Trinity as Story and Song

eucharist1When we talk about the Trinity as a doctrine consisting of three Persons in one Deity, we tend to feel that we have grasped it to some degree. That is the way it is with concepts and doctrines. But the Trinity is a story much more than it is a doctrine. (See The Infinite round Dance.) As a story, the Trinity is no more graspable than the wind as Nicodemus found out. That is the nature of stories: to be ungraspable. Try to grasp anything in a story and you lose everything but the fragment you grasp. Might as well grasp at a note or two of a song and try to get a hold of the song. The story of the Trinity is the story of the Paschal Mystery, told succinctly in the famous verse, Jn :17, that God sent God’s only Son out of love for the world so that the world would not be judged but saved. In the sending, the Spirit acted out the bond of love between the Father and the Son. The Trinity also enters into the stories of each and every one of us as, through the Spirit, we cry “Abba! Father!” So it is that the Spirit makes us joint heirs with Christ. Paul tells us that as the Spirit enters our stories, we participate in Christ’s suffering and glory so that our own sufferings are shared by Christ and Christ’s glory becomes ours. After the threefold cry of “Holy!” in the temple, the Spirit sends the prophet Isaiah as the Father sends the Son and the Holy Spirit. Like Isaiah, we are sent by the Son and the Spirit to each other.

The Trinity as story shows us that a person is not a rugged individualist but is, in its very essence, a person is relationship. No relationship, no person. Our analogies with stories and music help us again here. The words of a story or a poem have very limited meaning individually but they take on much meaning in relationship to one another. The same is true with individual notes becoming a song when joined one to another. A triad is made up of three notes but it is one chord. The Persons of the Trinity hold nothing back from one another and ideally neither should we with one another. Trying to grasp our non-existent individuality is like trying to grasp a story or a song or the wind. If we are to be ourselves, we must let go as the Persons of the Trinity are always letting go so that we always go where we are sent whether it is halfway around the world or—as is most often the case—to the person next to us.

The Sin Against the Holy Spirit

???????????????????????????????????????????The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant takes us to the heart of the question of forgiveness in Matthew’s Gospel. A dialogue between Jesus and Peter sets the stage and gives us a sense of direction for interpreting the parable. When Peter asks if he should forgive someone who offends him seven times, he seems to think he is putting a high ceiling on the matter. Forgiving somebody seven times seems an awful lot but Jesus breaks his bubble by saying that he has to forgive an offender seventy-seven times, or seventy times seven, in some manuscripts. Taking the higher number, one might think that counting up to 491 offenses legitimizes taking revenge after the magic number is passed, but that obviously misses the point. Jesus’ reply is an allusion to Lamech’s savage song where he boasts that if Cain is avenged seven times, then he is avenged seventy-seven times. The working of revenge cycles indicates that the revenge is infinite. Jesus’ counters the infinite revenge cycle by making forgiveness just as infinite.

Then Jesus launches into the parable of the unforgiving debtor. After being forgiven outright a large sum of money owed to the master, the forgiven servant refuses to forgive a much smaller sum by a fellow servant. Having just been forgiven a large debt, the servant hardly has the excuse of being desperate for money. The point of the parable is clear enough: if you don’t forgive, you won’t be forgiven. But there is a small hitch here. The “forgiving” master suddenly becomes unforgiving. The forgiving Father in Heaven is not forgiving either, at least for this offense. Not forgiving is the unforgivable sin.

Elsewhere in Matthew, Jesus says that every sin and blasphemy can be forgiven with the exception of “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” which is the one thing that cannot be forgiven (Mt. 12:31). It seems odd that God’s hands should ever be tied in any circumstances in forgiving anybody for anything, so what gives? Saying that unforgiving people cannot be forgiven suggests that withholding forgiveness would be the sin of the Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ final discourse, he promises that when he leaves, he will send the Advocate to guide them in all truth. An Advocate is a lawyer for the defense. So the Advocate Jesus sends is the defender of all who are accused. The Advocate “will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (Jn. 16:8). Of course, the world runs by the fuel of accusation and revenge. If we bring Jesus’ words about the Advocate to his words in Matthew, it appears that sinning against the Holy Spirit by not forgiving others cuts us off from our Advocate who would plead our case.

