Monday, May 27, 2013

The Holy Trinity

Fr. John Julian, OJN sent me a copy of the sermon
which he preached on Trinity Sunday. It's so rich
in insight that I just had to share it: with his permission.

+    +    +

A sermon by the Rev. John-Julian Swanson, OJN
450 Sunnyslope Dr. #305, Hartland, WI 53029

Trinity Sunday
26 May 2013
Julian House

I speak to you in the Name of God: (+) Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Do you know what a neutrino is? Here is the formal and official definition: “A neutrino is an elementary particle that usually travels close to the speed of light, is electrically neutral, and is able to pass through ordinary matter almost unaffected.”
I sat down to write this sermon, and I flipped back and looked at six sermons I had preached on this Feast Day in the past, and thought, “What else could I possibly say about this impossible doctrine? What is left to say?” 
Anyway, this frustrating thinking drove me (as such frustration often does) to look past the surface, to ask embarrassing and improper questions, and to look for what is hidden under the overt subject matter. This reminded me of a statement from St. Augustine: “The Bible was composed in such a way that as beginners mature, its meaning grows with them.”
 And I realized that that is true about literally everything that has to do with Christianity—scripture, doctrine, liturgy, ascetics, spirituality, and everything else: “…as beginners mature, its meaning grows with them.”
So I asked myself the awkward question: “Why in the world did God come up with the complicated idea of a Trinity?” Every single thing God is and does could just as easily be done by a monotheos—a single unitary Godhead. In other words, God does not NEED to be a Trinity. So, why in the world did God choose to manifest the Godhead this way? There must be something extremely important which the very existence of the Trinity has to teach us. Just by BEING a Trinity and then letting us know about it, God must intend that we come to comprehend something that makes a difference. What could that be? What is hiding behind the barren and incomprehensible dogmatic definitions of Trinity-hood that God wants us to sense, to intuit, to figure out? Is it conceivable that the Trinity is not only a doctrine or dogma, but is actually also a message, a teaching in itself? I think so.
Let me tentatively outline some of the mystical implications of the doctrine of the Trinity as I see them. (In advance, I do not guarantee orthodoxy or universality in these statements: then are only sharing my mystical wool-gathering with you.)
First of all, of course it means that never before or after history has God been or ever will be alone. God has been, is, and always will be a community. That alone is a first hint: human beings, created by a community-God are also community-beings. Even Aristotle recognized that when he described humans as political animals, i.e., animals who live together in a polis, a city. This means that whether we like it or not, whether we choose it or not, whether we prefer it or not, by our very created nature in the image of a communal God, we are in community. That is something we cannot avoid. We can declare ourselves private and individual and separate, but those are hollow claims because we cannot change the fact that human beings do not and cannot exist except as communal beings. Every single thing you do affects me and everything I do affects you. Trying to pretend that that is not true produces cultural psychosis—like evangelical Christianity or free market Capitalism or heavy metal rock music or non-communicative art or the private disregard of communally-professed vows. Each of these activities places individual good over against and inimical to the common good.  But, as John Donne put it: “All mankind is of one author, and is one volume…”
 That, I think is the first message of the doctrine of the Trinity: a human being cannot manifest true human nature without being in relationship with the community.
But it is even deeper and more uncanny, because the Persons of the Holy Trinity do not only exist as a gathered group, but they actually enter into each other, permeate each other, dwell within each other. This is what the technical theological term circumincession means. The Persons of the Trinity are more like currents of air than objects (or, to paraphrase James Alison, they are more like nothing than something
). And that is the very thing we humans seek when we search for what we stupidly and ignorantly call “falling in love”—if you have ever been in love, you know that a lover passionately longs to become lost within the beloved, to somehow merge ultimately so that the two are actually one being—or as Genesis and Jesus put it: “they become one flesh”. But, by the way, I think we have been wrong to apply that teaching only to marriage which cannot ever by itself support such a primal longing: I think all spiritually healthy human beings sense that mystical union in friendship, in a commonly-held faith, in a parent-child relationship, in the bond between a mentor and protégé, and in various other human social bondings as well as in matrimony. 
Thirdly, the great classical term used to describe the relationship of the persons within the Trinity is the perichoresis of the Trinity: that is a Greek word which is derived from the Greek words peri (meaning “around”) and koréo (which means “dance”). The Trinity is a circle dance. The relationship is not a mere static essence, but it is a truly active, truly dynamic, utterly lively current give-and-take, back-and-forth. It is not a one-way flow, not a top-down hierarchical relationship but a relationship of indescribable, overwhelming correspondence and utter unqualified equality and exchange.
Fourth, we encounter that strange and hugely controversial issue of  “procession” which has divided Eastern and Western Christianity for almost a thousand years. Does the Holy Spirit proceed from the Father, or from the Father and from the Son? And that controversy is a good definition of “systematic theology” because unless one approaches theology from the mystical point of view all one is going to get is one distortion or another. Look: (pardon the inaccurate masculine pronouns, but it’s very hard to talk about it otherwise): the Father gives himself eternally in perfect and total love to the Son and the Son gives himself eternally in perfect and total love to the Father, and self-giving love that passes between these two mutually Divine Persons is itself a Divine Person: it is the Spirit, proceeding from the Father to the Son and identically the Son to the Father from forever and before time. This is beyond human grasp: that a procession, a giving, an outflowing is so absolute and complete that the bonding two persons is actually itself a Person. The bond itself is identical to and equal to the bonders—the covenant is identical to and equal to the covenanters—the vow is equal to the one professing the vow and the one receiving it. The love itself is God! The friendship itself is heavenly! The bond itself is celestial! The union itself is divine!
And the last point I want to indicate is that not only does the state of the Holy Trinity transfer over to us in our human and earthly lives, but it also describes the relationships each of us has with that very same Holy Trinity. We are mystically a copy, a replica of that Divine Community—and when we have shed these bodies, we will surge into that Holy Trinity and be totally one with those divine Persons just as they are one with each other.
Remember the neturino? That particle so unique that can actually pass entirely through matter without either being altered or affected. That is the closest thing I have ever able to find as an analogy for the Trinity: because for me it is incomprehensible; it ought not to exist, but yet it does; I cannot see it, but I can see some of its results; I do not understand it, but I am intuitively aware that it lies near the center of being.
And all of this was summed up 2000 years ago when Jesus prayed, "That they all may be one; as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us” — note: “IN us”, not “with us”. (John 17:21).
In the name of that Most Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Mystery of God

