Today is Trinity Sunday: We preachers are called to say something thoughtful and doctrinally accurate about the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We are reminded how Catholics sometimes need to use big words. These are just to help us understand more precisely the mystery of God, who is a three-personed God. When we say “consubstantial with the Father” in the Creed today, we are grasping at what it means to recognize Christ as fully God, and yet fully man. The church wrestled in prayer and study and debate for nearly 500 years to try to get this right. When we come to celebrate this Mass, this feast, what we are doing is reminding ourselves of the faith we profess together immediately after this homily in the Creed, we recall the content of our faith, in whom we believe in and why we believe. It is the love of God, the mercy of God, the might, the power of God that we celebrate. And we honor, recognize, worship, adore, and clearly affirm without any ambiguity our belief in the Trinity.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in article 232, quoting St. Caesarius of Arles, states that “The faith of all Christians rests on the Trinity.” In the next section, the Catechism further recognizes “The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life.
The late George Carlin, himself a lapsed, probably improperly catechized Catholic but definitely a very funny comedian, used to say, Catholics use the word “mystery” for anything they can’t really answer, kind of a spiritual cop-out.
“Hey, Father. Is God so powerful that he can make a rock so big that he himself can’t lift?” Upon which the tired priest would reply, and my Irish brogue isn’t as good as it could be “Well, Jimmy. It’s a mystery.”
I learned from some of my Catholic friends in Black Forest the answer to that challenge is actually pretty easy—God can make a rock that is too big for him to move, but God can create a 567-horsepower four-stroke John Deere tractor big enough to push that rock out of the way!
The Trinity, the nature of God as three in one, not serving three gods, as we are often falsely accused, but that God is in three persons, is called a mystery, “mysterion” in the original language of the New Testament.
Mystery doesn’t mean something that you can’t understand because you’re not trying hard enough, like George Carlin’s priest. Rather, the central mystery in our faith is the essential unknowability of the complete nature of God. Our human intellects cannot understand God not because we’re lazy, but because God is often far beyond our powers of comprehension. We have to be shown attributes of God in the world around us, and as our Gospel reading today shows us—in the giving of His son Jesus Christ.
And it’s something we have to pray about, to enter deeper into that reality. This is what St. Paul meant when he wrote to the church in Ephesus, Ephesians 1: 18-19
I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Someone told me, “Deacon Rick, explain what St. Paul means when he says, “to know the love that surpasses knowledge”…if it surpasses all knowledge, it certainly surpasses all explanation!
No one can completely understand the Trinity — it is the great, central mystery of our Faith as Christians. However, we can have some understanding of the nature of that Trinity, and the place to begin our understanding of the Trinity comes in the First Letter of St. John when he writes, “God is Love!” (1 John 4:8).
While some people find that the unanswerable questions in our faith stop them from believing, but for me, I have learned it’s a part of the human experience of God, and so I lean into it. How could I fully understand the transcendent God? I want to tease something out from what He has revealed in the scriptures, in this beautiful creation, in the love between others, what is the nature of this God. It will take me as many days as He gives me on this earth.
As St. Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth, and I paraphrase in the words of an old hymn:
When I stand before the throne, Dressed in beauty not my own,|
When I see thee as thou art, Love thee with unsinning heart,
Then, Lord, shall I fully know - Not till then - how much I owe.
E’en on earth, as through a glass, Darkly, let Thy glory pass;
Make forgiveness feel so sweet; Make Thy Spirit’s help so meet:
E’en on earth, Lord, make me know, Something of how much I owe.
I don’t want a simplistic god who can be easily wound up; I want to be overwhelmed by this God. I want to weep with joy at what he reveals to me—each and every day. As Eusebius said about the Gospel of St. John, “Shallow enough for a child to wade in and deep enough to drown an elephant.”
It reminds me of a story told about St. Augustine, the fourth-century theologian. After spending many hours trying to “figure out” the Trinity, he took a stroll on the beach of the Mediterranean. Augustine came upon a little boy who had dug a hole in the sand. The boy was running back and forth to the ocean, cupping water in his hands and pouring it into the little hole.
“What are you doing?” Augustine asked.
