Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Mystery of Love

Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity 2018

Our liturgical celebrations throughout the entire year is a participation in the Paschal Mystery, the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s easy because we have the stories of scripture to guide us. But our celebration today is unique. The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity is an invitation to enter into the mystery of God. That’s a tall order – to attempt to contemplate the Invisible Deity, to comprehend the Incomprehensible, to penetrate the mind of the Impenetrable mystery of God. Seems impossible and it is humanly impossible but this is the wonder of God revealing His true nature to us. How could we love that or whom we do not know? So, God goes out on a limb and takes the risk of revealing His inner life to us, fully aware that our tiny brains will never be able to fully grasp the breath and length and depth of what He wishes to tell us. No wonder, the doctrine of the Trinity has been described as a mystery pure and simple – probably the most profound mystery of Christianity…most confusing and misunderstood.

The doctrine or dogma of the Most Holy Trinity is not just one teaching among many. It is the Christian teaching of the very nature of God… the core belief, the essence and that great mystery of the Christian faith. The doctrine of the Trinity is a distinctively Christian doctrine of God, something that separates Christians from other religious traditions. People don’t realise how radical this teaching is, that this is completely contradictory in the mindset of the Jews and which led to the opposition against and subsequently the execution of Jesus. Everything a Christian does flows from this teaching, is centered upon this teaching, and leads back to this teaching. Catholics, among all Christians, should understand this. From the moment we were baptised in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit – and over and over again throughout our lives, we Catholics continually re-dedicate ourselves to the Trinity as we make the sign of the cross. We profess and in so many ways express it in our liturgies, and daily in our home prayers, day-to-day activities and even sports events whenever a player blesses himself as he steps into the field or when he scores a goal.

Theists, those who believe in God, have traditionally believed that the existence of God can be reliably inferred from the natural world, from arguments based on causality, order, contingency etc. However, the idea that this God is triune – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is not at all like that. No amount of logical reasoning, outside-the-box thinking, or star gazing could discover this truth unaided. That’s the thing that, even if true, would have to be revealed. Apart from this revelation, we will never come to know of it. And the reason why the Church is convinced that God is in fact a Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is because she is convinced that God has disclosed this information to us. Furthermore, she is convinced that God has done so unambiguously and overwhelmingly, first, within history; second, within the Scriptures, and third, in the life and experience of the Church from Pentecost to present day.  As St Paul so confidently writes, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.” (Rom 1:19)

It is sometimes said, especially by those who reject Christianity, that the Trinity is unscriptural: that it was an invention of the Church, without any genuine biblical support. If you are speaking of the word “Trinity”, this is true. The word appears nowhere in the Bible (and nor for that matter, does the word “theology,” “Bible”, “creed”, etc appear). Furthermore, nowhere does it describe Father, Son and the Holy Spirit as being homoousios (“of the same nature” translated in the new edition of the Nicene creed as “consubstantial). Just because a particular word is not mentioned in the Bible, it does not mean it is unscriptural. The word “Trinity” is merely a shorthanded way of making three simple theological statements:
1.      There is only one God.
2.      The Father is God, the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God.
3.      But the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, and the Father and the Son are not the Holy Spirit.
Each of these claims are deeply scriptural, and countless of references from both the Old and the New Testaments can be cited in support of them. There is no way of getting around these propositions unless you wish to change the text of scriptures itself. These three propositions, each of which is firmly embedded in the testimony of Holy Scripture, are, in essence, what Christianity understands by the word “Trinity.”

While the Holy Trinity might be difficult to explain, God invites us to delve into His depths and discover the immensity and incomprehensibility of His love for us. While I can’t fully comprehend the incomprehensible, I can be loved by it. That is why Love itself is a mystery. Only the lovers themselves would understand their own motivations whilst family members and friends continue to be perturbed. We are loved by the Father, eternally generating his Son in a shared breath of the Holy Spirit, who spreads and creates wherever He comes from and wherever He goes. In every moment, the grace of the Most Holy Trinity calls to me to breathe in the gift of belonging to a family of love whose presence in my life transforms every thought, action and word into a moment of grace…if I have the courage to say yes. The Holy Trinity becomes the very model of marital life, family life, community life, church life, and finally societal life. Yes. Where even a gesture as small as tracing the sign of the cross, can remind us that God has created us for our own sake so that we might share in the exchange of His self-giving love and live as a gift with others. We live not only for ourselves but always for others.