There’s a legend about a holy bishop walking along the seashore one day, trying to figure out the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. He came upon a young child, running back and forth between the water’s edge and a small bucket. The bishop watched the child for awhile, with growing curiosity, then asked, “What are you doing?” “Putting the ocean into my bucket,” replied the child. “But,” said the bishop with a laugh, “that is impossible.” “Not nearly as impossible,” the child said, “as your trying to understand the mystery of the Trinity.” 
Humans have learned through the centuries that to understand or grasp the Trinity is simply beyond their ability. That doesn’t, however, mean that we can’t learn something about the Holy Trinity.  Those who wrote the Apostles’ Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and the Nicene Creed did so because they discerned that God’s most basic relationship to humankind expresses itself in a threefold way: God relates to us as Creator, as Redeemer, and as Sanctifier. The Council of Nicaea in 325 asserted that these three are all equally ways in which God is God to us, and they’re essential to understanding that God’s very essence is to draw all things into the unity of interrelatedness.

Today’s feast is really about the mystery of God who expresses Godself as Three. Someone has wisely observed that: “In Christian faith, a mystery is not something which fails to make sense. It is, rather, something whose sense can be discerned, and even stated, but never mastered or fully comprehended in its richness...not because of its absurdity or its incoherence, but because of its depth...” And so, this feast of the Holy Trinity is our celebration of the mystery of the Holy God, in all its richness. We stand in awe before the One Who Is. We join with the whole communion of saints and all angelic beings to praise God who is all Power, all Wisdom, all Goodness and Love.
Each of today’s texts, in its own way, provides some inkling of what this mystery is about. They especially help us to get at both the overwhelming, elusive otherness of God, by using words like “Creator” and “Father”; as well as at the intimate, comforting familiarity of God, by speaking of Jesus and the Spirit, though still in somewhat elusive language. 
The first reading from Proverbs (8:1-4; 22-31) speaks of Wisdom, suggesting aspects of God’s life and being which are as yet largely unfamiliar to most of us. Here we encounter Holy Wisdom, in Greek, Hagia Sophia, who cries out: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live...”, particularly the little, the ignorant, the helpless. Biblical scholars have puzzled over this personified Woman Wisdom, some identifying her as a figure of poetry, some as the principle of order in creation, some as a personified attribute of God.

