Homilies by Michael Tate
Rev Prof Michael Tate graduated in Law from the University of Tasmania in 1968, and in Theology from Oxford University in 1971. He lectured at the University of Tasmania from 1972-78, being Dean of the Faculty of Law in 1977-78. He was a Senator for Tasmania from 1978-93, being Federal Minister for Justice from 1987-93. He served as Ambassador to The Hague and the Holy See from 1993-96. He is currently a Parish Priest in the Archdiocese of Hobart and is Catholic Chaplain to the University of Tasmania where he is an Honorary Professor of Law, lecturing in International Humanitarian Law.
Where does God really dwell?
Did you notice how the first reading began? The setting is the story of the Jewish slaves fleeing the oppression of the Pharaoh of Egypt. Moses, a leader of those fugitive slaves wandering through a desert, received a message from God which begins:
‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.’
What follows are ten ways in which a free and liberated people should respond. They should be called the Ten Responses rather than the Ten Commandments.
‘Respond by worshipping me as your one and only liberator: don’t bow down to others. Don’t abuse my name. Build up a community where you treat others with respect and reverence, never as property or less than human. Murder, perjury, theft, adultery, neglecting elderly parents destroy such community.’
Indeed, God is always attempting to create a community which responds to His love by treating others as fully human and unshackled from the chains of oppression and exploitation.
In today’s Gospel we find Jesus furiously angry. Why? Because when he entered the Temple precinct, he did not see evidence of a liberated people.
Rather, he saw evidence of a Temple system which exploited and oppressed people, enslaving them to an ideology.
Only a few days before he had witnessed a poor widow so brainwashed by the Temple system that she had thrown into its treasury the last couple of coins she needed for the necessities of life – ‘everything she had’. She was left destitute.
Jesus paid particular attention to the pigeon sellers. Why? Mary and Joseph had been required to buy two pigeons as payment to signal the purification of Mary who was regarded as defiled and rendered unclean by the birth of Jesus!
No wonder he was angry.
Does this sound like a place where the God who proclaimed himself the great liberator of His people would dwell?
Jesus expressed his anger physically and the leaders understood his dramatic street theatre, his actions full of symbolism. In overturning tables he was signalling the overturning of the Temple system.
They challenged him. They asked for his authority to do what he had been doing. He gives them an enigmatic answer: ‘Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up.’
They thought he was speaking about the great building they saw before them, and used his answer against him in his show trial.
But, the author of our Gospel, probably writing in Ephesus around the year 100 AD, i.e. after the Resurrection, gives us the explanation: ‘But he spoke of the sanctuary of his body.’
The body of Jesus of Nazareth is the dwelling place, the habitation of God who liberates people.
This is our core belief about the identity of Jesus of Nazareth. Many will accept that he was an impressive teacher or guru, or even an inspired prophet (the Muslims).
But it is our faith that Jesus of Nazareth is God embodied, God enfleshed in human history. In short, God’s sanctuary is not a place but a person.
And, by adoption, we can share in this extraordinary status: we too can become temples.
Towards the end of funerals, I burn incense and surround the coffin with sweet-smelling smoke as a sign of reverence for the body which, by adoption at baptism, became a temple of the Holy Spirit. We acknowledge this by doing what one does in temples, we burn incense.
Let us go forward in these last few weeks in Lent as a liberated people, using the Ten Responses to guide our reflection of the journey towards Easter.
At that time we will be ready to celebrate the fulfilment of the enigmatic saying: ‘Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up again.’
We will be ready to acknowledge with the Christians of Ephesus around the year 100: ‘He was speaking of the sanctuary of his body.’
© Fr Michael Tate
Homilies by Richard Leonard
Richard Leonard SJ is the Director of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting, is a member of the Australian Catholic Media Council and a film critic for all the major Australian Catholic newspapers. He completed a PhD in cinema studies at the University of Melbourne. He lectures in cinema and theology at the United Faculty of Theology and has been a visiting lecturer in Australian cinema at the University of Melbourne, a visiting scholar within the School of Theatre, Film and Television at UCLA and is visiting professor at the Gregorian University in Rome.
