Trinity Sunday is a difficult feast to preach on – even the name seems very abstract and theological, with not much to do with the struggle and hardship, the quest for love and understanding, the inevitable loss and sorrow of daily life – including the turmoil and suffering the Church is going through at the present time. It’s not too surprising if people wonder what difference it makes how many persons there are in God. (Some of my beginning students think that “person” means “people,” and wonder how there can be three people in one God. It’s hard enough to get three people in an elevator.)
But, as you might expect, belief in the Trinity has its place in the Christian story, as does the Feast itself that we are celebrating. It’s not all that old, as feasts go — there were masses in honor of the Trinity in Italy in the late ninth century during a period of desperately needed reform in the Church. But it was not until 1331 that Pope John XXII created a feast for the whole Church. He was the same pope who canonized St. Thomas Aquinas, if that helps any.
Devotion to the Blessed Trinity goes back much further, of course. In the third century, the Christians of Alexandria, in Egypt, prayed to the Trinity. But it took a long time for the Church to work out what it meant, both for belief and for worship. The word doesn’t appear in the New Testament, and it seems that it wasn’t invented until the beginning of the third century in the writings of Tertullian, who also began using the word “Person” in regard to God. He had a way of stirring up trouble. But it took the church over a hundred years to work out a language that tried to made sense of it all.
In the end, around 400 years later, the Trinitarian theology of the early church was a great accomplishment — although it’s easy to get lost in all the terms. It’s also not surprising that ordinary people as well as great scholars have done so ever since.
In fact, “Trinity” is not even mentioned in the conclusion of Matthew’s Gospel with its threefold baptismal formula
Mt 28:16-20 [Matt 29:19]. No mention of three persons in one nature or anything of the kind. In the Gospel of John, it even seems that the Trinity is somehow denied — when Jesus says strange things such as: “The Father is Greater than I,” “The Father and I are One,” and “he who sees me sees the Father.” In today’s readings not even St. Paul’s references to Spirit of God, Abba, or Christ contain a hint of what might be called Trinitarian doctrine. And yet it is all there, perhaps especially in the Gospel of John, which is actually the most Trinitarian of all.
Thomas Aquinas, who with St Augustine is the most Trinitarian of theologians, makes two especially important points worth considering: first, the Trinity is a mystery, something hidden from the foundation of the world and now made known only by divine revelation.
That’s to say that we could never think ourselves to the Trinity, nor can we get to the bottom of it once we accept it as divine revelation — a real mystery is not like a detective novel. The more that is revealed, we find that even more is still hidden from us. We can never uncover all of it. The inner life of God is more than anyone can ever comprehend. As the great St. Augustine said, Those who think they truly understand God do not know anything at all. Only those who know they do not know, begin to understand.
The second point St Thomas makes concerns Creation. In all creatures, he says, there is found a trace of the Trinity just because each and all together are the result of God’s wise and loving creation and providence — each exists in its own unique form by which it reflects its origin in its cause and principle. [Summa Theologiae, I, Q. 45, A. 7.] Each creature represents the Word of God as a work of art proceeding from the mind of the Divine artist, and it images the Holy Spirit, as Divine Love, reflecting the order that proceeds from the Divine Will. But human creatures especially reflect the Trinity because in us is found consciousness, intelligence, and love. We are spiritual persons just as God is a trinity of spiritual persons. That which makes us most human also makes us most like God.
Perhaps even more important for Thomas and, I would suggest, us, is what the Trinity of Persons in God is not like: quite a lot of things — in fact everything. It is not like anything at all.
It is not like a family, despite the words we use and some hearty efforts in the very early days of the Church to portray the inner life of God as Father, Mother, and Child — there is no bigger or smaller, older or younger, orders and obedience, and no wet diapers or tantrums.
The first artistic portrayal of the Trinity is found on a Roman sarcophagus of the 4th century — three bearded gentlemen creating Eve from the body of Adam. But the Trinity is not a committee, either. There are no votes to be taken, or minutes, no resolutions to be passed, no apologies from absent members, and especially no bungled projects or shredded documents, much less beards. And no bird.
