Sunday, June 19, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for Trinity Sunday

Readings: Ex 34:4-9; 2 C or. 13:11-13; Jn 3:16-18

When I was teaching systematic theology courses in the seminary, the course on the Trinity was, without doubt, the most difficult to teach. All the systematics professors were agreed on that. The problem was that no matter how thoroughly and accurately a professor explained the theology of Trinity, you were lucky if one student in an entire class really understood what you taught. Most of them looked confused when you started and they looked even more confused when you finished. Teaching Trinity was one of those frustrating experiences that just had to be done to meet curriculum requirements. (The same holds true for priests preaching on Trinity Sunday. Practically no one likes to do it. At least I’ve never met one who did.)

As time went on, I began to try and place the Trinity in a larger context that included the whole search for a belief in the Mystery of God. That seemed to work much better. The key that opened up that approach to me was a comment by a particular theologian (I can’t remember who it was) who wrote that the Trinity in the New Testament was really a spirituality in search of a theology. In other words, the early Christians had three distinct experiences of meeting the divine (Father, Son in Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit). And they were convinced that each was a genuine experience of the one God. St. Augustine wrote a great big volume On the Trinity. It took him twenty years to complete. At the end of the book he tried to summarize the whole book in these words: "The Father is God! The Son is God! The Spirit is God! There is only one God!" For a lot of people today the Trinity is still a spirituality in search of a theology.

All that was summed up nicely in the passage we heard from Second Corinthians: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all!" That is, by the way, one of the earliest indications we have of this complex conviction of the early Christians about God. One of the most important things this teaches us is that God deals with us in a multitude of ways. If you recall last Sunday for the feast of Pentecost, I reflected that the Spirit’s bestowal of charisms on all the People of God shows us that God takes the initiative with us, giving us ideas and impulses to reach out and help each other. But that doesn’t exhaust the ways that God deals with us. The Son in Jesus Christ is connect with grace—the graciousness and mercy of God towards us. The Father is connected with love. Whatever in creation that connects us with love....shows us an aspect of the Father. The Spirit is connected with the formation of community. Any outreach that builds true community is the Spirit of God breathing among us. God deals with us in a multitude of ways.

There is one way that God deals with us that doesn’t come from the credal and theological traditions. But we learn it very clearly in the mystical tradition: namely, that God sometimes hides from us. God sometimes lurks just beyond the edge of our awareness. St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross understood this very well. This point was recently expressed very beautifully by Sr. Mara Faulkner, a Benedictine from St. Joseph, MN in a poem she wrote entitled: "Things I didn’t know I Loved." There’s a long list of such things, but towards the end she has this one: "And you, my God, so silent and cold, I didn’t know I loved you until you woke every morning in my little stove so lowly in your prison house of wood and flesh and fire so eager and so needful of my hands." That’s a wonderful thought to end with on Trinity Sunday: we may love God more than we really know. We all need to have faith in that.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Pentecost Homily

Readings: Acts 2:1-11; 1 Cor 12:3-13; John 20:19-23

The Holy Spirit is an elusive (almost sneaky) sort. In today’s first reading the Spirit comes upon Mary and the disciples and impels them to speak in different languages. In the second reading Paul announces the thoroughness of the Spirit in all the followers of Jesus Christ, from the very first moment that one confessed ‘Jesus is Lord.’ And in the passage from John’s gospel the Spirit becomes the medium through which sins are forgiven. In our own days the Holy Spirit remains just as elusive. Pope John XXIII often remarked that it was a sudden inspiration from the Spirit that urged him to call the Second Vatican Council. It was that same council which proclaimed that the Holy Spirit distributes diverse charisms on all the members of the Church. The Holy Spirit is not easy to categorize.

I’d like to spend a little time with that last thought, that the Holy Spirit distributes charisms on all the members of the Church. Let’s listen again to that relevant passage from the Constitution on the Church: "...the Holy Spirit sanctifies and leads the people of God....and distributes special graces among the faithful of every rank. By these gifts he makes them fit and ready to undertake the various tasks and duties which contribute toward the renewal and building up of the Church. .... These charisms, whether they be the more outstanding or the more simple and widely diffused, are to be received with thanksgiving and consolation for they are especially suited to and useful for the needs of the Church." (#12)

This is really a very important teaching for the Christian people. It tells them that God’s relationship with them involves much more than simply praying for favors and hoping that God answers them. That’s oftentimes what it has been for a lot of people. This Vatican II teaching emphasizes that God takes the initiative with us and bestows special graces that allow all the Christian people to assist and help one another. When we have the sudden idea to drop in and visit an elderly neighbor or take a surprise party basket to a single mother raising several children, we should see that as God’s Spirit taking the initiative and giving us a charism. These charisms are God taking the initiative in our personal relationship.

Besides emphasizing God’s initiative with us, this teaching on charisms also stresses that God wants us to help each other and is always giving us nudges to do so. Every act of outreach is building up the church, the People of God.

