Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Holy Trinity Sunday!

I love these weeks of early summer, when the weather is fine and warm—even hot—and we come to a climactic end to a liturgical cycle that began with Advent in December of last year.  In the past six months or so, we’ve walked through the life of Christ, beginning with anticipation for him based on the great prophets of Israel (esp. Isaiah), celebrating his birth, pondering his holy childhood, witnessing his baptism and early ministry, observed the growing opposition to his message, sorrowed over his rejection, persecution, and death.   Then we gloried in his resurrection, meditated on his teaching about the Holy Spirit, and rejoiced in the outpouring of that Spirit last Sunday.  Now, before the Church Year returns to Sundays marked only by their number in Ordinary Time, we celebrate three more Solemnities that memorialize central points of our faith: The Trinity, The Eucharist (Corpus Christi), and Divine Mercy (Sacred Heart).

This coming Sunday is the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity.  While the Trinity might evoke a “Ho-hum, don’t we know that already …” response from many Catholics, the doctrine of the Trinity is essential to—and distinctive of—the Christian faith, and is vital to our daily prayer and walk with God.  The doctrine of the Trinity touches on who God is; if one has this doctrine wrong, one has the wrong idea of God and may in fact be worshiping a god who does not exist.
The Trinity is by no means a dead theological issue, either.  Most obviously, Jews and Muslims protest this doctrine, which they believe destroys the unity of God.  For them, God is monopersonal.

Among groups that share a tradition with Christianity, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unitarians, and “Jesus-only” Pentecostals all dispute the doctrine of the Trinity.  Mormons are not, strictly speaking, monotheists: in their view the Father and Son are different gods, and there are gods in the universe in addition to the Father and the Son.  Mormonism is polytheistic. Jehovah’s Witnesses, on the other hand, are modern day Arians—they believe in one God (the Father) but deny the divinity of Jesus Christ.  Unitarian Universalists are essentially post-Christian theists who believe in a divinity but reject most of the Christian doctrinal tradition.
Many years ago, when I was co-pastor of a congregation with a large number of African-American members, we used to hold joint worship and fellowship events with other African-American churches.  While having a joint event at a bowling alley one weekend, I remember being quite surprised to find out, over a basket of chips and cheese, that my colleague, the pastor of the Apostolic Pentecostal church with which we were fellowshiping, did not hold to the Trinity.  That was my first exposure to the “Jesus-only” movement.  I didn’t follow all his explanations, but it seemed he held to a form of the heresy of “modalism”—the Father, Son, and Spirit were modes of existence of the one God, whose name was Jesus.  Many churches that style themselves “Apostolic” apparently adhere to this doctrinal position.
Contrary to this, the Catholic Church holds that God is three persons and one essence.  This seems like a formal contradiction, but it is not: we are not claiming that God is three persons and also only one person; or three essences but one essence.  Those positions would be logically impossible.  I’ve heard it well-stated that we believe in three “who’s” but only one “what.”  
Still, the Trinity is a mystery.  But mysteries are not unique to theology or religion: in physics, it’s well-known that light is both a wave and a particle.  How can this be?  No one knows, but experiments show that it behaves like both.  The doctrine Trinity is like that: it is difficult to understand, but nonetheless it is a brute fact.  
In any event, the doctrine of the Trinity remains a live issue both with other religions and within the broader Christian tradition.  The Church dedicates this feast day to the celebration of the Trinity, because she knows the doctrine and reality of the Holy Trinity is central to her identity.
1.  The first reading is Deuteronomy 4:32-34, 39-40.
Moses said to the people:
"Ask now of the days of old, before your time,
ever since God created man upon the earth;
ask from one end of the sky to the other:
Did anything so great ever happen before?
Was it ever heard of?
Did a people ever hear the voice of God
speaking from the midst of fire, as you did, and live?
Or did any god venture to go and take a nation for himself
from the midst of another nation,
by testings, by signs and wonders, by war,
with strong hand and outstretched arm, and by great terrors,
all of which the LORD, your God,
did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?
This is why you must now know,
and fix in your heart, that the LORD is God
in the heavens above and on earth below,
and that there is no other.
You must keep his statutes and commandments that I enjoin on you today,
that you and your children after you may prosper,
and that you may have long life on the land
which the LORD, your God, is giving you forever."

