A “perfect storm” refers to a rare confluence of factors that greatly aggravates the force of a storm at sea. Our nation is in the midst of such a perfect storm – a pandemic of almost unprecedented virulence, an economic downturn with unemployment at levels not seen since the Great Depression, riots and looting in the midst of peaceful demonstrations against unwarranted police violence toward people of color, and now, a tropical storm progressing toward landfall and a destructive path through the heartland. Yet today we observe the resumption of “ordinary time,” following the end of the great Easter cycle. There is little “ordinary” about it. And yet we are here..
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 world and our nation especially are experiencing at the moment. It’s not too surprising if people wonder what difference it makes how many persons there are in God.
But 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.
Devotion to the Holy Trinity goes back much further, of course. In the third century, the Christians of Alexandria, in Egypt, prayed to the trinity of Persons in the One God. But beginning with the Council of Nicaea in 325, it took a long time for the Church to work out what the term meant, both for belief and for worship. 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]. 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 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 only St. Paul’s reference to the grace of Jesus, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit contain even a hint of what might be called Trinitarian doctrine. And yet it is all there, perhaps especially in the Gospel of John.
The term itself 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. [Trias: Theophilus, Ad Autol. 2.15; Justin, Dial. 128, Apol. 60-63. Tertullian: Trinitas, persona] But it took the church over a hundred years even to begin working out a language that might sense of it all.
Looking back over the following thousand years, St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the most Trinitarian of theologians, made two especially important points: first, the Trinity is a mystery, something hidden from the foundation of the world and made known only by divine revelation. That’s to say, we could never think ourselves to the Trinity, nor can we get to the bottom of it once we do accept it as divine revelation. A real mystery is not like a detective novel. The more that is revealed, even more is still hidden from us. The inner life of God is more than we can ever comprehend. As St. Augustine said, “Those who think they truly understand God do not know anything at all. Only those who know they do not know, truly understand.” [Serm. (de Script. N.T.) LII, vi, 16.]
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.
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.
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.” Ultimately, the impression I get is 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. Even so, the Holy 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. 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, and that he who sees Jesus sees the Father. For Jesus is, we believe and profess, fully God but not wholly God — 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.
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, whose everlasting supper party is our goal and destiny, a perfect communion of Persons.