The writer of Proverbs describes this mysterious Wisdom with many images. One could look at this as a sort of new creation-story, celebrating creation as a process of wise and delightful play and business and spiritual experience, all in one. Wisdom is like a little child dancing around a parent who is seriously at work, wanting to be part of it, wanting to “help” as children do, with delightful joy and laughter. “...I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race...” (8:30-31) 

Thomas Merton, famous Trappist monk and writer who died in 1968, spent most of his last years reflecting on and writing about Holy Wisdom. He concluded that Wisdom, before all else, is Godself, not only as Father, but also as Mother, both at once, because this expresses the completeness of God’s Being and reality. Contrary to common misunderstanding among church people, this is a very ancient understanding of God, well-known in the early Church. Over thirty theologians, mystics, writers, and saints, including Saints Clement of Alexandria,  Augustine,  Bernard, Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich, Dante, etc., wrote about God specifically in these terms.
So, who is Holy Widsom? Merton says that Sophia/Wisdom expresses God’s Being: “not one of the Three Persons, but each ‘at the same time, are [Wisdom] and manifest her.’” Wisdom is also the “blessed sweet [pivot] point” of all being and nature, “that which is the smallest and poorest and most humble of all...” Likewise, Wisdom is unfathomable mercy, made visible in Christ’s becoming human, dying, and rising to new life. Christopher Pramuk says that Wisdom is “God’s love and mercy coming to birth in us.” God, as Love and Mercy, “shows Himself to us within ourselves as our own poverty, our own nothingness (which Christ took upon Himself...)” (Merton) “She [Wisdom] is the Spirit of Christ but more than Christ. She is the Love joining the Father, Son, and Spirit that longs for incarnation from before the very beginning. She is Jesus our mother, and Mary, the Theotokos [the God-bearer]”, mentioned on p. 864 of the Book of Common Prayer. Wisdom is, according to Merton, our “true self”, “when we...allow Christ to be birthed in us, and so realize the hidden ground of mercy, creativity, and presence in our very selves, the mystical Body of Christ...” (Pramuk)  

In the Epistle (Romans 5:1-5) Paul reminds us that we stand on the threshold of a sort of stairway leading to “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ...through the Spirit that has been given to us.” In fact he says that “we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God”. But first, Paul says, we have to climb the step of “suffering”. Much as we hate it and fear it, here the saying “No pain, no gain” definitely applies. Taking that step in hope, we find that it leads to a second step: “endurance”. And that leads to the next step: “character”, which then allows us to reach the step of “hope”, which, Paul notes, “does not disappoint us” because at that point “God’s love [God’s Self] has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has [already] been given to us.” 

Julian of Norwich, great 14th century mystic, says that “...before God made us, God loved this love God has done all God’s works...and in this love our life is everlasting...In our creation we had a beginning, but the love in which God created us was in God from without beginning, and in this love we have our beginning. And all this we shall see in God without end...” The Wisdom which is Godself teaches us that all our life is “a journey in love from God to God.” (Dr. Kerrie Hide) We have our being in going forth from God’s love in creation; we have our growing during our human life here below as we continue in an identifying relationship with God who is Love, in and through Jesus; and finally we have our completing in passing from this world, returning to God in Christ and in the Spirit of Love.

Finally, in reading today’s Gospel passage (John 16:12-15), bear in mind that the context is Jesus’ last sharing with the Apostles at a meal on the night before he suffered and died for humankind. He tries to prepare them for void which they’ll soon feel: “I still have many things to say to you, but... When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth...” I’m sure it must’ve sounded nice and hopeful to the disciples then, but what about on Holy Saturday morning? What a vacuum they must have experienced! 

I’d venture to say that all of us, at one time or other in our prayer life, have experienced something like that loss, that sense of God’s not being there. The truth is: God can never be absent to us, really, or we’d simply cease to exist. Nevertheless, there are, for sure, times when we “feel” like God is absent. That feeling might mean a number of different things. It might mean that we feel that God isn’t meeting our expectations. After all, we do have monumental plans for our lives, don’t we?! Or it might mean that we’re actually experiencing a different form of God’s presence. How can that be so? 

