Trinity Sunday

Holy Trinity, Rublev

Holy Trinity, Rublev

PRV 8:22-31; PS 8:4-5, 6-7, 8-9; ROM 5:1-5; JN 16:12-15

This Sunday we celebrate the Trinity, the most obscure but also most glorious mystery of our faith.

Historically, this feast has two origins. First, it is the Octave of Pentecost. In the early middle ages, there grew a practice of recelebrating a feast one week afterwards, and every day in between. Divine Mercy Sunday is the Octave of Easter: it is like the whole week repeats the glory of Easter, and the liturgy even says that “today” is Easter throughout. One day cannot contain its glories. Christmas, too, has an octave. Pentecost was the third to get an octave – and after that, they started giving octaves to all sorts of lesser feasts.

Now, Easter season is the octave of octaves. Pentecost, the Sunday after seven weeks of seven, is the final day of this super-octave. It seems to be in for this reason that they dropped the Pentecost octave in the reform of the liturgy after Vatican II – we should think of Pentecost as part of Easter, not a separate season. But we retain Trinity Sunday as kind of a reduplication of Pentecost – that is, as a celebration that Jesus the Son of God, the victor of Easter, and the Holy Spirit, whom he pours into our hearts, are truly God from God, light from light, true God from true God.


There was also an independent tradition that at some places had a Trinity Sunday as the final Sunday before Advent, as the culminating feast of the Church year. The readings at the end of the year point to the end of time, and the readings of Advent to the second coming of Christ. Thus a feast was added to ponder the final mystery, the mystery in which all things culminate, the life of God.

And in fact, before Vatican II the liturgy for the feast focused less on the mystery of the Trinity than on the mystery of God. The first reading (they didn’t used to have an Old Testament reading) was from Romans: “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor?

The Gospel had the Baptismal formula from the Great Commission, but juxtaposed with Romans and the other prayers of the day, the point seemed only to be that we are baptized into the mystery of God. That is part of what Trinity Sunday does: it just leads us to think about God. It is the feast of God – and the feast of the mysteriousness, the unthinkability of God.

Preachers are sometimes scared of Trinity Sunday. But we should dwell on that: that we cannot understand God is precisely the point.


And yet the readings of the reformed liturgy do lead us into a meditation on the three persons. The first reading, from Wisdom, talks about the wisdom, the Logos, who was in the beginning with God, through whom all things were made (as John says in his prologue). Although the tradition would probably focus on the Son, you can think of it speaking of the Spirit, too: “When the Lord established the heavens I was there, when he marked out the vault over the face of the deep,” etc.

We ponder, at the end of this Easter season, the true identity of the Son and the Spirit. True God, in the beginning with God.


The first reading from the New Testament, from Romans, is more specific.

“We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access.”  The whole point of the original controversies about the Trinity, in the fourth century, was that Jesus can only give us access to God because he is God – and man. A bridge must reach to both sides: if he is less than God, he cannot connect us to God. But he is that great, that awesome – and our redemption is that great.

So too the Spirit: “the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Not something less than God, but God himself, as love. How great is our dignity!

And this is our hope even in “afflictions”: through the trials of life, we are in union with God himself, nothing less.


Most specific of all, of course, are the words of Jesus, from the prayer at the Last Supper in John’s Gospel. The Spirit “will take from what is mine and declare it to you,” and “everything that the Father has is mine.” Jesus can lead us to the Father because he is true God, nothing less. The Holy Spirit, poured into our hearts, unites us to Jesus because he is true God, nothing less.

How great is the mystery of God! And how great is our Redemption! Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit!

How would your day be different if you really believed that God himself was at work in your heart?

Trinity Sunday: The Mystery of God

massacio trinity with virginLast weekend we celebrated Trinity Sunday, the octave of Pentecost.  We could say that Trinity Sunday is the fulfillment of Pentecost: the last thing to say about the Holy Spirit is that God is Trinity.  Or we could say that the real point of the revelation of the Holy Spirit is to help us discover the Triune God.


One way to approach Trinity is to think about the “Filioque.”  Latin has a funny little thing where you can add “-que” to the end of a word and it’s the same as putting the word “and” before it.  “Filioque” means, “and the Filio” – “and the Son.”

What we call the Nicene Creed was first approved at the Council of Nicaea in 325, then significantly modified at the Council of Constantinople in 381.  The finished product said, “the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father.  With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.”  In the second part he gets “Glory be” with the Father “and the Son,” but he only proceeds from the Father.

Later, Roman Catholics added “Filioque”: “proceeds from the Father and the Son.”  It’s a change, an addition to the Nicene Creed.  It was not approved by a Council, but was adopted by the Roman Church.  (Good enough for me!)

It’s significant that it’s in Latin: like the New Testament and much of the first centuries of the Church, the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople were conducted in Greek.  There’s a whole eastern, Greek-speaking part of the Church; before the rise of Islam, much of the leadership of the Church, both intellectually and spiritually, was Greek-speaking.

But the Greeks don’t say “Filioque.”  In fact, historically, it’s one of the biggest fights between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox: they say we added to the Creed, and that’s not okay!


Here’s the interesting thing: both sides, we Romans who say “Filioque” and the Greeks who think we shouldn’t, are both insisting on how little we know of God.

