we can assume it too used thinking gleaned from that experience and the people of the Fertile Crescent, or even demonstrates the insistence of the Jewish exiles in keeping God as One against the plethora of the gods they met there. Our passage from Proverbs aims to stress the solidarity, the unity of the divine purpose, and the solidarity of what might appear different elements in the divine. This is drawn out by the frequently repeated “When he (God) fixed the heavens; the surface of the deep; the springs; laid the foundations of the earth” and so on. Wisdom is, like the Christian understanding of God the Son, ‘from the beginning’ before any created thing, indicating that it is part of the divine himself, intimate and in perfect union with him. Indeed, so intimate is the relationship between God and Wisdom that in reality it appears almost impossible to separate them. Yet this is precisely what Proverbs seems to do, both by emphasising their unity and by indicating that Wisdom is in some way distinct.

 

This manner of speaking acts both to emphasise the unity of God and to allow for distinctive ways of thinking about God’s actions, the creation of things other than himself, and thereby keeping God aloof and separate from the creative action itself, yet its master and Lord. This can be a real help in thinking about the Christian Trinity which often seems so complicated and near impossible for many believers ever to grasp. If we think about the way in which St John for instance uses this concept, we can find both Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit reflected in the wisdom concept. John will speak of Jesus as the creator, saviour and redeemer and also, as we have in our Gospel (Jn 16:12-15) as the Holy Spirit, his spirit, present in the universe after his physical withdrawal to the Father. There, the distinctiveness of each of the persons of the Trinity is emphasised, while at the same time their perfect unity and solidarity is maintained. What we have is always the fullness of divinity, emphasised through different tasks, redemption on the cross by the Son, continual succour and support of the Church by the Spirit.

 

What is significant, I think, is the very antiquity of this way of speaking about God. Some distressingly difficult modern writers on the Trinity seem to give the impression that it was gleaned entirely from Greek philosophy. But if the appeal to Proverbs is right, it appears we are entering a territory altogether more ancient, going right back to the origins of Judaism, in which, far from witnessing a remote and detached deity, Wisdom gives us a picture of God delighting, involved in his creating of the universe, an experience so exhilarating that somehow it had to be shared.

 

Perhaps this is why we are also given the passage from Romans (5:1-5). This brief summary of the relationship between Father and Son, and of Our Lord’s continuing action in us which is the work of the Spirit, is a masterly summing up of the whole purpose of the Trinity. The Greek, rather than the Jerusalem Bible makes rather clearer the Trinitarian nature of this passage. Paul does not claim that we are ‘judged righteous’, suggestive of our behaviour, but instead, “Having been justified by the faith of Jesus Christ”, emphasising that this is not our work, but that of Jesus the Son. Because of his work, we are now able to enter into the glory of God the Father. The certainty of this new and heavenly inheritance is continually affirmed to us through the work of the Holy Spirit. In this then, we meet not simply God in Trinity, God as he is, threefold, but also God in Trinity working continually for our salvation. This seems to be why St Paul pops the rather odd bit about our sufferings into the picture amidst all his talk of the divine glory. Perhaps he is emphasising our human solidarity, the solidarity of the redeemed by Christ who won this great glory by suffering himself. Through the work of the Spirit of Christ in us, our human sufferings take on a different hue. It is not that we in any way save ourselves, that is entirely the work of God; yet in solidarity with Christ, our sufferings take on a greater and perhaps eternal dimension, conforming us to the divine outlook and mindset. Indeed, in Colossians 1:24, Paul will even go so far as to claim that in his sufferings “I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.” For sure, we are not sharers in the Trinity, but we are sharers in God’s glory.