Sometimes God is present to us as silence/aloneness. Once in awhile when the grace of silence comes upon us, we realize that everything feels just right; we sit in quiet and peace, with no direction to our thoughts, no desire, no particular clarity about our place in the world. Just peace. Or, perhaps more frequently, we don’t find ourselves in a good place, burdened, as we are, with our inevitable failings and selfishness. We feel helpless and abandoned. We feel that everything is wrong with our world. Yet, even in the silence and darkness, deep down we may find an amazingly unexplainable peace. Someone has written that “God is the nail that splits our palms to break our grip on the world. He is an unfathomable darkness.
Sometimes God is present as quiet, unassuming love. Novelist Timothy Farrington says that real prayer a disappearance, a surrender to the embrace of deepening mystery, in darkness. In that darkness, finally, God alone is. And God is infinite surprise...” That, I believe, is what Jesus is trying to convey to his Apostles in John’s Gospel: that the Advocate, the Comforter, the Spirit, though unseen, is the continuing presence of both the Father and of Jesus the Son, present here and now in their and our lives. The Spirit of Love invites us into a deep, direct experience of God among us, with us, and in us. In his book, The Go-Between God, John Vernon Taylor offers this amazing statement: “The Holy Spirit is that power which opens eyes that are closed, hearts that are unaware and minds that shrink from too much reality. If one is open towards God, one is open also to the beauty of the world, the truth of ideas, and the pain of disappointment and deformity. If one is closed up against being hurt, or blind towards one’s fellow-men, one is inevitably shut off from God also. One cannot choose to be open in one direction and closed in another. “   
As the Father is the power responsible for creating us in love, as Jesus is the model par excellence of addressing one another’s needs through the power of self-giving service, so the Spirit of Love is Wisdom, Godself, empowering us to love constantly. God’s presence in our lives through the Spirit of Love is full of surprise. It’s not subject to any restraint; it breaks out in all directions. It doesn’t constrain or hold us back, but enables us to see with new eyes and new understanding, to be sensitive, caring, giving. It enables us to know the truth which sets us free. It enables us to be open to the beauty of the whole world. Imagine the implications of this for motivating us to discontinue polluting and wasting our air and water, timber, animal life, etc., and to not support others who do? for helping us to not allow children to be abused and maltreated? for helping us not to become enslaved by unhealthy and addictive habits? Wisdom/Spirit enables us to be open to all truth: to finally commit ourselves to become less lazy in learning and in passing on our heritage; to become more tolerant of other people’s viewpoints, even though we may disagree; to become less resistant to letting God’s Word work in our everyday lives.
But having said and having heard all this, having professed our faith using the Creed, which we’ll do in a few minutes, we find ourselves still standing in the face of the mystery of God, One and Three. We accept. We believe. But none of us can boast that we fully understand. Without ever abandoning our search to learn about and love God more, to make God more intelligible in human terms, perhaps what we simply need to do is what God does: to be in relationship within God, One in Three. We do it by relating to the secure, providing, protecting God Who is Parent; by relating to Jesus Who is the only reliable statement, in the flesh, of the real God’s honest-truth, so much so that you and I would stake our very lives on it; finally, by relating to the warming, comforting, helping, loving, yet unseen Present God in the deepest part of our spirits, the Spirit as available and pervasive as the air which keeps us breathing, and yet as elusive as fire. For those who believe in such a relationship, whether bishop or child, no explanation is necessary. For those who don’t believe in such a relationship, no explanation is possible. 

Borrowing words of St. Paul: “I pray that, according to the riches of [the Father’s] glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith,... I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God...” (Ephesians 3:16-19)

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Getting Our Heart Around the Corner

Many years ago, when I was teaching in a Catholic high school in Oklahoma City, my co-teacher, Maxine Stank, had a wonderful 7 or 8 year old son, Tommy, with bright red hair and freckles. Maxine told the story of asking Tommy one evening to wash his hands before dinner, explaining that this was necessary so that he didn’t get sick. Begrudgingly, Tommy went and washed his hands, and when he returned, Maxine asked to inspect them, after which Tommy was sent back to wash them a second time, exclaiming loudly all the while: “Jesus and germs...that’s all you hear about and you can’t see either one of them!