The joy of today’s feast lies not in fully understanding, but in fully accepting that we are no longer slaves, but sons and daughters. We are no longer poor, but heirs to the promise. And we are no longer without a purpose, but sent on a mission. Our gift is receiving His love, which leaves an effect on every part of our life and gives meaning to even the most trivial and mundane moments. It is through us, living out our relationships in this mutual self-giving, that the divine mystery is made visible to the world. Perhaps, the world continues to reject the revelation of the Trinity, precisely because we have been bad witnesses – our lack of love and care for the other, our penchant to be selfish and individualistic, our tendency to be overly ambitious and to come out tops. How wonderful it would be if we could only reflect the life of the Holy Trinity instead? That would be our most powerful way of evangelising – not merely through words, concepts and arguments, but simply through the way we live our lives.

Today, we should stop and contemplate how God has shared His life with us through the simple things that have the capacity to reflect His glory. “God has revealed his innermost secret: God himself is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and he has destined us to share in that exchange” (CCC, 221). Everyone (and everything has the capacity of mediating the call to the family of the Triune God. And if we don’t lose heart, or our nerves, this call will lead us to a world whose depth of meaning and joy will only grow deeper and correspondingly, we can lead the world to God as He had intended.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Babel has fallen

Pentecost Vigil 2018

Tomorrow we celebrate the feast of Pentecost. But no one can truly rejoice in this feast without recalling an incident that took place long ago on the plain of Shinar, which we had just heard in the first reading. Back then, men attempted to build an ancient skyscraper, up to the heavens. “Come, they said, let us build ourselves a town and a tower reaching heaven. Let us make a name for ourselves, so that we may not be scattered about the whole earth.” (Gen. 11:4) This massive engineering feat was not motivated by the desire for development nor for the welfare of the people. Needless to say, they were not building a temple to God. The text clearly states that they were doing this to make a name for themselves. It was a monument to their ego. Pride, was the drive behind this project. They sought to establish a unified society. They thought that by means of technology they could continue to live in sin and impunity without having to suffer the divine punishment of another flood. If the waters start rising, just start climbing!

Here we see clearly what St. Augustine would describe later as the “city of man” as opposed to the “city of God.” According to Jewish tradition it was Nimrod who organised and oversaw the building of the tower of Babel. Nimrod is a prototype of the Antichrist, the ruler of the city of man, i.e. those who seek to live as if man is God. Every despot and dictator follows the same mould. Nimrod and those following him wanted to build a city and a tower, to make a name for themselves in order to preserve their man-made projects, to exalt themselves to heaven while living in opposition to God. God saw that, when so unified, the city of man would be capable of unrestrained evil. Just as He had mercifully driven man out of Eden to prevent him from eating of the Tree of Life and so living forever in his sinful condition; so also at Babel, God acted mercifully in confusing man’s language, to prevent the city of man from carrying out the great evils it would do if united together in opposition to God. God delayed judgment of the city of man to allow man to repent. It was an act of mercy, not a punitive one.

But God’s redemptive purpose was not merely to prevent man from falling into greater evil; He also set out to restore to man the true unity he enjoyed in Eden, a fellowship in the Divine Trinity. Only by this communion with the Divine Persons can men be truly united to each other; the true unity of men with men only comes about as a participation in the divine unity of the three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity. In the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son with this ministry of reconciliation. After His death and resurrection, but before His ascension into Heaven, He commissioned His Apostles to “make disciples of all the nations.” Fifty days after His resurrection, the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles, and filled with the Holy Spirit they began speaking in other languages which they had not previously known. On that day, three thousand heard their testimony, believed and were baptised. On Pentecost Day, the Church was born.

One of the primary purposes for Christ founding a Church is to undo the division of the human family effected by sin. The Tower of Babel is the paradigmatic referent of Psalm 127:1, “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labour in vain.” Pentecost is the supernatural redemptive reversal of Babel, and this is why the Church is the anti-Babel. The purpose of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is to reverse that division by means of a divine ingathering. All the nations of the world are to stream into her doors, into one household, the household of faith. The Church is the house of the Lord, and because He builds this house, those who labour against it, labour in vain. Apart from Christ, man cannot form such a unity, though he thinks he can. A Utopian world without the need for heaven would eventually be a living hell. By his own power man attempts to recover each of the gifts lost or damaged by Adam’s sin. He attempts to gain immortality through genetic manipulation, pharmaceuticals and medical science; love through pornography, fornication, adultery and other forms of sexual aberrations, and wisdom through electronic technology, internet and news media. But he is only capable of “creating” a distorted parody of the original perfection.

