There is an old spiritual that says, “My God is so high, you can’t get over him, he’s so low you can’t get under him, he’s so wide you can’t get ’round him, you must come in, by and through the Lamb.”
That’s not a bad way of saying that God is other; He is beyond what human words can tell or describe; He is beyond what human thoughts can conjure. And on the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity we do well to remember that we are pondering a mystery we cannot fit in our minds.
A mystery, though, is not something wholly unknown. In the Christian tradition the word “mystery” refers (among other things) to something that is only partially revealed, to something of which much more remains hidden. Thus, as we ponder the teaching on the Trinity, there are some things we can know by revelation but much more that is beyond our understanding.
Let’s ponder the Trinity by exploring it, seeing how it is exhibited in Scripture, and considering how we, who are made in God’s image, experience it.
I. The Teaching of the Trinity Explored – Perhaps we do best to begin by quoting the Catechism, which says, The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons: [Father, Son and Holy Spirit] … The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God whole and entire (Catechism, 253).
So there is one God, and the three persons of the Trinity each possess the one divine nature fully. The Father is God; He is not one-third of God. Likewise the Son, Jesus, is God; He is not one-third of God. And so, too, the Holy Spirit is God, not a mere third of God. So each of the three persons possesses the one divine nature fully.
In our experience, if there is only one of something and I possess that something fully, there is nothing left for you. Yet, mysteriously, each of the Three Persons fully possesses the one and only divine nature fully, while remaining a distinct person.
One of the great masterpieces of the Latin Liturgy is the preface for Trinity Sunday. Compactly yet clearly, the preface sets forth the Christian teaching on the Trinity. The following translation of the Latin is my own:
It is truly fitting and just, right and helpful unto salvation that we should always and everywhere give thanks to you O Holy Lord, Father almighty and eternal God: who, with your only begotten Son and the Holy Spirit are one God, one Lord: not in the oneness of a single person, but in a Trinity of one substance. For that which we believe from your revelation concerning your glory, we acknowledge of your Son and the Holy Spirit without difference or distinction. Thus, in the confession of the true and eternal Godhead there is adored a distinctness of persons, a oneness in essence, and an equality in majesty, whom the angels and archangels, the Cherubim also and the Seraphim, do not cease to daily cry out with one voice saying: Holy Holy, Holy …
Wowza! A careful and clear masterpiece, but one that baffles the mind as its words and phrases come forth. So deep is this mystery that we had to “invent” a paradoxical word to summarize it: triune (or Trinity). “Triune” literally means, “three-one” (tri+unus). “Trinity is a conflation of “tri-” and “unity,” meaning the “three-oneness” of God.
If all this baffles you, good! If you were to claim you fully understood all this, I would have to call you a likely heretic. For the teaching on the Trinity, while not contrary to reason per se, does transcend it and surely transcends human understanding.
Dance? Perhaps, too, in order to avoid an overly static notion of the Trinity, it is helpful to understand God in terms of the dynamic relationships between the Persons: the Father begetting the Son, the Son eternally begotten of the Father, and the movement of love between them, who is the Holy Spirit. The Eastern Fathers speak of this great movement of love between and among the Three Persons as the divine perichoresis. It is a kind of dance of love, dynamic and vivid. It is a glorious movement, yes, a kind of dance.
A final image before we leave our exploration stage: the picture at the upper right is of an experiment I remember doing back in high school. We took three projectors, each of which projected a colored circle: one red, one green, and one blue (the three primary colors). At the point of intersection, the color was white. Mysteriously, within the color white the three primary colors are present, but only white shows forth. The analogy is not perfect (no analogy is or it wouldn’t be an analogy) because Father, Son, and Spirit do not “blend” to make God. But the analogy does manifest a mysterious “three-oneness” of the color white. Somehow in the one, three are present. (By the way, this experiment only works with light; don’t try it with paint!)
II. The Teaching of the Trinity Exhibited – Scripture, too, presents images and pictures of the Trinity. Interestingly enough, most of the pictures I want to present are from the Old Testament.
Now I want to say, as a disclaimer, that Scripture scholars debate the meaning of the texts I am about to present; that’s what they get paid the big bucks to do. Let me be clear in saying that I am reading these texts as a New Testament Christian and seeing in them a doctrine that later became clear. I am not getting in a time machine and trying to understand them as a Jew from the 8th century B.C. might have understood them. And why should I? That’s not what I am. I am reading these texts as a Christian in the light of the New Testament, as I have a perfect right to do. You, of course, are free to decide for yourself if these texts really are images or hints of the Trinity. Take them or leave them. Here they are:
1. Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likenesss …” (Gen 1:26). So God speaks of Himself in the plural. Some claim that this is just an instance of the “royal we” being used. Perhaps, but I see an image of the Trinity. There is one (“God said”) but there is also a plural (us, our). Right at the very beginning, in Genesis, there is already a hint that God is not all by Himself, but rather is in a communion of love.
2. Elohim? In the passage above, the word actually used for God is אֱלֹהִ֔ים (Elohim). It is interesting that this word is in a plural form. From the view point of pure grammatical form, Elohim means “Gods.” However, the Jewish people understood the sense of the word to be singular. This is a much-debated point and you can read more about it from a Jewish perspective here: Elohim as Plural yet Singular. My point here is not to try to understand it as would a Jew from the 8th century B.C. or even a Jew of today. Rather, I find it interesting that one of the main words for God in the Old Testament is plural yet singular, singular yet plural. It is one yet also plural. God is one yet He is three. I say this as a Christian observing this about one of the main titles of God: I see an image of the Trinity.
