A mystery to be worshipped

| Father Michael Joncas | May 23, 2018 | 0 Comments
Most Holy Trinity

Cathedral White Ceiling Dome Mezquita Cordoba Spain. iStock/bpperry

With the Most Holy Trinity celebrated May 27, the Church invites us to contemplate one of the central mysteries of the Christian faith: the triunity of God.

Catholic theologians agree that this mystery (along with the Incarnation) is properly understood as a revealed mystery, i.e., a conception that humans could never reach by mere intellectual speculation but only by receiving God’s self-revelation in history and experience.

Christians, along with Jews and Muslims, believe that there is only one God, yet most Christians (except Unitarians and Oneness Pentecostals/Modalists, among others) hold that that one God exists in three divine persons: Father, Son (Jesus Christ) and Holy Spirit (Trinitarianism). These three persons (hypostases) are distinct in their relations of origin (“It is the Father who begets, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds,” Fourth Lateran Council) and in their relations to one another (perichoresis); in all else they are co-equal, co-eternal and consubstantial: each is God, whole and entire. The whole work of creating/sustaining, redeeming and sanctifying is seen as a single operation common to all three divine persons in which each shows forth what is proper to each, acting “from the Father,” “through the Son” and “in the Holy Spirit.”

Hints of this sublime conception of God’s being appear in this Sunday’s reading from Deuteronomy, the conclusion of Moses’ discourse outlining God’s activities on behalf of his covenant people, Israel: creating and sustaining them (Dt 4:32), redeeming them (Dt 4:33-34 [as well as 35-38 omitted in today’s reading]) and dwelling within them (Dt 4:39-40) as their principle of life. Perfectly matching the Deuteronomy reading, the verses to be sung from Psalm 33 also foreshadow the triune God at work in Israel’s history: creating and sustaining (Ps 33:6, 9), redeeming (Ps 33:18-19) and sanctifying (Ps 33:20, 22). St. Paul’s words to the Romans, while not describing the triune God with the verbal precision that was worked out in the Church’s early councils, clearly presents God’s Spirit bearing witness with our spirits (acting as our advocate) that we are heirs of God (the father) and co-heirs with Christ (by adoption) into the life of the triune God.

But the most explicit declaration of God’s triunity appears in the great commission concluding the Gospel of Matthew that we read as this Sunday’s Gospel. The sacred author records the risen Lord authorizing his disciples to make further disciples from all nations, teaching them to observe what Jesus has commanded them to do (and thus inviting us to return to the earlier discourses in Matthew’s Gospel, especially the Sermon on the Mount, to remember what Jesus has commanded his followers to do). In addition to this evangelizing and catechizing, Jesus’ disciples are told to baptize new followers of the way “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

What made this verse so important in the subsequent development of Trinitarian theology is that Jesus’ command is to baptize “in the name” (singular) not “in the names” (plural) of what will be identified as the three divine persons. Here Father, Son and Holy Spirit are conceptualized as sharing an underlying reality (which will eventually be referred to as a common divine “nature”) while retaining distinction in relation to each other (which will eventually be referred to as “person”).

Conceiving of the one godhead in three divine persons remains a mystery to be worshipped and not a puzzle to be solved. It is not for nothing that we not only are baptized in the name of the triune God, but we also begin and conclude virtually every liturgical service — including the Mass — by invoking the name of the Trinity.

St. Gregory of Nazianz, one of the great Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth century who helped the Church develop its orthodox Trinitarian theology, may serve as a wonderful guide as we reflect on this great mystery: “No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the splendor of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish three than I am carried back into the one. When I think of any of the three, I think of him as the whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of that one so as to attribute a greater greatness to the rest. When I contemplate the three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the undivided light” (Orations 40.41).

Father Joncas, a composer, is an artist in residence at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.


Sunday, May 27
Most Holy Trinity

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Category: Sunday Scriptures