The notion of God’s "Spirit" (in Hebrew, Ruah) takes us into the very heart of God’s Mystery. The word, Ruah, also means breath, a breath of wind. Just as our own breath comes from within us, from our heart, so the Holy Spirit comes from the very heart of God. I was recently watching a medieval fantasy story in which there was a scene that reminded me of this closeness of the Holy Spirit and breath. An old woman was trying to teach a young woman some of the knowledge of living well and living faithfully. The old woman said: "You must always remember to keep your ears open and listen to God speaking. Just listen now." After a while the young woman says, "I only hear the wind." The old woman smiles and says, "How do you think God speaks to us?" Let’s be open to listen to the Spirit of God this Pentecost.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Ascension Homily

Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Eph 1:17-23; Mt 28:16-20

The feast of the Ascension is one that consistently gets shortchanged by many believers today. Part of the problem lies in the fact that we have such literal descriptions of the event, such as we heard today from the book of Acts and also the gospel of Luke about Jesus "rising" up to the heavens. Added to that we have such magnificent paintings of the event by many noted artists: Perugino, Rembrandt, Andrei Rublev, and the one on the cover of this missalette (Il Garofolo). The problem lies in the fact that people stop there, seeing the Ascension as merely the way of getting Jesus from earth into heaven after his Resurrection.....and nothing else. Thus, the full meaning of the Ascension is shortchanged.

In the second reading we heard this morning, from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, we are given the real meaning, the basic faith significance of the Ascension: "God has put all things beneath his feet and gave him as head over all things...." Through his death and resurrection God has made Jesus Christ the beginning, the measure and end of all things. He is the yardstick by which the value of everything, everyone and every human action is measured. The primary meaning of Ascension is not physical, but in a total spiritual sense. It was "through him" that everything was made; "with him" that every action finds its value; "in him" that everything and everyone will be judged. The Ascension stands as one of the pivotal beliefs of Christianity.

It also encompasses the greatest mystery of the Christian faith. How did those first followers of the simple Galilean preacher in the first century, those who recoiled in horror and fear at his eventual and sudden crucifixion and death, come to make such an extravagant claim about him? We simply don’t know the exact process by which it happened. That’s why we can only assert that it happened as a gift of faith from God. But the fact of that claim is clearly attested in the oldest Christian literature we possess, the letters of St. Paul. There it is clearly attested that the early Christian community most certainly worshiped Jesus Christ as the Son of God, risen from the dead and made Lord of all things.

That faith continues to this day. We reaffirm it every time we celebrate the Eucharist. At the end of every Eucharistic prayer, when the priest raises the consecrated bread and wine, he prays: "Through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, Almighty Father, forever and ever." Your "Amen" is reaffirming the Mystery of the Ascension! It is also affirming the Mystery of the gift of Faith.

But let’s go back to that thought that Jesus has been made the yardstick by which the value of everything, every one and every human action is measured. We need to take this beyond an intellectual affirmation of who Jesus is and what he does. It needs to be fully integrated into our spirituality and prayer life. One of the great developments that happened as a result of Vatican II was the entrance of this kind of spirituality in our Eucharistic prayers. As we shall pray in just a few moments: "While he lived among us he cured the sick, he cared for the poor and he wept with those who were grieving. He forgave sinners and taught us to forgive each other." We need to hear that often and begin to integrate it into our personal spirituality. That’s living the Mystery of the Ascension. And may we pray that it may be so for all of us!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Jesus' June Message

Dear apostles, humanity suffers. If you have eyes to see, then you will see that all around you there are children of God who have become disconnected from their Father. When a child suffers, that child is consoled if his Father is nearby and engaged with him. The child feels understood, even in his great pain. The child feels that there is ultimate safety, even when he faces temporary risk. To know that one is destined for ultimate safety provides for a disposition that withstands any difficulty, even the prospect of death. Beloved apostles, so close to Me, do you see that you have something that most do not? Do you see that your anticipation of ultimate safety provides you with a solid wall at your back which will, someday, absorb you into Itself? At that time, you will never be at risk again. You will be one of those who rejoices completely, not only in your own safety, but in the safety of all those around you. You will be absorbed into the Communion of Saints who now so perfectly understand the struggle of humanity that they work tirelessly and joyfully for the salvation of their brothers and sisters remaining on earth. When you finish your time on earth, you, too, will understand the great things that I accomplished through the little yes answers you gave Me on your journey through time on earth. You will say, yes, it was worth everything. You will say this, dear friends, regardless of the amount of suffering or sacrifice you endured. But, even as I rejoice in your heavenly heading, I urge you to strain forward in My service. Others should possess this confidence and security. If I told you that there was one person who was lost and that he could be found, would you rejoice with Me? If I told you that this person, currently suffering, could be claimed for heaven through your allegiance to Me on this day, would you give Me that allegiance? For one more day? This is what I am asking of you. Answer yes to Me. Give Me this day today. Watch, dear apostle, what I can do with your yes answer today. Look back and see what I have done with your yes answers in the past. You will see, in looking back, the barest truth about what I accomplished through you. Only in heaven will you see the full extent of what the Father has gained through your presence in His heart. Trust Me, while I obtain peace for you and peace for others through you.