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 around Him. You must come in, by and through the Lamb.”
It’s not a bad way of saying that God is “other.” He is beyond what human words can describe, 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 that 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 partially revealed, something much more of which remains hidden. Thus, as we ponder the Trinity, consider that although there are some things we can know by revelation, much more is beyond our understanding.
Let’s ponder the Trinity by exploring it, seeing how it is exhibited in Scripture, and observing how we, who are made in God’s image, experience it.
I. The Teaching on 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 each of the three persons of the Trinity possesses 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 the Holy Spirit is God, not merely one-third of God.
It is our human experience that if there is only one of something and someone possesses it fully, then there is nothing left for anyone else. Yet, mysteriously, each of the three persons of the Trinity fully possesses the one and only divine nature, while remaining a distinct person.
One of the great masterpieces of the Latin Liturgy is the preface for Trinity Sunday. It compactly and clearly 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 …
Wow! A careful and clear masterpiece, but one that baffles the mind. 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) and “Trinity is a conflation of “Tri-unity,” meaning the “three-oneness” of God.
If all this baffles you, good! If you were to say that 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 it is surely beyond human understanding.
And now a final image before we leave our exploration stage. The picture at the upper right is from an experiment I remember doing when I was in high school. We took three projectors, each of which projected a circle: one red, one green, and one blue (the three primary colors). At the intersection of the three circles the color white appeared (see above). Mysteriously, the three primary colors are present in the color white, but only one shows forth. The analogy is not perfect (no analogy is or it wouldn’t be an analogy) for 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 on the Trinity Exhibited – Scripture also presents images of the Trinity. Interestingly enough, most of the pictures I want to present are from the Old Testament.
I’d like to point out 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. I am reading these texts as a New Testament Christian and seeing in them a doctrine that later became clear. I am not getting into a time machine and trying to understand them as a Jew from the 8th century B.C. might have. 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 whether you think these texts really are images or hints of the Trinity. Here they are:
- Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness …” (Gen 1:26)
God speaks of himself in the plural: “Let us … our …” 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.
In the passage above, the word used for God is אֱלֹהִ֔ים (Elohim). It is interesting to note that this word is in the plural form. From a grammatical standpoint, Elohim actually means “Gods,” but the Jewish people understood the sense of the word to be singular. This is a much debated point, however; you can read more about it from a Jewish perspective here: Elohim as Plural yet Singular.
(We have certain words like this in English, words that are plural in form but singular in meaning: news, mathematics, acoustics, etc.) My point here is not to try to understand it as a Jew from the 8th century B.C. or even as a present day Jew. Rather, I am observing with interest that one of the main words for God in the Old Testament is plural yet singular, singular yet plural. God is one yet three. I say this as a Christian observing this about one of the main titles of God. I see an image of the Trinity.
- 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 standpoint this is a very difficult passage because it switches back and forth between singular and plural references. The Lord (singular) appears to Abram, yet Abram sees three men (some have said that this is just God and two angels, but I think it is the Trinity). And then when Abram addresses “them” he says, “My Lord” (singular). The tortured grammar continues as Abram suggests that the Lord (singular) rest “yourselves” (plural) under the tree. The same thing happens in the next sentence, in which Abram wants to fetch bread so that you may refresh “yourselves” (plural) In the end, the Lord (singular) answers, but it is rendered as “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. Because the reality of God cannot be reduced to mere words, we have here a grammatically difficult passage. But I can “see” what is going on: God is one and God is three; He is singular and He is plural.
- 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).
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. Is it a coincidence or is it significant? You decide.
- 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 of the Trinity. 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 praising each of the three persons of the Trinity. God is three (Holy, holy, holy …) and yet God is one (holy is the Lord …). There are three declarations of the word “Holy.” Is it a coincidence or is it significant? You decide.
- Here are three (of many) references to the Trinity in the New Testament:
- Jesus says, The Father and I are one (Jn 10:30).
- Jesus also says, To have seen me is to have seen the Father (Jn 14:9).
- Have you ever noticed that in the baptismal formula, Jesus uses “bad” grammar? He says, Baptize them in the name (not names (plural)) 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 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. We humans cannot exist apart from one another. Obviously we depend on our parents, through whom God made us, but even beyond that we need one another for completion.
- Despite what the Paul Simon 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 middle men. 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, the product he makes was likely the result of technologies and processes he did not invent. The list could go on and on.
