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Gospel Reflection – Trinity

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Today the Church invites us to sit back, as it were, and reflect upon the God who has been revealed in the full sweep of the Paschal mystery.

The doctrine of the Trinity can so easily seem to be an arid theological puzzle. For the early Christians it was nothing of the kind. They held firmly to the Jewish tenet that there was only one God. Yet, as they reflected upon what they had experienced in all the events surrounding the person of Jesus Christ and the subsequent gift of the Spirit, they could only conclude that they had been addressed and drawn into a divine communion of love.

Today’s feast, then, celebrates the nearness, rather than the remoteness, of God.

Each of the readings explores this in some way. But the Gospel, drawn from the concluding section of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, most clearly brings out the continuity between the act of Christ in the paschal mystery and redemptive love of the Father.

The Father sent the Son, not to “judge” (= condemn) the world, but to rescue it from its captivity to sin and death, and draw human beings into the communion of life and love that is the Godhead.

Judgment is not so much a future prospect. It is something that human beings determine for themselves here and now through the way they respond to the revelation of God that comes to us through life of Jesus and the grace of the Holy Spirit.

 

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Jesus’ Abiding Presence

In the Gospel for last week Jesus reflected on two understandings of his ‘going away’ and ‘return’: first, his going away in death and his re-appearance three days later as risen Lord; second, his more final departure to the Father, to return only at the end of time. The section from Jesus’ instruction that we hear today focuses upon the much longer period of absence involved in his ‘going away’ in this second sense.

As far as the non-believing world is concerned, Jesus will simply seem to have ceased to exist. We who believe, however, will continue ‘see’ him with the eyes of faith and ‘will live’ in the experience of his presence. In loving the Lord and keeping his commandments, we participate in the mutual love that unites Father and Son. This means that, while deprived of the comfort of Jesus’ physical presence, we should not feel ‘orphaned’.

In this connection Jesus speaks of ‘another Paraclete’ whom he will ask the Father to give. A ‘paraclete’ is someone who stands beside a person in time of difficulty, a supportive and encouraging presence. We might think, for example, of a highly respected person who might accompany us to court and act as a character witness on our behalf. Though Jesus will no longer be physically present to carry out this role, the community will have ‘another paraclete’ in the shape of the Holy Spirit.

In the face of the world’s hostility and doubt, the ‘Spirit of truth’ will offer reassurance that what we believe and seek to live by is the most profound truth.

 

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Today’s Gospel comes from the long instruction that Jesus, according to the Fourth Gospel, gives to his disciples at the Last Supper. He reflects upon his return to the Father and what his absence will mean for the disciples.

Jesus’ ‘departure’ seems to operate on two levels. The setting of the supper on the night before he dies, makes it natural to understand his ‘going away’ as a reference to this imminent departure in death; his ‘coming back’, then, would refer to his appearance on the third day as risen Lord.

At a deeper level, however, Jesus addresses a more permanent ‘going away’ when he returns to the Father following his appearances to the disciples. From this perspective, his ‘coming back would refer to his return as world judge at the end of time.

At this level what Jesus says does not bear upon the short period between Good Friday and Easter but upon the indefinite ‘time of the Church’ that will follow.

During this time—which remains our time—the disciples will feel keenly the loss of his physical presence. But Jesus insists that it will be a better time in fact. His departure to the Father through his death upon the cross will defeat the grip of sin and death upon the human race, and open up the gift of eternal life.

Jesus is ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life in the sense that his death supremely reveals the ‘truth’ about God (that God is love) and opens up the ‘way’ to human sharing in God’s (eternal) ‘life’.

 

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Jesus: Shepherd and Gate

To appreciate ‘shepherd’ image in today’s Gospel, we have to understand something of pastoral practice in Palestine at the time of Jesus.

Sheep from various flocks would be penned up at night in communal sheepfolds. Though they were all mixed up together overnight, at daybreak, when the time came for them to be led out to pasture, each shepherd could rely on the fact that the sheep of his flock would recognize his voice, separate themselves from the rest, and willingly follow him through the gate of the sheepfold.

Jesus contrasts a ‘good shepherd’ like this, whose relationship with the sheep rests on care and mutual knowledge, with others who come only to steal, harass and bring about the loss of sheep that do not belong to them.

The image acquires a fresh dimension when Jesus goes on to identify himself with the ‘gate’of the sheepfold. If the sheep are to flourish, they cannot remain all day within the sheepfold; they have to go out and find pasture. Yet, if they do not return to the fold at night, they will be at risk. So daily they have to come and go through the gate. The gate is their means of access to both protection and growth.

As ‘Gate’ Jesus performs this function for the community. It is only through continual interaction with himself that its members find life and growth.

In this sense he ‘has come that they may have life and have it to the full’ (v. 10).

 

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St Matthew’s account of Jesus’ suffering and death is haunted by the theme of guilt at the shedding of innocent blood.