There was a similar longstanding attitude in the Church regarding the Holy Spirit, I think, until about 40 years ago when the Charismatic Movement became popular, and sort of helped to reeducate mainstream Christians to rediscover a personal, as well as community, relationship with God the Holy Spirit.
In John’s Gospel today (14:8-27), Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit: “...I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth...You know him, because he abides in you...” The Greek word used for Advocate or Counselor is parákletos, = someone who hears one’s crying and comes to help; an intercessor; a comforter. Those terms are somewhat general and can mean a lot of things to a lot of people.
Missionaries in foreign lands have often, in the past, found it difficult to translate the Bible into a local dialect because often there are no equivalent terms. The Miao, an ethnic group, which includes the Hmong, and  which is recognized by the People’s Republic of China lives primarily in southern China. A story is told that among the Miao the translation of John’s Gospel was delayed because no word for comfort or Comforter existed. Then one day a missionary heard a tribesman say that he was going to visit a woman who had lost her son. The image he used was that he was going to help her “get her heart around the corner.” And so, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, was then translated as “the One who helps you get your heart around the corner.
Not only did Jesus promise to send the Advocate, the Spirit: He delivered on his promise. “When the day of Pentecost had come,” says Luke, “they were all together...and...all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit...” The name Pentecost derives from the Greek pentekosté, the 50th day or seven weeks after Passover. The Jewish Pentecost was called the Feast of Weeks, then one of Judaism’s three great feasts. It celebrated the gifts of the first fruits, as well as the gift of the Law to Moses. For followers of Jesus, this Jewish feast became the occasion for an outpouring of the Father’s first fruits: viz., the gifts of God’s Spirit. Through the gift of the Spirit, God empowers Jesus’ followers to speak his Word to all people and to be understood by them. The Acts of the Apostles notes that, through the Spirit’s inspiration in St. Peter’s preaching, a sizable community of faith came into being. It was a permanent group, one which, according to Luke, devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers. He says further that they shared a common life, sharing “the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed...”, and that their witness “made a deep impression on everyone. (Acts 2:43 & 45)
As spiritual descendants of that first community of faith, you and I have received from the Father, through Jesus, the gift of God’s Spirit, our Advocate and Comforter, the one who helps us “get our hearts around the corner”. The secret of a good gift is that it’s practical, something which the receiver can put to immediate use. Jesus‘ gift to that first community of faith changed people: they became people supportive of one another in the faith, telling the story of the Good News, being sensitive to human needs, sharing gladly and generously, continually praising God, and making a difference in their local communities.

The Spirit-Gift is given to you and me most notably in the sacramental signs of Baptism and Confirmation. The Spirit is a gift eminently practical and usable, for the Spirit brings us peace, knowledge and power. Peace = shalom, in Hebrew, means perfect well-being, which is really to say God. It is God’s very presence: complete harmony, such as exists when you and I are in right relationship with ourselves, with one another, and with God. There’s only wholeness, no fragmentation. Paul says in Romans: “ set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” (Romans 8:6) Moreover, God’s Spirit enables us not only to have Christ’s peace, but to become senders of the Spirit to others, beautifully summarized in The Prayer of St. Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace...” The Spirit also enables us to discern and to know our purpose, our direction in life. Paul again, in 1 Corinthians, reminds us that “...we have received...the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God...” (1 Corinthians 2:12) 

In the Christian Scriptures, the greeting of peace, uttered by those whom Jesus sends, is a word of power. Jesus was conceived as “the power of the Most High”. He is the Word of the Father: God’s presence and power embodied and spoken within people’s hearts. The disciples on the road to Emmaus describe Jesus as “mighty in deed and word before God and all the people”. Jesus’ words and deeds bring Life to people. The gift which the Father and Jesus send at Pentecost is, according to Luke, “like the rush of a violent wind”; all are “filled with the Holy Spirit”. Once empowered, people are gifted to preach, to witness, to heal, to be hospitable, to take others in, to teach, to be discerning, to show mercy: and all of this is for one purpose: “ equip the saints for the work of ministry,” as Paul says, “for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ...” (Ephesians 4:12-13) That’s a description of how the peace, knowledge and power of the Spirit enables you and me to help one another to “get our hearts around the corner”.
Maggie Daniels, a friend of mine many years ago, shared with me one of her lovely poems, entitled Transparency. It describes the faith, hope and love with which God’s Spirit clothes each of us in Baptism and Confirmation: 
What does it mean
to wear a transparent cloak?
and love like a veil
and faith like invisible wings.
To kneel
hidden and revealed
at the same time
Before the Face of One
who sees.

