Homily From the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity

Yes!  THIS is how you do it!
Yes! THIS is how you do it!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  One of the first things that parents teach their kids about their faith is how to do the Sign of the Cross.  You see mom grab their hands and dip it in the holy water, and then trace the Sign of the Cross as the kid either whines and refuses to be coerced, or proudly shows what they learned.  The funny thing is that over time, we get a little sloppy with it.  For example, when I was in preschool, I did what my parents called the “Sign of the Circle” where I would simply trace the circle over my body.  Even as adults, we can fly through the Sign of the Cross without thinking about it.  We sometimes act like we’re trying to set a speed record if we’re praying in public over our food.  Or the other good one is that we can make one big word out of it – “FatherSonHolySpert”.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  How many times do we say that without thinking about it?  I think today, of all the days of the year, is the day where we should think about it.  Sometimes it’s easy to think about God as some kind of weird blob of unity.  When we hear the phrase “God is love,” we just think, “Oh, you know, like the idea of love.”  It’s just some sort of huge unintelligible thing that has this Jesus guy to help it out and sends this weird Spirit thing to make sure we do things the right way.  Maybe that’s where the Sign of the Circle comes in.  It’s just…blah…

But today, we don’t celebrate a God that is an ambiguity; today we celebrate a God that is a Trinity – three divine Persons and one divine Godhead.  Christians don’t worship three distinct Gods, but one single being that is threefold, yet remains one.  Jesus teaches us that they are distinct, even as he prays in today’s Gospel.  He speaks about his “Father in heaven,” but he prays that He would send us the “Spirit of truth,” who is the love of the Father and the Son.  One of the most commonly used symbols for the Trinity is the triangle.  For all you mathematically minded people out there, we’ll use an equilateral triangle.  It’s one shape, one triangle, but it has three distinct sides – equal in length, equal in quality, but distinct.  Without one, it’s just an angle, but when they are bound together, it forms a triangle.  In the same way, God is one, but He is three distinct divine persons.  One is not greater than the other, nor one more powerful than the other, but each is essential.  So when we pray the Sign of the Cross, we are invited to think about each of those persons individually.  Not as a circle, and not as one single word foreign to the English language – FatherSonHolySpert – but as three distinct persons in that sign of the Cross.  We mark ourselves with that, mindful of the way that each, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, have brought us to this place and are with us.

Now I know what you’re thinking – who really cares?  To our modern, practical, “1+1=2” mind, this all seems too theoretical.  We don’t really care for the theological distinctions.  We might think that nobody really cares what our Sign of the Cross looks like – the important thing is that God loves me.  But it’s important to remember that we didn’t get here on our own.  In ages past, the Church defended these truths with her blood.  In the first part of Church history, our biggest enemy was the Roman Empire, which tried for three hundred years to extinguish the faith with wave after wave of persecution.  But when the persecutions died down, eventually Catholicism became the Empire’s most dominant religion.  And when that happened, our biggest enemy changed.  Isntead of coming from outside the Church, it came from inside – it was called heresy.  That’s a word that we probably don’t think about much today, but it’s something that is incredibly divisive.  The Devil loves this stuff – it’s like his favorite pastime.  We like baseball; he likes perverting our Trinitarian understandings with heresy.  To each his own.  But it was during this time that the first and most important councils of our Church took place.  We had to defend and clarify the most basic tenets of our faith, which even now we profess in the Creed.  The early Church instinctively recognized something that today we rarely even think about: if our idea of God is wrong, then our idea of how to follow God and bring God to others will also be wrong.  And so a whole generation of saints battled heresy to keep the Catholic idea of God pure.

St. Athanasius at the Council of Nicea, literally stomping out heresy http://st-takla.org
St. Athanasius at the Council of Nicea, literally stomping out heresy

One of those saints was St. Athanasius, the 4th century bishop of Alexandria in Egypt.  He fought against the Arian heresy, which denied Christ’s divinity, and threatened to tear the Son out of the Trinity.  This heresy tore at the heart of the Church for more than 100 years, and at some points, the majority of the world bought into it.  But St. Athanasius was the anchor that supported the Church and held the faith in place.  He suffered for it.  He was imprisoned, slandered, framed, and even exiled five times.  I mean, how do you get exiled five times.  He probably had a good relationship with U-Haul.  But he had to hide in the desert to escape from being murdered.  And he did all that so that the Sign of the Cross and the words that we profess with it would have the meaning to us that it does today.  He endured all of it to keep intact these “subtle theological distinctions” that the Church reminds us of today.