In the parable, the unforgiving servant is handed over to be tortured until he has paid his entire debt. The servant had been invited to a new way of living based on forgiveness and rejected it. Living without forgiveness, which is tantamount to living by vengeance, is torture. It isn’t God who is unforgiving; it is the servant. If refusing the way of forgiveness is the sin against the Holy Spirit, then we do not need to worry about what thing we might do wrong that brings us to eternal damnation. Forgiveness is a process and so is vengeance. Clinging to vengeance in the face of God’s forgiveness tortures us with our vengeance for as long as we are imprisoned in it. All the while, the Advocate continues to defend us, hoping that we will allow the Advocate to prove us wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment. Ultimately, Jesus and the Heavenly Father forgive us our unforgiveness in the hope that we will accept this free gift. Likewise, St. Paul says that Christ is at the right hand of God interceding for us (Rom 8:34). Just ahead of the parable, Jesus has told the Parable of the Lost Sheep for whose sake the shepherd left the ninety-nine to seek out the lost. Surely God searches out each one of who tortured by vengeasnce. Then, immediately before this the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, Jesus has instructed his disciples about seeking reconciliation and treating delinquent members like Gentiles and tax collectors. Judging by the parable that follows that we have examined, the way to treat Gentiles and tax collectors and all other people is to forgive them. Truly accepting this free gift of forgiveness entails passing this free gift on to others. We are all thrown into the same world together. The question is whether we will be tied up in vengeance or bound by forgiveness.

Transfiguration of the Material World

transfigurationThe Transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor is celebrated twice in the Church Year. The celebration on the last Sunday before Lent stresses the event’s preparation for the death and resurrection of Jesus. The celebration in August, being a standalone feast, can be seen as a celebration of Creation in all its materiality. Since there is no feast of the Creation, any celebration that points to our origins in God’s creative Desire is for the good.

That Jesus’ body and his clothing should be transfigured by a dazzling light is about as powerful a sign of the goodness of the material world as anything could be. The only fly in this primordial ointment is the suspicion that if the material world needed to be transfigured, then it wasn’t all that perfect to begin with. That is, the material world is impure, at least to some extent, and needs to be purified. Eastern Orthodox writers, however, suggest that it wasn’t that Jesus was transfigured on Mount Tabor, but that the disciples’ eyes were opened so that they could see the transfiguration that, for Jesus, was an ongoing reality.

The powerful and startling story of the transfiguration of Seraphim of Sarov emphatically illustrates this truth. Seraphim was discussing spiritual matters one night with his disciple Nicholas Motovilov when suddenly Nicholas saw his staretz engulfed in transfiguring light. When Nicholas remarked on this, Seraphim said he had not changed but Nicholas’ ability to see had changed. Not only that, but Nicholas, unknown to himself, was also shining in the same transfiguring light.

If we can see all of the material world from the simplest atoms to the grains of dirt to squirrels and cats to humans in the transfigured light in which they, we, are all created, we will not reach out to grasp anything out of a lust for ownership or push anything or anyone away with expulsion. (See Connecting our Desires.) The catch is that we must be transfigured ourselves in this same light in order to see the transfigured glory all about us.

This need brings us back to the second and more fundamental meaning of the Transfiguration: the redemption of the groaning created world (Rom.8) by the cross and resurrection of Jesus. If our vision of reality is occluded by society’s tendency to hold itself together through the victimization of others through ownership and/or expulsion as Egypt was under Pharaoh, then we will not see the transfigured truth of the world under the Risen forgiving Victim breathes the Paraclete through our eyes and mirror neurons to show us the truth. (See Mirroring Desires.)

Yes, God’s act(s) of Creation is the beginning of the universe but Creation is also each present time of the universe up to and including the present moment and Creation is the End of the universe in the sense of being its goal. It is God’s creative work in redemption all along that has alerted us to the truth of Creation, starting with the deliverance of a ragtag group of slaves expelled from Egypt, continuing with the return of the Jews from their Babylonian exile to the Resurrection of Jesus where Mary Magdalene enters a garden to recalls the Garden of Eden and mistakes the risen Jesus for the gardener.

May we open our eyes to see this renewed glory within ourselves and around us, a glory filled with God’s Desire for all Creation.

