NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: DEUTERONOMY 4: 32-34; 39-40
THE SOLEMNITY OF THE MOST HOLY TRINITY [B]
USCCB link to all three readings.
Moses said to the people:
"Ask now of the days of old, before your time,
ever since God created man upon the earth;
ask from one end of the sky to the other:
Did anything so great ever happen before?
Was it ever heard of?
Did a people ever hear the voice of God
speaking from the midst of fire, as you did, and live?
Or did any god venture to go and take a nation for himself
from the midst of another nation,
by testings, by signs and wonders, by war,
with strong hand and outstretched arm, and by great terrors,
all of which the LORD, your God,
did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?
This is why you must now know,
and fix in your heart, that the LORD is God
in the heavens above and on earth below,
and that there is no other.
You must keep his statutes and commandments that I enjoin on you today,
that you and your children after you may prosper,
and that you may have long life on the land
which the LORD, your God, is giving you forever."
Although the Easter Season ended formally at the end of Vespers II or evening prayer last Sunday, May 20, and Ordinary Time [in its seventh week] resumed where it left off on Mardi Gras Tuesday, there is still no shortage of feasts to observe over the next three weeks. In addition to Trinity Sunday this weekend, the Feast of Corpus Christi is observed on Sunday, June 3. The Feast of the Sacred Heart is Friday, June 8, and in 2018 the Feast of St. John the Baptist falls on Sunday, June 24. It is too bad, I suppose, that we can’t spread out the wealth into the dog days of summer to spice up Ordinary Time, but behind each feast is a long and complicated history.
Trinity Sunday deserves considerable attention, because at its face the observance looks like a Feast of God. Presumably this is what every Mass observes, Sundays and weekdays, and as early as 1000 A.D. there was opposition to introducing this feast for universal observance. The first local observances began in Spain and Gaul (modern France) in the 600’s and the 700’s A.D. These regions worried about the ongoing heresy of Arianism, which denied the unity of three divine persons by asserting that God the Father had created Jesus, and thus Jesus could never be equal to God. The thought behind Arianism is still alive today in Unitarian churches, among others; Islamic theology holds a doctrine of one God and does not recognize Mohammed as a divine being.
The French and Spanish clergy preached devotion to God as a Trinity through the end of the Dark Ages, though the doctrine had been defined in the Christological Councils of the fourth and fifth centuries (Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon). By 1000 A.D. a feast devoted to the Trinity was established in the far western reaches of the Church celebrated on the Sunday after Pentecost. Pope Alexander (d. 1077) probably spoke for much of the Church, however, when he discouraged such a feast, observing that if the Church instituted a feast of the Trinity, it would have to observe a corresponding feast of the Blessed Unity as well. Adolf Adam, The Liturgical Year (1981), p. 167. Pope John XXII would eventually establish this feast universally in 1334.
Adams admits that the pastoral understanding of this feast has shifted over the second millennium, and not necessarily for the better. At the time of the institution of the feast on the first Sunday after the Easter Season, Trinity Sunday was a time to look back on the glorious work of all three persons of the Trinity in the glorious work of our Redemption. It was a day to reflect upon the Father giving us his Son, the Son offering his life for us, the Father raising the Son from death, and the Son breathing the Holy Spirit upon the disciples on Easter Sunday night. In other words, salvation was and is understood as a Trinitarian event. In fact, until 1970 Trinity Sunday was considered the final Sunday of Easter.
I should interject here that since medieval times there is a Church Canon requiring all Catholics to receive Holy Communion and make a good confession at least once a year, and this was elaborated to completing these deeds during the Easter Season, i.e., from the First Sunday of Lent to Trinity Sunday. This is what I was taught in 1956, and as a first communicant it was hard for me to picture a guy rushing up to communion at the last Mass of Trinity Sunday. The new code of Canon Law, the 1983 revision, states in Canon 920 that all the faithful are bound to receive the Eucharist annually, optimally during the Easter Season. However, this law is universally regarded as a minimalist bar of sacramental separation. The new code makes no mention of Trinity Sunday.