The Trinity is a “Tri-unity”: God is both one and three; one essence, three persons.  This reading emphasizes the oneness or unity of God: “The LORD is God in the heavens above and on earth below, and … there is no other.”

God demonstrated to the Israelites that he existed—and other gods didn’t—during the Exodus, by “signs, wonders, and war.”  The famous Ten Plagues were actually progressive demonstrations that the Egyptian pantheon didn’t exist.  For example, the first plague (Nile to blood) showed the Nile was no god; the ninth (three days of darkness) showed the impotence of the supposed “sun god” Amon-Re; the tenth plague (death of the first born, including Pharaoh’s heir) showed that Pharaoh was no divinity.  All the other plagues “de-divinized” lesser gods, as well.

Although this text from Deuteronomy emphasizes the oneness of God, there is a hint of the Trinity even here.  Moses refers to the “voice of God” (=the Word, the Second Person) coming forth from the “midst of fire” (=sign of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person).  Although God had not clearly revealed his triune nature, all three Persons were involved in God’s relationship with Israel.

Finally, we note that this reading emphasizes the relational and covenantal nature of God.  God reveals Himself as One who wishes to enter into relationship with the people of Israel, and through them with all humanity.  The Trinity is a set of three relations: Father and Son are in a loving relationship with each other, always giving themselves to each other in a self-gift of love, and the Self that they give is the Spirit.  The doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that God is personal and relational, not impersonal and isolated.  God reaches out in love to draw others into the circle of love which is God’s own nature.  So in this Reading from Deuteronomy, we see that God has gone “far out of his way”, so to speak, to reach out to the people of Israel.  “Was this ever heard of?” Moses asks, “that a god has made such efforts to take a people for himself?”  God reaches out in love to draw Israel into a familial relationship with himself.  This familial relationship is a covenant, and it comes “with strings attached,” because it binds the parties together.  So “you must keep his statutes and commandments.”  Because God has reached out to us, we are under obligation to respond, and to conform our lives to his nature, so that we can be like him—in fact, be his own children.
2.  The Reponsorial Psalm consists of selections from Psalm 33:
R. (12b) Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.
Upright is the word of the LORD,
and all his works are trustworthy.
He loves justice and right;
of the kindness of the Lord the earth is full.
R. Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.
By the word of the LORD the heavens were made;
by the breath of his mouth all their host.
For he spoke, and it was made;
he commanded, and it stood forth.
R. Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.
See, the eyes of the LORD are upon those who fear him,
upon those who hope for his kindness,
To deliver them from death
and preserve them in spite of famine.
R. Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own..
Our soul waits for the LORD,
who is our help and our shield.
May your kindness, O LORD, be upon us
who have put our hope in you.
R. Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.

Two things stand out in the Psalm.  One is the emphasis on the uniqueness and sole existence of the LORD, who alone is the Creator God: “by the word of the LORD the heavens were made; by the breath of his mouth all their host.”  Yet even in this emphasis on God’s uniqueness, the Trinitarian character of God is visible: he creates “by his Word” (the Second Person), and by “the breath (Heb. ruach, “spirit,” i.e. the Third Person) of his mouth” all things came forth.  The Catechism has some excellent comments on the relationship of the “Word” and “Breath” of God:

§703 The Word of God and his Breath are at the origin of the being and life of every creature: It belongs to the Holy Spirit to rule, sanctify, and animate creation, for he is God, consubstantial with the Father and the Son. . . . Power over life pertains to the Spirit, for being God he preserves creation in the Father through the Son.

