The Most Holy Trinity (B) 2021
Lots of priests and pastors are nervous about preaching on the feast of the Holy Trinity. The feasts of Ascension and Pentecost that we celebrated over the last two weeks mark seminal moments in the story of our salvation. We have accounts of them in the Gospels. But the feast of the Holy Trinity is different. It can sometimes feel like what we’re celebrating in this feast is an idea, a theological definition or a doctrine. And while definitions and doctrines are important, celebrating them as feasts can seem strange.
On one level, the Holy Trinity is simple enough for a young child to understand – God is three and God is one: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are three persons, but one God. That’s an elegant and balanced statement, but if we dig deeper and try to understand exactly what those statements mean, we come up against some questions that are pretty hard to answer. How can three be one? How can the Holy Spirit be a ‘person’? How can Jesus be both God and Son of God? It can get very confusing very quickly. Theologians down the ages have come up with all kinds of technical language, much of it in Greek, to speak of the three persons of the Trinity and their relationships – words like consubstantial and co-eternal, hypostases and perichoresis, are important for theologians, but they don’t provide much inspiration for an 8-minute Sunday homily.
Because the language surrounding the Trinity is so technical, it’s very easy to say incorrect things about it. In preparation for today I read a book with the amusing title, The Trinity: How Not to Be a Heretic. In it, among other things, I learned about weird and wonderful heretical – incorrect – understandings of the Holy Trinity down through the centuries, such as Arianism, Sabellianism, Adoptionism, Subordinationism, and the magnificent-sounding Modalistic Monarchianism. All very fascinating, but again not much use as we attempt to break open God’s word on Sunday morning.
A handy cop-out is to say that the Trinity is a mystery and that you just can’t speak about it in normal language. Maybe it’s better to remain silent, then? The author of the book I just mentioned wryly suggested that it’s so hard to speak about the Holy Trinity without putting your theological foot in your mouth that maybe Alison Krauss (and later Ronan Keating) had the right idea when she sang: ‘You say it best when you say nothing at all’….He was being sarcastic, of course. But he had a point. Because, the celebration of a feast day in honour of the Holy Trinity doesn’t demand words or thoughts from us, but wonder and awe. Today’s feast doesn’t call us to discuss obscure Greek or Latin concepts, or to speak of God as if he were a mathematical formula or a geometric shape. Today’s feast calls us to worship and adore. No more, no less. And often, that adoration is beyond words and definitions and explanations. Silence is indeed what is called for. Saint Anselm reflected: ‘The truth is, I am darkened by myself and also dazzled by you. I am clouded by my own smallness and overwhelmed by your intensity; I am restricted by my own narrowness and mastered by your wideness.’
Silent adoration is indeed the only fitting response in the face of such an overwhelming experience of simultaneously knowing and not knowing God.
I was struck by the antiphons – the refrains at the beginning and end of the psalms – that we sang at Vespers last night. All four of them were calls to praise. We sang them in Latin, but there was no mention of words like consubstantialem, circumincessio or filioque. Just praise and glory… ‘Glory be to you, O Trinity of equal Persons, one God, before all ages, now and forever’; ‘Praise and eternal glory be to God the Father and to the Son, together with the Holy Paraclete for ever and ever’; ‘Let glorious and everlasting praise resound from every voice to the Father, to his only-begotten Son and to the Holy Spirit’.
We can praise him so exuberantly because the Lord our God is a god who reveals himself. Though utterly other and unapproachable, he draws near to us and makes himself known. In today’s First Reading, Moses reminds the Israelites at Sinai of how close God came to them, choosing them as his people and leading them out of Egypt. Moses instructs them to ‘acknowledge today and take to heart that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other’. They are to praise him because he has revealed himself to them. For our part, we Christians celebrate the Holy Trinity, not because it is an important idea or doctrine, but simply because that is how God has revealed himself: As the Creator; as the Eternal Word, made flesh for our salvation; and as the Spirit of Truth, the bringer of consolation. That is who God has shown himself to be. That is the name in which Jesus commanded his disciples to evangelise the world, ‘baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’.
Encountering the God who reveals himself to us as three persons but one god, we worship and adore, not trying to understand complicated definitions, but simply, as the hymn puts it, ‘lost in wonder, love and praise’. God, Pope Benedict once said, ‘is not solitude, but perfect communion’. The good news today is that there is a place for us in that communion. When we cry out, ‘Abba!’, the Spirit is bearing witness that we are God’s children, and his co-heirs with Jesus. So let us cry out to the Father, knowing that in so doing we are sharing in the life of the Trinity. ‘From him and through him and to him are all things; to him be the glory forever.’
Fr Martin OSB