Trinity Sunday

Today the Sunday after Pentecost is notable for a number of reasons in 1334 Pope John XXII decreed that the Feast of the Holy Trinity should be kept and in 1162 Thomas Becket was consecrated a Bishop, and as the anniversary of his consecration, it was celebrated. It is something which gets people into a bit of a mess, there is the standard joke that it is a Sunday to get someone else to preach for you, a curate, a visiting preacher, anyone, as though the Doctrine is something of which to be scared.

Well I for one do not ascribe to such nonsense, I never have and I never will, as today gives us an opportunity to contemplate the mystery which is God’s very nature, we know God as the Father, the Creator and Ruler of all, the Son, who redeems humanity, and the Spirit, active in the World, who fills us with the love of God. There is a reason why we started our worship the morning with the words ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’, and why it ends with ‘The Blessing of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit’ not three blessings, but one, our baptism, our worship as Christians is Trinitarian: Three persons, One God. It can be hard for some to understand, the church spent hundreds of years arguing of the Divinity of the Son and the Holy Spirit, and in the process worked out what we believe as Christians and why. We can Say One Father, One Son, One Holy Spirit, One God, because what we are dealing with is not a mathematical question, Christians are not polytheists, we do not worship three Gods, but One: the Trinity is not a problem to be solved through thought, but a mystery to enter through our worship of God, and a relationship, which through Christ is open to us, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

If anything it is better to approach such things obliquely rather than head on, and in this case with images rather than words. Andrei Rublev painted an icon of the Trinity either around 1411 or 1425-7. It shows the visit of the Angels to Abraham at the Oak of Mamre:

And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth and said, “O Lord, if I have found favour in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.” And Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to a young man, who prepared it quickly. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate. (Gen 18:1-8 ESV)

In Andrei Rublev’s icon, the persons of the Holy Trinity are shown in the order in which they are confessed in the Creed. The first angel is the first person of the Trinity – God the Father; the second, middle angel is God the Son; the third angel is God the Holy Spirit. All three angels are blessing the chalice, in which lies a sacrificed calf, prepared for eating. The sacrifice of the calf signifies the Saviour’s death on the cross, while its preparation as food symbolizes the sacrament of the Eucharist. All three angels have staffs in their hand as a symbol of their divine power.

The first angel, shown at left, is vested in a blue undergarment which depicts his divine celestial nature, and a light purple outer garment which attests to the unfathomable nature and the royal dignity of this angel. Behind him and above his head towers a house, the abode of Abraham, and a sacrificial altar in front of the house. This image of the abode has a symbolic meaning: the house signifies God’s master plan for creation, while the fact that the house towers above the first angel shows him to be the head (or Father) of this creation. The same fatherly authority is seen in his entire appearance. His head is not bowed and he is looking at the other two angels. His whole demeanour – the expression on his face, the placement of his hands, the way he is sitting – all speaks of his fatherly dignity. The other two angels have their heads inclined and eyes turned toward the first angel with great attention, as though conversing with him about the salvation of mankind.

The second angel is placed in the middle of the icon. This placement is determined by the position held by the second Person within the Trinity Itself. Above his head extend the branches of an oak tree. The vestments of the second angel correspond to those in which the Saviour is usually depicted. The undergarment is a dark crimson colour which symbolizes the incarnation, while the blue outer robe signifies the divinity and the celestial nature of this angel. The second angel is inclined towards the first angel, as though deep in conversation. The tree behind him serves as a reminder of the tree of life that was standing in Eden, and of the cross.