So why am I telling you this?  So you can all go read St. Athanasius’ sermons or St. Augustine’s treatise De Trinitate?  So that we can understand the Trinity perfectly?  So that we can all learn to do the dang Sign of the Cross right, and heal me of that wound of knowing that the Sign of the Circle was like a childhood heresy?  No.  Ok, maybe a little.  The Trinity is a mystery.  This is not a nice way of saying that we will never understand it.  It’s not something that we are too stupid to comprehend.  A mystery, above all, is an invitation – to participate, and to imitate.  When we see something about it, whether the unity of a diverse parish around a family suffering loss or the defense of the truth, that mystery draws us closer and calls us deeper into itself, so that we can embrace that mystery of the Trinity more fully – and it embrace us.  Thinking or talking about the Trinity isn’t just for theologians or priests.  It is for all of us, so that we can see the ways that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit work in our lives.  So let us pray together with the whole Church – those gathered here today, those in our parish, and all throughout the world as we pray, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.  Amen.”

The Holy Apostles: St. Andrew

Statue of St. Andrew St. Peter's Basilica Vatican City
Statue of St. Andrew
St. Peter’s Basilica
Vatican City

So what do we know about St. Andrew?  Umm…I guess he’s patron saint of Scotland, and therefore patron saint of golf?  Hence, we get the famous St. Andrew’s Golf Course.  What else?  Maybe he’s the patron saint of cheap movies?  Hence, the dollar show at St. Andrew’s cinema?

The point is that there’s not much we know about him.  We do know that he was the brother of Simon Peter.  I guess he’s kind of like Shelley Duncan, the brother of former Cardinal outfielder Chris Duncan.  Shelley is a great player in his own right for the Tampa Bay Rays (ok, maybe not a “great” player), but to St. Louisans, he will forever be known as Chris Duncan’s brother and Dave Duncan’s son.

But St. Andrew was actually pretty important among the apostles.  There are two versions of his call.  The first from the Gospel of Matthew, is that he was fishing with his brother Simon Peter when Jesus called them to be fishers of men.  In the Gospel of John, however, he was a disciple of St. John the Baptist, and when St. John pointed out Jesus as the “Lamb of God,” St. Andrew knew that Jesus was worth following.  He asked Jesus, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”  And Jesus responded in that beautiful and teasing invitation, “Come and see.”

What about after the Ascension?  Now we’re getting into some fuzzy area.  Various church historians like Origen and Eusebius of Caesarea tell us that St. Andrew preached his way to north of the Black Sea, through modern-day Russia and Ukraine.  He then went across to Byzantium, modern-day Constantinople/Istanbul, and over to Macedonia and Greece.

The Martyrdom of St. Andrew By Bartolomé Esteban Perez Murillo
The Martyrdom of St. Andrew
By Bartolomé Esteban Perez Murillo

One common point of agreement is that St. Andrew was crucified in Patras, Greece.  The non-canonical Acts of Andrew tells us that he was tied, not nailed to the cross, and remained there for two days, preaching and converting those who listened to him, until he finally gave up his spirit.  Legends have it that St. Andrew asked to be crucified in a different way than Jesus out of respect, and was tied to an X-shaped cross, which to this day, is called a St. Andrew Cross.  In 1964, in an outreach to our Greek Orthodox brothers and sisters, Pope Paul VI returned the relics of St. Andrew from the Vatican to the Basilica of St. Andrew in Patras, Greece, where we can still see them today.

So back to the original question, what do we know about St. Andrew?  Not much at all.  The Gospels give us little about his holiness.  But he was an apostle, and that is enough.  He was called personally to “come and see”, and then to proclaim the Good News, sharing in Jesus’ life and ultimately, his death.  Holiness today is no different.  It’s a call to be a follower, to “come and see.”  Let’s pray for the intercession of St. Andrew today, that we would respond to that invitation, and then spread that message of hope with our lives.

The Holy Apostles: St. Peter

Statue of St. Peter in St. Peter's Square, Vatican City
Statue of St. Peter in St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City

So I feel like we’re at a bit of a crossroads.  I’ve talked us through all the prayers of the Mass, and we’ve just finished looking extensively at the heart of the Mass, the Eucharistic Prayers (I, II, and III).  So I figured the next step would be to talk about the saints, starting with the apostles!  We probably feel we know a lot about them from scripture, but are you aware of the wider traditions associated with them after Jesus?