Until I spent time on a vineyard ten years ago, I always heard the parable of the vinedresser as a tough, ‘shape up or ship out’ message. I always imagined God as the vinedresser having a field day lopping and cutting my dead branches, trimming my unproductive stems and uprooting all the rot that undermines my fruitfulness. It always felt like a violent activity.
It was a pleasant surprise then, to actually see a vinedresser in action. Far from an act of violence, the care paid by the dresser to each stem is extraordinary. He or she carefully inspects the branch, delicately cutting only the smallest amount so that the vine will be healthier and more productive. A good vinedresser pores over the vines and from experience knows that to cut too much or too little will render the vine without its distinctive character. Every cut is measured and aimed to prune back only the diseased branch, so as to bring about greater growth for the whole vine and a bigger yield for the vineyard. The vinedresser is not violent with the vine, but extremely tender. The first hearers of today’s Gospel would have known that this metaphor is anything but a ‘shape up or ship out’ message.
This parable is a profound insight into the Christian life. We can claim to belong to the Christian family all we like. We can come to Mass every Sunday. But if the fruit we produce is bitter and poisonous, if we are unforgiving, unjust and uncaring, we cannot claim to be on the vine of Christ’s love. And if that’s the case we are in desperate need of the gentle hand of the vinedresser, who only wants to see us bring forth the yield we are capable of achieving.
Rev Billy Graham once said, ‘Being a member of the Church no more makes you a Christian than living in a garage makes you a car.’ That’s the point of today’s Gospel: God will not judge us by what we say or the public face of goodness we can turn on, we will be judged by our acts of love in and through our kindness and compassion.
This metaphor also reminds us that we are connected to each other. There are moments in our life of faith when we hear or see other Christians saying or doing things we cannot countenance. We can try to disown them by retreating into our denomination, but we are all connected in Christ’s vineyard. We need the courage to tell them the truth as we see it, and charitably point out the problems we have with what they think is right. And we need the humility to listen when they challenge us.
It’s even harder when the diseased part of the vine is in our own Catholic section of the vineyard. Our first instinct can be to lop off the branch, just to get rid of it. But as any vinedresser knows this is the last resort. Whether we find it easy or not, Christ calls us to limited surgical interventions over amputations every time. This is tough love. Even though there are people within our community who have committed terrible crimes and betrayed our trust, the Gospel calls us to hold on to them until it’s clear that no matter what intervention we make, they are dying on Christ’s vine already. And even then, we hope and pray that our action towards them might see a new growth within them which could be the beginning of a possible grafting back on to us in the future.
In the face of the world’s ‘shape up or ship out’ principle, today’s Gospel challenges us to hang in there with each other, in season and out of season, because as the old folk hymn sings, ‘They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.’
© Richard Leonard SJ.
Reflections by Dianne Bergant CSS
Dianne Bergant CSA is Professor of Biblical Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She holds a BS in Elementary Education from Marian College, Fond du Lac, WI; an MA and PhD in Biblical Languages and Literature from St Louis University. She is currently working in the areas of biblical interpretation and biblical theology, particularly issues of peace, ecology, and feminism. She has also written numerous books, articles and chapters in books.
Today’s readings contain several images: the faithfulness of those who suffer, even as they lament their predicament; the admonition to watch and wait; the expectation of the coming of the Day of the Lord. As trustees of the one who is coming, we live in the ‘in between’ time of ambiguity and hope. The placement of these readings at the beginning of Advent shapes the context for understanding the entire season. They fix our gaze on the world of human pain and then moves beyond it to the hope of a brighter future. Lamentation and expectation find fulfilment in the Day of the Lord.
Waiting is a prominent image this Sunday. Some people wait to be released from suffering, others await the second coming of Christ. Waiting saps our energies and stifles our enthusiasm. Yet wait we must, and as we wait, we wonder: ‘What should I be doing?’ The readings suggest that we should wait with patient expectation for the day of reconciliation and peace; we should wait in joyful hope that what is to come will come soon. While we wait, we should faithfully fulfil our responsibilities. We believe that we have a future worth waiting for, that there are promises that God will keep. And so we look expectantly to the Day of the Lord, that future day of ultimate fulfilment.