The Infinite Round Dance

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Imagine an endless round dance of three persons dancing in and out of each other, dancing with a Desire they share infinitely with each other with such intense love that the three dancers are one, yet so strong is their love for each other that they desire that there also be three. The persons are not personas, as in fake faces of actors or hypocrites, neither are they rugged individualists believing in every person for oneself. These persons are pure relationship through their shared Desire of love.

This round dance could have gone on forever with nobody the wiser except for one amazing thing: the love of these three persons was so ecstatic, so explosive, that it overflowed into a world of galaxies and stars and planets and flowers and giraffes and humans with teeming brains filled with desire, all with the intent of making countless beings much the wiser for the infinite round dance.

The overflowing love of the infinite round dance required that all desires to dance be free so that humans could look at a tree and desire that tree’s fruit before receiving the fruit as a gift from the infinite dancers. When the desire flowing through humans turned into rivalry with the infinite dancers and with each other, suddenly countless trees disappeared in the conflagration, leaving only centered the few trees that drew the humans ‘desires.

As humans fought over their crossed desires and gathered only to share a desire to kill or expel a victim blamed for the violence overcoming them, the infinite dancers continued to dance through the human desires, inspiring desires to share the trees and fruits and poems and songs in tune with the Desire of the infinite dancers.  The infinite dancers poured their Desire into humans who proclaimed the Desire to others, even when they were stoned or ridiculed or cut off from the land of the living.

So strong was the Desire of the infinite dancers that with the fire and love of the other two persons, one person entered into humanity and became vulnerable to all the shared rivalrous desires that spread like a plague among humans. The Son, conceived in a human womb by the Holy Spirit, gave up his spirit when the humans he came to save chose to kill him. The Son received the spirit back as he was raised from the dead, and then forever after sends that spirit into the desires of all humans.

And so the endless round dance continues with the overflowing love of dancers’ shared Desire that all humans be ecstatically the wiser for the dance.

 

The Holy Spirit’s Fiery Desire

outsideSupper1What is the Holy Spirit? Wrong question.  The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Trinity, not an ït.” Our difficulty in thinking of the Holy Spirit as a person is a symptom of our cultural problem of really seeing other persons as persons.

“Many terms and images are given for the Holy Spirit: a roaring wind, tongues of fire, breath, gift, counselor, consoler, teacher, guide, and the bond of love, to list a few. Some of the terms are personal, some not. This only adds to the confusion unless we get beneath the impersonal images to realize that breath requires a breather, a person’s temperament can be fiery, and a bond of love can’t really love unless that bond is a person who actually loves. Teaching and guiding, though done with personal agency, can be mechanical if they are only conveying information and or getting us from one place to another.

The Holy Spirit adds to our difficulty simply by being so shy. Jesus shows us the Father, the Holy Spirit shows us Jesus. Who shows us the Holy Spirit? Look behind you and the Holy Spirit is still behind you. Look deeply in yourself and the Holy Spirit is deeper yet. If we want to know the Holy Spirit, we have to be as shy, as hidden as this Person. Most of us think it important to be more assertive than that.

Perhaps the Holy Spirit is hidden in much the same way as mimetic desire is hidden. (See Human See, Human Want.) Our imitation of other peoples ‘desires occurs below our conscious awareness. The Holy Spirit does the same. Is there a connection between the two? As our teacher and guide, the Holy Spirit conveys the Desire of God.  More than that, the Holy Spirit is the Desire of God. What is this Desire of God? The image of a fiery wind burning all of God’s people without consuming us gives us a hint of God’s fundamental Desire: that we all may be one as the Father and the Son are one. (There is the Holy Spirit hiding again! The Spirit is just as much one with the Father and the Son as the other two Persons of the Trinity.)

Let us try thinking of the Holy Spirit as the Gatherer with fiery arms of Love. Mimetic desire unites us with other people whether we like it or not, or will it or not. Mimetic desire deepens our lives when we share desires in mutually enriching ways, but when mimetic desire falls into conflict, it unites us to that person in the bad sense of being stuck together.  The Holy Spirit weaves through the swirl of other peoples’ desire with God’s Desire, teaching us and guiding us with fiery love how to fill all these desires between us with tongues of fire that deepen our communion with others beyond what words can say.