§689 The One whom the Father has sent into our hearts, the Spirit of his Son, is truly God. Consubstantial with the Father and the Son, the Spirit is inseparable from them, in both the inner life of the Trinity and his gift of love for the world. In adoring the Holy Trinity, life-giving, consubstantial, and indivisible, the Church's faith also professes the distinction of persons. When the Father sends his Word, he always sends his Breath. In their joint mission, the Son and the Holy Spirit are distinct but inseparable. To be sure, it is Christ who is seen, the visible image of the invisible God, but it is the Spirit who reveals him.

The second thing that stands out in this Psalm is the love of God for his people: “the eyes of the LORD are on those that fear him.”  While it may not seem like it, God’s love for other persons and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity are intimately related, as briefly discussed above, and further below.
3.  The second reading is Rom 8:14-17:
Brothers and sisters:
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear,
but you received a Spirit of adoption,
through whom we cry, "Abba, Father!"
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit
that we are children of God,
and if children, then heirs,
heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ,
if only we suffer with him
so that we may also be glorified with him.

Here we see the Trinitarian structure of our personal, intimate relationship with God.  God the Father sends the Spirit of his Son into our hearts.  This Spirit of the Son empowers us to call God “Abba, Father!”—the same name of God that Jesus used in prayer (Mark 14:36).  In other words, through the Spirit, God incorporates us into the loving relationship between the Father and the Son.  We are drawn in the circle of familial love that is God Himself.

As I’ve said many times before, no other religion claims to offer this kind of intimacy with God.

Note how the theme of suffering is included here at the end of the reading: “if only we suffer with him….”  When we are incorporated into the circle of God’s love, it leads to suffering.  The highest love—the Love of God Himself—is the total gift of self to another person.  The total gift of self is painful for finite creatures, because we cannot totally give ourselves without dying.  For us, then—as for the Second Person who became one of us—there is no true love without suffering.  Yet glory awaits.

Meditation on this reading can reveal why the Trinity is important for our lived experience and relationship with God.

If God is monopersonal and Jesus is not divine (=Arianism), then God showed his love for us by this: by creating another creature who came down to suffer, die, and save us.  But God didn’t come Himself.  That’s nice, but it’s hardly extreme love. 

On the other hand, if the different persons of the Trinity are just “modes” of God’s one person (=Modalism), then there is nothing but self-love in God.  God the “Father” and God the “Son” aren’t really different, so the love between them is either an illusion, an anthropomorphism, or self-love.  Self-love is not the highest love—in fact, it may be the lowest.  The implication is that until God created other persons (angels, humans) there was in Himself nothing but self-love, but not the highest form of love—total gift of self for another person (John 15:13).

If God is not a Trinity, he did not have the perfection of love in Himself until he created other persons to love.  So God was imperfect until the world was made.  That creates philosophical difficulties.

But God is a Trinity.  There existed within Himself, without the need of creatures, the perfection of love from all time: the perfect and total gift of self from Father to Son and back again.  The Self they exchange is the Spirit.  Thus, God did not create out of a need to attain perfection Himself, but out of the gratuitous overflow of his love.  And, as St. Paul teaches in this passage of Romans, his desire for us is to draw us into the burning circle of his love.

So there is a very great difference in how we relate to God because he is a Trinity, and if we do not understand or recognize his Trinitarian nature it impairs our union with Him due to misconceptions.  A monopersonal God can be worshiped and even loved; but only the true, tripersonal God can draw us into the flow of love within Himself, making us “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).