 

In our Gospel (John 16:12-15) taken from the great teaching passages of Jesus in Jerusalem prior to his saving passion, we see him instructing the disciples about the fullness of understanding to be given us through the work of the Spirit after the death and resurrection of Jesus to the Father. At that time, their knowledge, or perhaps understanding, of what Jesus would achieve for them was limited. Later, he says, they will know, and this knowledge and joy will be the work of the Holy Spirit assuring us of the unbreakable union of Father and Son, a gift given to every Christian, to you and to me, through the continual presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Homily on how to be a holy priest

On the 12th June, The Feast of the Sacred Heart, we have been asked to pray for the sanctification of all priests.. but what does that long word mean? What are we actually praying for?  The word “sanctification” means being made more holy, in other words growing closer to God; and it’s a process that all Christians are meant to be undergoing all the way through our lives, as we allow God’s Holy Spirit to work in us. Of course, we are never fully sanctified, we die less than perfectly holy; but the process of sanctification is then completed by God after death, provided we are open to it, so that finally we can be one with God for ever. 

What I want to share with you today however is not how you can become more holy, but more specifically some ideas about how priests can become more holy, since that is what we have been asked to pray for ; and I thought I would do so by looking at the nature of God, of God as Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and showing that what God is like might help to explain what we might expect every Catholic priest to aim for.

God the Father is, of course, God as the Creative Power underlying the Universe. I know a young man who is coming to study for a Doctorate in Astro-Physics here in Oxford next October who explained to me that he would be studying the formation of galaxies, and that there were hundreds of thousands of them – in fact he then gave me a figure so immense that I just lost the ability to understand how big that was. If we cannot grasp what the Universe is like in its immensity, how can we ever grasp what God is like? And that’s the point isn’t it? If we are to be like God, we must always keep in mind how holy, how much beyond us, God the Father is.

The Priest can easily forget this. He can get too familiar with the words he uses every day as he says Mass, and the other Prayers of the Church. If a priest is to be holy he needs to meditate regularly on the mystery and majesty of God that he is called to convey to others through the Holy Mystery that is the Mass. When a priest is ordained, the Bishop hands him the vessels in which the bread and wine are to be consecrated and says “Know what you are doing, and imitate the mystery you celebrate.” Powerful words! But easily forgotten as the Mass becomes more and more familiar. I find I have had to think of different ways throughout my time as a priest to bring to mind what the Mass is. At the moment I am trying to think myself into the person of Jesus as I say his words “This is my Body…This is my Blood.”, but before long I will have to vary this to keep myself thinking in new ways of the mystery of what I am doing.

Moving on then from God the Father to God the Son, we all know that we are meant to be more like Jesus, especially more loving and more sacrificial; but how does this relate specifically to a priest.  Most obviously it is is shown to us all on Holy Thursday when the priest washes feet in imitation of Jesus. Remember how horrified St Peter is at seeing Jesus doing the task of the lowliest slave? It’s all too easy for a priest to think of himself as something special. You laity are a bit like St Peter. If you see “Father” doing some lowly job, you are inclined to be a bit shocked. Some of you, not all, can easily put the priest on a pedestal. You honour his office, which is right, but somehow you can end up making a priest think he is more important than he is. To be like Christ means he must be a servant not a Lord, and people who are given power and leadership, as a priest is, can easily allow that to go to their head! This can come out in the Confessional too, as Pope Francis pointed out recently to some priests he had just ordained. How easy it is for a Priest to forget what he is there for. The Pope has clearly heard some horror stories of bad priests, as I have, when he said firmly “You are there to forgive, not to condemn!”

Finally we meet God the Holy Spirit within us, working in all sorts of ways according to what we are like, but always for one goal, as St Paul says,  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” – in other words for the good of the Church and its work in bringing God’s love to the world. The Priest can forget this. He has to run his Church, and he can get immersed in all the day to day administration that this brings – from making sure the sick and housebound are cared for to dealing with the sewers or the sound system when they go wrong. But the Priest is ordained principally to be the link with the Bishop and with the worldwide Church of which we are only a small part. He has to remember that when he says Mass, he does so not in his own power, but only in the power of the Church, and in the power of Christ as its Head. It is Christ who celebrates Mass, not the individual priest, and every priest needs to remember that! 

