07 June 2009

Suffering for Mystery

Most Holy Trinity: Deut 4.32-34, 39-40; Rom 8.14-17; Matt 28.16-20
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

The wooden box just sits there. Closed. Locked tight. Brass hinges tempt the curious with the possibility of discovery, the odd chance that the grained, varnished top might be coaxed into releasing the box’s treasure. A snooping heart wants to know. Must know! But the key hole is a door that will not open; the hinges, like clenched teeth, stubbornly grit against their created purpose. And as if to annoy and frustrate further, an aroma seeps through the only splinter in the box’s safety, pushing an inquisitive mind to the very edge of patience. Rose, cinnamon, a hint of lemon, a little musk and dust. And something unaccountable. Aged paper? Ancient ink? Olive oil and wax? The origin of the box is mentioned in family stories told at Easter and Christmas. It was a wedding gift from a stranger. Never opened because the bride died too soon. No, it was sent from the Middle East by a monk who wanted it kept safe during war time. The key was lost. No, it was purchased at a flea market in Peru from a shaman generations ago by a friend of the family who gave it to a servant in secret, hoping to one day retrieve it. That day never came. The box just sits there. Closed, locked, and decorating the room with its infuriating incense. It is a mystery. Wholly unknowable unless you are willing to force it open and risk destroying what’s inside.

Without the least bit of hesitation or shame, the Church proclaims the Holy Trinity a mystery. Incomprehensible, baffling, and curious. And even as she declares the ineffable nature of the Trinity, the Church exhausts every resource—philosophical, theological, and magisterial—to unlock the puzzle of the Divine Persons and to describe the mystery of the Godhead as Three-in-One. One God, three Persons. Three distinct Persons with one divine nature, one God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. What is knowable and known about the Holy Trinity is knowable and known as a gift, freely given to creation by God Himself. Whether we come to know what we know by reason or faith, we know it in virtue of God’s desire that it be known and to the degree that He wishes us to know it. Both reason and faith are gifts. Both lead to His truth. Both operate by His grace. And because we are limited creatures and receive His gifts imperfectly, both reason and faith are misshapen keys that cannot fit the lock that holds the fullness of His mystery tightly away from us. For us to know His mystery perfectly we must be perfected in the mystery; essentially, we must become the mystery in order to see Him face-to-face. This journey will require more than curiosity, more than intellectual prowess, and than pious determination. It requires us to suffer.

Paul writes to Christ’s Church in Rome, no doubt telling them what all Christians at the time already knew by long experience. He writes that if we will become the children of God, joint-heirs of His kingdom with Christ, “we [must] suffer with [Christ] so that we may also be glorified with him.” To look forward to glory with Christ in heaven, we must look no further than how we suffer with Christ right now. If we foolishly believe that heavenly glory comes without earthly suffering, we foolishly believe that we can go to the Father without Christ. We go to the Father with Christ by becoming Christ and to become Christ we must follow him along his suffering way. We bear a cross. We walk the way of sorrow. We are crucified in the flesh. And we cry out in despair even as we are given up for the love of our friends. If we want to know mystery, we must become mystery. Standing aside and away from Christ’s suffering, avoiding at any cost the troubles that come with dying and rising again with him, we return his gift unopened; and not only do we remain in ignorance of the mystery, we tempt an eternal life without his glory.

We may wonder why the promise of eternal life is to be believed. What is the worth of a promise given by an unseen god? Why should we come to understand our pain, our loss, and our mourning as necessary parts of God’s plan to make us His heirs? Moses challenges God’s people, saying: “Ask now of the days of old, […] 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?” Even as they suffered in the desert on the way to the Promised Land, God spoke in fire and smoke to His people, showing them the way to their salvation. Even as they suffered, God was with them. Even as they suffered, God chose them to be His people, a holy nation, a royal priesthood. As a nation, they were His prophets and kings and for this they suffered. He took them out of slavery and into the desert on a promise, on a covenant-oath never to abandon them, never to forsake them to final godlessness. In response to this gift, Moses acclaims, “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.” If this piece of the puzzle, this truth of the mystery is fixed in our hearts, a truth we now know, why do we shrink from suffering?