A couple of years ago, I was talking to a carpenter who was making repairs on my house, and the conversation turned to religion.  It turns out that he had been educated in Catholic schools all the way through his B.A.  “Catholics and Muslims are basically the same,” he informed me.  “We have the the Ten Commandments, they have the Five Pillars; they go on pilgrimage to Mecca, we go on pilgrimage to Rome.”  I’m sure my friend intended to be open minded and generous toward followers of other religions, but ultimately it doesn’t respect the teaching of either religion to make such a simplistic comparison.  It’s true that Christianity and Islam both have rules and pilgrimages.  But our beliefs about the nature of God are radically different.  In Islam, Allah has no children and he is not a father, contrary to our Second Reading.  St. Paul’s words here would be considered blasphemy in an observant Islamic society.  There is no idea of a partaking or sharing of the divine nature in Islam.  The kind of intimacy between the believer and the Trinity that Paul describes is quite unique and precious to our Faith.
4. The Gospel is the so-called “Great Commission,” Mt 28:16-20:
The eleven disciples went to Galilee,
to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.
When they all saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.
Then Jesus approached and said to them,
"All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father,
and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age."

This reading demonstrates the divinity of Christ, an important sub-doctrine of the Trinity: “They worshiped him.”  I find it interesting that Matthew immediately adds, “but they doubted.”  The interplay here between faith and doubt, between worship and abandonment of God, sums up the perpetual drama of the Christian people.  We worship, but we doubt.  We struggle to embrace the faith we know is true, but sometimes seems like it isn’t.  In the hearts of the eleven Apostles there lived the struggle of faith that continues in the hearts of all who come after them.

If their worship confirms their belief in Jesus’ divine status, we may also note that Jesus claims the prerogatives of divinity: “All power in heaven and on earth has been given me.” 

Jesus exercises his divine authority by commissioning the Apostles to baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” a performative utterance that implies the equality of the Three Persons.

It’s appropriate that these readings meditating on the Trinity conclude with a general command to baptize all the nations.

Baptism confers on us God’s Spirit, which is the Spirit of his Son, which makes us children of God who cry “Abba, Father!” as St. Paul said above.  Baptism, then, is the primary means by which we are incorporated into the circle of Trinitarian love. 

Love, especially God’s love, is diffusive.  Love wants to share itself.  God’s tripersonal love overflowed into acts of creation, and now through the Church overflows into mission to all the nations, that all human persons should share in the familial love of God.

When the Apostles and their successors actually fulfill this commission, they cooperate in building up the kingdom of Christ, which is the realization of the kingdom of David.  On important background text for our Gospel is Psalm 2, the royal coronation psalm of the House of David:

I will tell of the decree (or “covenant”) of the LORD:
He said to me, “You are my son,
today I have begotten you. 
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.

Recall that in Matthew 4, Satan had tried to get Jesus to ask himself (Satan) for possession of the nations (Matt 4:8-10).  But Jesus refused, and now the Father has granted him authority over all mankind. 

The authority that Jesus holds over the whole world should be a reason for confidence for Christians.  I know that in the political sphere, the Church appears to face setbacks in many places in the world, especially in Western countries where the Church’s teaching once carried a great deal of weight in the public arena.  But despite that, Christians need to recall that Christ still holds all authority in this world of ours, and we should have what St. Josemaria described as a holy “superiority complex.”  Yes, there are sufferings and opposition, but the notion that the Church is impotent or powerless is a lie.  If we respond with courage and boldness to the commission of Christ, his authority will still be displayed. 

We are commanded not just to baptize, but “to teach” the nations “to observe all that I have commanded you.”  I’ve noted before in earlier posts on this Gospel that this is not just the relation of information, but a practical form of instruction aimed at a change in lifestyle “teaching… to observe all that I have commanded you.”  This means the entire Christian life, including how to pray, how to grow in virtue, the proper handling of material goods, the practice of poverty, the proper way to marry and raise children, etc.  The Christian life is an entire lifestyle, and it creates a culture.  We can call this a “culture of love,” because ultimately the whole of Christian culture—from the practice of modesty, to respect for the unborn and elderly, to the ethical pursuit of excellence in art and business, etc.—flows out of a profoundly beautiful and positive worldview based on understanding God as the Holy Trinity, circle of love, source of love. 

No comments: