Today’s celebration of the Feast of the Holy Trinity falls outside the Easter season, but in several respects adds the final note to a symphony of celebrations. But to call it “mysterious” is accurate on many levels.
It’s not all that old, as feasts go — there were masses in honor of the Trinity in Italy in the late ninth century. But it was not until 1331 that Pope John XXII created a feast for the whole Church.
Even though the first ecumenical council at Nicaea in 325 was convened and sought to establish the orthodox interpretation of this ancient Christian belief, it was not until the Council of Chalcedon almost 250 years later that a final formula was declared and accepted by all the major churches of the period except the followers of Nestorius, whose doctrine was condemned at that council. Controversies in the Eastern Church would, as a result, continue for several centuries. But in the West, there was virtual unanimity on the matter until the post-Reformation period with the development of Deism and eventually Unitarianism.
The word “Trinity” is nowhere mentioned in the Bible, not even in the conclusion of Matthew’s Gospel with its threefold baptismal formula [Matt 29:19]. In the Gospel of John, it even seems that the Trinity is somehow denied — when Jesus says 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 faith in Christ, the love of God, and the gift of the Holy Spirit contain a hint of what might be called Trinitarian doctrine. And yet somehow it is all there, perhaps especially in the Gospel of John.
The term “Trinity” wasn’t coined until the late second century and the beginning of the third century in the Greek writings of Theophilus of Antioch and the Latin works of Tertullian, who also began using the word “Person” in regard to God. But it took the church over a hundred years even to begin working out a language that might sense of it all.
Perhaps the most notable accomplishment of the centuries of dispute and efforts at clarification is the reminder that the Holy Trinity is a mystery – an imponderable matter forever and fully beyond human understanding. That’s why it’s hard to preach on this Feast. Those who do, especially beginning preachers, can quickly find themselves mired in old quarrels and accidently trip into unknowingly espousing some long-forgotten error. One of my old teachers once said in class that five minutes into a sermon on the Trinity you can expect to have uttered at least one material heresy!
The Trinity is not like water, ice, and steam. It is not like the curious proposal of the family relations of father, child, and mother as was once suggested – not without some cause, as the word for Spirit in Hebrew (ruach) is feminine. And no, Virginia, St. Patrick did not explain the Trinity to his Irish catechumens by holding up a shamrock. He was born and may have died before the Council of Chalcedon in 451 and certainly the final great ecumenical council at Constantinople in 553 that finalized the Trinitarian doctrine of the equality of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son. But he was too good a theologian to fall into the trap of modalism.
Today, we are more prone to differentiate the Persons of the Trinity functionally – as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. But, as even a superficial study of scripture attests, these divine activities inseparably involve each and all the Persons.
Christians have always tried to comprehend the incomprehensible. Some but not many efforts are almost miraculously competent and still a source of deep understanding. St. Augustine’s De Trinitate is possibly the longest and to my way of thinking the most profound work on the Trinity found in all of Christian literature. It is about much more than that, of course. Augustine’s interests on a host of subjects were wide-spread and usually brilliantly articulated. A close contemporary of St. Patrick, he sought and found traces of the Trinity in all of life, especially the workings of the human mind. But he, too, clearly recognized the impossibility of truly grasping this basic mystery of Christian revelation.
“God is ineffable,” he wrote. “We can more easily say what He is not than what he is” [Commentary on Psalm 85,12]. “What then,… shall we say of God? For if you have been able to understand what you would say, it is not God. If you have been able to comprehend it, you have comprehended something else than God. If you have been able to comprehend Him as you think, by so thinking you have deceived yourself. This then is not God, if you have comprehended it; but if this be God, you have not comprehended it. How therefore would you speak of that which you can not comprehend?” [Sermons on New Testament Scriptures, 52, 6, 16].
Today, the old disputes and even the genius of a St. Augustine have little to do with the day-to-day struggles of Christians to make sense out of life and even, as we are increasingly witnessing, even to survive. The jolting but all-too-accurate attitude toward the Blessed Trinity in the libretto of Mass, by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Schwarz, still rings true for many desperate seekers:
I believe in one God
But then I believe in three
I’ll believe in twenty gods
If they’ll believe in me…
As I have said before, in the end, it is Jesus who gives us the Trinity. From the beginning it was and is 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, that one who sees Jesus sees the Father, and his is the Spirit that the Father will send, in whom he abides. For Jesus is, we believe and profess, fully divine but not wholly divine — Jesus is the Incarnate Word of God, the Son, not the Incarnate Father, not the Incarnate Spirit of Love. Jesus is our way in truth to the Father in the Holy Spirit.
But 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 that comes at the end, not the beginning of our pondering.