We agree that the Holy Spirit, the one who comes to sanctify us, is divine: with the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified, “Glory be!”

But the Greeks oppose the Filioque because they fear we Romans think we know too much.  We do know that the Father is the source of everything, even the Son and the Spirit – so we know that the Spirit proceeds from the Father.  But we don’t know how, so it’s not appropriate to start adding lines like “and the Son.”

Interesting, though: the reason we say Filioque is not because we think we know so much.  It too is a way of saying how little we know.  We don’t know much about the Son.  But in Latin theology, we say that the one thing we do know is that he’s exactly like the Father.  We say “Filioque” because we say, look, all we know is that they are exactly alike, so if the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, he must proceed from the Son, too.  In a way, we are saying, don’t complicate things by coming up with distinctions between the Father and the Son: what the Father does, the Son does.

For our purposes, my only point is, when we think about the Trinity, and the Holy Spirit, and the Filioque, etc., the main thing we should think is, God is infinitely beyond what I can understand.  In fact, much of what we say in theology and in the Creed is merely there to remind us how little we can comprehend the wonderful mystery of God.


A few words, then, about Sunday’s readings.  In the Gospel, we read that we are baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Let us just add, on Trinity Sunday, that we are baptized into the mystery of God – into something the greatness of which we cannot fathom.  Try to come up with how amazing Baptism is – and it is way more amazing than that!

The first reading, from Deuteronomy, said, “Did a people ever hear the voice of God speaking from the midst of fire, as you did, and live?”  Let the feast of the Holy Trinity remind us how awesome, how incomprehensible, is that God who speaks to us.  How unfathomable that he should call us into relationship with him!

And above all, in the second reading, from Romans, we read that we have been made “sons of God” by receiving the “Spirit of adoption,” who allows us to speak, to “cry, Abba, Father.”  Let us ponder the awesome mystery of the unfathomable Trinity – and know that it is precisely this mystery that has been given to us – no, that we have been drawn into.

How do you ponder the awesomeness of the Triune God?








Sunday of the Holy Trinity: “The Communion of the Holy Spirit”

PFA83070EX 34:4b-6, 8-9; DN 3:52, 52, 54, 55, 56; 2 COR 13:11-13; JN 3:16-18

This Sunday we celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, perhaps the most under appreciated feast of the Church year. We have talked a lot about the doctrine of the Trinity in recent months. Today let us examine the short readings for this feast day.

Perhaps we can sum up the “problem” of the Trinity through a first glance at the Gospel. We have the famous John 3:16, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” God loves us! He wants to save us!

But immediately thereafter comes perhaps the most objectionable line in Christianity: “whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

Christianity is about love, and God’s love for us. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world.” What, then, is all this business about doctrine, especially obscure doctrines? Why do we need to “believe in the name”? “The name” almost underlines the arbitrariness of it: profess “the name” of Jesus and you’re saved, don’t, and you’re condemned. How does that match God’s love for us?

And, to make it worse, why should the ultra-obscure, almost humorously obscure, doctrine of the Trinity matter at all? Isn’t this obscurantism the pure opposite of the Gospel of God’s love for us?

The first answer is, obviously John doesn’t think so.


Our first reading is from Exodus. “Moses went up Mount Sinai. . . . The LORD stood with Moses there and proclaimed his name, ‘LORD.’” (By convention, modern translators write this unspeakable name, YHWH, as all-caps LORD. The Jews substitute their word for “Lord,” Adonai, when they see the name, and the Vatican has asked us not to pronounce the unspeakable name. We put it in caps, though, so we know that’s what the Hebrew word really is.)

Why does God speak his unspeakable name to Moses?

Moses “took along the two stone tablets” when he went to meet God, as if a sign that this somehow fulfills the Law. But then he “bowed down to the ground in worship,” as the Lord himself proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity.” Moses begs him “come along in our company. . . . receive us as your own.”

The point is simple. Far beyond moral observation, Christianity (and Judaism) is about a relationship. It’s not just what we do for God. It’s knowing God himself.

And who is God? He is “a meciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity.” He reveals himself precisely as a lover, a friend, one who “comes along in our company.” That’s what “the two tablets,” all the moral precepts of Christianity, are really all about.


The short reading from Second Corinthians is almost nothing more than a salutation: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”

But this salutation takes us deeper into the relationship revealed on Sinai. The name of God is Father-Son-Holy Spirit. Indeed, this salutation takes us deeper into that name. The name of God is “love”: the love of Father and Son. The name of God is “grace”: the grace of the Son joined to us. The name of God is “fellowship”, communion: the bond of the Holy Spirit, who is both the eternal communion of Father and Son and our entrance into that communion.

The Holy Trinity is the revelation that God is relationship, and invites us into that relationship.

And this spills over: “Brothers and sisters, rejoice . . . live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you.” We rejoice in the love that is God-with-us. It spills into love of one another, and the bond of peace, the bond of communion with one another.

This is the real secret written on those two tablets of Moses. The real heart of the Commandments is, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” But we discover that holy kiss in the love that is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is himself that kiss.


God, says John, “gave his only Son.” To know that is to have everything: to have the divine love itself.

It’s not that God condemns us if we don’t believe. It’s that life without that divine love is hardly worth living.

How could we make ourselves more aware that Christian love is rooted in our faith in the Trinity?