The Preacher's NightmareRead Now
Today is Trinity Sunday, opening the ninth week of Ordinary Time. Prior to 1970 Trinity Sunday marked the end of the Easter Season, Nowadays the Resurrection cycle ends on Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday is now an independent solemnity along with Corpus Christi (next weekend) and Christ the King (the last Sunday of the Church year.) Trinity Sunday used to have a special place in the old catechisms: it was the last chance for a Catholic to fulfill his “Easter duty” of making annual confession and communion. It was a rather generous law: one had about 14 weeks of grace, given that the period opened with the beginning of Lent. I checked the present day Catechism and there is no mention of such a rule. I did notice however that the Catechism’s index entry of Easter comes upon the heels of “drug trafficking.” We certainly never had that entry in our little Baltimore catechisms.
Trinity Sunday is a very difficult feast to explain. Last night my pastor took the well traveled path of generations of preachers who used the feast to reawaken our sense of awe and mystery at what we can’t grasp or explain. This is certainly a better approach than I received at various levels of my youthful formation, where the heart of the mystery was reduced to how “something can be one and three at the same time.” Theology 101 destroyed that line of thinking: since God is totally “other,” all human analogies—even philosophical/mathematical constructs—are meaningless. I seem to recall that St. Patrick is attributed with an analogy of the Trinity from nature; he used a three-leafed clover to explain the Trinity. I find it hard to imagine Patrick leading a surly mob of Celtic chieftains out on the meadow to stop and smell the theological roses, so to speak, but generations of artists were grateful for the thought.
The reality of the Trinity and its celebration is in truth a very serious business. The Trinitarian formula of “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” actually is not common to the New Testament. In fact, the only usage I am aware of is today’s Gospel in which Jesus commissions the disciples to go out and baptize the whole world in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In his Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Matthew Father Daniel Harrington believes that this usage in Matthew 28 is probably borrowed from a later Christian ritual, the Didache, in the context of describing a baptismal rite.
The Christian Church always believed in the all powerful God of the Hebrew Revelation, the divinity of Jesus, and the divine presence of God’s Spirit. It was the finding of a common ground of doctrinal expression that was (and still does) present challenge for believers and theologians. In 1971 I actually heard a Catholic bishop (an auxiliary in Washington, D.C.) tell a Confirmation class that the Holy Spirit was like a light switch. “When you have a problem or a temptation, you throw the switch and God sends you the light to know what to do.” (Sixteen centuries of Greek Church fathers are turning in their graves as we speak.)
After numerous councils and other deliberations and writings the Church accepted the formulation of the Nicene Creed in the late fourth century as the liturgical and legal summary of what can be said from Revelation regarding the life of God. However, the Nicene Creed, which is the creed used in the Roman Mass today, does not precisely address the inner relationship of the members of the Trinity. There is a historical reason for this: the attention of the Church at this time (325-451 A.D.) was in defending the divine and human nature of Jesus from heresies such as Arianism and Nestorianism. Thus, in the fifth century, a second creed known as the Athanasian Creed gained prominence in worship and theology for its more explicit description of the inner life of the Trinity. Rather than describe it, the text is here. This creed is attributed to St. Athanasius, a famous doctor of the Church.
The Athanasian Creed has corrective qualities in its relationship to the Nicene, with its very strong emphasis upon the oneness of God; Trinitarian belief has always been attacked as leaving the door open to a misunderstanding of a multiplicity of Gods. (In fact, Islam’s emphasis upon the oneness of Allah was heard quite sympathetically in this respect.) The other Athanasian emphasis is that all three members of the Trinity are equally eternal. The Nicene Creed contains a phrasing that has been sadly misunderstood and maddeningly provocative: that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.”
This phrase “and the son” is translated from the Latin filioque, and thus gives the name to probably the longest and most divisive doctrinal debate in the history of Christendom, the Filioque Controversy.” Even the official website of the American bishops has a very lengthy treatment of the present state of affairs, as filioque is one of the main sources of division between Eastern and Western Christianity.