- We are individual, but we are social. We are one, but we are 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 where our interdependence and communal influence are under-appreciated. That attitude that prevails today is a rather extreme individualism wherein “I can do as I please.” There is a reduced sense at how our individual choices affect the whole of the community, Church or nation. That I am an individual is true, but it is also true that I live in communion with others and must respect that dimension of who I am. I exist not only for me, but for others. And what I do affects others, for good or ill.
- The attitude that it’s none of my business what others do needs some attention. Privacy and discretion have important places in our life, but so does concern for what others think and do, the choices they make, and the effects that such things have on others. A common moral and religious vision is an important thing to cultivate. It is ultimately quite important what others think and do. 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, rather, a man and a woman together in lasting a 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.
We must be careful to understand that what we humans manifest sexually, God manifests spiritually. For God is neither male nor female in His essence. Thus, we may say, 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 and wife love each other 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 so as to understand, but also inward to discover that mystery at work in us, who are made in the image and likeness of God.
7 Replies to “One and One and One Are One – A Homily for Trinity Sunday”
Another great post! Thank you!
What is so beautifully presented in the Latin Liturgy on Trinity Sunday is also a standard part of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. After the people proclaim: “It is right and just to worship the Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in being and undivided,” the priest prays:
“It is right and just to sing of You, to bless You, to praise You, to thank You, to worship You everywhere in Your domain; for You are God — ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, always existing and ever the same — You and Your only-begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit. You brought us from nothingness into being and, after we fell, You raised us up again. You did not cease doing everything until You led us to heaven and granted us Your future kingdom. For all this we give thanks to You, to Your only-begotten Son, and to Your Holy Spirit; for all things which we know and do not know, the benefits bestowed upon us both manifest and hidden. We thank You also for this Liturgy which You have deigned to accept from our hands, even though there stand before You thousands of archangels, and tens of thousands of angels, the cherubim and seraphim, six-winged and many-eyed hovering aloft on their wings.”
Praise be to God for you, father, and your ministry!
The finite touching the infinite yet unable to penetrate the very depths, heights and fullness of The Mystery of The HOLY TRINITY. Ah, GOD what is man that YOU delight in him and let YOUR SON Take upon HIM to ransom us, these troublesome creatures that even now still in arrogance defy YOU. May I in my sinfulness and rudeness appreciate YOU and be grateful to YOUR immeasurable Love for me always and everywhere and give YOU praise as long as I live and in the afterlife. Thank you, Monsignor for this post. Thank YOU HOLY TRINITY. YHWH ADONAI ELOHIM
Great, now that you have me pondering on these great mysteries, I’ll be uselessly lost in contemplation till who knows when. I love it. What a feast you have prepared for us today, Monsignor. I will only enter into this discussion with the utmost of humility knowing that I will always be too young to comment, but… I always liked the way that John started his testimony by stating that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. And then he says that the same was true for God as well and so I think that what he is saying is that you can say it both ways, in that in the beginning was God and God was with the Word and God was the Word. It is as if you can’t tell one from the other even though Jesus said that the sender(God the Father) is greater than the sendee, meaning himself. But of course Jesus is going to defer to God the Father at the same time that God the Father is deferring to Jesus by stating that this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased, hear Him. Which is greater, the one who is sacrificed or the one who offers His Son as the sacrifice, which was harder, to be Abraham or Isaac? Are they not equal? They complement each other perfectly. What a blessed union and to think that we are the apple of their eyes, it is they that come to our tents, it is they that search us out. And “Let a little water be brought” would be God the Father from Whom flows a river of living water and “wash your feet” would be Jesus as the suffering servant and “rest yourselves a while beneath the tree” would be the comforter, offering us the peace of God beneath the tree of life and the bread that Abrams offers could be returning Glory to God , offering praise. Jesus only did the things that He saw the Father do and the Holy Spirit will only speak the things that He hears from Jesus for us to do, you have this progression reaching out to us, of course they are all God, what human (and yet who else but a human) could stand in front of any of them and claim otherwise? Starting is one thing, knowing when to stop is another, and so just this before I go, they are from so far above me and I am from far below, the fact that they reach out to me makes me rejoice, they have bridged the gap, they have worked our salvation, who they are and what they are I can not say, except to say that they must love us totally and some day we will see them face to face, and we will see that indeed, we are created in their image. Excellent post Monsignor, thank you.
Msgr. said, “We must be careful to understand that what we humans manifest sexually, God manifests spiritually. For God is neither male nor female in His essence. Thus, we may say, 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 and wife love each other and their love bears fruit in their children .”
