Trinity Sunday, May 27, 2018
Fr. Philip Forlano, St. Stanislaus Parish
This past week, a young high school teacher came to see me. She is smart and devout and recognizes that many of her students do no know the teachings of the church and do not practice the faith. She doesn’t teach religion, so she is hesitant to bring up religious or moral topics in her class. She was seeking advice from me on how to evangelize her students. How do I get them interested in the faith? How do I get them to understand that the teaching of the Church is true and can be helpful to their lives? For most high-school students (and this is true for just about everybody across the board), church teaching and theology is something abstract and disconnected from everyday life. Many students can get a good grade in religion class – they might know what the church teaches – but that teaching makes no difference in their lives. It remains disconnected from reality – something “other worldly”. Many doubt the teaching because it remains for them something abstract – something unreal, at best, something totally idealistic. They don’t believe it is true because many have never seen it lived. Take for example, the church’s teaching on the permanence or indissolubility of marriage. With many children growing up with parents who are separated or divorced, how could they believe that permanence in marriage is possible? Would being told what the church teaches about marriage help them if they were ignorant or would it seem totally unrealistic? How does one make the teaching relevant to their lives?
This Sunday, the Church reflects on the central mystery of our faith – that God is a Trinity. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – Three Persons, one God. How do we know this? How was this truth revealed to us? God is totally other. How do we know God exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? If we understand how this central mystery or truth of our faith is communicated, the challenge of the young teacher can be addressed. There were hints of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. In one of the creation accounts, we hear God seemingly having a conversation with himself, “Let us make man in our image.” In the image of God he created them. Male and female, he created them. Together, man and woman are an image of God. They are distinct persons made to live together in a communion of life-giving love. When the Lord appeared to Abraham, he came in the form of three men who unexpectedly visit him and call him to go forth and become the father of many nations. Even the Psalm today refers to the word of the Lord and the breath of his mouth as what makes the heavens. God “speaks” creation into existence. But the Trinity is definitively revealed through the Incarnation. The first human person to hear that God is a Trinity is Mary at the annunciation. The Angel says that God has found favor with her, that she will bear the Son of God, and that this will be made possible by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. But for Mary, it is not an abstraction because through the Holy Spirit, the Word of God takes flesh in her. We come to understand and can communicate the truth of the mystery when the truth – the Word of God – takes flesh in us. The truth is an event that happens to us. The truth – the mystery – is known when it becomes experience – when it can be seen and touched in our lives. Moses, even in the Old Testament, points to actual events, historical facts, to counter the doubt of the people about God as they prepare to enter the promised land. He points to the newness of God’s intervention in their lives. “Did anything so great ever happen before? He points to the signs and wonders that they witnessed “before their very eyes.” If God doesn’t enter into our history and make a difference, why should I care? The mystery is revealed in events through which we are changed. When we see the change, the truth is no longer abstract but gets “fixed in our heart” – it is known through experience.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – three persons living in an eternal communion of life and love. God who is truth and love is essentially a relationship of persons; so the truth is communicated or known through a loving, personal relationship. A surprising, personal encounter with a love beyond our imagining opens us up to the truth. In the history of salvation, this encounter takes the form of being chosen by God to share in his life – a choosing not based on our merits. It is something totally gratuitous and unexpected. Moses recounts in today’s reading from Deuteronomy, “Did any god venture to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation…?” The Psalm response today expresses this as well: “Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.” Jesus has to remind the disciples, “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain.” Jesus communicated the faith, i.e., convinced his disciples that God was with them, by sharing his life with them. Jesus performed many miracles, but many saw the miracles and did not believe. The difference with the disciples was that they spent time living with Jesus – doing many ordinary things – eating together, going fishing, and going on long walks together, and over time, the evidence of the exceptionality of Jesus builds up in their awareness to the point that they believe that he is who he claims to be. St. Paul, in the passage from the Letter to the Romans today, speaks of how through the gift of the Spirit, God adopts us or chooses us to be part of his family. The Spirit draws us into the intimate relationship of love between the Father and the Son. “You received a Spirit of adoption, through whom we cry, “Abba, Father!” The gift of the Spirit within us bears witness that we are children of God. We are chosen by God, receive the Holy Spirit, and enter into an intimate relationship with the Trinity through the sacrament of baptism. In the “Great Commission” that the risen Jesus gives the disciples at Galilee, he sends them forth saying, Go… and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” “Behold… I am with you always…” What are the disciples to “behold”? In context, it seems that they are to behold the ones who are to be baptized, the ones who are taught the Gospel. What Jesus is saying is that through baptism, he remains with us in the flesh of the person who is baptized. So all of us who are baptized witness to the mystery of the Incarnation, but that truth is only communicated if we follow the method of Jesus. In his commission of the disciples, Jesus also commands them to teach all nations, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. So what is taught has to be observable – the Christian life, the moral life, is not just a set of teachings or doctrines, but it is something that is seen – in the flesh. We are taught the faith by following witnesses, by seeing the different way that others live, who live out their baptism – who live in union with Christ and let their relationship with Christ define and determine how they live and the decisions they make.
This was the real challenge that I posed to the young teacher. Are you living in a way that speaks of your belonging to Christ in the ordinary things that you do? Do you live differently because of your faith? It is this difference that is attractive and provokes the question in the youth, “how or why does she live this way?” Unless they are asking that question, they are not going to be open to the truth of the teaching. It will remain abstract and disconnected from real life. Like this young teacher, we can accept the teaching of the church as true – give our intellectual assent to it, but we often forget or bypass the method of Jesus. She understood intellectually that good Christian friendships are essential for the embrace and living out of the faith, but then she asked me, “Do you know any good articles on Christian friendship that I can share with my students? Do you know any good youth programs in the area to which I can direct them?” I said to her, “Your students are not going to understand the value of Christian friendship by reading an article. They are going to understand it if you are a friend to them. You don’t have to send them anywhere.” The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and somehow we think that the solution to the lack of faith in the culture is to get people to read a good book about Jesus, or more clearly to explain or enforce the teaching of the church and her moral norms. This teacher herself grew up with divorced parents in a dysfunctional home, yet she came to know Jesus and embrace the faith. How did the Lord do this in her life? Speak of the real events and facts in your life that are signs of the Lord’s presence, and in doing so, you become a witness of hope to your students who are struggling now with many of the same things you did when you were younger. Speak from experience, and then what you say becomes credible because it is no longer an abstract teaching but a fact. Speak of the difference that Christ has made in your life, the change that has happened in your life because of your faith; then the faith becomes something real, when they can see it in you. We are called to share not primarily facts about Jesus or teachings, but the new life that we have received from him. Even the disciples who saw the risen Lord, “worshiped, but they doubted.” Their doubt was not overcome until they received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Then the love of God was not something just spoken about by Jesus or observed in him, but something that they experienced in their own flesh. It is the provocative witness to the life of grace that opens us up to ask for what we cannot give ourselves. There is no magic formula for communicating the faith – we can’t just hand it to someone as if handing them a book or an instruction manual. May we pray to the Holy Spirit and be led by the Spirit, the spirit that frees us from slavery and fear, and allows us to witness to the truth that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and is with us until the end of the age.