The priest also has to remember that when he preaches, he is called to preach the Gospel, not his own opinions. He may, indeed he must, use examples and illustrations that are personal to him, or to the people he is speaking to; but always in order to convey the Faith of the Church, not to promote his own bandwagon. Indeed some of the most dangerous priests are the most successful ones. Success can go to our heads, and can mislead the people, who faced later with a quieter less bouncy priest can drift away from the faith, because their faith has become too dependent on the personality of one priest. In a way, you need to pray that your priest will make mistakes, and own up to them, because then he is likely to be more humble and thus more holy.

Anyway I hope these thoughts have helped you with your prayers and given you some suggestions on how to treat your priest whoever he may be!

Sharers in God’s life

Frances writes :- Why do we celebrate the feast of the Most Holy Trinity? What does it mean for us to proclaim that God is three persons, three unique beings working together and showing forth the glory of God? Why indeed do we need to think of God in this manner at all. We could simply think of this being as all powerful, all knowing and eternal, and leave it at that.

Christian thinking however never found this answer sufficient, unlike the Jews from which our faith originates. We see one breakdown of their approach in our Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy (4:32-4.39-40). This book was compiled by the Temple priests just before the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC, and was part of the king’s effort at a clean up in a time of crisis, when approaches to the faith had become slack. In this chapter God reminds his people of his immense power, how he had in the past repeatedly revealed his strength to the faithful through many signs and wonders, and had even rescued the nation from slavery in Egypt. As a result of this he had given them laws by which to live in faithfulness to him and threatened punishment for misdemeanours. Yet throughout all this time Israel had never met God face to face, as he is. His being was forever hidden from them.

The Christian story, to the contrary claims that in Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, God the Father and creator had done something quite unprecedented, he has revealed himself to us in the person of the Son; and moreover, not merely shown ‘what he can do’, as he did in the past, but, and much more significant, what he God IS. Through Jesus the Son, we now have intimate access to the very heart and meaning of God himself. In the relationship eternally existing between Father and Son we see through their great gift of themselves to humanity (in the incarnation of Jesus), what God‘s will is for us human beings. In exploring this gift, through the power of the Spirit we discover the true nature of God both as he is eternally, and as he is in relation to us. That nature is one of loving sharing of everything that the three are, nothing is ever held back and it is precisely this capacity which is gifted to us. Paul writes in Romans (8:14-17) that we are “Heirs of God and coheirs with Christ.” He writes that we are no longer slaves of God, the position of his Jewish ancestors and of the pagans in the past. Now, we have a new identity, one mirroring that of God himself in Trinity, in which we shall share God’s life eternally.

It can be no accident then that we celebrate this great feast at the end of Eastertide, when we have solemnly lived through the terrible sufferings and death of Jesus and celebrated his resurrection, recognising that this act of God the Son is the way in which God draws us into his own life and being. We speak of this as Salvation. We know that in this act Jesus demonstrated his total obedience and self-offering to the Father, and in and through his passion leaves us an example of total commitment to God, and an understanding of the meaning of willing suffering for the truth. The Easter resurrection event is about his absolute vindication by the Father, and Pentecost, with the coming of the Spirit on the disciples emphasises how they and we are drawn into the life of Father and Son through the Spirit. But it was surely far more than that, for it demonstrates that we, under the guidance of the Spirit, grow in the grace and knowledge of God and are fitted for their company.

This ‘doctrine of the Trinity’ is then a pretty awesome thing. For in it we are no longer insignificant things at the mercy of God, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods”, as Shakespeare remarked; rather we have become sharers in this enormous adventure which is God’s life. For most of us this is very frightening, most of us would often prefer an almighty and unknowable deity whom we could at least blame for all the hazards of life. But this is not what we are invited to in our relationship as ‘heirs’ with the Triune God. Sharers in the divine nature, we are called to participate. As our gospel (Matthew 28:16-20) makes clear, when they met the risen Jesus in Galilee, they wanted to worship him, literally, prostrate themselves, but “Some hesitated”, or as the Greek says, ‘doubted’. The gift of understanding we have been given at Pentecost is not cheap grace, but very demanding, and our living out of our lives marked in the knowledge and sharing of God in Trinity and all that that implies for our lives will be taxing, yet it shows how optimistic God is about us. As Paul writes, to be coheirs with Christ we must “Share his sufferings so as to share his glory.” Life for all of us who now live the Easter event in the shadow of the Trinity will never be easy, but it will be the journey to eternity.