The priest at the Mass I attended today spoke on this very theme, and his homily was excellent. And yet I was left with a small discomfort when he used the words Father and Son love each other and they bear fruit in the form of the Holy Spirit. Of course, human sexually speaking, it not only sounds gay but incestual, and the union of the two male figures could not produce another individual.
I suppose it could only be a matter of not being careful enough with language. But even conceptually, I’m not exactly comfortable with this theological teaching. Something is sticky about it. Firstly, it seems to exist in time – and that contradicts the teaching God has no beginning and no end. That suggests none of the three persons has a beginning or end. Secondly, it seems to suggest the creation of the Holy Spirit, or at least some kind of cause and effect, which also is not correct.
So on a number of levels; the use of male terms, the suggestion of this happening in time, and the suggestion of creation/generation of the Third Person, only makes the teaching more problematic for me, not clearer. There is a lot of room for error and misunderstanding.
Msgr., can you tell me where and when this idea that is was the love between the Father and the Son that generated the Holy Spirit came from? Because I don’t remember ever hearing this as a child.
Because this teaching is confusing to me, in my own mind I am content to understand that God has always existed in Three Persons, and each of these persons manifest in a particular way to human beings, even though they are at the same time One with the Other Persons of the Trinity, so that a particular characteristic or attribute of God is made more evident to us through Them for our spiritual growth and advancement, which begins with our life on earth, and continues for all eternity with Him (Them).
So my mind understands as best it can that God the Father manifests as Creator, God the Son as Savior, and God the Holy Spirit as Counselor, yet all three are but One God, and all Three are individual, real, and unique Persons.
And the fact that God created mankind in His own image also then suggests we have roles as participants in His creative action, His saving action, and His counseling action.
I’ve heard the Shema, the central prayer of the Jewish prayerbook, referenced before as an image of the Trinity: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One Lord,” because it uses the name of God three times.
I looked it up and found this Messianic Jewish website that states, among other things that:
1)The Shema is three parts linked together into a unity
2)”Echad,” the last name of God used in the Shema, can imply a unity in diversity
Admittedly, this is from a Messianic Jewish website, but there is does not appear to be any reason to think that a non-Messianic Jew would contradict his interpretation.
Oops, here’s the website: http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Scripture/Torah/The_Shema/the_shema.html
Genesis 1:26 And he said: Let us make man to our image and likeness: and let him have dominion over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and the beasts, and the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth. 27 And God created man to his own image: to the image of God he created him: male and female he created them. 28 And God blessed them, saying: Increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth.
Reflecting on the above scriptures I visualized the Holy Trinity.
The Father is the one Who does the talking.
Genesis 1:26 is a reference to the Holy Spirit.
Genesis 1:28 is a reference to “THE WORD” the Son of Man, Jesus’ flesh body.
ONLY in 26, God mentions the beasts, the whole earth, and the creeping creatures. A clear reference to the dominion of the Holy Spirit, INVISIBLE, over
the BEASTS, ex Lucifer in flesh,
the WHOLE EARTH, ex Lucifer in creation, and
CREEPING CREATURES,ex Lucifer in Satan and the devils. Depicted in
Genesis1:2 And the earth was void ( OF LIFE) and empty, ( creatures INTELLECTUALLY) and darkness (THE DEVIL) was upon the face of the deep; (HELL)and
the spirit of God moved over the waters.(SOULS),
SO The Holy Spirit was in command OVER ALL THE SUBMERGED EARTH, AFTER THE REBEL.
So as I perceived Genesis 1:26 is a reference to the Holy Spirit.
Now ONLY in 27 God mentions the term MALE and FEMALE.
A clear reference to
the Holy Spirit, termed male, THE LIFE OF THE SPIRIT, IN THE INVISIBLE SPIRITUAL PROCESS, which science shall never discover, and
“THE WORD” termed FEMALE, THE LIFE IN THE PHYSICAL PROCESS which science is continuously discovering.
In 28 God specifically and emphatically BLESSED them, and ONLY IN THIS VERSE declared the Rule over THE LIVING CREATURES that move upon the earth, DEFINITELY PHYSICAL by “THE WORD” The Spirit of the Son, Jesus, THE SON OF MAN, JESUS’ FLESH BODY TO BE, THE LIFE SOURCE OF all FLESH, John 17:3
ETERNALLY FUSED in TRIUNE God
the Son of God, THE MALE, through the Holy Spirit, and the Son of Man THE FEMALE, through “THE WORD”
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