The Forgotten Person

Some theologians have referred to the Holy Spirit as the Forgotten Person of the Trinity.

Christians are hardly likely to forget the Holy Spirit, since they make the sign of the cross thousands of times a year. But the question is: what do we know about *him*?

The Holy Spirit is not so much forgotten as hidden. By *his* very name, the Holy Spirit is the most esoteric, the most abstract, and consequently the most difficult to understand of the Trinitarian persons. For us, the other Two Persons are more approachable: Jesus, first of all, because He became one of us, sharing totally in our humanity. The Father is described intimately as our Abba (Daddy), the One to whom Jesus constantly refers. But the Spirit? Words will consistently fail us when speaking of the Holy Spirit.

In the Gospel, the Holy Spirit slowly but powerfully emerges, but only in symbols or metaphors because He is not material and therefore not visible. The New Testament’s first referral to the Spirit is when Mary is found “with child through the holy spirit” (Matthew 1:18), or in Luke when Gabriel tells Mary how she can become a mother, the mother of the Messiah.

The Spirit as a dove hovers over Jesus at his baptism, a symbol of his calling to bring the good news of salvation to all.

When Nicodemus comes secretly at night to question the new Rabbi, Jesus attempts to describe how a person can be “born again” in the spiritual sense. He refers to the Spirit as “wind”, an unseen but powerful force, only perceivable by its effects.

The Samaritan woman at the well is bold enough to question Jesus as to where God must be worshiped. We too think certain conditions must be met before we worship: there’s a right place to worship, a right person to preach to us, a right congregation to worship with, a right style of liturgy to be observed. If we can find all of these in one place, that’s where we’ll worship. Jesus simply corrects both us and the Samaritan woman with a few words:

God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.”
(John 4:24)

Unfortunately, that leaves us with no more excuses!

Perhaps the most troubling references to the Spirit are made after the Last Supper. Seeking to comfort his disciples, Jesus tells them:

“. . . grief has filled your hearts. But I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:6b-7)

How could Jesus’ absence be better? How could the invisible Spirit comfort the disciples who were losing the visible Christ?

Recall the first stirrings of creation:

The earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters. (Genesis 1:2)

In the beginning of our spiritual life (and for much of it throughout), we too are formless and void. In order to become spiritual beings we need to be emptied of all that prevents God from shaping us into his image. The emptying process can be almost unbearable. We don’t even know how to pray! But St. Paul encourages us with words from his letter to the Romans:

The Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes [for us] with inexpressible groanings.

We are constantly being emptied, separated from things or persons we love and consider absolutely necessary to our existence: parents, spouses, children, siblings, dearest friends, homes, our life work, and finally from our health and life itself. Such separations leave us destitute, desolate, abandoned. At moments like this we might question God’s love for us.

This reaction is so totally human, and therefore Christ totally understands. He knows that we are incomplete until, ironically, we are emptied – even of his own physical presence. Space must be created in us, making room for the Spirit of God who will accomplish the final act of our divinisation. The coming of the Holy Spirit in our lives is Christ’s crowning achievement for us, since it enables us to transform even an evil world into a place of love and truth.

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you. (John 14: 16-18)

I love the words of the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in “God’s Grandeur.” He traces the beauty of the world as God created it, followed by its near destruction by man’s greed and materialism, but ending in sure hope through the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, the One who renews the face of the earth.

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast
and with ah! bright wings.

Trinity 1

Mysteries

I confess: I’m not much of a Rosary person, but today I thought I’d try it. A few of us neighbors gather every other week for an hour of prayer. We each volunteer an intention – might be personal or global – and then follow with a decade of the Rosary. Since from last night I still had the beads in my pocket, it seemed that this would be a good place to fasten my thoughts while I took a walk.

It’s Thursday, which I remember to be the day for Joyful Mysteries. The more recent topic of meditation – the “Luminous Mysteries” as introduced by Pope Saint John Paul – is still too new for me to recall, so I kept to the ones I learned as a youngster.

Right off the bat, I had questions. Who were these people and events we’re called to meditate on?

We had two women at the opposite ends of their life. Elizabeth: too old to bear a child and who is already six months pregnant.

Mary, in particular, a mere child by our standards, was faced with a totally unexpected – indeed impossible – pregnancy. Elizabeth’s was the spectacular event; Mary’s was the scandalous one. What would we think if the girl next door, maybe a sophomore or junior in high school, became pregnant? What a disgrace for her family! Would they have it (the child) aborted? Would they have Mary go away for a while (which is actually what Mary did when she went to visit Elizabeth), and then return as though finishing up a vacation or a course of study out of town? I remember a classmate who was absent for quite a while due to an “appendectomy.” Uh-huh.

And what kind of man would stoop to marrying this scandal-laden girl?

No one knew the truth of the situation which had been carefully kept under wraps, but that didn’t stop people from improvising and judging, I’m sure.

Apart from this scandalous history, there was nothing spectacular about this family. If anything, the wonder only grew as this supposed “illegitimate” son grew.  Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? What good can come out of Galilee? By what authority do you do these things? We know who our father is.

