Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity

 Three Angels of Gen 18 as Symbol of Trinity
At the end of, and following, the Easter Season, we have a sort of “trifecta” of major feasts: Pentecost, Trinity, and Corpus Christi, as the Church celebrates the central mysteries of the faith before the Lectionary returns to the readings of the Ordinary Time cycle on Sundays once again.  This June we get a sort of “quadrafecta,” with the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul landing on the Sunday after Corpus Christi. 

In any event, this weekend is Trinity Sunday, a meditation and celebration of the central mystery of the Christian faith, the dogma that distinguishes Christianity from all other religions.  Christians alone believe in one God, who nonetheless exists in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Strangely, our Readings for this Sunday tend not to be classic “proof texts” for the idea that there is more than one person in the Godhead.  Instead, the readings tend to focus on the character or essence of God.  This is appropriate, because as we will see, the character of God is very different, and the meaning of salvation history as well, when one knows God to be a Trinity of persons. 

Reading 1: Exodus 34:4b-6, 8-9:

Early in the morning Moses went up Mount Sinai
as the LORD had commanded him,
taking along the two stone tablets.

Having come down in a cloud, the LORD stood with Moses there
and proclaimed his name, "LORD."
Thus the LORD passed before him and cried out,
"The LORD, the LORD, a merciful and gracious God,
slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity."
Moses at once bowed down to the ground in worship.
Then he said, "If I find favor with you, O Lord,
do come along in our company.
This is indeed a stiff-necked people; yet pardon our wickedness and sins,
and receive us as your own."

The context of this passage is very important, and hopefully the celebrant will explain in the homily.  This is not Moses’ first visit up the mountain.  It is his return visit after the debacle with the Golden Calf.  Moses had descended the mountain, interrupting his reception of the instructions for the Tabernacle, in order to regain control of the people, who were running wild in a pagan ritual-orgy in worship of the Egyptian bull god Apis.  He now returns to the mountain to intercede for the people and plead for forgiveness and covenant renewal.  God accepts his intercessions on behalf of Israel and agrees to forgive and renew the covenant, but Moses has an additional request: he wishes to see the face of God.  God cannot reveal his “face” (unmediated revelation) to Moses in this life, but he condescends to show his “back” (mediated or indirect revelation) to Moses on the mountain.  So God makes his presence pass before Moses while Moses is hid in a cleft in the rocks.  While his presence passes by, the LORD proclaims his “name,” that is, declares what his essence is:

"The LORD, the LORD, a merciful and gracious God,
slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity."

The term translated “kindness” here is that very freighted word “hesed,” which specifically connotes faithfulness and love in a covenant relationship. 

So why is this text read on Trinity Sunday?  On this day, we reflect on God’s very nature, and this is one of the most important texts of the Old Testament that addresses the issue of what God is.  The answer given is that God’s nature consists primarily in mercy, grace, forgiveness, truth, and especially covenant fidelity. 

This does relate to the Trinity, which has meaning for our redemption.  Several facts follow from the realization that the Son and the Spirit are God Himself.  First, it dawns on us that God did not send some other creature to suffer and die for us, but paid the penalty for our sins by himself (the Son).  Secondly, it becomes apparent that God does not merely share his energies or power with us, but shares with us his very life and self (the Spirit). 

For if God is not a Trinity, then Jesus the Son is a creature, and God sent a creature to work our redemption rather than doing it himself.  And if God is not a Trinity, the Holy Spirit is not God, but some active force or emanation from the almighty.  Therefore through faith and the sacraments we do not receive into our hearts the true God, but something else that radiates from him. 

Furthermore, the Trinity reveals that God is, in himself, a circle of self-giving love.  Prior to the creation of the universe, God did not exist as a self-aggrandizing sole individual, but he existed as a communion of persons bound by the gift of self in love. A possible way to imagine this: the Father continually gives himself to the Son, and the Son gives himself to the Father, and the Self they exchange is the Holy Spirit.  Thus, the gift of self in love, which is the essence of hesed, belongs to God’s nature from all time.  It is not an accidental feature of God’s character that arises when he creates other beings to be loved.

So doctrine of the Trinity enables us to understand that faithful love (hesed) is at the heart of God’s nature, and he shares himself with us in a way more profound and intimate than we would ever have imagined. God's hesed is on display in this First Reading, because God remains faithful to his covenant with Israel even when they have broken their covenant with him by worshiping other gods.

Responsorial Psalm: Daniel 3:52, 53, 54, 55, 56:

R/ (52b) Glory and praise for ever!
Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of our fathers,
praiseworthy and exalted above all forever;
And blessed is your holy and glorious name,
praiseworthy and exalted above all for all ages.
R/ Glory and praise for ever!
Blessed are you in the temple of your holy glory,
praiseworthy and glorious above all forever.
R/ Glory and praise for ever!
Blessed are you on the throne of your kingdom,
praiseworthy and exalted above all forever.
R/ Glory and praise for ever!
Blessed are you who look into the depths
from your throne upon the cherubim,
praiseworthy and exalted above all forever.
R/ Glory and praise for ever!