Man continues to reach the heavens through his own devices in order to discover the answer to life’s problems. Little does he realise, that all such attempts will inevitably meet with failure. Ironically, there is no need for him to build a tower to find an answer. The answer chose to leap down from heaven, the Word of God descended and became flesh and after His ascension, the Spirit descended upon the Church at Pentecost. Unity is ultimately a gift from God. And this is why unity is the first of the four marks of the Church: “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” The Life of the Church is the supernatural Life of the Trinity, not from man, but from the God-man, and not ordered to natural earthly bliss, but to the supernatural end, heavenly beatitude, which is the very perfect and eternal communion of the Three Divine Persons. In this way the Church reverses Babel, not by man’s own efforts, but by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Body of Christ, to incorporate all men into that Body.

God wants all men to be united through being incorporated into the body of Christ, i.e. the Church: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one faith, one baptism into one God. The true unification of man takes place only through Christ and the Holy Spirit and the Church. But modern men, who have no place in their hearts for God, always seek a substitute for the divine. And the city of man continues to seek peace and unity through political, economic, technological and military means. Yet the city of man can never find true peace and unity through these means. It can only wrought destruction as evidenced by the likes of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot.

Into that mystical Body, men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation are to this day still being incorporated, by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Church and her sacraments. And that is the reason why we must never cease to reach out to our relatives and friends and invite them into the Church. Often, Catholics fail miserably in this aspect due to misplaced notion of respect for the other. The Church is meant to be a sign to the world of man’s original social purpose, the harmonious union of all men. In the mystical Body of the Second Adam, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the fruits of the first Adam’s sin (i.e. division and strife and dissension and schism) are done away, the damage of Babel is healed.

When human pride drives us to build monuments to ourselves instead of to God, we repeat the sin of Babel. When we seek to sow seeds of discord and injure the unity of the Church in order to build our own little niche of the kingdom, we participate once again in the discord of Babel. When instead of being spiritually fruitful, we try to build our own material security, we repeat the infidelity of   Babel. When we refuse to hear God’s word, He sends us strong delusion — or a confusion like He had sent to Babel. When men are full of human pride, confusion always results. We live today in a world of religious “babble.” Only the spelling has changed. What can reunite men and end the religious confusion?  By simply listening to God and obeying His commands!  When we are attuned to the language of God, the language of barrier of men can be dropped so that God’s message of salvation can be heard once again with utter clarity.

Babel, the city of man, forever represents the confusion and division of humankind; but the city of God, the resplendent Church whom we call Mother, draws men and women of every language, colour, culture, and nationality into a kingdom where there is neither Greek nor Jew, bond or free, but where all are one in Christ Jesus.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

A Harvest of Fruits

Pentecost 2018

Many of you are aware that Pentecost is an important feast in our liturgical calendar and for good reason. Pentecost signifies the dawning of the age of the church, a new era in which the Spirit’s gifts, previously limited to particular people and situations, are now distributed liberally to all the people of God, young and old, male and female, slave and free. In popular parlance, this feast has been described as the “Birthday of the Church.”

But did you know that Pentecost originally was a Jewish festival? That’s right. And not just any Jewish festival, Pentecost was also a harvest festival, a first fruits harvest festival.  Now when I say that Pentecost originally was a Jewish festival, you would not find that in the Old Testament, at least no reference to the word “Pentecost.” This is because the word “Pentecost” comes from the Greek word for "fiftieth" (pentecoste). Pentecost is the fiftieth day after Easter Sunday. Although you won’t find the word “Pentecost” you would find references to the Feast of Weeks (because it fell at the end of the seventh seven-days-week after Passover, the Jewish equivalent of Easter). Pentecost and the Feast of Weeks are really the same thing. The Hebrew name for this festival is “Shavuot,” which means “Weeks.” So seven weeks after Passover, after seven sevens, that is, on the fiftieth day, they had this festival.

What was Shavuot or Pentecost or the Feast of Weeks about? Well, as I said, it was a harvest festival. When Israel would get into the Promised Land, and the Lord would bless them in that bountiful land, then thereafter every year when the first fruits of the wheat crop would come in–at this time of the year, in late spring–the Israelites were to have a festival and give thanks to the Lord. They were to remember and to rejoice. They were to remember how the Lord brought them out of their bondage in Egypt at the Passover, and brought them up into the Promised Land, where they could enjoy such bounty. Another thing that was remembered and celebrated by Jews at Shavuot was the Lord giving His Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. In Exodus 19 it does say that Israel came to Mount Sinai around that time of the year, so the giving of the Torah became associated with the Feast of Weeks as well. And so it was a time of rejoicing, a time to remember and a time to rejoice in what the Lord had done, a time to rejoice over the gift of the Law and the Covenant.

