Reflection from Trinity Sunday

Almost a week late, but here’s the reflection I put together for my worshipping community, Thunder Bay’s Urban Abbey, last Sunday.

Once I mentioned to a friend that Evagrius Ponticus, the fourth-century monastic mystic of Egypt, said that contemplation of the Trinity was the goal of Christian contemplation. She said she could never understand the Trinity, how three people can be one. Many people express similar thoughts, expressing hesitation and weakness or awkwardness in the face of talking about this doctrine. On behalf of theological educators everywhere, I would like to apologise for this. Speaking about the Trinity is really easy to do without falling into heresy, actually.

And you’re never going to comprehend how three Persons can also be or share a single Essence.

There are two places old-school theologians liked to begin in talking about the Trinity: the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ or the incomprehensibility of God. Let’s begin with the second one today. Very briefly: One of the reasons why we cannot fully understand how three Persons are a single God is that God as God is ultimately incomprehensible. We cannot grasp or understand or comprehend Who God is according to God’s own nature.

God is not a being among beings. God simply is. God is being itself. God is not a thing or an object within the universe. God created all the things and objects—the universe itself. God is utterly, ultimately beyond anything and everything that we know through daily experience. This is actually a Good Thing—it means that God makes God’sselves (God’s self? Theirselves?) known to us when it is needful for us, for God is not limited by the material or even spiritual creation. Thus, the doctrine of transcendence (God is beyond everything) guarantees the lived experience of immanence (God is in everything). In God we live and move and have our being, as St Paul said in Athens.

Rest calmly, then, knowing that your inability to comprehend the Trinity is neither a fault in yourself nor in the doctrine but part of the reality that comes with knowing God. Embrace the mystery, joining with the twelfth-century Cistercian Willliam of St-Thierry:

when I fix my inward gaze full upon him to whom I turn for light, to whom I offer worship or entreaty: it is God as Trinity who comes to meet me, a truth which the Catholic faith, bred in my bones, instilled by practice, commended by yourself and by your teachers, presents to me. But my soul, which must always visualize, perceives this given truth in such a way that it foolishly fancies number to reside in the simple being of the Godhead, which is beyond all number, and which itself made all that is by number and measure and weight. In this way it allots to each Person of the Trinity as it were his individual place and, praying to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, pictures itself as passing from the one to the other through the third. And thus the mind, baffled by the one, is diffracted among the three, as though there were three bodies that must be differentiated or united.

trans. P. Matarasso, The Cisercian World, p. 113

Can we say nothing, then? Are humans so inadequate that we can say nothing true about the one, true, and living God? How can we articulate any doctrine, let alone the Trinity, in light of the glorious beauty of the transcendent God? I assure you—monks and mystics throughout history have felt this. But they have also realised that God has made God’s Self known to us through creation, through acting in human history, and through the writings of sacred Scripture. God is transcendent, not aloof. God has communicated with us through these ways because God loves us more than we can ask or imagine.

Many passages in the New Testament demonstrate to us that Jesus, the God Word incarnate, is fully God. I’ll give just one example: John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And Jesus’ words testify to the fact that there is a Divine Person named the Father—and that Jesus and the Father are one. Not only that, but if you’ve seen Jesus, you’ve seen the Father. Finally, in numerous instances throughout St Paul’s letters as well as statements made by Jesus, such as the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, there is also a third Person Who is God, the Holy Spirit.

Nonetheless, throughout both Old and New Testaments it is clear that there is only one God who does not share His glory with another.

As the ancient church meditated on this, they found ways of expressing this threefold oneness that are faithful to Scripture, developing the language of the Trinity. There are three persons in one God. The Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit; the Son is not the Father or the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is not the Father or the Son. But there are not three Gods, only one God. The Father almighty, the Son almighty, the Holy Spirit almighty; but there are not three almighties, only one almighty.

Anything you can say about God—immortal, invisible, wise—you can say about any of the three Persons of the Trinity. They are united in complete, utter, and perfect love, being as they are a single substance or essence. How? I don’t know. But God is the truest, most perfect love there is. In fact, that is an important element of Trinitarian theology: God is love, and love implies a beloved. Therefore, God exists in all eternity as the Holy Three, filling each other with utterly perfect self-giving love.

God-as-Trinity is love. God-as-Trinity is Creator, as well. Of Their own free will, perfectly united in essence and love, God chose to create this world. And then God created us humans in God’s own Trinitarian image—not a true Trinity, but a likeness of it, similar in many respects. And then that image was damaged and marred by sin, death, and the devil. So the mighty God sent prophets, signs, and wonders, and then, out of the boundless love that is part of God’s very essence as Trinity, God Himself came down.

God Himself came down to save us.

Jesus the Christ is the God Word Who exists eternally in perfect, selfless love with the Father and the Holy Spirit. More than a carpenter. More than a good teacher. More than a prophet. And the sinless, pure, spotless, immortal God Who is love poured out His blood for us, rose again, and ascended.

So that you won’t be misled by what I’m about to say, remember this: God the Holy Trinity is perfect and infinite according to nature and essence. God doesn’t need us.

But God loves us.

Therefore, God invites us into a taste of that Trinitarian life, as we read about in John 14. We are baptised into that Trinitarian life, according to Matthew 28. And we are called to bring others into that life of boundless, endless, self-giving love, to participate, abide in the power, glory, and goodness of God Who Is Trinity. (But none of us can become a member of the Trinity; God does not need us, remember. God loves us and wants us to know Him.)

