Preaching Holy Trinity

Today was the feast of the Holy Trinity, an awkward day for priests everywhere. For a variety of reasons we need not explore today (from nominalism to pelagianism to the sixties), few priests seem clear on the connection between dogma and the life of their parishioners. A feast like this, then, which is obviously dogmatic–the very word Trinity is an abstraction neither in Scripture nor obviously connected to life–leaves priests grasping at how to preach, for once, about doctrine. It often doesn’t go well. Perhaps in giving advice to priests, I can help the rest of us too.

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The first step is the distinction between explanation and proclamation. The Holy Trinity (or any other dogma) does not need our explanations, especially not the explanations of people who haven’t given it much thought. Explanation of anything is irrelevant until people know that it exists and matters to them.

Even some of the things we think are explanations are really proclamations. Our parish is St. Patrick’s, and there’s a marvelous statue right where we sit of Patrick gazing thoughtfully at a shamrock. Shamrocks are a terrible explanation of the Trinity. Patrick wasn’t telling them the Trinity is “like” a shamrock. He was using the shamrock as a reminder, a symbol, a pointer, to make them think about the triune God. I don’t even think Augustine’s deep meditations on how the human memory-intellect-will is “like” the Trinity was meant as an explanation of the Trinity, so much as a way of getting very thoughtful people to gaze even more thoughtfully at their shamrocks.

What the Trinity needs is not explanation, but proclamation.

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One way to proclaim the Trinity is with the creed. It begins with “I believe.” Not “I understand,” or “it was proven to me,” or “I learned in school.” The first thing to proclaim is that Christians believe some things about God.

I believe there is only one God, only the Creator of earth. He created not only what is seen, but even what is unseen, even the heavens: absolutely everything. That’s the “unity” part of the Trinity: I believe in only one God, and that matters.

But I believe that God the Creator is also a Father. That is a proclamation. Other religions don’t believe that. Even the Old Testament doesn’t call God Father. We are so inured to our faith that we don’t realize what an awesome thing it is to call God Father, we think everyone must do that. Proclaim it! Believe it!

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We believe in Jesus Christ, that the one who was born of the Virgin Mary and crucified also rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, and is our Lord and judge. Those are things we believe about his humanity, and those things need to be proclaimed and believed. You don’t need to “explain” the resurrection, you need to proclaim it: hey, Christians, this is what we believe!

But we also believe that the man Jesus Christ is the Son who makes God Father, the only-begotten, one in being, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God! When we talk about the Trinity, we’re not talking about how you explain how something can be both one and three–that’s not the important part of the Trinity. What we’re talking about is the proclamation that Jesus is God. One and three isn’t that important on its own. But that Jesus is God is a Big Deal. That God is Father and Son is a Big Deal.

In fact, historically, the debates about the Trinity, especially in the fourth and fifth centuries, when most of this stuff was first hammered out, had very little to do with whether you could explain the connection between one and three. The debates were about whether Jesus is God or not. Who do you say that I am? When we talk about the Trinity, that’s what we’re talking about.

Proclaim that! Believe it! This Jesus, who gives himself to us in the Eucharist, whose face and wounds we adore on the crucifix, whose words we hear in the Gospel: he is God himself, come to speak with us, come to all us into communion with himself!

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And then a corollary is about the Holy Spirit. Historically, this issue came up at the same time. What about the Holy Spirit? What about the Spirit who, in the second half of the third part of the Creed, has inspired the prophets, who makes the Church one and holy and catholic and apostolic, who is given to us in Baptism, and is the forgiveness of our sins, who raises the dead and gives us life everlasting? What’s the deal with him?

He is God too! If God the Creator of heaven and earth is the kind of thing that can be both Father and Son, heck, why not, he can be Holy Spirit, too. It’s not that first we came up with an abstract theory about threeness and oneness, and then we realized that we could plug Father Son and Holy Spirit into that formula. The only reason we believe three and one is because we believe in these three, Father, Son, Holy Spirit.

The Son who saved us is God! The Holy Spirit who speaks to us and makes the Church and enters into our hearts, he is God! That’s what we are proclaiming, when we proclaim the Trinity. No explanation necessary, but we do need to believe that God is active in our life, in this distinctly Christian way.

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Equality and unity? I noticed those words in some of today’s liturgy. Abstract, mathematical words. But their point is not to manipulate numbers. Their point is to talk about Father Son and Holy Spirit. Equality means that the Son is nothing less than God the Creator, that’s who we’re talking about when we talk about Jesus. And the Holy Spirit, too, is nothing less. Equality doesn’t mean “three equals one” it means “Jesus and the Holy Spirit are no less than God himself.”

And unity means that they are one with God–they are one-ness with God, and what they offer to us is to enter into that oneness, to be not sorta kinda vaguely in relationship with God, but to be one with him. And not in a way that destroys our individuality, but as in the Trinity, so with us, there is perfect Unity while the individual plurality of persons remains.

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What we need to talk about is not numbers but persons. What we need to do is not explain how it works or makes sense–and certainly not how it makes sense in the abstract, apart from Father Son and Holy Spirit–but to proclaim that what it means to be a Christian is to believe these awesome things, about the Creator, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. That’s why in our baptismal promises we say, not “Do you understand how three-in-one works?” but “Do you believe in the Father . . . and the Son . . . and the Holy Spirit?”

One way to proclaim that, as I have done here, is with the Creed. We’d all do well to start praying the Creed as the awesome meditation it is meant to be, in the Mass, in our rosary, maybe even elsewhere in our prayer life.

But another way to proclaim that is just by reading Scripture. We have an awesome Lectionary, which gives readings about who the Son and the Holy Spirit are: this year they were about the plan of God’s creation, the love of God poured into our hearts, and the Son who receives everything from the Father, and the Spirit who leads us into the Son. You wouldn’t have to explain anything about Three-in-One just to meditate on those awesome words which “he has spoken through the prophets.”

How do you nurture your faith in Father-Son-Holy Spirit?

eric.m.johnston

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