“I’m putting the ocean into this hole.”
“That’s impossible,” said Augustine. “You can’t fit the ocean into that little hole.”
The boy said, prophetically, “Neither can you ever fit the full mystery of the Trinity into your little mind.”
Remember, in later life Saint Augustine’s wrote his famous insight, si comprehendis, non est Deus – “if you [presume to] grasp, it is not God.”
In the end, God is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be pondered. And today is the perfect day for us to do so.
As Emeritus Pope Benedict said a few years ago, this Sunday of the Most Holy Trinity, in a certain sense sums up God's revelation which was brought about through these Paschal Mysteries that we have celebrated these past few months: Christ's death and Resurrection, his Ascension to the right hand of the Father and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The human mind and language are inadequate to explain the relationship that exists between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; yet the Fathers of the Church sought to illustrate the mystery of the Triune God by living it with deep faith in their own lives.
One of the greetings that we use to begin Mass reflects the nature of God: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” We praise the God who has revealed Himself as a Trinity, a communion of persons. Communion with the Trinity is the goal of our worship.
“God is Love!” Unfortunately, we may have become so used to this quote that we do not remember how revolutionary and unique that conception of God really is.
There are many religions in the world, and many of them have come to understand that God is good. However, almost all of them start with our search for God. Because human nature is limited, however, that search can only arrive to a limited view of God. Is He but a master to be feared, the name of this global religion is submission, a God waiting to punish us, a ruler to whom we must submit, some deistic power like “the Force”, some pantheistic worship of nature and out of control environmentalism, our nature religion, but in our Gospel reading today, we read precious, revolutionary words— “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son.”
Christianity is different. Christianity is not about our search for God, but about God’s search for us. In the garden, after that first primordial sin, the God who began with the words, “let us” (a plural in its original form—not some royal we like a presidential proclamation, but an honest to goodness Hebrew plural—let us create man in our image and likeness—imago Dei—that same God, as the reality of rebellion, rooted in doubt—that God doesn’t know what’s best for us—we need knowledge rather than relationship—his words to Adam and Eve were not words of recrimination or accusation, they were words of wanting relationship—“Where are you?” And these words—“where are you?”—really form the rest of what is written in the Bible about who God is. “Where have you gone?” “Who have you left?” “Am I not good enough for you to trust?” “Are you that good without me to make this world a garden?” And truly the world we have made without Him is a tragic catastrophe.
When Jesus Christ came to earth, He came in order to rescue the fallen human race from evil and bring it to the joys of eternal life. And so, in Christianity, we have the privilege of receiving God’s own revelation of Himself – He actually shows us, in Christ, who He is and what He is like. And His most fundamental and essential characteristic is love. Not power, not knowledge, not even healing and religious activity, nor even some feeling of religious transcendence – though these are nice hor d’oeuvres at the table—but the main course is love.
Think about it—if God were solitary, as Islam asserts, how could His nature be love? Love always means relationship and self-giving. God can only be love if He is both one and three: three divine persons, each one fully divine, living from all eternity in an unbreakable unity of mutual love. God is love. In other words, God is one, as the Catechism puts it, but not solitary (CCC 254).
And we are created in the image and likeness of God, as the Bible tells us. Therefore, if God’s essential nature is love, so is ours! We have a built-in openness to other people. We are incomplete by ourselves. We are created to give ourselves to others and to receive others.
Every human family is an image of this Trinitarian love. The husband gives himself without limits to the wife, and the wife receives him and gives herself in return, without limits. And it is through that total love of mutual self-giving that God brings a new life into the world: a child, called to eternal friendship with God.
One of my favorite parts of being a deacon is celebrating the Sacrament of Baptism. A baptism is typically a joyous occasion...a day of tremendous possibility and hope. It’s about a new life being welcomed into the church. Even if a baby is crying its lungs out, nothing can go wrong, because at that instant, that baby is perfect.
Baptism makes each of us spotless; as the Scripture puts it: we become a new creation. And there is something very particular, very specific, about the baptism ritual. It is in the words that are spoken...the Trinitarian Formula...“I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” It’s not considered a valid baptism unless those words are used. If you want a reminder of how important the Trinity is, THAT is it.