Who better to start with than Peter, the first pope and Prince of the Apostles?  Originally, he was “Simon”, until Jesus changes his name, which is actually a pretty big deal!  In the Bible, only God has the authority to change names – like Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel, and so on.  So Jesus tells Simon, “You are Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my church.”  Jesus is pretty witty, actually, because Petrus (Latin) and Petros (Greek) actually mean “rock”!  As the first pope, Peter really is the rock – the unifier on which Jesus lays the stones of the Church.  He is usually pictured with keys, signifying that binding and loosing power that Jesus with the Church.

Now one of my pet peeves is when people, especially priests, make fun of Peter.  We always joke that he was impulsive and dumb, never seeming to get what Jesus was saying.  And those things are true, I guess.  But St. Peter is an incredibly brave example of faith!  After the Resurrection, he preached in Jerusalem for a long time, and was the first apostle to perform miracles in Jesus’ name.  He then journeyed to some of the major pagan cities of the age including Antioch and Corinth, and then of course, Rome.

We know that St. Peter died in Rome in 64 AD under the Emperor Nero, and we know that he was martyred for his faith, as all the early Fathers of the Church attest.  The legend is that he considered himself unworthy to die in the same manner as Christ, and so he asked to be crucified upside down.  It might be easy to think that Peter’s story is all legend, but excavations under the present day St. Peter’s Basilica on the Vatican Hill have identified his ancient tomb, which was venerated even from the earliest days of the Church.

"Domine Quo Vadis" By Annibale Carracci
“Domine Quo Vadis”
By Annibale Carracci

One of the most touching stories of Peter coming from our wider tradition is from the non-canonical Acts of Peter.  It isn’t an official book of the Bible or anything, but it is an interesting and moving story.  In this story, Peter is fleeing crucifixion in Rome, and as he’s on his way out of the city, probably listening to his iPod or something to pass the time, who does he come across but Jesus!  The risen Christ is carrying a large cross and heading the other way towards the city.  And Peter, shocked, asks that famous question, “Quo vadis?”  “Where are you going?”  Jesus smiles and answers, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.”  At this point, Peter gains the courage to bravely continue his ministry in Rome and is eventually martyred.

Even after the Ascension, Jesus doesn’t just leave us behind.  Like Peter, he has commissioned us to do great things, but also like Peter, we are weak.  Christ assures us that we don’t offer ourselves alone.  We walk with Christ, we offer ourselves with Christ, and we suffer with Christ.  He is with us every step of the way, especially the tough steps.  So take courage from the example of St. Peter, and let’s all strive to build on the firm foundations that he and his successors are for the Church!

The Roman Canon: Some Share with the Apostles and Martyrs

Statues from St. Peter's Square, Vatican City
Statues from St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City

Have you ever thought about what you’d be the patron saint of?  Maybe patron saint of power naps?  The patron saint of drinking way too much coffee in the morning?  The patron saint of ace-ing Algebra II class?  Don’t laugh, because it’s an important question to consider!

Today’s topic from Eucharistic Prayer I has a lot to do with saints, namely the call for each of us to be saints.  We pray, “Graciously grant some share and fellowship with your holy apostles and martyrs,” and then go on to mention a lengthy list of important saints.  The first few are pretty normal saints that we know from Sacred Scripture like John the Baptist and Stephen.  But as we move down the list, we hear about people like Ignatius, Alexander, and Marcellinus.

What the heck?  How did they get in there?  Well, these names may not seem that familiar – to us – but in the days of the early Church, when this prayer was first used, these saints and martyrs were people they might very well have been familiar with, maybe even part of their local community!  These were people they had sat listening to, people they had followed, people they had seen giving witness to their faith, even to their deaths in the arenas like Perpetua and Felicity.  These were individuals who had been personal examples of holiness that inspired their communities to grow closer to Christ.

So let’s go back to what we started with – are you trying to be a saint?  Are you trying to be an inspiring example of faith to others?  “Ha!  Yeah right, Father!  Being a saint is just for really holy people!”  Well, strange as it might seem, that’s our call.  Before being a husband or wife or priest or soccer mom or snake charmer or whatever, we are called to be saints.  Sure, you may not be officially recognized and canonized by the Church, or called “St. _______ of O’Fallon” (because St. _____ of St. Peters sounds a little redundant), but you are called to be holy, and to be an example for others.

Saints aren’t just those we remember once a year, or statues we put votive candles in front of when we need them.  There are living, breathing, aspiring saints among us now in our parish, our neighborhood, and even our households.  As Pope Francis mentioned recently, these are simple saints, good people who may not have visible heroism, but in whose “everyday goodness, we see the truth of faith.”