Jesus’ Escape to the Kingdom

crosswButterfliesThe Ascension is among the most puzzling festivals in the church calendar. The contradictory accounts of the event are a puzzle but one thing the accounts by Luke and John’s Gospel share is to connect Jesus’ departure with his sending the Holy Spirit. Jesus said the Holy Spirit would come to lead them into the truth. What truth did the disciples need that they hadn’t learned already from their teacher? Did Jesus have to leave before the disciples could hear the Holy Spirit?

During his ministry, Jesus warned his disciples three times that “he would be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” These warnings came precisely at the times the disciples thought that a Maccabean-like revolution against the Romans was just around the corner: when Peter proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah, right after the Transfiguration, and when James and John asked if they will sit at Jesus’ right and left in his kingdom.

After his Resurrection, Jesus tried again to get across to the disciples what his kingdom was really all about. When Clopas glumly said that he and his companion had hoped that Jesus “was the one who was to redeem Israel,” Jesus, not yet recognized by them, rebuked them for their slowness of heart in believing what “the prophets have declared.” Then he “interpreted to them all the things about himself in all the scriptures.” Later, Jesus appeared to the twelve and explained that everything written about him in “the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled. “Since the phrase “the Law and the Prophets” was used to refer to the whole Hebrew Bible, the special mention of the psalms is significant. The psalms include many laments over persecution from the standpoint of the victim. Jesus went on to say that when the scriptures say that the Messiah was “to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day,” it means that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed” in Jesus’ name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. Proclaiming repentance and forgiveness is a very different proposition from starting a revolt to restore the kingdom to Israel.

When, in spite of hearing this teaching for forty days, the disciples asked their Risen Lord: “Is this the time when you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus must have banged his head against the nearest tree and cried out: “I’m out of here!” This repeated question may have convinced Jesus that the disciples were never going to stop asking him to restore kingdom of Israel as long as he was walking on the earth with them. Maybe Jesus was planning all along to leave after forty days; maybe he planned to stick around indefinitely but this question was the last straw.

Jesus’s Ascension put paid to any notion of his leading a second Maccabean-type revolution. The disciples were left with no choice but to try doing what Jesus told them to do when he breathed on them and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Jesus’ kingdom is to preach repentance and forgiveness to the whole world until everybody has repented, been forgiven, and has forgiven everybody.

Two Ways of Gathering

A strange gathering of devout Jews from every nation took place a little over two thousand years ago in Jerusalem. These Jews were bewildered to hear a group of Galileans speaking in each of their languages. A new and exciting gift of understanding was unfolding in their midst. In their perplexity some thought the Galileans were drunk.

Peter explains this strange gathering by telling his fellow Israelites about a very different gathering that had taken place just a few weeks earlier where everybody conspired to crucify an innocent man. The Pharisees, Sadducees and the Roman authorities, constantly at loggerheads about just about everything, suddenly and miraculously came to an agreement to put Jesus to death.

Peter goes on to say that this man was “handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” and killed “by the hands of those outside the law.” That Jesus was killed unjustly, by those outside the law, indicates that God’s plan and foreknowledge should not be equated with God’s will. To the contrary, Peter insists that the execution of Jesus was contrary to God’s will. Peter’s next announcement was even more startling: “God raised him up, having freed him from death.” The risen victim, “sitting at the right hand of God” has poured out the Holy Spirit that everybody was seeing and hearing. In declaring that the crucified and risen Jesus was the Messiah, Peter was claiming that a radically new understanding of life was being given through the Holy Spirit.

Quotations from the psalms that accompany the apostolic preaching indicate that the story of people at enmity making peace by agreeing to persecute a person is then blamed for the discord in the community is actually an old story. The opening verses of Psalm two express this old story succinctly: “Why did the Gentiles rage . . . . the rulers have gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah.” Children do the same thing on the playground every day.

What was truly strange about the gathering by the Holy Spirit was that people were being gathered without creating a victim. Instead, the victim of just a few weeks past has risen from the dead to gather God’s people in a radically new way based on sharing God’s love for every person.

 Tools for Peace explores how Benedictine spirituality helps us live in the gathering in the risen forgiving victim.