3. 3 or 1? And the LORD appeared to [Abram] by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, “My Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I fetch a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on — since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said” (Gen 18:1-5). From a purely grammatical point of view, this passage is very difficult, since it switches back and forth from singular references to plural ones. Note first that the Lord (singular) appeared to Abram. (In this case יְהוָ֔ה Yahweh (YHWH) is the name used for God.) And yet what Abram sees is three men. Some have said that this is just God and two angels. But I see the Trinity being imaged or alluded to here. And yet when Abram addresses “them” he says, “My Lord” (singular). The “tortured” grammar continues as Abram asks that water be fetched so that he can “wash your feet” (singular) and that the “Lord” (singular) can “rest yourselves” (plural). The same thing happens in the next sentence: Abram wants to fetch bread “that you” (singular) “may refresh yourselves” (plural). In the end, the Lord (singular) gives answer, but it is rendered, “So they said.” Plural, singular … which is it? Both. God is one; God is three. For me, as a Christian, this is a picture of the Trinity. Since the reality of God cannot be reduced to words we have here a grammatically difficult passage. But I “see” what is going on. God is one and God is three; He is singular and yet plural.
4. Lord … Lord … Lord! Having come down in a cloud, the Lord stood with Moses there and proclaimed his Name, “Lord.” Thus the Lord passed before him and cried out, “The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity” (Exodus 34:5). Here we see that when God announces His name, He does so in a threefold way: Lord! … The Lord, the Lord. There is implicit a threefold introduction or announcement of God. Coincidence or of significance? You decide.
5. Holy, Holy, Holy – In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the Seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Is 6:1-3). God is holy, holy, and yet again, holy. Some say that this is just a Jewish way of saying “very holy,” but as Christian I see more. I see a reference to each of the Three Persons. Perfect praise here requires three “holys.” Why? Omni Trinum Perfectum (all things are perfect in threes). But why? As a Christian, I see the angels not just using the superlative but also praising each of the Three Persons. God is three (Holy, Holy, Holy) and God is one, and so the text says, “… Holy is the Lord.” Three declarations of “holy.” Coincidence or of significance? You decide.
6. There are many such references in the New Testament, but let me refer to just three quickly:
- Jesus says, The Father and I are one (Jn 10:30).
- He says again, To have seen me is to have seen the Father (Jn. 14:9).
- And, have you ever noticed that in the baptismal formula Jesus uses “bad” grammar? He says, Baptize them in the Name (not names as it grammatically “should” be) of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). God is one (name) and God is three (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).
Thus Scripture exhibits the teaching of the Trinity, going back even to the very beginning.
III. The Teaching of the Trinity Experienced – We who are made in the image and likeness of God ought to experience something of the mystery of the Trinity within us. And sure enough we do.
It is clear that we are all distinct individuals. I am not you; you are not I. Yet it is also true that we are made for communion. As humans, we cannot exist apart from one another. Obviously we depend on our parents, through whom God made us. But even beyond physical descent, we need one another for completion.
Despite what the song says, no man is a rock or an island. There is no such thing as a self-made man. Even the private business owner needs customers, suppliers, shippers, and other middlemen. He uses roads he did not build, has electricity supplied to him over lines he did not string, and speaks a language to his customers that he did not create. Further, whatever the product he makes, he is likely the beneficiary of technologies and processes he did not invent. The list could go on and on.
We are individuals but we are social. We are one but linked to many. Clearly we do not possess the kind of unity that God does, but the “three-oneness” of God echoes in us. We are one yet we are many.
We have entered into perilous times, times in which our interdependence and communal influence are underappreciated. The attitude that prevails today is a rather extreme individualism that says, “I can do as I please.” There is a reduced sense of how our individual choices affect the whole of the community, Church, or nation. Although I am an individual, I live in communion with others and must respect that dimension of who I am. I exist not only for me but for others as well. What I do affects others, whether for good or ill.
The “It’s none of my business what others do” attitude also needs some attention. Privacy and discretion have important places in our life, but so does having concern for what others do and think, the choices they make, and the effects that such things have on others. It is important to cultivate a common moral and religious vision. We should care about fundamental things like respect for life, love, care for the poor, education, marriage, and family. Indeed, marriage and family are fundamental to community, nation, and the Church. I am one, but I am also in communion with others and they with me.
Finally, there is a rather remarkable conclusion that some have drawn: the best image of God in us is not a man alone or a woman alone, but a man and a woman together in a lasting and fruitful relationship we call marriage. For when God said, “Let us make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26), the text goes on to say, “Male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). And God says to them, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28). So the image of God (as God sets it forth most perfectly) is the married and fruitful couple.
Here of course we must be careful to understand that what we manifest sexually, God manifests spiritually. For God is not male or female in His essence. Thus we may say that the First Person loves the Second Person and the Second Person loves the First Person. And so real is that love that it bears fruit in the Third Person. In this way the married couple images God, for the husband loves his wife, the wife loves her husband, and their love bears fruit in their children. 
So today, as we extol the great mystery of the Trinity, we look not merely outward and upward to understand, but also inward to discover that mystery at work in us, who are made in the image and likeness of God.
Here’s another song that reminds us that we were made for communion.