Be that example of holiness for your friends, relatives, parents, and children.  Don’t settle for mediocrity – embrace the call to heroic virtue!

Homily From the Solemnity of Pentecost

Pope Francis at his first Easter Vigil http://gridironcatholic.blogspot.com
Pope Francis at his first Easter Vigil

Fifty days ago, during the Easter Vigil, we huddled inside away from the rain and cold, and we blessed and lit the Easter Candle.  Of course, we then processed in with the candle, singing, “Christ our light!”  We have placed that Easter Candle here in the sanctuary, and have been lighting it every time we have celebrated Mass, baptisms, and funerals.  Now in addition to just being a 50 pound pile of wax, the Easter candle is very symbolic and is very important to our celebration of Easter.  In fact, it’s all explained to us in the Exultet, the Easter hymn of joy.  That living flame placed in our sanctuary is a symbol that Christ is alive!  He rose from the dead, putting an end to the darkness of death just as the sun puts an end to night.  That flame of the Easter Candle symbolizes the pillar of fire from the Book of Exodus, the presence of God, who led them through the desert and protected them from the Egyptians.  And just as that pillar of fire led the Israelites out of the wilderness and into the promised land, so now Christ is our light, leading us as our sure guide through every trial and temptation, and into the promised land of Heaven.  What an amazing message provided by this beautiful lump of wax!  But after today that Easter Candle is going to be taken away, and in this church, placed almost as far away from the sanctuary as it can get – back by the baptismal font.  So what happened?  Does that mean that after today, the presence of Christ is no longer with us? Does it mean that Christ is heading to the Bahamas for a few months and that he’ll be back next Easter?  Does it mean that we’re on our own?  That we can handle it from here?

6a00d8341bffb053ef0147e1e93066970b-500wiWe hear in the Gospel how alone the disciples felt.  They were hiding together with the doors locked, windows shut, and tasers drawn out of fear.  They knew what had happened to Christ, and they knew that the same thing would happen to them if they stuck their necks out.  They didn’t know what would be happening next, where to go.  They had given everything away to follow Christ, and he had been crucified before their very eyes.  What would happen next for them?  Was it time to start over?  But then, out of nowhere, Christ appears before them, saying, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, now I send you!”  You can imagine the thoughts of the disciples at that moment.  They were overjoyed by the fact that Christ was with them again, but he’d only been back with them 30 seconds before he sends them out again, back into that hostile world.  But he doesn’t send them alone, but breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  This moment transforms them forever.  This moment, our moment, the moment of the descent of the Holy Spirit, isn’t just some other Sunday.  It’s Pentecost.  It is the Birthday of the Church, when out of that band of scared men, out of the bleeding side of Christ at the crucifixion, and out of the purifying flame of the Holy Spirit, we emerged as a new and transformed people.  We are no longer the Israelites, who when the pillar of flame disappeared wandered through the desert wondering if they had been abandoned.  We’re no longer the disciples, hiding from persecution, unsure why the Lord had been taken from them.  Now, we are the Church, with that pillar of fire burning within our hearts as the raging fire of the Holy Spirit.  That Easter Candle that has stood here for 50 days is no longer needed, because now we have that flame within us, and we go out to light the world by continuing Christ’s mission in our daily lives. 

This isn’t always easy.  We’re still being sent out into the unknown, and that is probably the scariest part – wondering where it is that we’re being sent off to.  I have the honor of celebrating my 2nd anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood in just over a week, and as I’m thinking back on my time at All Saints, I can say that getting here was pretty scary.  I remember receiving the letter assigning me here, and thinking, “Where the heck is that?”  I had no idea there was even a parish here, and in fact, I don’t think I had even driven this far down Mid Rivers Mall.  I was comfortable where I was, I had finally learned the names of a few people, and I wasn’t sure I wanted a change.  But I think now about the many things that the Holy Spirit has led me to, and I know that I wouldn’t be the same priest I am today without that move of uncertainty.  Where would I be without the school, and the youth group, and the invitations and visits of parishioners, and the weddings and funerals I’ve done here.  Where would I be without the 900,000 Cadberry eggs that have been dropped off for me since Easter – maybe a few pounds lighter, I think.  The same is true for all of us.  Sometimes, the Holy Spirit leads us through times of uncertainty, but the graces that stem from that experience are plentiful, as long as we trust in the Holy Spirit and follow that pillar of fire within our hearts.