Surely, if God were actually to send his Son, wouldn’t he have given him a “good” family to come from? A place renowned for its scholars? Surely God would have, should have, seen to it that his Son would have been given a proper education – the equivalent, say, of Harvard or Yale where he’d have studied Scripture with the esteemed Rabbis, the venerated theologians of that day, people equipped to know what God meant when he spoke through the Scriptures. Why pick someone with no pedigree and no credentials? How apt to call these events “mysteries”!

Even before Vatican II, it did occasionally occur to us that ALL are called to holiness, even the unschooled, the unapproved, and even (please, God, forgive us!) the sinful.

There are still some cobwebs in the corners, situations where we feel it’s our bounden duty to get rid of those people so that we can have a religion that’s the rightful owner of all truth and goodness.

Do let’s sweep away the cobwebs, not the people!

It is not the healthy who need a physician, but the unwell.

“You are gods . . .”

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
John 1:14a

“The Son of God became human so that we might become God.”
St. Athanasius: On the Incarnation.

“The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made human, might make us gods.”
(St. Thomas Aquinas, Opusc., 57:1-4)

The feast of the Incarnation coincides with Palm Sunday this year. Because it’s such an important feast, I’ve chosen to explore and celebrate it in this post.

Even as a very young person, the Incarnation struck me as a most alluring miracle. Back then, I didn’t know about the astonishing comments from Saints Athanasius and Thomas Aquinas, quoted above. Somehow, for many of us, the truth that Christ first existed as God and then became man, existing in time in a specific place, living and dying as a human being in every way – somehow this half of the truth is much more acceptable than the second half. After all, God can do all things, so becoming a human being is certainly not out of reach. That half of St. Athanasius’ statement is credible.

But the rest of the statement – so that we might become God – may sound as blasphemous to our ears as it was to the unbelieving Jews in the Gospel of John, recently read at a Lenten Mass. (Ch. 10:31-41) In this passage, the danger surrounding Jesus has come to a head as the incredulous crowd takes up rocks to stone him. Jesus says:

“I have shown you many good works from my Father. For which of these are you trying to stone me?” The Jews answered him, “We are not stoning you for a good work but for blasphemy. You, a man, are making yourself God.”

Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, “You are gods”’? If it calls them gods to whom the word of God came, and scripture cannot be set aside, can you say that the one whom the Father has consecrated and sent into the world blasphemes because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’”?

An indisputable line of reasoning which Jesus’ enemies refuse to accept.

Jesus repeatedly referred to God as his Father, to being sent by God, and to being obedient to everything he hears from God. Furthermore, in many passages from the Gospels, he frequently refers to God as our Father. Every time we repeat the Lord’s Prayer, we refer to God as Father. Are we too blasphemous?

We commonly believe that certain qualities that apply to Christ cannot possibly refer to us. Especially divinity. And this is where we come to the second half of Athanasius’ outrageous statement.

I think it’s safe to say that part of Christ’s mission on earth was to teach us how to live as children of God.

In his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, 7) Jesus teaches us how to imitate God the Father, how to take on godlike habits and attitudes. He points out the basic teachings of the law, but then calls his followers to go beyond them. Difficult as those commands are (and have been for millennia already), Jesus calls us to an even higher standard. But it’s impossible for us to go higher on our own until we have received the teaching and example of Christ, along with his strength through the Holy Spirit, i.e. grace.

You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, “You shall not kill”; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, “Raqa,” will be answerable to the Sanhedrin. . . So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect. 

The message and teachings of Christ call us to go beyond what is humanly good in order to achieve what is supernaturally holy – in other words, to become God-like. The second Vatican Council confirmed that we are ALL called to this holiness, which is the same as what Athanasius and Thomas meant by saying we are all called to be gods. The God we are called to imitate, and whose children we are, is the God who has total and infinite love for all humanity – the just as well as the unjust.

The purpose, then, of the Incarnation and why God became man, was to redeem us, to show us what divine love is, to model holiness, and to receive through Christ the ability to partake in his divine nature.

At every Mass we repeat God’s invitation to transformation, to holiness. As the priest mingles the sacramental water and wine, he says, “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

If this were an impossible ideal, we would not have had so many urgings from Christ to dare follow him into the imitation of God. In doing so, we are divinized; we become God’s children, and become the face of Christ in this, our life on earth.

The King of Love

I’m not sure where I stand regarding this Feast of Christ the King. Yes, this trait of mine can sometimes be a nuisance, but I need to dig into statements or phrases which, through repetition,  may have lost the full strength of their meaning. I need to test their truth, to be dazzled by the newness of their authenticity.

So what’s challenging about the concept of Christ as king? After all, in the gospel for this Feast, Christ actually refers to himself as a king who separates the sheep from the goats, the charitable from the uncaring.

What causes me to ponder this theme are other contradicting parts of the gospel: Jesus of Nazareth, a man of humble origins (the carpenter’s son!), performs some astounding miracle that so impresses the crowd that they  rush at him to make him king – just like that! No polling or voting on their side, no armed forces on his. For Jesus, king-making has nothing to do with spectacular deeds. Furthermore, he frequently emphasizes the importance of rejecting honors and choosing the last place.

