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The Love that loves to love to love
Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity
There is a story I like to tell about the origin of the word ‘person.’ The word ‘person’ as we know it did not exist in the ancient world; it comes to us from the tradition of Greek drama. In an ancient tragedy, a ‘persona’ was a mask that an actor or actress would wear during the performance of a play. The same actor or actress might perform several roles, play several different characters during a single play, and for each new character a different mask would be worn. A new mask meant a new character in the drama, and actors and actresses in the ancient world would go through a drama moving from character to character, from mask to mask.
The word ‘person’ starts to receive its modern meaning because of Christianity. The Fathers of the early church wanted to answer some hard questions: Who is God? Is Jesus God? Is the Holy Spirit God? What makes Jesus different from the Holy Spirit, or the Holy Spirit different from Jesus, or the Father different from either Jesus or the Holy Spirit? The Fathers of the early church needed a method to go about finding the answers to their questions. And the method they chose went something like this: You read through scripture, and when you find a passage in which God is doing something, you identify if the God who performs the action is the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Spirit. The Fathers of the early church went through scripture looking to see what different roles God plays in the drama of salvation history; they went on a search to identify what ‘masks’ God wears in the work of salvation.
And what did the Fathers of the church discover? That God is love, and that the God who loves lives as a Father and as a Son and as a Holy Spirit, each performing the work of love in a unique and powerful way in the drama of salvation history.
To be a person is, in its original usage, to be a person in God—the Father or the Son or the Holy Spirit. We use the word ‘person’ today to talk about human beings, but the standard for living as a person is given to us in God, a Trinity of persons who exist in relationships of eternal love and self-gift. That is what it means to be a person: To live in relationships of eternal love and self-gift. It’s true for God, and it is true for us.
I think the history of the word ‘person’ matters because we spend enough time asking ourselves in life if we are ‘good’ persons. And there are enough philosophies and religions and ethical systems out there to become whatever kind of a ‘good’ person you might want to be. But the word ‘person’ belongs to the Christian tradition; it is our word. And to my mind, the only way to answer the question ‘Am I a good person?’ is to ask the question: Do I live like God? Is my life defined by relationships to which I give and sacrifice perpetually and constantly, letting go of my own desires and passions for the good of those whom I love?
Maybe you think that is a pretty high standard; it is. But I think it is the only standard that matters. Do I live like God? St. Athanasius teaches that there are two reasons that explain why Christ enters the life of the world through an act of Incarnation. The first reason we know well; Christ enters the life of the world to save the world. The second reason we don’t talk about as much as we should; Christ enters the life of the world to show us how to live. St. Athanasius thinks that on our own, in our broken and sinful humanity, we simply cannot know how to live a good life; we are too fragile; too vulnerable to bad passions and desires; too ignorant. So, Christ enters the life of the world, and he shows us how to live and now it is possible for us to become good persons—because Christ shows us how to live like God. To be a good person is to live in relationships of eternal love and self-gift.
These thoughts about the meaning of the word ‘person’ came to mind because this weekend we celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, and maybe you noticed, but our readings aren’t very helpful for making sense of the Triune life of God. The Church teaches that the mystery of the Trinity is the central mystery of our faith—it is the mystery that matters the most for us—and yet you won’t find any clear teachings on the mystery of the Trinity in scripture. What we see in the readings for this weekend are special kinds of actions: a God of mercy who wants to save a stiff-necked people; a Son who accomplishes the work of salvation through self-sacrifice; a Holy Spirit who makes it possible for us to live in bonds of peace and love with one another. We discover who God is by discovering how God lives, how God acts, how God loves. That is the kind of work that the Fathers of the early church needed to do to make sense of the life of God, and nothing has changed for us 2,000 years later.
The other day, I gave a homily to some graduating seniors from a local high school, and I was talking to them about how real conversion is possible and saying that the kind of transformation and renewal of mind that St. Paul talks about again and again and again in his letters really can happen. And I told these young women that the reason that most people fail at conversion and transformation and renewal of mind (which is really to claim for ourselves the mind of Christ) is that most people cannot let go of their own desires, their own passions, for the sake of someone else. We end up picking our spots in the work of love, getting the job done as best we can while holding on to what we want the most for ourselves. We need to do better.
The only real foundation for conversion, the only way to really put on the mind of Christ, is to let go of our own desires and passions for the good of the people we love. Imagine, honestly, what the world would look like if more people took lesser desires, less important passions, and let them die for the sake of sacrificing for the good of someone else. It would not even matter if those desires or passions were good or evil, ordered or disordered, rooted in God or rooted in the world. All that would matter is that those passions and desires were lesser: less than the standard given to us by Christ of what it means to live as a good person. Imagine a world in which more people let go of lesser desires for the sake of living like God; Christ teaches us that a world like that is possible.
And that does not mean that we live a life absent passions and desires; passions and desires are good; we need them. But to live like God, the passion we need the most is the desire to love; a Love that loves to love to love to love to love, that is the life of God. And to want to love more than to want other good things in life is to get about as close as we can to living like God—a Trinity of persons who exist in relationships of eternal self-gift. Love demands that what you love the most is love, and love is self-sacrifice for the good of another.
Homily preached at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on June 4th, 2023