As we enter into the season of Ordinary Time tomorrow, we know that a tendency can be to get into a routine of mediocrity that lets that flame slowly die out.  So how is it that we can keep it bright and burning?  Well, the first thing is that a flame needs oxygen.  Without it, the flame simply fades and goes out.  In the same way, prayer has to be the oxygen of our hearts.  A life lived without prayer is one that is unguided, one searching for something to guide it other than the light of the Holy Spirit, and which becomes joyless and dead.  Likewise, we have to ensure that the flame is allowed to grow and burn without anything getting in the way.  If you notice, when the candles in our sanctuary are lit for a long time, the wax accumulates and stifles the flame, until it is barely recognizable if the candle is lit or not.  So occasionally, we’ll have to cut the excess wax away, or pour out the melted wax in order to allow the flame to thrive again.  The same is true for us.  We sometimes forget to live lives guided by the flame of the Holy Spirit, and we need that wax cleaned away.  That is why the sacrament of Confession is so important – it allows that flame of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, that flame of sanctifying grace, to continue burning brightly, giving us all the grace we need to live lives according to the Gospel.  We need to make an effort to make use of the sacrament as well.

As this Easter season comes to a close today, and as we enter into Ordinary Time enlivened by the presence of the Holy Spirit within our hearts, let us turn to the Lord in the Eucharist today in gratitude for the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Let us thank him for not leaving us alone as orphans, but for sending us an advocate, a consoler, a paraclete, who leads us on each step of our lives.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and enkindle in them the fire of your love. 

The Roman Canon: Commemoration of the Dead

Did you ever notice that when I pray Eucharistic Prayer I, I pause in the middle of the prayer for a few seconds?  No, it’s not because I fell asleep, or because I forgot my line.  That particular moment in the Roman Canon is the Commemoration of the Dead.  Have you ever asked why we pray for the dead in the first place?

"Judas Maccabeaus Praying for the Dead" By Peter Paul Rubens
“Judas Maccabeaus Praying for the Dead”
By Peter Paul Rubens

There are lots of reasons throughout the Old and New Testaments and in the first practices of the early Church, but probably the most direct reference is in the 2nd book of Maccabees.  Some people may not know much about this book, but it’s a great story.  The Jewish people were being hard pressed by the Greeks to abandon the public practice of their faith, and the Books of Maccabees are about the series of successful rebellion campaigns led by Judas Maccabeus against Antiochus V around 163 BC.

After a few skirmishes, Judas returned to the battlefield to bury his soldiers, and he takes a few moments to pray for them and take up a sacrificial collection of silver on their behalf.  This is awesome, because it’s so similar to what we do today!  These were godly men, but they were still carrying around amulets to pagan gods, showing they were still sort of attached to lesser sins, despite the fact that they were good people.

The passage (2 Maccabees 12:39-46) points out that it would be useless to pray for them if we did not expect them to rise again.  He believes that the dead can and must be purified by the prayer and sacrifices of the living.  Judas Maccabeus “made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin.” (2 Mac 12:46)

So fast-forward to today.  During Mass, we pray for the souls of the just who have gone before us in faith.  As many good memories as we have of them, I would wager that most of our deceased relatives and friends weren’t perfect – they might have still been attached to some bad habits or venial sins.  That doesn’t change our love for them, but Purgatory is about removing those obstacles and striving for perfection to see God face-to-face.

Sometimes people have the idea that Purgatory is a bad thing, and that God wouldn’t want someone to suffer.  But the “suffering” souls experience in Purgatory isn’t like the suffering that we’re used to.  Imagine waiting for a movie that you’ve been getting excited to see for a whole year, and when you get to the theater, you’re at the end of a long line.  Your suffering is that you want to get in and see the movie – you want the reward!  But the anticipation of the movie is making you anxious as you wait.  Maybe you have regret over not having prepared well enough to get to the theater earlier.  But the thing is, you know you’re going to get into the movie, and you know the movie will be fantastic – you just have to wait.

Purgatory is infinitely better than our lives on earth because here, we’re still making that choice between Heaven and Hell by the way we live our lives and how we strive to imitate Christ.  In Purgatory, that decision is made – that soul is going to Heaven to be face-to-face with God!

So don’t forget your loved ones.  Remember the names of your beloved dead, and pray for them, especially for those few moments during the Eucharistic Prayer.  And through our faith, prayer, and good works, let’s strive for Heaven as well!