And how is it that
when the cloak’s edges
fall on the grass
It does not hide the grass
And when it lays on a root,

It does not cover the twistings
But is itself
susceptible to snags and tears?

What good is such a cloak?
of what use is it?
And why?

A transparent cloak
is the loveliest cloak of all
Because it wraps
the treasure without hiding it,
Covers without duplicity,
Avoids familiarity without rejection.
Enhances without falsifying.

And one thing more:
When it enfolds a gift
it grants the receiver
the pleasure of beholding
without denying him
the delight of unwrapping.

It is good for a [person]
to wear such a cloak,
woven of rain and mist,
spun with threads of sun.
But it is difficult
to wear well
for many reasons.

Only a [person] in love can bear it.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Love: The Irresistible Desire

The poet, Robert Frost, writes: "Love is the irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired." The biblical texts for this Sunday after the Ascension of our Lord and for the feast of Ascension Thursday itself speak abundantly of desire.

Jesus’ being lifted up from the earth is the hinge between St. Luke’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry and his account of the spread of the Church, as a result, by Jesus’ followers. Where is Jesus? The risen Jesus dwells in “heaven”: i.e., in the immediate presence of God. The Father's “right hand” signifies the power with which the risen and ascended Jesus reveals God and is present in the life of humanity, including the Church, in his desire to be united with us always.

Because of the Ascension, Jesus, though absent, is yet present. His presence is embodied in the Holy Spirit, Christ’s gift to us. We desire and, one day will share, his full and unmediated presence, face to face. Jesus, longing to bring us home, will gather all humanity at the culmination of human history: the definitive beginning of the fullness of God’s reign.

Until then, as Luke hints through his comment by the “two men in white robes” (Acts 1:10), you and I have work to do: “...why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you...will come [again] in the same way...” Our constant question must not be, "Where is Jesus?" but "Where are we in relation to, in our desire for, the risen and ascended Lord?" We have ministry to do, not on our own initiative or for our own self-accomplishment, but ministry empowered by and for the Spirit of the risen Christ within us, among us, calling us to faithfully bring his saving presence among all of humankind.

The prayer which Jesus taught us expresses this well: "Father...may your reign come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven." Rather than longing to "go to heaven", our desire should be to make “heaven”, i.e., the divine Presence, visible on earth through faithful witness to the Good News of Jesus’ words and deeds. Our aim is to collapse the distance between “heaven” and earth through the Holy Spirit, sent in order that Jesus' reign may be experienced. The story of Jesus is inescapably interwoven with the story of humankind, including the Church. And this is possible because of the Ascension.

If we’re willing to stretch our imagination and human language as far as we can, Philip Culbertson reminds us, we’ll begin to grapple with the “new physics" of the Ascension. He says that the possibility of other transcendent dimensions is no longer the stuff of science fiction, but of legitimate scientific theory. What if we considered “heaven” as a dimension that can touch the dimension of our present experience rather than a place far, far away? In fact, this is how the early church regarded the Ascension.