The simple, unaffected man from Galilee has a totally different style. Instead of taking people by force, he issues gentle invitations to a life of inner peace and ease.

Come to me, all you who labor, and I will refresh you. My perfect love for you will lift from you the burden of seeing yourself as unloved. If you come to me, if you come to know me, you’ll realize how lovable you really are by loving me and loving others in me. My way is not to dominate you, to be a fearful tyrant, but to be a comfort to your false sense of worthlessness. And even that invitation will not be forced on you.

Jesus did not want to be associated with empty worldly ambitions, and expressed that early on by resisting Satan while in his desert of preparation. For Jesus, the throne of power came from the God of Love, and the favors to be dispensed were those of Love given, accepted and shared. People were not invited to the feast because of battles won, nor for any splendid inventions or even artistic creations; not for nations founded nor for roads built to connect one conquered people to another; not for taxes imposed, collected by force and used to pay for the luxuries of  higher-ups.

The crown that ultimately was placed on Jesus’ head was one of mockery, meant to shame him. But Jesus couldn’t be shamed because he had already totally surrendered Himself to whatever his Father found necessary. Having already taken the lowest place, he could go no lower. I think he must have even rejoiced to be given that Crown of Thorns. He knew only too well the consequences of ambition and greed: nations at war over which would have the highest place, the most power over people, ownership of immeasurable wealth, buildings and clothing that reflected power and greed.

Christ’s idea of royalty was reserved for the kind, the brave and the caring, even if their lowliness separated them from the haughty and made them the  subject of sneers and mockery.

The kingship of Christ was the last word of greatness: the victory of Love over cruelty and injustice. The hymn expresses it beautifully: The King of Love my shepherd is.

 

How to tell them?

One of the hymns at Mass today was, Rejoice and be glad: yours is the Kingdom of God.

I couldn’t help thinking about Jesus and visualized him as he delivered this astounding message to the poor about, of all things, a kingdom!

I picture him as an idealistic, enthusiastic and brilliant young man, full of compassion. He has recently experienced a baptism by another holy man and has heard the unmistakable message of approval from the heavenly Father. He’s about to select a handful of men who will help him spread his teachings of the Kingdom to many others.

He is ready. Even while working full-time as a craftsman, he has studied sacred Scripture, prayed over it, and has been given to understand its deepest secrets. These “secrets,” however, are not to be withheld from the poor and uneducated. They only need his tender talents to explain, in down-to-earth terms, the noblest mysteries of the Divinity.

Along with Jesus’ teaching abilities are his God-given powers to heal the sick in body and mind. Such power gives credence to his astounding lessons on how to enter the Kingdom of peace and love. For while the lessons are not difficult to understand, they’re mostly the very opposite of what people have been taught.

Jesus must think to himself: how can I present these teachings in such a way that unscholarly people can understand?

Then, after more prayer, he realizes that the poor and the simple have much in common with one another, and that focusing on what they have in common will be the way to teach them.  He therefore devises skillful parables where the situations and characters illustrate (sometimes negatively) the kind of behaviors that prepare them to enter the kingdom: stories of masters forgiving slaves, of slaves not forgiving co-workers. Of men working throughout the day, only to see others getting the same payment after just a few hours of labor. About buying a field where hidden treasures were found by accident. About a woman relentlessly pleading with a judge for justice.

Jesus has lived and worked with people for years and knows that many of them really have a sincere desire to do what God wills. But they’ve been given so many rules that they can hardly remember all 600-plus of them. They already have so much on their minds just to provide the basics for themselves and their families. Nonetheless, religious leaders have taught them that failure to obey the Law would lead to their expulsion from the temple, their only hope for salvation.

An almost endless workday prevents them from studying the scriptures and the law. Not to mention the other unending problems: illness in the family; their own illness; dealing with the many who want to cheat them; dealing with the many who simply hate them for a variety of reasons or for no reason at all.

Too many problems. Too many laws. Is there any way to get out of this maze, to find a clear path to peace?

  • What is God’s will? Which are the most important laws?

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said [in reply], “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.

  • How do I decide whether to obey a law or to give help where needed?

 Again he entered the synagogue. There was a man there who had a withered hand. They watched him closely to see if he would cure him on the Sabbath so that they might accuse him. He said to the man with the withered hand, “Come up here before us.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?” But they remained silent. Looking around at them with anger and grieved at their hardness of heart, he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out and his hand was restored.

  • How do I treat people who are just miserable to deal with?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father.”

  • How can I ever atone for my sins?

People brought to him a paralytic lying on a stretcher. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Courage, child, your sins are forgiven.

  • How can I find true peace?

 Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as scripture says: ‘Rivers of living water will flow from within him.’”Living water

Rivers of living water . . .

Jesus, who wants all to be with him in the Kingdom, has eased the path for them and for us: I am the way, the truth and the life.