So it’s Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, the day of Pentecost, fifty days after the Passover. The disciples of Jesus–indeed, the whole company of believers–were all together in Jerusalem. Jesus had ascended into heaven ten days earlier, and now they were waiting there, together, as He had instructed. They were not the only ones in Jerusalem, because, Pentecost was one of the three pilgrimage festivals (the other two being Passover and the Feast of Booths), so you have all these scattered Jews, from all over the world, coming into Jerusalem to worship at the temple. A fitting audience for what was going to happen next!

Then the Holy Spirit fell on the disciples and they were overwhelmed by what sounded like a gale force wind, releasing them into strange tongues, so ecstatically that the bystanders assumed they were drunk. They weren’t, it was all happening too early in the day, as Simon Peter noted, perhaps with a touch of humour. It certainly bewildered the crowd. The descent of the Holy Spirit, and thus the creation of the Church, occurred in this eruption of mutually unintelligible languages, in which nevertheless the mighty works of God were praised and proclaimed accessibly to all and sundry. Peter began preaching to them about Christ crucified, whom now God has raised from the dead and who has been made their Lord, the very same one that they had crucified. This message cut the hearers’ hearts to the quick, and heeding Peter’s exhortation, they repented and were baptised. The Acts of the Apostles speak of three thousand were added on that very day. In so many ways, Pentecost is truly a harvest festival, not of the crops of the people but rather the people themselves, and the three thousand were the first fruits of that harvest. Soon there would be thousands–no, millions–more. But the Pentecost explosion has not ended. Its ripples continue to be felt throughout the world through all generations. So it is for us too, at this Feast of Pentecost.

This harvest is the fruit of the seed sown by Christ. We recall Our Lord's words in John's Gospel anticipated in the conversion of the Samaritan woman at the well, the first missionary: “I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already ripe for harvest” (Jn 4:35). Our Lord gave the apostles to understand that only after His death would they reap the harvest of the seed He had sown: “’One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that which you did not labour; others have laboured, and you have entered into their gain” (Jn 4:37-38). From the day of Pentecost, through the work of the Holy Spirit, the apostles will become the reapers of the seed sown by Christ. And indeed, on the day of Pentecost, there was an abundant harvest!

The harvest is also the fruit of Christ's sacrifice. Jesus spoke of the sower's “toil,” and this consists especially in His passion and death on the cross. Christ is that “other one” who has laboured for this harvest. He is the one who has opened the way for the Spirit of truth, who, from the day of Pentecost, begins to work effectively by means of the apostolic kerygma. So, we cannot boast or take credit for what has happened, what is happening and what will be happening in the Church. It is all the fruit of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice on the cross and re-presented at every Mass. At every Mass, we do not only witness the crucifixion and the resurrection of Christ made present again. It is Pentecost too that is made present again. And, that is the reason why it is accurate to say that the Eucharist makes the Church.

Pentecost was and continues to be an outpouring into real people, lives receptive to the Spirit, ready to emerge from locked rooms into the community to preach, heal and minister to others. We are these real people today who need this outpouring of the Holy Spirit so as to come out from the safety of living behind locked doors. Though it is safe and secure to live our Christian lives from behind locked doors; but just like fruits, when they are kept locked away and not eaten, they eventually rot and go bad. Our fruits demand sharing and witnessing. Without such testimony the “word” of our Lord is soon forgotten, and we settle for our own words and we become an echo chamber for our own ideas. Pentecost serves, like every birthday celebration, to remind us that our lives are meant to be shared. Everything is a gift meant to be used fully and joyfully to our benefit and that of those around us.

Pentecost day is marked with exuberance, confidence, abundance. In dark times, when our future is uncertain, when the forces of evil seem more prevalent than the good, when there is every reason to despair and give up, when our lives seem old and tired, Pentecost invades our lives once again and reminds us, that we are part of the harvest of fruits sown by Christ and made possible by His sacrifice. And that, changes everything!  The great news of Pentecost is that even when things which seemed impossible begin to happen, and a message that seemed difficult to comprehend or express is widely proclaimed. Pentecost reminds us that just when we thought there would be no closure to the story, with the Holy Spirit, we will find fulfilment and completion. Pentecost is not just a season or annual feast for us. It is not simply a fact or event that we commemorate. It is our beginning, our entry point, our ever-present moment. The Holy Spirit continues to work in us to transform and inspire us, so that God’s great work of salvation can be shown forth in us and brought to its completion. Inspired by the Holy Spirit’s action, we receive the courage to lift our hearts in hope, and the Spirit fills us, making us new.