On God as Trinity

The first time I downloaded music onto my MP3 player I realized how often we humans use words in strange ways. Having put one of my favourite CD’s into the Computer, I was confronted with the option either to “rip” or to “burn”. As you can imagine, unless you are clever with computers and take such jargon for granted, I did not want to hurt either my CD or my Computer – I did not want to see them being ripped or burnt – and so I stopped doing it and waited for help!

I often use this example when talking about the words we use when we Christians talk about God. After all, God is a million times more complex than a computer, so everything about God must be metaphorical. As St Paul wrote 2000 years ago “We teach… the things that no eye has seen and no ear has heard, things beyond the mind of man, all that God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Cor 2:9). The idea that they believed everything literally then, and that we must do the same, is frankly quite ludicrous.

This is why I get somewhat irritated with people who complain about the difficult words in the New Translation of the Mass. Someone complained to me about the word “consubstantial” the other day – that  They preferred to say in the Creed that Jesus was “of one being” with the Father “Because” they said “People could understand that.”  

Now that’s actually the problem with the old translation! It is the idea that we can understand the things we say about God, especially about God as Trinity that we celebrate today – that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The early Christian fathers actually created the word “consubstantial” to describe, as best they could, something that no ordinary words can describe – how Jesus can be separate from God the Father, and yet entirely one with him.

My way of describing the Trinity is very simple, not because it explains the Trinity, but because it only explains the most obvious ways in which we experience God, and leaves it at that. First then God is the creative force underlying the Universe – that we call “God the Father”. Second the same God chooses to become a real human being called Jesus of Nazareth – that we call “God the Son”. Third the same God is the God we experience working deep within us in various ways – that we call “God the Holy Spirit.”

We see the use of these terms – “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” in our 2nd Reading (2 Cor 13:11-13) and in our Gospel today (John 3:16-18), but we need to remember that although we trip them off our tongue so readily –  “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”-  as we make the sign of the cross; none of these names for God mean what they say- just like rip and burn on the computer do not mean what they say either. So, God is not really a “Father” in the normal use of that term, and since God is a power and not a human being, Jesus cannot be described literally as his son. No. We call God Father, because although God is an immense power, we believe, as taught us by Jesus, that God actually cares about us, as (and that’s the crucial word here) as a good father cares for his son. And we call Jesus God’s Son, because he taught us that his oneness with God the Father, is like being his son.

Or we could put it the other way round. We could say that a good father is in being a father a little bit like God – that true fatherhood is something God-given – that comes from his very being – as does true motherhood. And we could also say that God has created us in our family relationships of love and care and concern for one another to be a bit like him, to share something of what he is. After all we heard God declare this to Moses in our 1st Reading (Exodus 34:4-6 8-9) “The Lord… a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in kindness and faithfulness.”

In the end almost every word we use when talking about God and about our faith in him, is simply a surface word that hides beneath its surface an immense mystery. As I often say to people, if I told you I was heart-broken, I would think you were stupid if you took me literally and called an ambulance to take me off for heart surgery. It is not just religious words that are metaphorical, almost all the words we use about things that really matter to us, have to be deeper than their surface meaning. So the words in our Gospel : “God loved the world so much that he gave us his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” have a depth of meaning that we will only really begin to understand on the day when we are one with him beyond death. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Cor 13:12)

Incorporation into God

Frances writes on the Readings for this coming Trinity Sunday :- At a first glance it is difficult to see how our readings, with the exception of the second have anything to do with the Trinity or make for greater understanding of it in our lives. It is only after quite a lot of thought that one can begin to make some suggestions as to why these readings were chosen for this great feast.