In medieval times and even down through today the concept of a unified working Trinity was deemphasized in favor of assigning functions to the members of the Trinity. God the Father is creator, God the Son is Redeemer, God the Holy Spirit is Sanctified. There may be a pedagogical advantage to teaching the Trinity in this fashion, but it is not good Biblical theology. As my pastor observed in his sermon last Sunday, the [Holy] Spirit brought order out of chaos in Chapter 1 of Genesis, the first Creation account.
The Lectionary readings for the three-year cycle of the feast of the Trinity oscillate between the glory of the One God and the multiple glories of his manifestations. Our first reading on Sunday is from Deuteronomy; although it is just the fifth book of the Old Testament, it was written much later, perhaps 600 B.C., at a time in history when Israel was actively engaging with cultures and religions of multiple gods. The sacred writer pens a farewell address from Moses shortly before his death with emphasizes the unity of God, to distinguish the One all-powerful God from the panoply of domesticated gods of Israel’s neighbors. There is little hint here on a trinitarian theme, nor should we expect to find one at this stage of God’s Revelation.
The Gospel from Matthew 28 is the first explicit mention of the idea of Trinity. In the closing of this Gospel, often called “The Great Commissioning,” Jesus dispatches his disciples to the corners of the earth to preach and to baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Put another way, a candidate for baptism is saved by the intervention of all three persons of the Trinity, which is as it should be.
NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: ACTS 2: 1-11
PENTECOST SUNDAY [B]
USCCB link to all three readings
[Note: there are three different sets of readings for Pentecost: the Vigil, the extended Vigil, and the Sunday Mass. I am using the Sunday readings, as many parishes in my experience use the Sunday readings across the board.]
When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled,
they were all in one place together.
And suddenly there came from the sky
a noise like a strong driving wind,
and it filled the entire house in which they were.
Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire,
which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit
and began to speak in different tongues,
as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem.
At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd,
but they were confused
because each one heard them speaking in his own language.
They were astounded, and in amazement they asked,
"Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans?
Then how does each of us hear them in his native language?
We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites,
inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia,
Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia,
Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene,
as well as travelers from Rome,
both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs,
yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues
of the mighty acts of God."
The New Testament authors Matthew, Luke, and John describe the outpouring of God’s Spirit in several settings after the Resurrection. Luke’s account in Chapter 2 of the Acts of the Apostles is clearly the most dramatic, capturing the imagination of catechists and artists alike. It is not surprising, then, that this account enjoys a place of honor on the feast which concludes the Easter celebration of our redemption. Luke sets this drama on the existing Jewish feast of Pentecost or Shavuot, originally a harvest thanksgiving but later an observance of God’s gift of the Law. Shavuot/Pentecost was one of three “pilgrim feasts” in the Jewish calendar which explains why so many people from distant lands and languages were present when the Apostles began to preach.
Sunday’s text is the introduction to Chapter 2, a chapter which includes Peter’s remarkable sermon and the baptism of the 3000. It is worth reading Acts 2 in its entirety to understand Sunday’s text in its context. The heart of the chapter is Peter’s summary of God’s plan with its fruition in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of God’s saving Spirit upon the face of the earth. If the feast of Shavuot honors the written revelation of God, Peter’s sermon serves up the new revelation embodied in Christ and enfolds Jewish notions of history into the wisdom of the new Kingdom of God.
Our text above begins with the dramatic transformation of the Apostles. It is not clear from the text if anyone except the Apostles visually witnessed anything; the fire appeared “to them” and the wind “filled the entire house where they were.” The odds are that only the Apostles experienced this manifestation and the crowds in the Jerusalem streets were oblivious to it. It was not until the Apostles went into the streets preaching that confusion and amazement moved the crowds; the initial shock was the realization that a polyglot assembly could understand the single language of Galileans.