The angel on the right is the third Person of the Trinity – the Holy Spirit. His light blue undergarment and smoky-green outer garment represent heaven and earth, and signify the life-giving force of the Holy Spirit, which animates everything that exists. “By the Holy Spirit every soul lives and is elevated in purity” – sings the Church. This elevation in purity is represented in the icon by a mountain above the third angel. (Taken from “Thoughts on Iconography” by monk Gregory Krug, found at http://www.holy-transfiguration.org/library_en/lord_trinity_rublev.html)

This relationship of equals has a space in front of them , and that’s where you and I come in, there is food at God’s table, spiritual food, prefigured in this vision of hospitality, we enter a relationship with the Trinity in our baptism and deepen it in our worship, and our prayer and reading of scripture, but most of all through our response to the Eucharistic hospitality of God, so let us come to Him, to be fed by Him and fed with him to share his life and proclaim his truth so that the world may believe and give glory…

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Easter VII 2016

Can we pray, therefore, for the coming of Jesus? Can we sincerely say ‘Marana tha Come Lord Jesus!’’? Yes we can. And not only that: we must! We pray for anticipations of his world-changing presence. We pray to him in moments of personal tribulation: Come, Lord Jesus and draw my life into the presence of your kindly power. We ask him to be close to those we love or for whom we are anxious. We ask him to be present and effective in his Church. Why not ask him to send us new witnesses of his presence today, in whom he himself will come to us? And this prayer, while it is not directly focussed on the end of the world, is nevertheless a real prayer for his coming; it contains the full breadth of the prayer that he himself taught us: ‘Your kingdom come!’ Come, Lord Jesus

Pope Benedict XVI Jesus of Nazareth Part Two,  London CTS 2011: 292

The other week week I was doing my shopping in Lidl, putting my shopping up on the belt, as you do, when, all of a sudden this old lady came, walked in front of the man behind me and, without so much as a by your leave, proceeded to put her shopping on the belt. The man behind me was dumbfounded. I wanted to ask her if she wanted to go in front of me, and she carried on regardless, starting a conversation with me, it was really quite something. Clearly she couldn’t be bothered to wait, to queue, I didn’t ask her why she was in such a rush. Waiting is one of those things you love or loathe, it’s a national characteristic that we don’t like fuss and will queue and wait, an American will make a fuss, whereas the British would find such impatience awkward. We might not enjoy it, but at least we aren’t going to make a fuss about it. And yet in these days between the Ascension and Pentecost, the Church waits, waits for her Lord, and her prayer is Maranatha, ‘Come Lord Jesus’. Come Lord Jesus, fill us with your love, with your Holy Spirit, give us life in you.

The prophet Ezekiel has a vision (in Chapter 36) of a messianic future, of the restoration of  Israel, which is found in Jesus Christ and the Church. We are those sprinkled with the clean water of baptism, who have been cleansed. God gives us a new heart and puts his Spirit within us, just as he did on the day of Pentecost, so we are to live as the people of God, filled with his love, and forgiveness, and proclaiming his Truth to the world.

This Sunday in the Gospel we are in the middle of Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, which is the summit of his teaching just before his arrest and Passion. Christ has made God’s name known to us, we know him in a different way, we pray to him as ‘Father’ and we are his, we are not our own, despite the Western Liberal infatuation with personal freedom, we are God’s, which affects who we are, and what we do.

Christ speaks to us, and teaches us so that our joy may be complete in him, filled with his love, and the Holy Spirit. The world’s reaction to this is a negative one: because what we are, what we stand for, and how we live as Christians is to be opposed to what the world around us stands for – selfishness, greed, which it makes into false gods, as though material wealth, or power, or status could save us – such things are transient and fleeting. It offers us a short-cut, an easy road, whereas if we are following Christ, then we are walking the way of his Passion, we are walking the Way of the Cross, dying daily to sin, and letting God’s grace be at work in and through us. It is not easy, it is difficult, most of us are unable to manage on our own, we need the love and support of the Christian community to help us, even the first Christians, those who had been with Jesus, needed each other’s help and support, so they can continue what Jesus started.