© Dianne Bergant CSS
Reflections by Greg Sunter
Greg Sunter is a member of the Evangelisation and Spiritual Formation team with Brisbane Catholic Education. He has extensive experience of praying with young people and forming others to lead prayer with young people. He was a presenter at Brisbane Archdiocese’s Pray 2010. He is the author of books on adolescent faith and is a regular speaker at youth and evangelisation conferences.
The readings selected for Trinity Sunday provide an opportunity to reflect on the nature of God. Over recent weeks, we have celebrated the Ascension and Pentecost – both of which reveal something about the nature of God through Jesus and the Spirit. Trinity Sunday is an opportunity to celebrate the unity of God whom we acknowledge as Father, Son and Spirit. Today’s gospel reminds us that there is a seamless continuity between the different experiences of God. Although we sometimes regard the God of the Old Testament as judging and vengeful, today reminds us that God is, was, and always will be a God of love. The gospel reminds us that ‘God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son.’ Love is the characteristic of God that is experienced as Father, Son and Spirit. God loved the world into being and loved the people so much that God made a covenant relationship with them and repeatedly drew them back into that relationship when they strayed. God loved the world and the people so much that God became physically present through Jesus as yet another attempt to draw all people into an awareness of the loving relationship God desired for them. When Jesus could no longer remain a physical presence in the world, God’s Spirit became more evident to continue the work of drawing people into that loving relationship with God.
Rather than focusing on the mystery of the Trinitarian God, today is an opportunity to marvel at the single-mindedness of God who is so determined to reveal the length and breadth of God’s love to us. That revelation has been made manifest in different ways throughout time but remains constant and unchanging.
Historical Context – We believe…
The teaching on the Trinity was not formally constructed until the 4th Century and was documented in the creed that emerged from the Council of Nicaea. The Creed that is said today in the Sunday liturgy is a version of that original Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed spells out Christian beliefs about the nature of God, Jesus and the Spirit and was worded very carefully to negate a variety of heretical views that were held at the time. It is as much a statement about what we do not believe as it is a statement about what we do believe!
Scriptural context – Trinity
At no point in the New Testament is the term ‘Trinity’ used. That understanding of the nature of God came much later. However, there are a number of scriptural references that led to this theological understanding. The Annunciation, the baptism of Jesus and the great commissioning of the disciples to baptise in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all examples of the three persons of God being recognised or active in the gospels. Today’s second reading shows St Paul using the three experiences of God as a blessing of the people of Corinth.
Living the Gospel – Sign of the Cross
Every time we bless ourselves or begin prayer with the sign of the cross, we reaffirm our belief in the Trinity. That seemingly simple prayer, ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,’ is, in fact, a confirmation of our belief in a triune God – three in one. The earliest use of the sign of the cross only involved tracing a small cross with the thumb or finger on the forehead as it is still done in baptisms or blessings today. Later, describing the shape of the cross on forehead, abdomen and shoulders became the common practice.
Questions for Adolescents
Q. What are the different symbols or images of Trinity that you can identify?
Q. Why do you think the concept of Trinity developed so slowly over a few hundred years?
Q. In what ways is it helpful to be able to think about God in three different ways?
Q. How would you explain the concept of ‘Trinity’ to a non-Christian?
Questions for Adults
Q. How would the earliest Jewish-Christians have reacted to the idea of God as Trinity?
Q. What images or characteristics do you ascribe to the three different experiences of God?
Q. In what ways do your prayers to Father, Son or Spirit differ?
Q. Which images or symbols of Trinity do you find helpful and which ones are unhelpful for you?
Research the language used in the Nicene Creed. What conflicting beliefs were the Council members seeking to clarify through the creedal statement?
Create a prayerful PowerPoint or other digital reflection that celebrates and helps others to reflect on the nature of God as Father, Son and Spirit.
© Greg Sunter