Luke goes on to elaborate the diversity of this crowd. Over the years I have tended to glaze over this lengthy catalogue of nations and regions as it is read in church each year, but as I examine it now I have much greater respect for Luke’s genius. For one thing, this collage of nations is enormous, from at least three continents. Africa is represented by listeners from Egypt and Libya. Arabia is situated in southwest Asia, and the central power of imperial Rome sat as the crossroads of nearly all civilized lands in what we refer to as Europe. There is mention of Jews and converts to Judaism. In Acts 2:14 Peter will widen the reference beyond Judaism: ““You who are Jews, indeed all of you staying in Jerusalem. Let this be known to you and listen to my words.” The invitation to grace has gone far beyond residents of Jerusalem and Judaea, and even more remarkably, past the established boundaries of Jewish faith.
Acts 2 has raised questions for scholars about its historicity. In my seminary days my professors shared the [not-unanimous] conclusion that while the Book of Acts was written after the Gospel in Luke, putting its composition in the mid-80’s A.D., it utilized earlier material, particularly the earliest evangelizing sermons of the Apostles and very early Church leaders. However, there were also those who believed that Luke was crafting a faith history driven by the needs of the Church of his time, a Church agonizing over its split from Judaism. Was Luke attempting to explain that Christianity’s mission was somehow destined toward a universal mission? If the projected date of composition is correct, the Church had already established itself in Rome for nearly 25 years when Luke penned the Acts.
There is another Biblical point to make regarding Sunday’s reading. In the pre-history narrative of Genesis 11, the world is reported to have spoken the same language, and one group of nomads decided to build a city with a tower to reach the heavens. God thwarted their impudence by casting multiple languages upon them, and the Tower of Babel narrative came to be seen as God’s wrath for the world’s hubris. It is interesting, then, that when the Holy Spirit is poured out upon the world at Pentecost, the citizenry of the entire known world can understand Peter’s preaching in a single language. The scattering of the peoples at Babel is reconciled by the unifying impact of preaching in the Holy Spirit.
The Easter Season of fifty days ends on Pentecost with Vespers or Evening Prayer on Sunday. The following Monday, May 21, marks our return to the green of Ordinary Time, the seventh week, though the new feast of Mary, Mother of the Church, will be observed on Monday next week. The Sundays of May 27 is the observance of the Feast of the Trinity, and Sunday, June 3, is the Feast of Corpus Christi.
NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: Acts 1: 1-11
THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD [B]
USCCB link to all three readings
In the first book, Theophilus,
I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught
until the day he was taken up,
after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit
to the apostles whom he had chosen.
He presented himself alive to them
by many proofs after he had suffered,
appearing to them during forty days
and speaking about the kingdom of God.
While meeting with them,
he enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem,
but to wait for "the promise of the Father
about which you have heard me speak;
for John baptized with water,
but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit."
When they had gathered together they asked him,
"Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?"
He answered them, "It is not for you to know the times or seasons
that the Father has established by his own authority.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,
throughout Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth."
When he had said this, as they were looking on,
he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.
While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going,
suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them.
They said, "Men of Galilee,
why are you standing there looking at the sky?
This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven
will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven."
The Ascension of the Lord was originally celebrated with Pentecost. The early Church understood the unity of Christ’s last supper, death, resurrection, ascension, and gift of the Spirit as a unique and united event in history. The liturgies of the season we call Easter drew from these four five acts of the salvation drama. The Gospels, particularly John, emphasize this unity in a number of ways. John describes a Pentecost event at the moment of Christ’s death on Good Friday, when he “handed over his spirit” to those at the foot of the cross, namely his mother and disciple, i.e. his church.