Our text from Exodus (34: 4-6, 8-9) comes towards the end of this ancient book all about the escape of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt and their long journey to the Promised Land.  It was clearly a work, whose origins began in the distant past with that journey, but many of its rules and regulations clearly come from later periods when Israel was settled in Palestine, and they had buildings like the temple and its priesthood and people owned land and had to accommodate to very different conditions. The core, the 10 Commandments, are probably much older and the account of the Exodus clearly grew in the telling; making it Israel’s founding epic and giving them identity. Its final form derives from the 6th century reforms made just before the Babylonian exile. We have to remember that our reading comes after all the historical and legal material and after accounts of the frequent failures of the people to worship God; to trust in him as they should. God had delivered them from slavery; he had given water in the wilderness; manna and quails for food, and as the account continues, clothed them for forty years, but is was never enough. Israel constantly moaned: they complained about the lack of Egyptian fruits and vegetables; feared that their oppressors would follow them; rejected God and made a golden calf to worship instead after the manner of the sacred Apis bull of Egypt. In fact, at each and every opportunity, Israel rejected their saviour God. In our reading, Moses meets with God who promises them that he is a God of ‘tenderness and compassion’, (our reading omits the verse about God’s threat of reprisals on renegades). This then is a story of the discovery of the different aspects of God by his chosen people as they struggled to accept and understand the purpose of their ‘salvation’ and ‘deliverance’ and what it meant to be the Chosen People of God; in a special relationship with him. Whilst we may shake our heads in exasperation at their blindness, it is a rocky journey most of us travel too, though the scenery inevitably is very different.

Reading between the lines from Paul’s closing remarks in 2 Corinthians, (13:11-13) we see that their world too, even among the small Christian community in Corinth, was fraught with difficulties and disagreements.  Paul appeals for them to have peace, to have a united community, suggesting that there were serious and disruptive internal situations threatening the future of the small Christian community in Corinth. Anyone familiar with these letters will be aware of the difficulties there; from immorality; from profaning of the Eucharist by different social groups who ignored its call to solidarity in worship regardless of social status and rank; and from issues raised by meat offered previously by pagans to idols; and then finally by the promises some had made to send monetary aid to Palestine and their subsequent reluctance to do so. It is these people that the long-suffering but ever hopeful Paul commends in Trinitarian form to the “Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.”

It is an extraordinary leap from the simple view of God as alone: that of Exodus and the one made by Paul, who wrote these letters in the 50’s AD, the fruit of some 20 years engagement with the Lord Jesus Christ. Think of the enormity of the shift which permeates the whole of Paul’s thinking about the Christian message, in which Father and Son offer to humanity a revolutionary new vision of our destiny: life eternal in and with God through the self-gift of the Son in the power of the Spirit. In writing to the Corinthians Paul does not believe it would be a ‘good thing’ for them to clean up their act; rather he insists that it is the vital and fundamental behaviour of every believer in the Christian gospel who truly begins to penetrate the vision of what the Father has done for us in Christ Jesus. It is the only fitting response of the redeemed, who began this long journey to a new understanding of God so long ago through our forebears in the Exodus, and is now accomplished in Jesus. It is through our contemplation of the Trinity that we finally perceive our place in God’s life through the power of the Spirit.

This wondrous story is further mapped out in our Gospel from John (3:16-18) where Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus the Pharisee, a member of the elite Council of the Jews. In our passage, Christ speaks of how the Father brings about the salvation and redemption of the world; for, since John believed that the entire creation is through and in Christ, so too he must be its final end, he and the Father are One. Our translations sadly fail to capture clearly the profound and Trinitarian aspect of this divine action when they turn God the Father’s action into something motivated by emotion: “God so loved the world.” The Greek is actually suggestive of something far greater and in paraphrase it says, ‘This is how, or, the manner in which God loved the world’, by projecting his whole identity into it in the Son. By giving the Son (God), it makes the relationship of believer to Christ and therefore to the Father much stronger and we see that our believing is not merely an intellectual thing but an entering into the will of God himself which can only be through the work of the Spirit. What an immense gift and privilege it is then for us to celebrate the Trinity and to ponder its effect in our lives. It is something to remember every time we receive a Trinitarian blessing, which can surely never be, as we might think, just a conventional ending. It is the statement of our incorporation into God’s life.