Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Mystery of Creation vs. the Mastery of Creation

This article originally appeared in Connect! magazine

Every Trinity Sunday I think back to my childhood parish and to our pastor endeavoring to explain in his broken English the mystery of the one God in three Persons. After defining the doctrine of the Trinity, he would use every classic example such as the shamrock, the triangle and the three-legged stool to try to clarify it for us. However, inevitably, he would throw his hands up in defeat proclaiming, "It's a mystery", then step down from the ambo and launch into the Nicene Creed. As he made his way back to his chair, he may have thought that he failed in helping us to appreciate the dogma we were celebrating. However, I do still remember those homilies all these years later. Most importantly, I learned that God is mystery, and that mystery is important.

We live in a culture which is sorely lacking any sense of mystery. Science has taught us that everything can be boiled down to its physical elements. We believe that any phenomenon we cannot now understand either must have a reasonable, scientific explanation or must be a projection of our imaginations. Because of this lack of a sense of mystery, we come to worship often looking to "get something out of it" rather than to stand in awe of God's presence among his people. Our public debates about the dignity of the human person always revolve around issues of choice, convenience and cost rather than around the unrepeatable and irreducible value of woman and man made in God's image and likeness. We cannot even enjoy a magic show without trying to figure out how the magician is pulling off the illusion. Therefore, we reserve the term, "mystery", for unsolved crimes and curiosities such as Bigfoot and the chupacabras, while any appreciation for the transcendent and the sublime is bled from our vocabulary.

On the other hand, as baptized believers in Christ, our lives are charged with mystery. We recognize it in the wonders of creation. The blue sky arching over us streaked with clouds points to the power and grandeur of the God who made heaven and earth. Browsing through a farmer's market or driving past a cornfield our spirit rejoices in God's bounty and providence. When we see the diversity of peoples, their cultures and languages, we cannot help but ponder the rich creativity of the one God who sustains us in being. The universe is God's handiwork springing forth from his bosom leading us to wonder, to contemplation and to praise. As the first reading from the book of Proverbs tells us, it was all created after the pattern of the Father's wisdom which has also been understood to be the Spirit, the breath of life, and the Son, the Logos, Jesus Christ. The beauty of the world and its wonders do not beg from us an explanation, but a response of awe and praise. It calls us to recognize that the Father's creating work did not end on the sixth day, but that along with the Son and the Spirit, he continues to sustain the world in being and to bring forth ever new wonders from his creating hands.

If we stand in wonder of God's creation, how much more do we recognize the mystery of his saving work! The second reading from Paul's letter to the Romans is a celebration of the Father's redeeming work through Christ which is brought to life for us through the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. We are not only wonderfully made but generously set free from the rebellion which separates us from our Creator and which introduced death and despair into the world. Not only has the Father desired to give us life and being, he has deigned to draw us into his own life and being, to make us his sons and daughters together with Christ, and to awaken our hearts in love through the Holy Spirit, his breath of life bringing us to new life. Again, it is not something that begs to be understood and explained, but pondered and proclaimed.

The verses of the second reading come at a pivotal time in Paul's letter to the Romans. He spends the first chapters describing what the world is like without Christ. It is a world marked by decadence, headed toward death and so consumed by despair. In the section we read today, Paul explains how different life is when it is redeemed by Christ and marked by the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. It is a life of peace with God, full of confidence and animated by a lively hope. The parallel with our contemporary western culture could not be clearer. It has jettisoned a sense of the mystery of creation to attain a mastery over it. In the meanwhile, despite the technology we have developed and the knowledge we have amassed, the question is never far from our minds: "Is this all there is?" We know in our hearts that we are made for something more than databases, test tubes and spreadsheets. That "something more" is the mystery of the Father, revealed in the Son and made present in the Holy Spirit who gives us peace, confidence and hope. If there is nothing else we as believers can bring to the world, it is a sense of the mystery of the one God in three persons who created the world in all its wonders and who calls us to share the divine life.

The being of God is an unfathomable mystery of three persons pouring themselves out in love for one another throughout all of eternity. Our western mindset makes us want to understand, explain and maybe even defend this dogma of faith. Can we hold off that tendency in favor of pondering it and rejoicing in it? Can we make this solemnity an opportunity to grow in awe of the God who saves and to develop our sense of mystery? Through our worship, can we bring that sense of mystery into a world chilled and calloused by life's cold, hard facts? Most importantly, can we bring that mystery to life by pouring ourselves out for one another in love after the example of our Triune God?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Life in the Spirit

Sitting around a bonfire this weekend, we talked about how encounters with people of other faiths help us to grow in our own faith. One of the group told the story of a family member who is Evangelical asking her why her son needed to be confirmed. She replied, "So that he can receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit." When he asked her, "What are the gifts of the Spirit?", she replied, "I don't know, but I'll find out." In near shock, he replied, "You mean, you are putting him through all this, and you don't even know what you are receiving?!"

As she told the story, I had to admit that I couldn't name the gifts of the Spirit myself.

This conversation was an answer to something I had been reflecting on in prayer during the days leading up to Pentecost. "What does it mean to live in the Spirit?" The answer (for now) - living in the Spirit means receiving and using the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.

We first hear about these gifts through the prophet Isaiah in his description of the Messiah:

The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
A spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD,
and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD. (Is. 11: 2-3A)

These gifts which we receive at Confirmation and which the Spirit is happy to renew in us daily enlighten our minds so that we can see God's will clearly, strengthen us to do his will and console us through the difficulties we will inevitably face. They are ours for the asking. In fact, they are our birthright as adopted daughters and sons of God. We should reflect on them during our prayer and make use of them throughout the day.

But, God has even more for us.

If we live by the Spirit putting to use these seven gifts, then our souls will bear the fruits of the Spirit. These fruits are the effects of the Spirit's presence and action in our lives. Saint Paul lists them for us in his letter to the Galatians: "[T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Gal. 5: 22-23). Which of us would not want all of these fruits of the Spirit to mark our lives?

Let's make it a point of learning what these gifts and fruits of the Spirit are so that we won't be caught off guard when someone asks us what it means to be confirmed or to live in the Spirit. These days following Pentecost are a good time for us to reflect on the gifts we have received, and most importantly, to put them into practice so that we can bear abundant fruit to the glory of God!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Saint Joseph the Worker

Yesterday we celebrated the feast of Saint Joseph the Worker.

I recently heard a moving explanation of Joseph's reaction to learning that his betrothed, Mary, was pregnant.

Matthew's gospel tells us that, rather than expose Mary to public disgrace, Joseph planned to divorce her quietly.

But what would have been the consequences of such an action?

Because he did not accuse her of adultery, the people would have assumed that he was the child's father but was abandoning Mary. The shame which would have fallen on her - including the possibility of being stoned to death - would have been cast on him. Though he felt betrayed, he would have taken upon himself the reproach for what he perceived to be her sin.

Bearing the burden of another's shame.....where have we heard that before?