While the Eastern Church maintained a consciousness of this unity, the Roman West divided the Easter Season into a series of stand-alone events, most notably the feasts of Ascension and Pentecost. This may be due to Sunday’s first reading from the opening of the Book of Acts, where Luke writes of Jesus “appearing to [the disciples] during forty days.” The term “40” in both the Old and New Testaments is shorthand for “a period of time.” There is no way to know how long Jesus remained with the disciples or when he ascended into heaven. Luke and John themselves differ on the time. Luke places the Ascension at forty days after the Resurrection, but John, on Easter Sunday morning, tells Mary Magdalene not to cling to him, “for I have not yet ascended to my Father.” He commands her to tell the disciples that he is going to his Father. That very night, however, Jesus appears to the disciples and allows them to venerate his wounds. Regardless of the details, the Feast of the Ascension is sacred as the time when Jesus returns to his Father in glory after rendering his act of perfect obedience upon the cross. The preaching of this event in apostolic times as well as today establishes the Father’s words to the crowd at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my beloved son; listen to him.” Those who professed faith in the Resurrection were comforted and exhilarated at the thought that their unity in Christ in baptism meant that they, too, would take their place in the heavens.
Sunday’s reading is the opening of Acts and makes clear that St. Luke envisioned his Gospel and the Acts of Apostles as a “boxed set,” so to speak. Luke describes the post-Resurrection days as a time of intense instruction through the Holy Spirit during which Jesus elaborated on the Kingdom of God. Luke speaks of multiple appearances by Jesus and “many proofs” that he was alive after his suffering. All the Gospels allude to hesitation and difficulties by the disciples in believing that Jesus had risen from the dead. St. Mark, in the original Greek, states that Jesus “excoriated” his followers for their lack of faith in 16:14.
The synoptic Gospels [Matthew, Mark, Luke] and the Acts of the Apostles agree that at some distinct time Jesus “left” them in a fashion that reflects divine glory. In Sunday’s reading Luke describes Jesus ascending upward until a cloud took him from their sight. The term “cloud” has divine overtones in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. In Exodus 19 God tells Moses that “I am coming to you in a dense cloud, so that when the people hear me speaking with you, they may always have faith in you also.” Before his death Jesus would take Peter, James, and John to a mountaintop where they were enveloped in a cloud, from which the voice of God came forth: “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”
The Ascension, then, serves as the final seal of God’s love and total acceptance of the mission of his Son, and Jesus’ return to the glory that was his from the beginning. The commentary of the two men dressed in white garments reminds the disciples that they are not simply witnesses to the divine glory, but  participants in the glory of a Christ present but yet to return at the end of time, and  designated prophets to announce this good news to the end of the earth.
NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48
SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER [B]
USCCB link to all three readings.
When Peter entered, Cornelius met him
and, falling at his feet, paid him homage.
Peter, however, raised him up, saying,
"Get up. I myself am also a human being."
Then Peter proceeded to speak and said,
"In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.
Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly
is acceptable to him."
While Peter was still speaking these things,
the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word.
The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter
were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit
should have been poured out on the Gentiles also,
for they could hear them speaking in tongues and glorifying God.
Then Peter responded,
"Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people,
who have received the Holy Spirit even as we have?"
He ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
Chapter 10 of the Acts of the Apostles is most profitably read in its entirety. As it is presented here in Sunday’s Mass, we have no context for the intentions of Peter or Cornelius. Without the full narrative, the Sunday passage above is badly disjointed and somewhat stripped of its impact. To set the stage liturgically, I would simply recall that last weekend’s first reading described the vision of the risen Christ to Saul, who undergoes a conversion to the following of Jesus and gradually embraces a preaching ministry in Jerusalem to both mainstream Jews and the “Hellenists,” those Jews whose world view was shaped by Gentile philosophy. Saul had a rough time of it; it was not enough that he was preaching “heresy” to traditional Jews but he was also addressing the call to a population with secular and Gentile sympathies. Neither audience accepted his word, and the Hellenists tried to kill him. This was new territory for the infant Church as well, and Saul’s persona and mission remained somewhat suspect.