The revelation of God’s nature prompts praise from us, his people.  The Church turns to the Song of the Three Young Men, the song of praise they sang while being sacrificed in the fiery furnace.  The fiery furnace is an image of the burning love of God, which is more than our mortal nature can bear.  Yet God sustains us supernaturally, so that we can praise him while plunged in his presence.  The young men were being sacrificed because of their covenant fidelity to God expressed by their refusal to worship idols.  Their willingness to be faithful to God, even to death, leads them to a greater knowledge and experience of God’s nature, resulting in exuberant praise. 

Reading 2: 2 Corinthians 13:11-13:

Brothers and sisters, rejoice.
Mend your ways, encourage one another,
agree with one another, live in peace,
and the God of love and peace will be with you.
Greet one another with a holy kiss.
All the holy ones greet you.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ
and the love of God
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

Our Second Reading gives us a more explicitly Trinitarian text.  Although the doctrine of the Trinity is not explained in detail in the text of the New Testament, the reality of the Trinity must be presumed in order to make sense of the assertions and statements of the apostles and other sacred writers.  For example, in the concluding blessing of this short passage of St. Paul, it would be inappropriate to put the “grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” and the “fellowship of the Holy Spirit” in poetic parallelism with “the love of God” unless all three realities were of equally dignity.  If Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit were mere creatures, they could not be the source of “grace” and “fellowship” on par with the “love of God.”  Furthermore, the term “grace” is particularly freighted, as elsewhere Paul develops the concept as a divine attribute.

Benedict XVI explained that dogmas are nothing other than authoritative interpretations of Scripture.  Another way to look at them would be as “truths one must assume in order to make sense of all the Scriptural data.”  The doctrine of the Trinity helps us make sense of this threefold blessing in 2 Corinthians 13 and many other passages as well.

Gospel John 3:16-18:

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him.
Whoever believes in him will not be condemned,
but whoever does not believe has already been condemned,
because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

Many may be more familiar with the formulation of these verses in the King James-Revised Standard tradition, which reads: "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son."  "Only begotten" is an English rendering of the Greek monogenes, which in turn is probably an attempt to translate the Hebrew yahid, "unique, one and only."  St. John alludes here to Genesis 22, the near-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham on the mountain top.  Abraham and Isaac's fidelity to God in this harrowing test merited a solemn divine oath which sealed forever the covenant God had made with them: "Because you have done this, and not withheld your son, your only begotten son (Heb. yahid, cf. RSVCE2), I will indeed bless you ... and through your seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed."  By describing Jesus as the "one and only" or "only begotten" son, St. John draws an intentional parallel to Isaac, and indicates that God's gift of his son Jesus is a fulfillment of covenant promises made to Abraham and Isaac over a thousand years before.  The gift of Jesus the Son is not without context; it is covenant fulfillment, a sign of God's hesed, covenant love, which is his essence.

Yes, love is the essence of the Trinity.  The Trinity tells us that God is not a monopersonal individual who had only himself to love before creatures were made.  Self-love is an imperfect form of love.  Therefore, God would have needed creatures to love in order to achieve perfection of love.  God would have been imperfect in himself.  Self-giving love is the highest form of love: “Greater love has no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.”  From all eternity Father and Son exchange their Life for each other.  Therefore, the gift of the Son by the Father to the world, and the Son’s gift of Himself for the world and for his Father, is nothing other than an invitation for the world to enter into the circle of love that defines God’s essence. 

Why is it necessary to believe in the Son?  Because only Jesus reveals to us the full truth about God.  Moses revealed some truth about God.  Mohammad portrayed God as an omnipotent, monopersonal master who has no children in any sense, does not give himself to or for us, and does not share with us his very being.  The Buddha was technically an agnostic, unconcerned with discovering God’s nature or even clearly affirming he existence of God.

Alone among the religious teachers and philosophers of the world, Jesus claims in word and deed that God is a loving Father who gave his only Son for the salvation of the world, and that the Son is, finally and mysteriously, the Father’s own Self, for “I and the Father are one,” and “He who has seen me, has seen the Father.”  Therefore, whoever does not believe in the Son is condemned forever to labor with an inadequate understanding of God, which leads—perhaps sooner, perhaps later—to estrangement from God.  We become like what we worship.  How important, then, truly to understand the nature of the God we worship.  The worship of the Trinity should lead us to a life of self-giving love.


Leaning into destiny... said...

This is wonderful and so very needed. Keep up the very good effort.

Joseph said...

You have to wonder what the Jews thought of the notion of trinity. Genesis uses the words "Let us create man in our own image and our own likeness" When they thought of Yahweh did they ever think of two persons? It seems from a Jewish perspective, it would have been a bit confusing.

John Bergsma said...

Some Jewish scholars, like Daniel Boyarin, have argued that there was a pre-Christian notion of multiple persons in the Godhead among Jews. Boyarin wrote about "Jewish binitarianism" in an article for Harvard Theological Review many years ago.

Ian C said...

See 2001 Harvard TR at 243ff

John Bergsma said...

thanks Ian