Friday, June 17, 2011

Trinity Sunday

This weekend we observe the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, a liturgical feast which celebrates the central mystery of the Christian faith.

Belief in the Trinity distinguishes Christians from adherents of all other world religions.  Hinduism is pantheistic, Buddhism agnostic.  Islam and Judaism hold to monopersonal monotheism.  Jews consider the Trinity erroneous, Muslims find it offensive.

Although the truth of the Trinity cannot be demonstrated, and must be accepted by faith in God’s revelation of Himself, nonetheless, philosophical meditation on the nature of love lends credibility to this act of faith.

If God were monopersonal, then prior to the creation of the world, all He could do was love Himself.  Yet, self love is not the highest form of love (see John 15:13).  Therefore, God would have been deficient in some respect in Himself, and would have needed to create in order to actualize the fullest potential of love.  Yet, if he needed something outside Himself, He would be imperfect, which is incompatible with the concept of God.

The highest form of love is self-sacrificial love, the gift of self (again, John 15:13).  The Trinity expresses this highest form of love.  In the Trinity, the Father continually gives his entire self to the Son, and the Son continually gives his entire self to the Father (John 14:10), and the Self they give is the Spirit.  This has been true even “prior” to the creation of the world.  God has always actualized the highest form of love.  He is the highest form of love (1 John 4:8).  He did not need to create the world in order to be able to express love of self-gift.  It is out of the overflow of His continual gift of self that He creates.

In any event, let’s turn to the Readings.  For this Solemnity, they focus on the Name and Attributes of God.

When we talk about the "name" of God, we need to remember that in the biblical worldview, the names of things are very important.  The name expresses the essence of a person or thing.  Especially in the Old Testament, to speak of a person’s name is tantamount to speaking of their very nature.

The First Reading finds us in Exodus 34.  The Israelites have sinned with the Golden Calf and broken God’s covenant.  Moses has interceded before God on their behalf, so God has spared the people of Israel from the punishment for covenant breaking.  The whole episode results in a greater intimacy in the relationship between Moses and God.  Moses asks to see God, but God replies that Moses can only see his “back,” that is, Moses can only see God in an indirect way.

God then appears to Moses, and proclaims to Moses His “Name,” that is, his essence, who or what He really is:

The LORD, the LORD, a merciful and gracious, slow to anger and rich in kindness (hesed) and fidelity (emeth).

The words used to describe God’s attributes here are significant, in particular the Hebrew hesed, which means not merely “kindness” but rather “covenant fidelity or covenant love.”  In the Psalms it is usually translated “mercy.”  A closely related concept is emeth, which means “truth,” especially in the sense of “being true to someone.”  Hesed and emeth  are relational terms.  God is in His very being relational (the Trinity), and his greatest attributes pertain to the faithful and unfailing expression of love between persons.  The overflow of this love forms the covenant that God continually offers to humanity (see Eucharistic Prayer IV).

The Responsorial Psalm is a doxology (an exuberant expression of praise).  Although the content of the Psalm does not speak much about specific attributes of God, it’s location in Scripture is relevant to the theology of the Trinity.  It comes from Daniel 3, the Song of the Three Young Men (Protestants consider this part of Daniel 3 to be apocryphal) which they sang in the fiery furnace.  The fiery furnace episode concluded with an early revelation of the multi-personal nature of the Godhead.  A fourth figure appears with the three young men: a divine figure.  In hindsight we can recognize him as the Second Person of the Trinity, the pre-incarnate Christ.  Later in Daniel (Dan 7:13) there will be a vision which includes two apparently divine persons interacting with one another (the Son of Man and the Ancient of Days, see Alan Segal).  

The Second Reading (2 Cor 13:11-13) begins with various admonitions for Christians to share between each other expressions of love which are fitting for those who would imitate in their own lives the self-giving love which characterizes the persons of the Trinity.  It concludes with a Trinitarian blessing:

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

This is an early Scriptural testimony to the belief in the divinity of the Father, Son, and Spirit.  St. Paul’s threefold invocation of Jesus, God (the Father), and the Spirit as a form of blessing implies that co-equality of the all three.

The Gospel Reading includes what many consider the best-know verse of the Bible:

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.

This Gospel proclaims that the inner exchange of self-giving love of the Trinity has flowed out to the world most clearly in the gift of the Son for the world’s salvation.  By “believing” in the Son—which is more than an act of intellectual assent, but a commitment of our very selves—we enter into “eternal life,” which is not simply a great quantity of life, but a distinct quality of life, namely, the life of the Trinity.


gerardk said...

"In the Trinity, the Father continually gives his entire self to the Son, and the Son continually gives his entire self to the Father (John 14:10), and the Self they give is the Spirit."

Are you saying the Holy Spirit only exists as a by-product of the love between the Father and the Son? That would make the Holy Spirit not an equal person of the Trinity. I believe all three persons of the one true God are equal. They act together and individually.

John Bergsma said...

If the Spirit is the Self of the Father which He gives the Son, I'm not sure how that makes the Spirit not equal to the Father.

Rosary Guy said...

@gerardk, to expand a little on Dr. Bergsma's answer, the Holy Spirit is not the byproduct of the love between the Father and the Son; the Holy Spirit is the Love between the Father and the Son.

To put it another way, because we are created in the image of God, we are rational beings, with a free will by which we can choose to know truth and love others. God also knows and loves. But God is so perfect that His knowing is a person: His Son, Who is His Word and His Truth. And so His Son is the Other Whom the Father loves. But His loving is also so perfect that it is also a person, the Holy Spirit. And the Son returns this same Love to the Father.

Thus, if we can see the Holy Spirit as the God's covenant Love (hesed) and the Son as God's fidelity and Truth (emeth) we see an added depth to the verse Dr. Bergsma quotes from the Old Testament reading.