Today, Trinity Sunday, is the first Solemnity of the second portion of Ordinary Time (I think so anyway – I am never sure whether Pentecost is included, or instead seen as the end of Eastertide, or both!), and one that recalls us to the very essence of God Himself. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in the epilogue to his book Values in a Time of Upheaval, it is unique amongst the great feasts of the Church for this very reason:
‘The feast of the Most Holy Trinity is unlike the other great feasts of the Church’s year, such as Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, or Pentecost. On those days, we celebrate God’s mighty deeds in history: his Incarnation, his Resurrection, the sending of the Spirit and, with that, the birth of the Church. On the feast of the Trinity, we are not celebrating one of the events by which something of God becomes visible to us. We are quite simply celebrating God himself. We rejoice that God exists, and we give thanks that he is as he is and that we are permitted to know him and love him because he knows us, loves us, and has shown himself to us.’
from Values in a Time of Upheaval (2006), p.161, Ignatius Press.
Whilst our knowledge of God as triune comes from His acts within history, today’s feast is a celebration of the fact that what was revealed to us through the Incarnation and the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church is something that is true eternally of God – God did not become a Trinity when the Son assumed human nature; He always was thus, and always will be. In the dogma of the Holy Trinity, the essential mystery of God is revealed to us, yet His being is not contained by the dogma – it is the perfect example of how the defined contours of dogma and doctrine act to both ensure us of the validity of the revelation, and also to preserve the mystery of what is revealed.
The Trinity is thus a symbol of the knowable and unknowable – the One who reveals Himself to us is the same One who can never be fully understood. The knowledge we receive from God about Himself is sure knowledge, by which we cannot be deceived, but it only serves to deepen our appreciation for how far God exceeds our expectations, and is infinitely more than we can or could ever have imagined. This is evident in the first Old Testament reading for today, from Exodus (34:4b-6, 8-9), where we read that:
‘…he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the LORD had commanded him, and took in his hands two tables of stone. And the LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD.’ (vv.4-5)
This passage speaks of God coming near to man (Moses in this case) and revealing Himself to us. He ‘stood with him there’ and proclaimed His name – that is, His character, ‘a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’ (v.6), so that His people would know it for sure. God desires to come close to us and show us who He is – something shown to an even greater extent in today’s Gospel reading (John 3:16-18):
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.’
The Father sent the Son into the world, into our midst, so that we might know Him even more fully, know Him as He truly is, and therefore embrace His offer of salvation. To be saved by God we must first know who He is, and in Jesus, and through the meditations of His Church guided by the Spirit, we receive the revelation that within God there is a community of persons – Father, Son, Holy Spirit – who exist in an eternal pattern of mutual, self-giving love. At the heart of ultimate reality, God in Himself is love and community, personhood and gift. As Pope Benedict continues in his book, to know that this – not matter, or energy, or impersonal forces – is the basis for all that exists, the final word as it were, is a very heartening thing to know:
‘The face of Jesus is the face of God. That is what God looks like. Jesus, who suffered for us and forgave his enemies while dying on the cross, shows us how God is. This eye does not threaten us: it rescues us…
…God is three, and God is one: he is not eternal solitude but the eternal love that is the basis of the relationships between the three Persons and the foundation of all being and life. The unity that this love creates – the Trinitarian unity – is a higher unity than the unity of the building blocks of matter that are indivisible on their lowest level.’
Values in a Time of Upheaval, pp.163, 165-166.
Jesus comes to us as the only Son of the Father (Matthew 11:27), whom He claims equality with (John 10:30), and He sends us the Holy Spirit, who is also part of the same life and same mode of being as both Father and Son (John 16:12-15). Over the years, the Church, guided by that same Spirit, came to appreciate the implications of this revelation, and were led to understand that God is, as Pope Benedict writes, ‘not eternal solitude but the eternal love that is the…foundation of all being and life’. In a world often full of powers that seek to degrade man’s image, and that is rife with uncertainty, it is the greatest comfort to know that not only are we never alone, but behind everything is an eternal fountain of life and love, to which we can always turn.
As (one version of) the Minor Doxology says: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.