We need to be together, to meet together to pray for our needs and those of the world, and to be nourished by the word of God, the Bible, and the Sacrament of Our Lord’s Body and Blood, not because they’re something nice to do on a Sunday morning: an add-on, an optional extra that we can opt into and out of as we feel like, but because as Christians they are crucial to who and what we are, if we are to remain in the love of God then we have to live this way. Only then can we offer the world an alternative to the ways of selfishness and sin. It will hate us for doing this, it will despise us and persecute us, it will call us hypocrites when we fail to live up to the example of Jesus; but as Christians who live in the love of God we forgive each other our trespasses, so that we can live out that same radical love and forgiveness which sees Jesus die upon the Cross for love of us and all the world, this is love which can transform the world. It is a message of such love, such forgiveness that the world cannot or does not want to understand it, we may not understand it, but we know that it can be experienced, and we are living testimony to its power. It turns our lives around and sets us free to live for God and to proclaim his saving truth in our words and actions, calling the world to repentance, to turn to Christ, and to be renewed in and through Him.In his power, with His Truth, filled with His Love we can transform the world, one soul at a time.

So as we wait with the Apostles for the gift of the Holy Spirit let us pray that Christ may come, and send His Holy Spirit, that God may be at work in us, building us up, and giving us strength to live his life and to proclaim his truth, to offer the world that which it most earnestly desires, a peace, a joy and a freedom which pass human understanding, and the gift of eternal life in Christ.

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The Ascension

One of the loveliest things about today is that it tends to focus, in religious art at least, on feet:  the smelly things we like to keep hidden away from the world. Today we see Jesus’ in all their glory going back to where they came from, but they go back differently than they descended: they go back marked with nails, wounded, bearing the marks of God’s love, it is this love which fills us in the Church, the same love which feeds us in His Body and Blood.

We have come here today to celebrate Our Lord’s Ascension into heaven. The world around us may well find the idea quaint or laughable – or at least physically impossible. But it is no less hard to believe than Our Lord becoming incarnate by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or his rising from the dead at Easter. The world, with the greatest confidence, will tell us that what we are celebrating are myths and fairy stories, but they fail to get the point of what’s really going on.

Our Lord ascends, body and soul into heaven, to the closer presence of God the Father, and to prepare for the sending of the Holy Spirit on his disciples at Pentecost. He who shares our humanity takes it into heaven, into the very life of the Godhead; so that where he is we may be also. We have seen the promise of new life in Easter, a new life which is in the closer presence of God, which we celebrate today. We can see where it leads – what started at the Incarnation finds its goal and truest meaning in the unity of the human and the divine.

But rather than seeing this as an end it is surely far better to see in it a beginning – a beginning of the Church as we know it – a church which goes and makes disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that Our Lord commanded us. This is exactly where we have been for nearly two thousand years. Inspired by the Holy Spirit they did what their Lord commanded them to do and that is why we are here today celebrating this fact.

But like them we too are called to follow Our Lord’s commands and to share his good news with the world so that it may believe. We are called to live lives where our faith is enfleshed in us – it is not abstract and private, but concrete and public. The Atheist who finds our beliefs laughable now joins forces with an Enlightenment Rationalist who wishes faith to be a private matter rather than a public one. This will not do: Our Lord did not say ‘Don’t do this if it’s inconvenient’ or ‘There’s no need to make a fuss in public about me’. He speaks as one given authority, ‘all authority in heaven and on earth’, so we can gladly place ourselves under His authority, to do his will.

He makes us a promise: ‘Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ He is with us by sending His Spirit on the Church at Pentecost and ever since. He is with us in his Word, Holy Scripture and in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood. It is through this (and the other Sacraments of the Church) that God’s grace can perfect our human nature – so that we can prepare to share the divine life of love in Heaven. Where our Lord goes we can hope to follow, through his sacrifice of Himself upon the Cross, a sacrifice made present here and on the altars of churches all throughout the world, to strengthen us, so that we may be close to him, sharing in the divine life of love poured out on us.