Ultimately, the impression I get of the Holy Trinity is that of a great dance of love in which everything is perfect action and perfect poise. No one stumbles, no one falls, no one steps on anyone’s toes. It’s not beside the point to note that when those early theologians looked for a term to describe the inner dynamism of the shared nature of the three Persons, they used the Greek word ‘perichoresis,’ which means “to dance around.” In any case, the Holy and Blessed Trinity is a model for us. The Trinity is our model of community in perfect accord, of individuality and perfect acceptance of otherness without division, a model of total understanding and love. And the Universe as a whole is nothing less than a great mirror of this perfection.
But the universe still does not give us the Trinity — in the end, it is Jesus who gives us the Trinity. The Trinity is in this sense a Christological doctrine — it shows us why we can say that God was present in Christ, that Jesus and the Father are one, but that the Father is greater than He, and that he who sees Jesus sees the Father.
For Jesus was, we believe and profess, fully God but not wholly God — Jesus was the Incarnate Word of God, not the Incarnate Father, not the Incarnate Spirit of Love. Jesus is our way in truth to the Father in the Holy Spirit.
To believe Jesus, to believe IN Jesus, requires some way of speaking about God before and beyond our speech about Jesus. That is why, however foundational it proved to be, the Trinity is not the central doctrine of Christian revelation. It expresses what had to be the case for Jesus to be what he said, to do what he did, to give himself for us and, in our Eucharist, still to give himself to us completely as the very life of our life. But it comes at the end, not the beginning of our pondering.
And so it is that celebrating communion with each other — with all others — is the most fitting way to acknowledge our belief in God as three in one and one in three, a perfect inter-communion of Persons, whose everlasting supper party is our goal and destiny. Let us pray that God will make sure we get there, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
While our attention was diverted to spectacles of princely matrimony and more tragic school shootings in Texas and Georgia, the Feast of Pentecost quietly arrived. The strange mixture of themes is surely as much a sign of our times as almost any other aspect of life today. But here and now, our focus is now on the conclusion of the great Paschal mystery at the heart of Christian faith.
We are so used to seeing the Holy Spirit portrayed by the symbol of a dove that we automatically insert one in our images of what happened on that strange and wonderful morning. But Luke says nothing about a dove. He speaks of wind and fire, tongues of flame that appeared over the disciples’ heads. In the very next sentence, using the same word, glossa, Luke tells how the disciples began speaking – not just babbling – in foreign languages. And a few sentences later, he describes how the many linguistically different people gathered outside heard them speaking in their languages – dialektoi – that ranged from Persian to Egyptian, Turkish, and Latin. You could call that “the gift of ears.”
Pentecost is about God’s wild and creative energy, about life and unexpected renewal. It is especially about language, and especially the language of prophecy. For the Holy Spirit is above all the Spirit of Prophecy, the Spirit of Jesus himself, sent from God to lead, guide, and guard his followers as they preached the gospel in every corner of the world. Since then, “Holy Spirit” is the name we give to our direct personal experience of God in the real and daily events of our lives. It is the name we place on the ways God acts through us to renew the face of the earth.
Today’s gospel is from John, because of the gift of the Holy Spirit Jesus makes when he appears to his disciples on the night of the
Resurrection. Twice, Jesus says to them “Peace be with you.” Then, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you. And after he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. [John 20:21-22]
How did God send Jesus? John has told us that earlier: “God sent the Son into the world, not to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him” [John 3: 16 – 21]. And so we, too, are supposed to save the world! But what does breathing have to do with it?
In biblical tradition, breathing is always spiritually effective, beginning with Genesis, when “God formed a human being of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the human being became a living person” [Gen. 2:7]. The Latin word “spiritus” actually means breath, and so do the Greek and Hebrew words.
We come then to the third and final phrase of Jesus’ mandate to the Disciples: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” That declaration seems sudden and, frankly, out of place. But anyone who has sat for a time with John’s gospel will suspect that there is much more going on here than first meets the ear. What these unexpected words tell us is not only startling, but intimately related to why we are here today and our mission as we return to the world out there which is so full of fear, disillusionment, sin, hurt, and longing.
