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?

The Sacred Heart and the Filioque

Holy Trinity, Rublev

Holy Trinity, Rublev

As we considered Pentecost and the Feast of the Holy Trinity, we thought a little about the Filioque.  In the original, Greek version of the Creed, they said the Holy Spirit, “proceeds from the Father; with the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.”  But in the Latin Church we add Filioque, and the Son: “proceed from the Father and from the Son.”

Today we can consider how this Latin-Church insight goes together with the Sacred Heart.

The simple point is this: the Holy Spirit pours out to us from the Heart of Jesus.


Consider some really simple line-drawings of the Trinity.  Sometimes people seem to think the Trinity is kind of like this:


/          \

Son     Holy Spirit

Sometimes people seem to think that the Holy Spirit is an alternate way to God.  Then we sort of end up with a “conservative” Son-religion and a “liberal” Spirit-religion, in tension with one another.  There are those who think you need the Son, and all the dogmatic baggage he brings with him – and those who think you just need the Holy Spirit, who frees us from the Son.

This can cut various ways.  For some people, the Son-religion seems to be the religion of judgment and rules, and the Spirit-religion is the religion of no rules.  But an interesting reverse side of this is that sometimes the Son-religion seems like the religion of mercy, and the Spirit-religion leaves you to do it yourself.


Well, neither of these are right.  (And I don’t think the Eastern Orthodox who deny Rome’s right to add the Filioque to the Creed would be happy with these alternatives, either.)

First, the Holy Trinity is inseparable.  That’s kind of the central point of the Trinity: not three gods but one.  You cannot have the Son without the Spirit, or the Spirit without the Son, or the Father without both.  Thinking through the details of this is tricky, but basic simple orthodoxy has to realize that Father-Son-Holy Spirit is a package deal.

Second, the Son and the Spirit are inseparable.  In fact, we don’t follow the Son-religion or the Spirit-religion, we follow the Christian religion.  But in the early Church (especially the Greek-speaking Church: “Christos” is a Greek word) it was clear that the “Christ” is the “anointed one” (in Hebrew, Messiah), and what he is anointed with is the Holy Spirit.  This is one of the main points of John Paul II’s encyclical on the Holy Spirit Dominum et Vivificantem.  To call him Christ is to see the Holy Spirit as the one who dwells on the Incarnate Son, and the Incarnate Son as the one on whom the Holy Spirit dwells.


So our picture could instead be something like:

Father -> Son -> Holy Spirit

This still isn’t exactly right, but it’s a lot better.  (And again, it’s something the Eastern Orthodox would be perfectly happy with.)

The Holy Spirit is our gift from the Son – poured out from the pierced Heart of Jesus – and what the Holy Spirit does is to draw us into union with the Son.  And this is the only path to the Father: we know the Father precisely and only by receiving the Spirit from the Son, and receiving union with the Son through union with the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is the outpouring of the heart of Christ.  He is the Spirit of Christ.  We could even in a sense say the Holy Spirit is the heart of Christ.


The Incarnation, particularly the Sacred Heart of Jesus, shows us the glory of the Spirit.  Without the Sacred Heart, Spirit-religion can be a bit vague.  But the glory of the Spirit is precisely that he can make us as deeply human as the Son.  The heart of Jesus is the pattern that the Holy Spirit works in us, the image of our own “spiritual” transformation.  The Holy Spirit doesn’t just make us vaguely “spiritual”; he makes our hearts like unto Jesus’s.

And the Holy Spirit shows us the glory of the Sacred Heart.  Jesus is not just a guy who loves a lot.  Without the Holy Spirit, or at least, without a clear sense divinity resting on Jesus, we can fall into the mirror heresies of Arianism and Pelagianism.  Arianism means Jesus isn’t really God – orthodox people know that’s not right.

But Pelagianism is the sneaking suspicion that we’re supposed to make ourselves righteous (with its own converse, that Jesus is somehow an excuse that we don’t have to be righteous); I think orthodox people are much more susceptible to this heresy.  Thinking of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of the Heart of Jesus, reminds us that it is only God who makes us holy.  It is always a gift of God.

At least for us, the Holy Spirit proceeds not only from the Father, but also from the Son, Filioque.  To perfect our understanding of this, we need only to add that so it was in the beginning, and ever shall be.

Do you ever find yourself thinking of Jesus without the Holy Spirit, or the Holy Spirit without Jesus?




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?