Look at the disciples. Jesus orders them to a high mountain in Galilee. Matthew reports in his gospel that “when they all saw [Christ], they worshiped, but they doubted.” What did they doubt? Did they doubt the veracity of his teachings? Did they doubt their own strength? Their piety, their determination, their intellectual prowess? No! They doubted the true nature of the one who stood before them, freely offering them the Kingdom of his Father. Knowing the reason for their doubtful hearts, Jesus says, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” With all the power of heaven and earth, Jesus fulfills the covenant as his Father promised He would. With all the power of heaven and earth, Jesus reveals the Father and His Son and promises the coming of the Holy Spirit. With the power of heaven and earth, Jesus sends his disciples out as apostles to baptize, to teach and preach, and to make disciples of the whole world. And these newly anointed apostles are to do all this in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, in the name of the Triune Mystery; and as they preach and teach and baptize, they become more and more fully sons of God. They doubt no longer.

When their Lord is arrested and convicted, scourged, crucified, and raised from the dead, the apostles witness their way to heaven: to glory through suffering, to the fullness of the mystery through earthly trial and persecution. And so they walked behind him with their crosses all the way to heaven. Each one taught, preached, made disciples, and spent his life doing what Christ did so to become like Christ for those who would follow after them. We are those who follow after. And whether we suffer in small ways or grand, in jail or exile, at home or far away, so long as we do all things for the greater glory of God, Christ says to us, “[…]behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” Therefore, our suffering can never be useless misery; it brings us nearer to the Triune Mystery we were made to adore, that we were made to become according to His will for us.

Word and images, concepts and logic, ancient wisdoms and new, none approach the unapproachable light that blinds the holiest human eye. The glory of God at once seduces and repels, draws in and pushes out. And whether you are reeled in or run away reeling hangs on the clearest of Christian truths, one key truth: have you suffered as Christ suffered—for the love of your friends in name of the One Who made you? This key fits any lock, opens every door, lifts any lid. This key, the Key of David, the only Son of God, opens the treasure house of the Father’s Kingdom and makes us heirs to the fortunes of heaven. The Good News of salvation is that there is no chain so tight, no cell so strong, no sin so binding that the key of the cross cannot free us. Yes, we must suffer to follow Christ, to join him in his glory. But this no burden. It is a blessing. “[We] did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but [we] received a Spirit of adoption, through whom we cry, "Abba, Father!’"


  1. Father..thank you for the great article. On this, the tenth anniversay of my son's death , at age 33, from a malignant brain tumor, it was of great comfort to me on this difficult day.

  2. Sylvia, you, your family, and especially your son are in my prayers. I am glad you found this homily consoling!

    BTW, the books you ordered for me arrived this morning. Mille grazie! A real Thank You note will go out with the mail in the morning.

    Fr. Philip

  3. Hi, Father.

    You asked for comments on this homily. Just speaking for myself, I kinda got lost during the first paragraph about the box. I think going on about the possibilities on where the box might come from or what was in it is distracting. Perhaps it might help to simply present the mysterious box with a number of keys, none of which seem to fit?

    I've never seen the concept of the Trinity tied with the concept of Suffering, so this certainly was a unique viewpoint. Sorry, but it didn't resonate with me. The concept of the Trinity as a mystery worked, but I guess I connect suffering more with Jesus than with God or the Holy Spirit.

    My two cents, FWIW.

  4. Thanks, Maria...I think the opening paragraph is too long and twisting myself. I got carried away...

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  6. The Box, keys and suffering. So you are saying that in order for us to open the box, the key must be suffering? Or is it that in order for us to enter the awesome mystery of the Trinity, we must fully imitate Christ in all aspects?
    I am a 4th year candidate in a Permanent Diaconate program for our Diocese and we are in our summer semester of homiletics. I try to read and listen to all the homilies I can to get insights on delivery and preparation, as well as doctrine and dogma. We had to do one on the Blessed Trinity for our last class and I can say it is not an easy homily to prepare. My mind went from complex to simple until I decided to focus on love. I had no problem equating the love encircling the Trinity as the love we have within our families and connecting that love within the three persons of the Trinity. But the suffering aspect is intriguing, I must say. I really wish I had an audio file of your delivery of this homily as the inflections and tone would probably make this concept more 'accessible' to me.
    Sorry if I rambled, but I hope this helps.

  7. My suggestion is to ask, 'What key opens this box?' in the first paragraph to tie the opening and closing together. The first paragraph seems to be more about the box itself and the final paragraph about the key.

    The 'meat' of this homily is fantastic in regards to suffering. I've been wrestling with the 'why do bad things happen to good people' question lately and gained a lot of comfort from your words.