First of all, in scripture, to bind or retain always means to grapple, to grasp, or to hold on to something, usually in the context of a struggle against threatening force. Here, John is telling us that both forgiveness — letting go, and binding — holding back, confrontation, are necessary and complementary dimensions of Christ’s commission to be Spirit in the world by overcoming the powers of evil and creating a commonwealth of love, peace, and justice.
Christian binding has little to do with acts of social control such as excommunication or refusing to absolve people, but much to do with public and private resistance to injustice, that is, with the spirit of prophecy. Some things must not be overlooked. It gets down to prophetic action. All kinds of it, from silent witness to great gestures of protest, defiance, or support that we associate with prophecy in our own time. Here the life and death of Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Archbishop Oscar Romero immediately come to mind.
In the Gospel of John prophecy always means exposing sin and evil in the face of their denial. The Holy Spirit came among us to convict the world of sin, that is, to expose evil and injustice by revealing the sheer fact of its presence. Our task, our mission and ministry is to enable the Spirit to convict the world through the truth and justice of our witness. The gifts of the one Spirit differ, as St. Paul says. Often it is not necessary to do anything but be present, to endure, as the great martyrs have done. Or the lesser ones, such as the silent, daily witness of Christians in Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, the Central African Republic, and elsewhere. The “church suffering” is a living reminder to the world that injustice does not go unnoticed.
Still, to protest injustice publicly, to lament, to proclaim our consciousness of oppression if only by suffering, serves the Truth and the Light. To respond with violence does not. With God’s grace, non-violent resistance will, as it has before, bring those responsible for injustice and suffering to conversion of heart. Then, and only then, will forgiveness and healing begin to operate creatively in the world. We have recently seen that in Parkland and now, again, in Santa Fe, Texas.
As a habit of the heart, the spirit of forgiveness also recognizes our own complicity in evil. By asking forgiveness from each other, we open way to forgiving others on one hand and really confronting evil on the other, as we say in the Lord’s Prayer. Pretty heavy stuff! The stuff that wants and needs confirmation, and why there is a sacrament by that name. For out of such commitment to truth, to love, and to justice, true healing and reconciliation can and will grow. And so the final promise of the Spirit is that love will ultimately heal the wound of sin that infects the world and the cosmos itself, this great body of Christ groaning in labor, awaiting the revelation of the children of God.
That’s what the Gift of the Spirit on Pentecost calls us to celebrate and renew. Let us pray for the light and the wisdom to proceed.
Today in much of the United States, we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus – the climax of the Easter mysteries leading to the
Feast of Pentecost, next Sunday. It is a splendid feast, the awareness of the cosmic dimension of Jesus’ victory over sin and death, the proclamation of his presence to us throughout space and time and into the vaults of eternity.
As calendars go, this is also Mother’s Day in the United States. I preached on this festival a few years ago and don’t think I would add anything to what I said then:
God’s love is famously likened in Scripture to that of a mother concerned for her children. One of the most endearing passages comes from the Book of Isaiah, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” [Isaiah 49:15] Jesus also compared himself to a mother hen who seeks to gather her chicks under her wings to protect them. [Matthew 23:37]
Motherhood is powerful. One of my students that year was from Argentina. She spoke eloquently in class about her own mother and the hundreds of Las Madres, the mothers and grandmothers of the disappeared — their husbands, fathers, and especially the sons and even daughters who had been abducted and killed or hidden away in prisons by the military dictatorship in the 1970s and 80s. Every Thursday, the madres would don white scarves and gather in silent protest in the Plaza de Mayo of Buenos Aires holding placards with the names and photos of hundreds of their children. They were scorned, attacked, and three of the founders were themselves abducted and killed. One was a French nun, whose death triggered international outrage. But the mothers were persistent. Opposition to the regime steadily grew and eventually it fell. Las Madres are remembered as national heroines.
Similar stories can be told of other mothers in other lands who were not afraid to lay down their lives for their children… and not only in social conflict. You may remember the name of Stephanie Decker of Henrysville, Indiana, who shielded her two children during a tornado and lost parts of both her legs… and considered herself blessed. It is not the exception. It is the rule.