In one of the ancient Divine Office readings, Pope St. Leo I, in his Sermon 1 on the Ascension comments: “...[I]t was a great and unspeakable cause for rejoicing, when in the sight of a holy multitude, human nature ascended above the dignity of all celestial creatures...not to have any degree of loftiness set as a limit...short of the right hand of the eternal Father, where it would be associated with [the Father’s] royal glory, to whose nature it was united in the Son. Since, then, Christ’s ascension is our own exaltation, and where the glory of the head has gone before, there also is the hope of the body summoned. Let us, dearly beloved, rejoice... For today, not only have we been confirmed in the possession of Paradise, but in Christ we have...gained...far more...For those...cast down from the happiness of their first estate, these have the Son of God made to be one body with himself, and placed at the right hand of the Father...
The Incarnation, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus span the gap between us and God. In Jesus, the Word made-flesh, God, who is Infinite Reality, Infinite Being, utterly empties Godself by giving Itself away in love in the act of creation. God’s generosity is boundless, and we are the generosity of God. You and I are who we have always been in God’s knowledge, even before God created us. God’s non-distinction from all things is their own reality, and so that reality is our very ordinariness. Our human nature is oned with that of Jesus through the Spirit of Love: Paul says that "in Christ we have access to the Father through the Spirit" (Ephesians 2:18). From time to time, you and I experience unexpected “quickening moments”, “stirrings of love”, “fleeting flashes”. These are subtle recognitions of the holiness of our life as it is. Such moments are such that in them God makes Godself known to us, awakens us to God already within our being: our God-given Godly nature. God awakens us to see that, in the very ordinariness of who we are, we already possess all that’s necessary to live in habitual consciousness of God giving Godself away. And having once glimpsed God, we know that only God will do in our life. We desire a more lasting, daily deepening awareness of this life, and the effect of this is cumulative, i.e., we desire more and more to follow the path leading to even deeper experiences of oneness with God. Blessed Julian of Norwich prayed: “God give me yourself for you are enough to me, and I can ask nothing that is less that can be full honor to you. And if I ask anything that is less, ever shall I be in want: for only in you have I all.” (Revelations of Divine Love, Chapter 5)

This is the path of our continuing union with the risen Christ through the Holy Spirit, made possible by Jesus' Ascension. The distance between God and humanity is fully and finally spanned in Christ! In Christ’s giving us the Holy Spirit, Christ collapses the distance between us and himself. This collapsing and transcending impacts our entire experience in the realms of time, space, and matter:
  • In the Spirit, time is collapsed in that, in our oneness with the risen and ascended Christ, we already access eternal life, although we can only fully experience it beyond this life.
  • In the Spirit, space is collapsed in that the presence of the risen and ascended Christ pervades all that is created, though you and I must wait to see him face to face.
  • In the Spirit, matter is collapsed in that the presence of the risen and ascended Christ is perceptible in every aspect of our ordinariness here and now: in nature around us; in our times of intimacy; in solitude; in music, poetry and art; in the experience of birth; in observing children; in helping others; in the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist; and finally, in experiencing death itself, our own or others’. 

Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of the 20th century’s noted spiritual theologians, puts it this way: “We are the language God uses to speak us. How could we possibly not understand ourselves in this language? Bathed in the light of God, we step into our own clarity.” 

Today’s Gospel passage (John 17:20-26) prepares us for the feast of Pentecost next week, for this new way of God’s being with us, i.e., the Holy Spirit. Judith Viorst speaks of “necessary losses”, i.e., those things which we have to lose or let go of, so as to move ahead to gain a deeper maturity.  The season of Pentecost, the long “green” season, will be a time for us to grow into deeper spiritual maturity, in our desire for an ever-growing oneness with God in Christ. In a sense it’s the unique season of desire, of longing and thirsting for the Fountain of Life and Love. Philip Culbertson says this: “As [the theme of] water flows throughout the Bible ([e.g.,]‘By the rivers of Babylon,’ ‘As a deer longs for flowing streams,’ ‘I am the Living Water’) so the river of desire flows through the words of the... Jesus [of John’s Gospel], reminding us why we thirst, and for what we truly thirst.

Notice the key words Jesus uses: being one, glory, know, love. Notice, too, his opening line: “I ask not only on behalf of these, [i.e., his disciples] but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word...” Jesus is praying here for you and me! Listen to his desire as he continues: “...that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us...The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given [us] because you loved [us] before the foundation of the world.” 

The Gospel makes clear what Jesus’ desire is. What about our desire? Am I willing to risk becoming the presence of the risen and ascended Christ to the people I encounter each day? Am I willing, like Jesus, to make God known by breaking the bread of God’s word open for others; to embody God’s love, even in my own weak, everyday, human ordinariness; to consider all others as “friend” and, even if only symbolically, to be willing to humbly “lay down my life” for her or him?