And in making disciples of Jesus the Christ, we begin also to reconcile ourselves to one another, for Jesus prays for us to be one as He and the Father are one. We are called to imperfectly mirror that Trinitarian reality as the church, where we live in selfless love for one another, acting together in God’s mission in the world, just as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were active together in creation.

This Trinity Sunday, let us pray for our unity as a community, for the unity of all Christian people, and, most importantly, fall down (literally or figuratively) in worship before a God Whom we can never fully understand but Who loves us so much He chose to die for us. Worship the Trinity. Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

Holy Trinity round-up

In three weeks it will be Trinity Sunday. A lot of clergy are wary of Trinity Sunday. There is an idea that preaching on the Trinity is impossible, or irrelevant, or dangerous. It may be the first and last of these; certainly not the second. It is also a risk we should take — precisely because it is not irrelevant. Since I’ve blogged about the doctrine of the Trinity here a few times, I thought I’d make a convenient one-stop shop for clergy looking ahead to that Feast and trying to think of how to go about their duty.

First, my page of Resources on the Holy Trinity.

Second, my translations of the Creeds:

Third, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not irrelevant:

Posts of passages and quotations on the Trinity:

My varied musings on the Trinity in anti-chronological order, usually inspired by reading something ancient or medieval (but also, one time, The Shack!):

Trinity Sunday

Trinity Knot

Repost from elsewhere a few years back.

Today is Trinity Sunday, so here are some quotations on this Subject of subjects (since I’m a quote collector):

What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.
-AW Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy

Eternal Trinity, you are a deep sea, into which the more I enter, the more I find, and the more I find the more I seek.
-Catherine of Siena

If Jesus was the idealistic founder of a religion, I can be elevated by his work and stimulated to follow his example. But my sins are not forgiven, God still remains angry and I remain in the power of death. . . . But if Jesus is the Christ, the Word of God, then I am not primarily called to emulate him; I am encountered in his work as one who could not possibly do this work myself. Through his work I recognize the gracious God. My sins are forgiven, I am no longer in death but in life.
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christology

You should point to the whole man Jesus and say, “That is God.”
-Martin Luther

But the divine substance is form without matter, and, therefore, is one and is what it is. (or is its own essence.)
-Boethius, De Trinitate

God — if I may use my own jargon — is what happens between Jesus and the one he called Father, as they are freed for each other by their Spirit.
-Robert W. Jenson

What we can say is that, given our knowledge of the Trinity, personhood is tied up intimately with community, and with complementarity of Persons: the Trinity, a communion of irreducible Persons in complementarity and love, is our bedrock understanding of what it is to be alive. This leads us back to our understanding of Christian spirituality: authentic spirituality is the characteristic of a person in Christ who has enough wisdom and insight regarding self and others, and enough love and strength through the Spirit, that he or she can dare to be “ek-static” and so to enter into true intimacy with “the other,” an intimacy that will include both word and silence.
-Edith M. Humphrey, Ecstasy and Intimacy

Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee;
Holy, Holy, Holy! Merciful and Mighty,
God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity!

Holy, Holy, Holy! all the saints adore thee,
casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
Cherubim and seraphim falling down before thee,
Which wert, and art, and evermore shalt be

Holy, Holy, Holy! though the darkness hide thee,
Though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see,
Only thou art holy; there is none beside thee
Perfect in power, in love, and purity.

Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!
All thy works shall praise thy name, in earth and sky and sea;
Holy, Holy, Holy! Merciful and Mighty!
God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity!
-Bishop R. Heber

WHOSOEVER would be saved / needeth before all things to hold fast the Catholic Faith. 2 Which Faith except a man keep whole and undefiled, / without doubt he will perish eternally. 3 Now the Catholic Faith is this, / that we worship one God in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity; 4 Neither confusing the Persons, / nor dividing the Substance. 5 For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, / another of the Holy Ghost; 6 But the Godhead of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one, / the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal.

7 Such as the Father is, such is the Son, / and such is the Holy Ghost; 8 The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, the Holy Ghost uncreated; 9 The Father infinite, the Son infinite, the Holy Ghost infinite; 10 The Father eternal, the Son eternal, the Holy Ghost eternal; 11 And yet there are not three eternals, but one eternal; 12 As also there are not three uncreated, nor three infinites, / but one infinite, and one uncreated.

13 So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, / the Holy Ghost almighty; 14 And yet there are not three almighties, but one almighty. 15 So the Father is God, the Son God, the Holy Ghost God; 16 And yet there are not three Gods, / but one God. 17 So the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, / the Holy Ghost Lord; 18 And yet there are not three Lords, / but one Lord.

19 For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity / to confess each Person by himself to be both God and Lord; 20 So are we forbidden by the Catholic Religion / to speak of three Gods or three Lords. 21 The Father is made of none, / nor created, nor begotten. 22 The Son is of the Father alone; / not made, nor created, but begotten. 23 The Holy Ghost is of the Father and the Son; / not made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding. 24 There is therefore one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; / one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.

25 And in this Trinity there is no before or after, / no greater or less; 26 But all three Persons are co-eternal together, / and co-equal. 27 So that in all ways, as is aforesaid, / both the Trinity is to be worshipped in Unity, and the Unity in Trinity. 28 He therefore that would be saved, / let him thus think of the Trinity.
-from the so-called Athanasian Creed

Office of the Holy Trinity for Trinity Sunday

I think the title says it all. I recommend you follow this link to the new addition over at the sidebar amongst the ‘Classic Christian Texts.’ It’s another offering from Aelfwine’s Prayerbook, like the Office in Honour of the Holy Cross. Pray it. Imbibe it. Rejoice in the glory of the most Holy Trinity!