Most prominent in this respect is the figure of Judas. We learn not only of his betrayal of Jesus but also of his subsequent remorse and futile attempt to rid himself of guilt by getting the chief priests to take back the blood money. Tragically, he does not seem to have believed that, like Peter, he would have found forgiveness and a fresh start with Jesus—so, unable to forgive himself, he takes his own life.

Next, Pilate, warned by his wife to have nothing to do with ‘that innocent man’, washes his hands before the crowd, in a futile attempt to evade responsibility.

Finally, urged on by their leaders, the people as a whole answer, ‘His blood be upon us and upon our children’. This cry, so devastating in its consequences down the centuries, in no sense means that Jewish people as a whole and for all time incur responsibility for Jesus’ death. For Matthew it explains the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, in the sense that the next generation (‘our children’) will bear the consequences of shedding Jesus’ blood.

But all this evil—betrayal, miscarriage of justice, shedding of innocent blood—is gathered up and overcome by the divine love that is the true meaning of Jesus’ death. Even as he dies there is already a hint of love’s victory as the earthquake and opening of tombs foreshadows the resurrection.

 

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Fr Brendan Byrne reflects on this weekend’s Gospel:

Today’s Gospel describes a perfect drama in eight scenes. The man’s blindness is cured right at the start, in the opening scene. But his ‘journey to the light’ in this physical sense becomes a symbol of a much longer journey: a journey out of the ‘darkness’ of unbelief to faith in Jesus as the ‘Light of the world’.

Jesus in fact appears only at the beginning and end of the drama. In between, the healed man— and his parents—engage in a battle with religious authorities, who constantly pressure him to deny the truth of what Jesus has done for him. Their intensifying hostility, however, only serves to propel him on a journey of ever growing faith that comes to a climax when he falls down and worships Jesus.

As the story develops, the man’s character emerges. Questioned about Jesus, he never goes beyond the evidence; he simply sticks to the facts and draws conclusions about Jesus as they are forced upon him. His journey into faith is a journey into ever deeper perception of reality.

The adversaries, on the other hand, resort to denial of the obvious facts, then to unfounded accusations and personal abuse. Finally, they appeal simply to their own authority and status. While the man comes to the Light, they, despite their physical sightedness, journey to the darkness of sin and unreality.

Going in opposite directions, the two journeys dramatically illustrate two responses to Jesus, the Light of the world.

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Fr Brendan Byrne reflects on this weekend’s Gospel:

Weary and thirsty from his journey, Jesus asks a Samaritan Woman to give him a drink. Soon, however, he begins to convince her that he has a far greater gift to give her: not the inert water of a well but ‘living water’, the life-giving gift of the Spirit.

The woman half grasps his meaning but can go no further. Like all who reach a certain stage in the spiritual life, her knowledge of Jesus cannot go forward until the truth of her own life has been owned and set on the way to healing. That is why Jesus instructs her, ‘Go, call your husband’.

Jesus’ knowledge of her personal life leads the woman to recognize him as a religious expert (a ‘prophet’). So she brings up the subject of worship, a key matter of dispute between Jews and Samaritans. But Jesus speaks of a ‘worship’ transcending these divisions: a worship of God from hearts transformed by the Spirit of truth, the truth to which Jesus is gently leading her.

Later, the woman will exclaim to her townsfolk ‘Come and see a man who has told me the story of my life’. That is not the usual translation of her words but it is a wonderful description of pastoral and spiritual direction: Come and see a man who shown me how my life, in all its ups and downs, its wrongs turns and failures, is nonetheless a meaningful story that God’s grace is weaving through the power of the Spirit.

 

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Fr Brendan Byrne SJ reflects on this weekend’s Gospel:

Sometimes a sudden loss or illness or experience of failure, or even a trip overseas takes us out of our ‘comfort zones’. These are times when the usual things that support us and protect us from feeling insecure and vulnerable are stripped away.

What is really being stripped away is a false identity that rests on three things: 1. I am what I do, make or produce: 2. I am what people think of me—my importance; 3. I am what I have—possessions, gifts, talents, etc. All of these things we can lose—leading to depression if we have really invested our sense of worth in them.

The temptations Satan puts to Jesus during his “desert” experience involve much the same three things: 1. ‘Make bread out of these stones’; 2. ‘Impress people by making a spectacular leap from the pinnacle of the Temple’; 3. ‘You can possess the whole world if only you worship me’.

Jesus dismisses each suggestion, totally secure in his true identity as God’s beloved Son, an identity that, as elder Brother, he has shared with us.

Lent is a time when we are invited to go out with Jesus a little beyond our spiritual comfort zone. We share something of his ‘desert’ experience so as to know more deeply where our true identity and security lies: not in what we can make or do, nor in what other people think of us, nor in what we own, but in the fact that we are beloved sons and daughters of God.

 

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