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.