01 June 2015

Suffer to see the Holy Trinity

NB. This homily is from 2012. I preached it last night at OLR in a different version but forgot to bring my recorder.  

Most Holy Trinity
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

The Most Holy Trinity is a Mystery. . .Catholics of a certain age will recall hearing the term “mystery” used to describe many of our essential beliefs. If you pray the rosary, you will hear the word “mystery” used to describe the events of Jesus' life—sorrowful, joyous, glorious, and luminous. What does the word “mystery” mean? Mystery conveys the idea that what is usually hidden from us has been revealed; that which is usually unreachable by us is put within our grasp; and that which is usually unknowable to us is made knowable. There are two essential elements in the Christian idea of mystery: 1). the truth of the mystery is always revealed to us, never found by us; and 2). the fullest understanding of the mystery comes only when we stand before the Lord face-to-face. Of all the mysteries that define our relationship with God, the Holy Trinity serves as the central mystery. By what means do we unlock this mystery? How do we participate in the life of the Holy Trinity? 

Without hesitation, the Church proclaims the Holy Trinity to be 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 revealed by God Himself. Whether we come to know what we know by reason or faith, we know it because God wills that it be known and to the degree that He wills 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 keeps the fullness of His mystery 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 perfection requires more than curiosity, more than intellectual prowess, and more 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, co-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. When we stand 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 spending our life eternal apart from his glory. 

But why believe the promise of eternal life in the first place? Why trust a promise made 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 suffer in the desert on the way to the Promised Land, God speaks in fire and smoke to His people, showing them the way to their salvation. Even as they suffer, God is with them. Even as they suffer, God chooses them to be His people, a holy nation, a royal priesthood. As a nation, they are His prophets and kings and for this they suffer. He takes 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? Do they doubt the veracity of his teachings? Do they doubt their own strength? Their piety, their determination, their intellectual prowess? No! They doubt the true nature of the one who stands 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 testify 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 teaches, preaches, makes disciples, and spends 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. 

Words 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 enslaving that the key of the cross cannot free us. Yes, we must suffer to follow Christ, to grow in mystery, 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!’”

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