After the conversion and early preaching of Saul, the Acts turns the narrative back to the Jerusalem mother church and the awakening of Peter to the simultaneous idea of a Gentile mission. Acts 10 describes two distinct divine appearances which occur in tandem. The first is a revelation to a Roman centurion named Cornelius. Acts 10 describes him as a God-fearing man who extended financial generosity to the Jewish community and may have prayed with them. In a vision he is told to make connection with a Simon Peter presently in Joppa.
Peter’s vision is a vivid literary metaphor. Acts reports that Peter, hungry, fell asleep before dinner. In his vision-dream, a large canvas drops to the ground before him upon which stood all the “four-legged” creatures and birds of the earth. God then commanded Peter to “slaughter and eat.” Peter, ever the observant Jew despite his Christian conversion, withstands God, rather indignantly, informing his Lord that “never have I eaten anything profane and unclean.” God rebukes Peter for referring to any of his creatures as unclean. [I thought of this sequence last summer in Holland when my Dutch hosts introduced me to raw herring.]
Acts 10:16 records that Peter and God had three successive exchanges on the propriety of designating certain foods as “unclean,” a staple of Jewish observance and the basis of the term “kosher.” It is important to note that God in this context is not condemning Jewish observance; rather, He is advocating the universality of Jesus’ kingdom; as the breath of God rendered all creatures holy in creation, so too God rendered all people worthy of admission to the saving grace of Christian baptism and Eucharist.
Peter is deeply troubled by the exchange and its implications. While he is contemplating this new revelation, the servants of Cornelius find him and ask Peter to return with them to Caesarea to meet the Roman. Cornelius had evidently invited his Gentile household and friends for a dramatic meeting in his home, and Peter arrives with his Jewish/Christian brethren. It is at this juncture that Sunday’s reading begins with Cornelius falling to his feet to venerate Peter. Here Peter begins a sermon that many scholars believe to be a template to the first Gentile audiences of the Christian mission. The sermon is not recorded in the Sunday text, however.
The third paragraph of Sunday’s reading indicates that as Peter was preaching, a Pentecost event broke out and the household of Cornelius, filled with the same Spirit as the Apostles had received, began speaking in tongues and glorifying God. If this drama surprised Peter, it “astounded” Peter’s Christian companions that the Holy Spirit might pour out his gifts upon Gentiles. Peter’s response to them—and ultimately to the reader—is that saving baptism can be denied to no one, and Sunday’s reading concludes with the first recorded baptism of Gentiles. The issue of Christian identity as separate from Jewish membership was far from settled, however, and in several future chapters of Acts, as well as in the writings of Saul/Paul himself, the Church would wrestle with variations on this theme, such as the need for circumcision as a prerequisite.
Acts 10 describes several key factors in the development of the Church, none greater than the influence of the Holy Spirit in assisting the Church to form its identity. Although the Church does have one feast entitled “Pentecost” [two weeks away] there are numerous Pentecostal events where God opens the eyes of the disciples to the fullness of the divine plan. We saw this on Good Friday in St. John’s Passion narrative, where Jesus gives the Spirit with his dying breath; when the soldier lances his corpse, the outpouring of blood and water symbolizes the lifegiving force of Baptism and Eucharist. On Easter Sunday, the risen Jesus breathes the Spirit upon the Apostles and empowers them to forgive sin.
When we talk about the Easter Season and its liturgical observance, we are talking about the Holy Spirit as the ongoing power of Jesus during his post-resurrection sojourn on earth and particularly after the Ascension. Repeatedly the Spirit will lead the Church into new and difficult phases of self-understanding and missionary outreach. What is often forgotten is the Spirit’s continuing power within the Church to develop its identity and self-understanding until the Lord comes again in glory. This is the ultimate purpose of the Acts of the Apostles—as template to empower the Church in its life today.