We think of gravity, nuclear energy, cosmic radiation and solar eruptions as the most powerful forces in the universe, but I have another theory. Some years back I read of an experiment with rats, who despite their bad reputation are very good family animals and resemble human beings in many respects. It explains why they are used in so many experiments. The psychologists set up this experiment to test the strength of rat motivation. They put food at one end of a runway and a rat at the other end. Between them was an electrical grid which delivered a nasty shock to the rats’ tender feet. The scientists wanted to how much pain the rats would endure to get food, water, and even to an attractive rat of the opposite gender. Eventually the rats all gave up when the pain was just too much to endure. Except for one test. When the scientists put a mother rat’s pups at the end of the runway and delivered shocks to her feet as she scampered to get to them, no amount of pain would prevent her from crossing that grid. Rat moms would die trying to get to their pups.
There are so many examples from the animal world alone that it would take a long time to list even the more interesting cases – elephants, wolves, even alligators make swell moms. So do humans. The bottom line is this: the most powerful force in the universe is a mother’s love.
It’s a steadying idea, a wonderful source of hope on this Mothers’ Day for us and throughout the world. We only have to look at the news to see what a mess human beings can make of things. At some point today, we should give a thought to the mothers in Iraq, Palestine, Pakistan, and Syria who stand every day outside the prisons where sons and daughters, husbands, and fathers languish for months without contact with their loved ones or access to legal counsel or international agencies. And we should think of the mothers of our own military personnel who wait daily, praying that their children and husbands and friends will be safe, that they will escape the physical and spiritual horrors of war. War is what we do. Peace is what God does. And what mothers do.
Mothers tend to be peace-makers. It’s worth mentioning that the first efforts to start Mothers’ Day in the United States was by several women’s peace groups during the Civil War. Then in 1868, Ann Jarvis founded a committee to establish a “Mother’s Friendship Day” in order “to reunite families that had been divided during the Civil War.” She planned to expand it into an annual memorial for mothers, but in 1905 she died before finishing her work. Success finally came through the efforts of her daughter Anna who with Julia Ward Howe and others pushed for an annual anti-war observance.
With the assistance of Philadelphia merchant John Wanamaker, Anna prevailed and the first “official” service was held on May 10, 1908, the year my mother was born. Mother’s Day was first officially celebrated in West Virginia in 1910, and soon the rest of states followed suit. And on May 8, 1914, Congress passed a law designating the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day. The next day President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation declaring the first national Mother’s Day as a day for American citizens to show the flag in honor of those mothers whose sons had died in war.
The hidden mystery of Mother’s Day is, of course, love, not war. In the late fourteenth century, one of the great works of Christian mysticism was written by a woman whose name has escaped discovery right up to the present. She is called simply Julian of Norwich for the Church of St. Julian in Norwich where she lived as a hermit. Her book bears the title ‘Revelations of Divine Love,’ because that is her message. Julian lived during one of the most harrowing periods of European history — the Black Death had ravaged Europe for almost fifty years and very nearly killed her. The Hundred Years War with France had exhausted both countries. The Church itself was divided between three rival popes, each claiming to be the true successor of St. Peter. Even the weather had turned bad as a great chill known as The Little Ice Age fell over the northern hemisphere. Crops failed, famine spread, poverty increased, and civil unrest erupted everywhere. The times were truly apocalyptic.
But Julian wrote about love. Bewildered by sin and evil, and apprehensive about the seeming collapse of civil society and trials within the church, she complained to God, and she was given this answer, one that we could do well to listen to at this time in our own history and especially on this Mother’s Day. After all, Julian herself wrote persuasively that “mother” was a title most suited to the loving, care-giving nature of God and also of Jesus, whom she calls “Our true mother.”
“I often desired to understand what our Lord’s meaning was. And fifteen years after, and more, I was answered in spiritual understanding, saying thus: Would you learn your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Learn it well: Love was His meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did He show you? Love. Why did He show it? For Love. Hold yourself in that and you will understand and know more of the same. But you shall never understand nor learn in that anything different forever…” [Chapter 86]
Happy Day, Mothers!