In short the Nicene/Western Roman Church was attempting to use analogous language to describe the perfection of love between the persons of God by saying, in effect, that the love of the Father and the Son was so great that the existence of a third divine person was the only language to express it. However, on the face of things, it appears to say linguistically that the Holy Spirit is the product of the love of the other two. This was outrageous thinking for the Greek Eastern Church, which venerates the Spirit in its theology and culture. Thus, the Orthodox Church does not include the filioque language in the Creed.
This is heady stuff, but I suspect that the Nicene Creed is proclaimed Sunday after Sunday with little or no appreciation of the thought, history and anguish of those who composed it, nor a great curiosity in the language we use to seal our baptism each week. As I learned the hard way in a Hertz Rental in Perugia, Italy, it helps to read the small print.
By the way, I am teaching a Church History course on this matter on Friday, at which I am depending upon intervention of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
A Spirit for a Sinful WorldRead Now
Greetings on one of the Church’s major feasts, Pentecost Sunday. I suspect that most of you have already attended Mass by the time you read this (and I am a realist: you may not see this till Tuesday, after returning from the holiday weekend.) Our vigil Mass last night featured the Sunday readings although there is a Saturday night vigil option in the Missal. Our pastor celebrated the Mass; we had run into him earlier and he told us that he had spent a good part of the day at the Cathedral and attendant receptions for two newly ordained priests for our diocese. Our pastor is a very dedicated priest; he told us in his sermon that the event in the cathedral had brought back strong memories of his own ordination seventeen years earlier.
The Sunday scripture readings portray two different accounts of the coming of the Spirit. The first reading, from St. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, is the grand event in Jerusalem, when the holy city was filled with pilgrims of multiple languages to celebrate the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost, a long-standing Jewish holy day observed fifty days after Passover. If you attended a church last night that used the vigil readings, you will recall that the first reading (Genesis 11: 1-9) is the account of the Tower of Babel fiasco, set in a time when “the whole world spoke the same language” (11:1) and presumed to build a structure that reached the sky, a blasphemous sinful act. Luke certainly has this Genesis text in mind when he describes the Apostles’ listeners of a much later day understanding Peter’s sermon in their own tongues. The Holy Spirit, in other words, has righted the wrong of sinful disorder.
Catechetics in general speaks of the Holy Spirit in many ways, with an emphasis upon empowerment, and this is certainly the case. But one is struck by the connectedness of the Holy Spirit to the forgiveness of sin. Acts 2 describes the appearance of the Spirit like fire, but then goes on to provide the text of Peter’s speech, which accuses his listeners of having crucified God’s chosen one. Acts records that the listeners were greatly shaken and ask how they may be forgiven of their sin. Peter and his brethren add “3000” to the brethren through baptismal washing, the climax of the day’s events.
The Gospel (John 20: 19-23) takes us back to Easter Sunday night when Jesus makes his first appearance to the Apostles (ten in this episode, minus Judas and Thomas). After a greeting of peace and a viewing of his wounds Jesus breathes upon them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. The next sentence is quite unexpected; it is a statement of what the empowerment of the Spirit actually means. “If you forgive men’s sins, they are forgiven them. If you hold them bound, they are held bound.” It is useful here to recall the dating of John’s Gospel, possibly as late as 100 A.D. By New Testament standards the Church is well established. We can only wonder what caused John to depict his Pentecostal event in this fashion.
It may be that the evangelist was concerned about the condition of local Christian Churches. John is the only evangelist to record the washing of the feet at the Last Supper, just a few chapters earlier. In that episode Jesus explains that the true disciple is the servant of the rest. It may be that in the time of John’s writing the Church was going through something of an identity crisis. Other letters from John suggest discord within the Church. John’s portrayal of Pentecost as a power to forgive would seem a very timely intervention to the Church to address its own healing. When looked at in sequence, both of today’s Scripture accounts of Pentecost emphasize the basic nature of a Spirit-filled Church as a forgiving Church.
* * * *
I have celebrated Pentecost in a number of locations during my lifetime, but one in particular stands out in my mind. I was on the road and I went to Mass in an aging church that appeared to have had a number of burned out pastors over the years, including the present one. His sermon was poor, but I felt some pity for the man, as he struck me as struggling with life in general. But then after the sermon he did something that gave me hope. He told the parishioners that in honor of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, he would light seven small red votive candles he had placed across the altar. He solemnly walked over and lit each one, and I felt a surge of thanks for his honest if humble effort.
He returned to the presider’s chair and sat down, and we all beheld the little red candles twinkling away. Suddenly the 1940’s design air conditioner kicked on loudly and the accompanying draft blew out all seven candles. Talk about “an ill wind.” Borrowing a phrase from the Sequence of today’s Mass, I sincerely hoped and prayed that the Spirit would warm the chill of this man for whom nothing seemed to be going right.
Ascension Day in FloridaRead Now
Nik, Lend Me Your PoleRead Now
It seems like every time I check the news, my old friend Nik Wallenda is attempting another dangerous balancing act. I will always be grateful for the publicity that Nik brought to my hometown area when he walked the wire across Niagara Falls a few years ago, and he probably is as good an icon as any for the difficult act of pastoring and ministering.
I was thinking of Nik and the mists of Niagara at Mass last night, which fell on the vigil of Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day is one of those yearly observances that need a very deft touch when addressed in the liturgy, days when we want to celebrate the ideal but must acknowledge the real. They present liturgical, moral, and psychological challenges to pastors, celebrants, parish ministers, and as I was reminded last night, everyone in the pews.
I may be in the minority here, but in the first instance it is not clear to me that Mother’s Day and Father’s Day rituals and observances are appropriate in the Sunday Eucharist. The Roman Missal is clear on the liturgical priorities: the Sixth Sunday of Easter, the continuing celebration of the Resurrection and the fast-approaching feast of the Ascension. It is worth noting as an aside that there is no official liturgical recognition of Mary in the month of May, as the Redemptive feasts take legitimate precedence. Church law and practice is pretty clear about this.
In the case of Mother’s Day, there is no long-standing outside religious significance to the observance. The day was not observed in the United States prior to 1908, and then to establish a day for mothers as a civil observance. The U.S. founder of Mother’s Day was Anna Jarvis, who became so appalled by its commercialization that she tried to have Mother’s Day rescinded. In my pastoring years Mother’s Day presented innumerable difficulties. As a younger pastor I followed the rules and did not mark the day in the liturgy. I quickly learned that hell hath no fury like a mother gypped out of her “Ave Maria.” Then I went to the other extreme and I actually had children take the pulpit to talk about their mothers, and on another occasion husbands about their wives. My own mother taught me a great dictum about law-breaking: “If you are going to hell, go in a Cadillac and not in a wheelbarrow.” My bishop never got my mother’s humor.
But as I approached my middle years and gained more human experience I came to understand that not everyone is blessed with a happy family, which is why Netflix runs the “Leave It to Beaver” classics to this day as social parody. Years of preaching (and later counseling) taught me that it is never safe to assume how people live, what they think, how they feel. Days we assign to happiness are often not experienced as such. On any given Mother’s Day a typical congregation will have a substantial population of those with very mixed emotions. There are those who have recently lost their mothers to death; those who have lost a child or a spouse; those who deeply desired but were never able to have children; those who were abused by their mothers; those who were never able to connect with their mothers, for one reason or another; those who are 24-hour caregivers of their mothers.
Thus, any mention of Mother’s Day or any blessings or rituals, if they must be done at all, need to demonstrate this inclusivity of the wide range of experience. I experienced both sides of this pastoral dilemma at Mass last night. Our pastor offered a blessing over the women of the congregation, but he invited the male partners to put their arms around the women, and my gut went into overdrive because I know this congregation fairly well and a great many women come to this Mass without supportive partners. In fact, there were several around me. It was another reminder of how liturgy and ministry touch such vital chords, and how difficult it is to celebrate the ideal with compassion for the real.
Many years ago I found myself in a small town where the Catholic Church was located across the street from the Lutheran Church. It was Father’s Day by chance, and after Mass I walked across the street and sat in on the Lutheran service. The worship proceeded as it would, I imagine, on any given Sunday. But as we left the church, there were children at the door who gave a homemade blueberry muffin to all the men who had attended. I have never had my own children, and I think of that a lot. But, be that as it may, the muffin was very good.
The Medium is the MessageRead Now
God must be punishing me or maybe cutting my Purgatory time: I went to my usual 5 PM Mass last night and discovered that for the second week in a row this particular Mass was a First Communion Mass. I am used to one a year—I call it my Easter Duty—but two in one year is cruel and unusual punishment. Not only does my stomach turn to knots at the liturgical and catechetical missteps of such celebrations, but the normal human foibles of mass gatherings seem magnified. My wife was a lector for this Mass so again I had a pretty good view of the proceedings.
I recently entered a very interesting correspondence with a professor from Seton Hill University, Timothy Gabrielli, the author of Confirmation: How a Sacrament of God's Grace Became All about Us. (Our exchanges are public, on the book’s Amazon page.) Ironically, I had been critical of certain aspects of his book, and he replied very gracefully to my points. In subsequent follow-up he quoted from a talk he had delivered to the clergy of Richmond, Virginia, on the celebration of the Sacrament of Confirmation, another youthful initiation sacrament. One of many points he made was this one, in hypothetical advice to confirmands: This is a special celebration of the Church, of which you are an integral part. It's not all about you.
I fear that the present American style of First Communion reinforces the very things we worry about in American culture, “it’s all about me.” While it is true that the occasion of First Eucharist is very significant, Gabrielli advises quite wisely that sacraments of initiation are the first steps in a lifelong process, and that the emotions and experiences of the candidates are secondary to the bigger reality of the parish’s public and regular celebration of the Eucharist, and even to the candidate’s own spiritual journey.
I am pleased to see that the venerable works of Marshall McLuhan from the 1960’s are still best sellers. McLuhan coined the famous phrase, “the medium is the message.” In an age when television was exploding McLuhan understood that eventually a culture can mistake a reality for how that reality is presented in its media, its public forum. The Kennedy-Nixon televised debates of 1960 are the textbook example: essentially, TV made Jack Kennedy look equal to a sitting vice-president of the United States before Kennedy ever opened his mouth. McLuhan understood what our best liturgical theologians have been telling us for years: the gesture of the sacrament conveys our understanding of the sacrament. The outward and the inward reality must coalesce.
If McLuhan were alive today he would probably draw some interesting conclusions of the medium of most first communion celebrations: that the focus of attention is alternately the individual child and his classmates, that this communion is somehow unique from any others the child may receive during a lifetime, that special distinctive clothing is required so that the candidate is distinguished from the congregation, and that the child visually and actually separates from the family of origin at the highlight moment, receiving the communion.
I understand that I have opened far too many theological doors of discussion for us to tackle today. But if I had a say in the matter, I would make one major change in the rite: at the time of reception of the Eucharist, have the parents lead the child to communion and have the family receive together. Do you see the visual teaching shift of this one change in the medium? A child is being led by “the primary catechists of the faith” into an adult church. Would that kind of formula gain wholesale acceptance? I wouldn’t hold my breath, because there is another visual that I couldn’t help but observe yesterday—a large number of adults in the congregation did not receive the Eucharist, for reasons I can only guess. Of course, over the years as a pastor I had to deal with “the nostalgia lobby” on all matters of First Communion, too. More fodder for another time.
It may be that with the Synod of the Family on the horizon, and what I am starting to hear about “family faith based formation,” there may be changes down the road. But I believe it was McLuhan who said “the role of the future is to make trouble.” So watch out.
On My Mind