Paul and Silas, in the first reading (Acts 16:16-34), in their desire to make Christ known, invited the jailer and his household to “Believe on the Lord Jesus...”, and, says Luke, “They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.” They believed and they “rejoiced”. The second reading, from the Book of Revelation (22:12-14; 16-17; 20-21), depicts the risen/ascended Jesus and the Spirit inviting each of us who desire the water of life to “Come”, so that “the grace [the presence] of the Lord Jesus [may] be with all the saints”: with all  of our brother and sisters, through us.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Love Is His Meaning

Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, ‘Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.  You heard me say to you, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.” If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.” (John 14:23-29)
Two years ago I made an interesting retreat at Mercy Center, Auburn, led by Dr. James Finley, the topic of which was Following the Mystics Through the Narrow Gate: one of eight retreats I’ve made with him. Jim is an author, clinical psychologist in private practice, and a popular retreat leader with particular interest in the contemplative path. For six years he was a Trappist novice/student under Thomas Merton. As he sees it, our spiritual life evolves in ever deepening stages of awareness/consciousness, from non-seeing to knowing and seeing what is already always before our eyes: viz., God, Infinite Reality, Infinite Being, which utterly empties Itself in giving Itself away in love in the act of creation. God’s generosity is infinite, and we are the generosity of God. We are who we were in God’s knowledge before we were ever created by God. God’s non-distinction from all things is their own reality, and so that reality is our very ordinariness.

As we follow our spiritual path all human beings, from time to time, experience deep “quickening moments”, “stirrings of love”, “fleeting flashes”. These are a subtle recognitions of the holiness of life as it is: in nature around us; in our times of intimacy; in solitude; in music, poetry and art; in the experience of birth; in observing children; in helping others; and finally, in experiencing death, our own or others’. Such moments are revelatory, i.e., in them God makes Godself known to us, awakens us to God already within us: our God-given Godly nature. God awakens us to see that, in the very ordinariness of who we are, we already possess all that’s necessary to live in habitual consciousness of God giving Godself away. Having once glimpsed God, we know that only God will do in our life. We desire a more lasting, daily deepening awareness of the life which is at once God’s and ours. And the effect of this is cumulative, i.e., we desire more and more to follow the path leading to even deeper experiences of oneness with God.

The context of today’s Gospel passage is the the last meal which Jesus is having with his disciples before his arrest and trial later, and his death, by crucifixion, the next day. Jesus springs two things on the Apostles. First, he says that he’s leaving, and second, he says that they can’t follow him. Imagine their feelings of shock, sadness, and fear!

Jesus further announces to them that “The Father will send the Holy Spirit to help you remember what I’ve told you.” As a sort of vague legacy, he says “I leave my peace with you.” As if all this weren’t enough to utterly astound and confuse them, he advises them: “Don’t be troubled or afraid.

If that seems to resonate a bit, it’s because that’s the context of your and my day-to-day life. We struggle to figure out how we can make ends meet. People whom we know, in our family or among our friends, are out of jobs, some for many months. The media bombards us with almost endless rehashing of old and new incidents of war in virtually every part of the Middle East. In the 12 years since 2001, certainly, there are unending reminders of “terrorist activity”, “terrorism”, “terrorist attacks”. We've even come to distinguish between “global, international and domestic terrorism”. A goodly number of our citizens across the U.S., particularly the populations of New York and Boston, have experienced firsthand the ugly reality, with all its blood, pain, disfigurement and death. Many Churches are in conflict, or at least in major transitions, everywhere. Political infighting, mean-spiritedness and nastiness over any number of crucial, vital issues which affect you and me has been honed to an all-time vicious low: to the point where our government in Washington is barely functional. That’s not to mention, finally all the ecological disasters which we and the greedy, immoral powers of Big Oil and Big Pharma have brought on ourselves in terms of natural disasters, irreversible climate damage, and danger to the very physical and mental health of the world’s population. Is it possible that Jesus can say to us today, as he did to the disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid”??

In a word, “Yes”! The Risen Christ himself is the answer to the disciples’ question: “How will you reveal yourself to us...?” Julian of Norwich, whose feast we’ll celebrate on Wednesday, summed it up this way in her Revelation of Divine Love: “Would you know your Lord’s meaning...Be well aware: love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did He show it to you? For love. Keep yourself in that love and you will know and see more of the same, but you will never see nor know any other thing therein without end.

The Risen Christ’s love was embodied in his words and actions, and in this love, as Julian says, “He has made all things beneficial to us” in ways which we don't always understand: the true and the beautiful as well as the ugly and the painful. Through the very Spirit of love the Father and the Risen One are bringing us through it all into the fullness of unending light, life and love. "Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid."