With the return of Ordinary Time, it can feel like the Church is returning to business as usual. But as many catechists will repeat around the world, “There’s nothing ordinary about ordinary time.” It’s really a period of Mission in which the Church takes what she has received from the Advent-to-Pentecost season and brings it into the world. Consequently, it’s appropriate to meditate on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, given at Pentecost, that launch us – as it were – into this long stretch of Ordinary Time.
On Friday I received word that I’ll be moving to a new parish in July.
Whenever a priest moves there are mixed emotions on all fronts. People at both parishes are usually sad to see their local priest move. Despite the many protestations of pop culture, I’m fairly convinced that most human hearts don’t jump at the prospect of change; not this kind of change anyway.
At the exact same time, one feels excitement. The excitement of new challenges, new possibilities… even something as mundane and the opportunity to rearrange all your pictures in new quarters. Like I said: it’s a mix. And that’s before the priest even considers himself. While priests are called on to think of themselves last, we do still have to think of ourselves. In my case, moving is always a challenge because in my heart of hearts I yearn for stability. Perhaps it’s God’s sense of humor that in ten years of priesthood I’ve lived in five places… six if you count the time I did emergency fill-in work for two months at a parish… living out of a suit case.
What’s a parish, and what are priest, to do? How do all of us process these changes that must come at some point? Below is my homily for Trinity Sunday. I hope you find it edifying, a helpful spiritual proposal for how to process such moments in the light of our Catholic beliefs about the Holy Trinity.
Please be sure to pray for my current parishioners at St. Francis Xavier whom I am sad to leave, and the people of my new parish, St. Mary Mother of God in Gallery Place who I am so very excited to meet… and if you think of it, offer up a prayer for me too.
Yearning is a big part of our religious existence… ultimately yearning for God, but by extension yearning for all the good things of this world. I’ve written before about the positive power of yearning, about the eros-dimension of our love for God. Yearning is front and center in the life of the Church as we “groan in expectation” (Rm 8:19) of what God promises, and never more so than on Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. At Christmas we await his coming in the fullness of time. At Easter, even though we know how the story ends, who can help but watch, wait and wonder with the Apostles on Holy Saturday, “What happens next?” And at Pentecost we cry out, Veni creator Spiritus. And Veni sancte Spiritus! Come Creator Spirit! Come Holy Spirit!
The yearning of Pentecost is associated with it a particularly venerable musical tradition, enshrined in two hymns Veni Sancte Spiritus and Veni Creator Spiritus. Their music comes from the middle ages (9th and 11th centuries), but their texts and their sentiment call forth memories of a more distant antiquity.
As the Apostles prayed following the Ascension, we know that they awaited the coming of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit promised by Christ. Huddled in the Upper Room they would’ve chanted the psalms together, as the Jews still do today at the Western Wall and in their synagogues, a musical expression of the heart’s deepest yearning.
We know that immediately following Pentecost the Church’s musical tradition began. There are, in fact, many texts within the Gospels and writings of the Apostles that were most likely musical lyrics before they were ever enshrined as Scripture. Indeed, in an oral tradition, music makes it much easier to remember and hand on information across generations. The Magnificat is a great example of this, as is the Canticle of Zechariah.
Both Christian and pagan imperial records tell us that during the Roman persecutions, Christians were famed for singing under torture, and in the arenas as they prepared for death in the mouths of beasts, or on the cross after the fashion of our Lord. This music was particularly powerful: It witnessed to tens of thousands of onlookers the power of the Holy Spirit whose gifts of hope and fortitude filled the dying Christians. That witness turned the dynamic of the arenas on its head so that the very events meant to crush the Church spread her message of hope to vast crowds. By their musical witness, the blood of the martyrs became the seed of the Church.
Through the dark ages, the droning chant of the monks preserved civilization like a low flame supported by the power of the Spirit flowing from their altars… I could go on and on… but I should fast forward through time and space to America and a dark chapter in our own history. What was it that sustained enslaved peoples here in the US if not their nascent Christian faith expressed through… spirituals… This beautiful genre of music witnessed hope not only to successive generations of enslaved individuals, but also to those who would become their greatest advocates, the abolitionists. Their work and prayer finally sent the Grand Army of the Republic marching to the Battle Hymn of the Republic to end slavery and preserve the union.
One of the great things about Pentecost is that its gifts go on unchanged. The gift of the Incarnation at Christmas ultimately ascends to the Father out of human sight. The gift of the Resurrection happened once. But the descent of the Holy Spirit continues unchanged to this day, if only you and I can see it with eyes of faith. And the music of the Spirit is our great helper in that effort.
Recommended Listening: Gustav Mahler’s 8th Symphony – based on the Veni Creator Spiritus
We’re in a season of really beauty… it’s not just the Washington is ablaze with roses, irises, and peonies. It’s not just the broad smiles and easy laughter of college grads moving on to great things… It’s also a holy season. We’ve just concluded the great cycle that began way back at the beginning of December with the first Sunday of Advent. That flowed into Christmas, Epiphanytide, the preparation for Lent, Easter, and now finally, Ascension and Pentecost. And these last two really do shine to match the natural beauty of the world around us.
I propose three ways in which the Ascension may be called beautiful: superficially, philosophically and theologically…
At Ascension Jesus rises Body and Soul into the glory of heaven, finally returning to the Father… and bringing with him something new, our humanity. On the face of it, we may well say, “Wow, bright light, clouds, angels, how beautiful!” And we’d be right. But there’s more!
Ascension participates in the classical philosophical definition of things objectively beautiful. It is marked by three classical categories: Integrity, Consonance, and Clarity. Integrity – Ascension is the fulfillment of all Jesus prepared us for. He had to leave to complete his mission. He alludes to this in the Last Supper discourses in John (ch. 14 and 15), and said as much overtly to Mary Magdalene: Jesus said to her, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (Jn 20:17). Consonance – Jesus Ascension works not only within itself, but also in conjunction with all that came before and after it. The Ascension fulfills Prophecy and corresponds with everything the the Apostolic age that followed. It is a harmonious or consonant part of salvation history. Finally, the Ascension is marked by clarity… by which we mean it is radiant, warming us and calling us to change are selves for its sake. You see, the Ascension of Jesus finally means that the Church is his remaining Mystical Body on earth. The Church is now called on to live his ministry: Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father. (Jn 14:12)
The Ascension’s beauty is also seen in what it accomplishes as part of theology. The event marks a very real beginning to what theologians call “recapitulation,” that process by which Jesus presents redeemed Creation to the Father… and the first thing to be presented is our humanity, restored by his divine presence. It’s the beginning of him presenting the Church, Christ’s bride, to the Father as St. Paul suggests in Ephesians (5:27): that [the Lord] might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. A fallen world restored and presented to its Creator as worthy once more of heaven… Beautiful.
Up next… a few thoughts on the beauty of Pentecost and the divine music it initiates.
What’s baptism all about? What are the practical day-to-day life reasons we should care? Find out…
From the III Sunday of Easter:
This Divine Mercy Sunday, we start a journey through the sacraments that flow from Easter. Today’s homily is an overview of how all the sacraments are connected. Over the next several weeks we’ll cover each one in rich detail.
Each year, one of the most striking moments of the Easter Vigil is the presentation of the Paschal Candle and the Exultet the Easter Proclamation. It speaks to us not only of the candle itself, but also about us, about who we are. Lifting the light up onto the paschal candlestick, its light is multiplied, divided yet undimmed, among us, each of our lights representing our baptism, our new identity given to us in Christ the very first time we received the light so long ago. During the Easter season, admiring that light, that pillar of fire, what can it tell us about ourselves and who we are called to be?
To begin with, as the proclamation reminds, the candle is “the work of bees”… many bees. Thousands of little instruments of earthly nature came together to make the wax of this candle. Likewise, we are – each of us – the product of a multi-generational effort. All that came before us worked together to make us who we are. We should give thanks and pray daily for those who went before us, not only in our family lines, but in the lineage of the Church. We are the inheritors of their efforts.
But the our identity doesn’t stop with the natural. If that were the case, life would be meaningless, colored and condemned by the inevitability of death. All those generations that came before us knew this… and so, well aware of our mortality, we were – like the Easter candle – raised up to the glory of God, “hallowed to the honor of His name.” Scored with the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, the candle shows an awareness of our beginnings, but also of the divine end in store for those who live out their baptismal identity. Never lose track of that orientation, lest you should fall back into mortality and its consequences.
The candle, made by nature, lifted to the glory of God is by its nature made to be shared. It’s light spreads, not only on its own within the limits of the church building. In us, that light spreads into the whole world. It’s sanctifying power is meant to, “dispel wickedness, wash faults away, restore innocence to the fallen and joy to mourners.” If we keep all that locked up in a building, or even with the polite confines of our immediate family, we deny the candle’s identity and our own. Be joyful and share that light in whatever way you can each day.
So often we come up with excuses to put off our sharing of the light. Like the Italians we say, “domani, domani, e dopo domani.” “Tomorrow, tomorrow and after tomorrow.” Have we forgotten the very first words of Lent, “Now is a very acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation.” (II Cor. 6:2) The candle is marked by the year, “2-0-1-8.” It was built and consecrated for this time, no other; likewise each of us. “I am too young and inexperienced.” The Lord says otherwise (Jer. 1:7). “I don’t know what to say.” Neither did Moses (Ex. 6:30), and God made him leader of his people. I am too old, too infirmed. God doesn’t accept sacrifice only from the young and the able… He asks us each to give our all whatever that may be! Be an evangelist, share the light now, like the candle, in 2018!
Finally, as Holy Week reminded us so well, the candle, like our lives, is marked by the cross. It suffers as the cross is carved into its base… but it is not defeated by that mark. Indeed, the contrast of the cross’ wounds and the prevailing light gives the light so much more credibility. Like Jesus with the Apostles in the Upper Room, show the world your wounds. It’s not a matter of taking pride in our battle scars, but rather of reminding our brothers and sisters that vulnerability is not the end of us… that the limits of our flesh are not the limits of our being. Its worthy to note that the nails we insert into the candle contain a grain of incense in each of them… a reminder that each wound is a completely offered gift to God. Through that gift the wound is transformed.
This Easter season pay special attention each time you see the Paschal Candle burning in church. It’s an eloquent reminder and inspiration for us to be who we are meant to be, a people of the Light. -Amen