Once Jesus has ascended in glory and before he returns as our judge the only place where we can encounter him is in and through the Church, in its sacraments, in the word of Holy Scripture, and in people, filled with His Holy Spirit: it is a huge responsibility, but a movement which started with 12 men in Jerusalem is still going strong nearly two thousand years later. We have been given the gift of faith and it is up to us to pass it on, so that others may come to share in the joy of the Lord.

We can all hope to follow Him, and to spend eternity contemplating the Beatific Vision, caught up in that love which is the Divine Nature, sharing in the praise of all creation of the God who creates, who redeems, and who sustains all. We can have this hope because Christ has gone before us, he has prepared the way for humanity to follow him and share in the divine life of love.

Let us prepare for this by living the life of faith, strengthened by Him, proclaiming his truth, praying for the gift of His Spirit at Pentecost, that the Church may be strengthened to proclaim His saving truth and the baptism of repentance, so that we and all the world may sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

Love one another as I have loved you

God does not love us because we are lovely or loveable; His love exists not on account of our character, but on account of His. Our highest experience is responsive not initiative. And it is only because we are loved by Him that we are loveable.

Fulton Sheen Rejoice, 1984, 9

God loves us; we can say this with the utmost confidence because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it all proclaims the same truth: God loves us, not because we’re worthy of it, but so that we might become what God is. It is what we celebrate at Easter, it lies at the heart, the core of our faith as Christians. It’s why we are what we are, and why we do what we do, to proclaim this simple truth to the world.

We show our love for God by keeping his word, and by loving each other as he has loved us. We are called to exactly the same sacrificial, self-giving love which Our Lord shows us: Love one another as I have loved you, it doesn’t get more explicit. Now, I don’t know about you, but for me, that’s a big ask. It should really make us stop in our tracks and realise the enormity of the task and our utter reliance upon God’s grace, and to to stay close to him in Word and Sacrament, and it’s something which we need to do together, as a christian community. We show this love by keeping God’s word, by doing what Jesus tells us to do and not simply going along with the ways of the world.

Our Lord promises his disciples that the Father will send the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ name to teach us all things and to bring to our remembrance all that he said to us. The Holy Spirit speaks through the Church so that we can profess our faith in the co-eternal and consubstantial Trinity. His gift to us is His peace – not as in simply the absence of war or violence, but rather something deeper and far more profound. The peace that Jesus promises is that which characterises the life of the Godhead: a peace which passes all human understanding, a peace which the world cannot give.

We can have peace through our relationship with the Trinity, the source of our peace, and joy, and love. Grounded in this relationship we need not be afraid or troubled – we are free to live lives which proclaim God’s love and victory so that the world may believe. Through God loving us, we can truly love him and each other. We experience this most clearly at the Eucharist when Christ feeds us with His Body and Blood, which he as both priest and victim offers on the Altar of the Cross. That self same sacrifice which heals the world through the outpouring of God’s love feeds us here and now. We are fed so that we may be nourished and share in the divine life and the joy of heaven. We receive the free gift of God’s grace so that it may perfect our human nature, so that we may go where Our Lord is going, and share in the joy, and love, and peace of the Triune God.

The values of the Kingdom and those of the world are different, and as Christians we need to be prepared to stand up for them, in the face of opposition by a world which is challenged by the values of that Kingdom, which sees love and mercy as far more important than wealth and power. It isn’t easy, it’s far easier to just go along with the world, like a dead fish carried along by the current, whereas only a live fish can swim against the stream. We should rejoice as we await the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost after Our Lord has ascended, as in this we see the birth and spread of the Church – it’s why we are here, because people filled with the love of God and His Holy Spirit have brought us into His loving embrace. Loved by him, we are to share that love with others, so that the world may believe and share in the source of all love, and peace, and joy. It’s not somebody else’s responsibility but ours as the baptised people of God to follow in the footsteps of the apostles and share what we have received so that we and all the world may sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.