From the very beginning of our lives as Christians, we are sealed in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. It signifies the extraordinary importance the Church places on this singular belief - one God, in three persons. When we make the sign of the cross—a Trinitarian gesture through and through—we recapitulate our own baptism into that Trinitarian reality.
It all comes down to Trinity. That is why we celebrate this feast, one week after Pentecost – the Trinity has been revealed to the world—Father, Son and Spirit—and we mark this great gift. It is the center of our faith, because it gives us a glimpse into the inner life of God Himself, the God we believe in. And it’s the center of our life, because we are called to be living images of God, created to love and be loved. Imagine if you spent your entire life thinking you were following God, and you never learned to love people—the very nature of God!
Jesus gave his Church the great commandment to “love one another as I have loved you.” He did not command us to make millions of dollars. Any religious faith that informs us that is we just love God and believe in Him, we will make money (especially if we give the preacher a bit of our own money), is a fraud—we should run from this stuff that is called the American prosperity gospel. It is not rooted in the God who loves, but in the self who takes. God did not command us to win awards and prizes in our profession. He did not command us to look nice (for me, that’s a comfort), or even be comfortable. He commanded us to be like him: to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Loving God leads automatically to loving our neighbor. If we don’t love our neighbor, we don’t know the real God. St. John said that.
Today we are drawing close to God through this Mass. As we do, let us ask Him to show us how to draw nearer to those around us during this coming week. Let us be the first ones to forgive, even if the other person is at fault. Let us be the first ones to go out of our way to help someone who is struggling. Let us be the first ones to defend the truth when others attack it. In short, today, let’s renew our commitment to make our way through this sin-darkened world, a world filled with carnage and catastrophe, by being courageous, charismatic, bright, shining characters, images of God, of the Most Holy Trinity, who is love.
As we now turn toward the mysteries of the Mass, we remember that the Eucharist is nothing less than a profound sharing in the Trinitarian mystery, as by the power of the Holy Spirit we are united to the Son and in Him are offered to the Father; and as we share in the Body of the Son our Holy Communion with our Triune God is renewed and strengthened.
Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, O.C.D (a Carmelite priest), in the book Divine Intimacy, gives us an insight about how the Trinity comes to us more powerfully than ever—in just a few minutes. Listen:
"The Blessed Trinity is never so fully present in our souls as in the few moments when we have the sacramental presence of Jesus within us. The three divine Persons are not only present there but are pleased to remain there.
The Father takes pleasure in His beloved Son within us and whom He has given to us in the Eucharist; the Eternal Logos, the Word, Christ of all ages, takes delight in the sacred humanity of Jesus which is wholly and forever His; the Holy Spirit rejoices in Christ, His chosen temple and, because of Him, is pleased to dwell in our mortal bodies, our temple of His spirit, within us. The entire Trinity, finding Jesus in us, abides in our souls with joy, looks on us with special love, and each Person diffuses Himself into us more fully. Thus each Communion nourishes our life of union not only with Jesus, but also with the entire Trinity; each Communion increases our capacity to welcome the three divine Persons and to live in "company" with Them in an increasingly intimate and profound relationship."
Pray with me, brothers and sisters, pray with our priest in a few moments, that we may get even a glimpse of this reality, because now God does not just quickly walk by us, as He did with Moses, as the One whom no one sees or can see, but that He stays with us in sweet fellowship, and tabernacles inside us.
And finally, my brothers and sisters, let us love one another, in response to knowing even that glimpse of the reality of God.
In his commentary on Galatians 6:10, St. Jerome tells a famous story of "blessed St. John the evangelist" when he was extremely old, still living in Ephesus. He got to the age where he had to be carried into the congregation in the arms of his disciples. He was unable to say anything except, "Little children, love one another."
At last, wearied that he always spoke the same words, they asked: "Master, why do you always say this?"
"Because," he replied, "it is the Lord's command, and if this only is done, it is enough."
And as that old hymn I cited, written in 1837 by Robert Murray McCheyne, ends in its original form, an unpublished poem:
Teach me, Lord, on earth to show,
By my love, how much I owe.
“Love one another”, my brothers and sisters. Amen.