Trinity – God in Relationship
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (Mt. 28:18)
A classic story is told about St. Augustine walking along the seashore in the fifth century pondering the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Seeing a little boy dutifully taking a pail of water from the ocean and putting it into a hole a few feet from the shoreline, the scholar and theologian asked him what he was doing. The little boy answered, "I’m putting the ocean into that hole." St. Augustine told him that was impossible, to which the boy responded, "just as impossible as you ever figuring out the Trinity."
Now if one of the greatest theologians who ever lived, a saint and Doctor of the Church couldn’t figure out the Holy Trinity, what am I supposed to say about it in this morning’s homily? How do I explain the unexplainable or describe the indescribable or make sense of the inscrutable, if neither Augustine with his brilliant mind nor anyone else since, could? What does one say, after all, about a riddle wrapped in a mystery shrouded inside an enigma? Because that in a nutshell describes the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity. It’s an attempt to define in human terms the nature of our infinite, limitless, and ineffable God. In other words, it’s like trying to contain the immensity of the ocean within a hole in the sand.
For the balance of this homily, I will don professorial robes and give you a taste of what a class in theology is like at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry where I studied for my Masters degree. So class, pay close attention.
Our faith teaches that God, who exists in a dimension beyond space and time, is one in being yet three Persons. When we make the sign of the cross we affirm our belief that God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. At the same time the Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit and the Son is not the Father or the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit is not the Father or the Son. However, the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit are one God. Clear as mud, right? Well, this is what’s known in "theology-speak" as a myterium stricte dictum, which translates – we’re talking about something totally incomprehensible by the human mind, expressible only through analogy and metaphor.
There are many ways theologians over the centuries have attempted to describe this abstract concept. St. Patrick, of course, used the example of a shamrock; one plant with three leaves. Medieval theologians used the example of three forms of water; solid, liquid, and steam. And last year on Trinity Sunday, my own dear wife talked about an apple - core, peel, and pulp.
You will not find the word "Trinity" anywhere in the bible. What you will find are more than sixty passages in the New Testament that mention the three Persons together, as in today’s gospel from Matthew when Jesus commissions the eleven for discipleship in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. All theology results from people of faith seeking understanding – trying to put into words and thought patterns what it is they’re experiencing of their God. After the Resurrection and Pentecost, early Christians struggled mightily to understand who God was for them in context of the extraordinary cosmic events that had happened. Heresies and false beliefs abounded. Some contended, for example, that Jesus wasn’t really God; others that he wasn’t really human.
For centuries the debate raged on until finally church leaders at the Council of Nicea in 325 formulated the doctrine of the Trinity and included it in the Nicene Creed which we recite together at Mass after the homily. But the controversy didn’t end there because it took several more church councils, more scholarly debate, and additional time to refine the concept further. And, perhaps not surprisingly, one of the reasons the Eastern Church split from the Roman Church in the eleventh century was a dispute about the Trinity.
For ages our ancestors in faith had experienced God in nature – Yahweh, the all-powerful distant Creator God of Genesis. Later they experienced God as Liberator and Lawgiver, the God of Exodus, who freed them from bondage in Egypt and gave them Ten Commandments to live by. Early Christians continued to experience God of the Old Testament, but they also experienced God in a new way, as Redeemer, the loving, healing, reconciling Word made flesh – Jesus of the Gospels. And fifty days after his Resurrection, during Pentecost in Jerusalem they experienced God in still another way, as animating Spirit, the God of the Book of Acts, the one who motivates and strengthens them for discipleship.
The God who was always above them had walked among them. And the God who once walked among them now lived within them. Accordingly, after much deliberation and debate, early Christians concluded that God, although one in being self-discloses in three ways. So they called God – Trinity.
But the danger of this theology – this attempt to fathom the unfathomable – is to delude ourselves into thinking that we’ve got God all figured-out, well defined, and wrapped up in a neat package. That, as we know, isn’t possible because to define is to limit and logically you can’t limit something without limits. Right? The ocean into a hole in the sand.
What we do know, however, is that the concept of Trinity envisions the sacred as being relational. The three Persons of the Trinity, according to St. Augustine, exist in a relationship of love between God the Father and God the Son, expressed as God the Spirit. This bond of love is so strong that we experience it now, more than two thousand years after the Risen One’s last bodily appearance on earth, as third Person of the Trinity -- the Spirit whose coming at Pentecost we celebrated last Sunday.
In other words, the loving relationship shared among the Persons of the Trinity offers a model for human relationships. As an aside, living in loving relationships cherishing life, as the Father, acting with justice and compassion, as the Son, breathing understanding, as the Spirit, is not only the best Father’s Day gift we can give our Heavenly Father, but also our earthly fathers as well. Much better than a tie or a collect call, for example! (See how cleverly I have worked in that today is Father’s Day too?)
(At the 9:30 Mass) Also as this is a baccalaureate Mass to honor our recent high school graduates, on behalf of the entire community, I extend heartiest congratulations to those of you celebrating this momentous occasion in your lives. (Graduates, please stand so we may all affirm you.) Consider this homily as a supplement to the commencement addresses you have or will hear. An important part of your education is learning how to distinguish between making a living and making a life. My message this morning applies primarily to making a life.
And so, this class in Theology 101, a feeble attempt to understand the concept we call God, is now concluded. Hopefully, I have enlightened more than I have confused, but if not, I ask you to be charitable. Better homilists and theologians than I, after all, have tried and failed. Incidentally, this homily will be available at our parish website tomorrow for those of you may have fallen asleep or desire extra credit with God the Father. And yes, in case you’re wondering, it will be covered on our next test and on the final.
If you remember nothing else of what I said today, remember this: God is relational. Trinity is three divine Persons relating out of love. And we reflect Trinity, in whose image we are created, when we live in loving relationship with each other. Write that down in your notebooks. Happy Father’s Day. Class dismissed.
Anthony J. Sciolino
The Holy Trinity.
June 15, 2003. (Cycle B)
Deuteronomy 4:32-34, 39-40/165