1 and 1 and 1 is One – A Homily for Trinity Sunday

053015There 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. [1]

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.

17 Replies to “1 and 1 and 1 is One – A Homily for Trinity Sunday”

  1. It would seem that with the Trinity, and looking at the concentric circles yet understanding the greatness of God, that the intersection of the Three Persons is greater than the Union (simple addition) of the Three Persons. Is this true or false? Why or why not?

    A hint: Some see that infinity can be found inside even one of the 5 Wounds of Christ Crucified. How and why might this be?

    1. No Taylor. Simple geometry will tell you the intersection of the three circles can be less but not greater than the union of the three. Catholic doctrine will tell you the Trinity is three persons in one God. How can God be greater than Himself. As for the hint, Infinity is a sphere whose center is everywhere and it’s circumference is nowhere. Why is a mystery.

      1. But we make the Persons finite (our human experience of the Persons). We can not make the Essence finite. If humans are finite, and if the Persons can be described in finite ways, then why is it that the intersection of the Persons can not be greater than the Union of the Persons when we know that the union is that Essence which can not be contained or understood by the human mind?

        1. I tried to figure this out for a bit but I still don’t understand what you’re saying. I’ve seen described on this page what I’ve known to my simple mind; God is Love, God Loves, God communicates Love and in this communion of love each Person does not subsist without the Other. The One Nature being Eternal it is therefore immeasurable. I can’t see God in finite terms and so don’t understand intersection being greater.

          1. God, in His essence, is that greater than which can not be conceived. The Persons are all consubstantial. But the Substance which They share is inconceivable by the finite human mind. We know God in three Persons, we hold finite understandings based upon the three persons. We know Jesus Christ, we know the Father. We Know the Holy Spirit. We do not know God outside our understanding of the three Persons. Our perspectives of God, that is, as three Persons, is quite finite. But, God, in His infinite reality, outside of our limited understanding tied to our experience of The Persons, is inconceivable. In other words, as we are, we can not conceive of His full reality.

          2. This is true and I agree. We know only what He has Revealed. I couldn’t figure out the term intersection, though. I thought you were perhaps alluding to the Incarnation in some way. Thanks for follow up and clarification. God bless

          3. You are very welcome. Thank God for giving us insights and instruction for our mutual benefit.

  2. In my mind I conceptually understand the Trinity as Gods way of showing His love for us. That God manifests Himself to us in this way so that we can better understand Him and therefore have a relationship with Him. For example, if God never appeared to us as Jesus could we ever hope to relate to Him or fully see His love for us? Without the Holy Spirit how can we hope to have a relationship with Him or share in His love? I admit this analysis is a bit egotistical but it does help us understand His love for us.

    The real mystery to me is not so much the Trinity but why does God love us so much when we are so utterly undeserving? Yet He does!

  3. I believe it was Thomas Acquinas who said that God is infinite in all of His Attributes. God the Father shares everything He is infinitely with God the Son and each shares everything, infinitely, with God the Holy Spirit, without loss of their Divine, infinite individuallity. It takes an infinitely powerful Creator to share Himself infinitely with another. Yet He also wills to share Himself with each of us infinitely and He will not be thwarted (CCC 275). This will require that He gives us a truly infinite amount of help (grace) to raise our human nature up to “be like Him because we see Him as He IS” and yet God is so infinitely powerful that He has created us such that we will still have free will, even with truly infinite graces. God will be “all in all” or “everything to everyone” (1 Cor. 15:28, CCC 130) God wills to share Himself infinitely with everyone, even those who will choose eternal damnation in hell, and God cannot be thwarted (CCC 275). We do not have to understand how He can do this, all we are asked is to believe it because God says He is going to do it. Is This not another great mystery, that God will share Himself even with those in hell forever and ever and ever (they will not behold the face of God, they will not see Him as he is) but He will share Himself completely with them without violating their free will? Otherwise, how can God be all in all?

  4. Because God is love, perhaps the love among the three persons of God is what makes them one God. Love binds and unites. Infinite love would be infinitely uniting, so much so that the three, who are infinite and cannot be destroyed, are yet so united as to be one being through that love. Love is the key to understanding many of God’s mysteries and Christ’s teachings. Love will in us be perfected, of course, only when we are fully united with God in the next life; until then we can see only dimly.

  5. #Reasons to Believe in Jesus

    Reasons to believe Jesus is alive in a new life with God can be found in quotes from two prominent atheists and a biology textbook.
    > Thus the passion of man is the reverse of that of Christ, for man loses himself as man in order that God may be born. But the idea of God is contradictory and we lose ourselves in vain. Man is a useless passion. (Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology, New York: Washington Square Press, p. 784)

    > Among the traditional candidates for comprehensive understanding of the relation of mind to the physical world, I believe the weight of evidence favors some from of neutral monism over the traditional alternatives of materialism, idealism, and dualism. (Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, location 69 of 1831)

    > And certain properties of the human brain distinguish our species from all other animals. The human brain is, after all, the only known collection of matter that tries to understand itself. To most biologists, the brain and the mind are one and the same; understand how the brain is organized and how it works, and we’ll understand such mindful functions as abstract thought and feelings. Some philosophers are less comfortable with this mechanistic view of mind, finding Descartes’ concept of a mind-body duality more attractive. (Neil Campbell, Biology, 4th edition, p. 776 )

    Sartre speaks of the “passion of man,” not the passion of Christians. He is acknowledging that all religions east and west believe there is a transcendental reality and that perfect fulfillment comes from being united with this reality after we die. He then defines this passion with a reference to Christian doctrine which means he is acknowledging the historical reasons for believing in Jesus. He does not deny God exists. He is only saying the concept of God is contradictory. He then admits that since life ends in the grave, it has no meaning.

    From the title of the book, you can see that Nagel understands that humans are embodied sprits and that the humans soul is spiritual. He says, however, that dualism and idealism are “traditional” alternatives to materialism. Dualism and idealism are just bright ideas from Descartes and Berkeley. The traditional alternative to materialism is monism. According to Thomas Aquinas unity is the transcendental property of being. Campbell does not even grasp the concept of monism. The only theories he grasps are dualism and materialism.

    If all atheists were like Sartre, it would be an obstacle to faith. An important reason to believe in Jesus is that practically all atheists are like Nagel and Campbell, not like Sartre.

    by David Roemer

  6. The way I understand it is that in God there is intellect and will, the same as God and one with His essence. The activities of intellect and will are knowledge of God’s Being and love of God’s Being according to what is eternally known.

    That is as far as reason can go into the uncreated life of God. Ludwig Ott says that there are in God four real relations: INTELLECTIVE: active generation (fatherhood=the Father); passive generation (sonship=the Son/Word); VOLITIONAL: active spiration (common to the Father and the Son); and passive spiration (the Holy Spirit).

    Of these four real relations, only the first, the second and the fourth are really distinct relations and thus they distinguish a Divine Person. The third is common to two Persons and does not distinguish any one.

  7. Although the Trinity is a mystery, I would not say that it is true that there is no way we can know how three persons can exist in one God. The key is given by the early Church Fathers. According to them, the persons are distinguished by their relations of origin.

    The only difference between the Father and the Son is that the Father begets and the Son is begotten. In all other respects they are the same. This is unlike human fatherhood in which there are a whole host of differences between father and son besides the fact that the father begets his son. God is absolute simplicity in that He has no composition of parts or attributes. In the Trinity, Father and Son have this absolute simplicity in distinction in simply that one is the Father and the other is the Son (they are not physical bodies related by space and position which would introduce complexity). Similarly, the only difference between the Holy Spirit and the Father and the Son is that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son and not the other way around.

    As a result, the persons are distinguished not by what they are but by where they come from. What they are is one and the same, therefore, they are one God. But there is a real distinction in their relations which are the individual persons. When the Father begets the Son, He is not generating another thing or another being (or another substance), but is generating His own being in the relation of being begotten. Similarly, when the Holy Spirit proceeds it is not another being proceeding, but is the same being in the relation of proceeding. God is one being in three relations.

    When I was younger, I strained to understand how three persons can exist in one God. My Father (unfamiliar with the explanation of the Church Fathers), said that only in heaven will we know how that is possible. I thought we were being asked to accept a contradiction. Many years ago I first read the explanation in St. Augustine’s “The Trinity.” It was a huge “Ah Ha” moment for me. It was Gregory of Nyssa who first came up with the explanation shortly before St. Augustine. From what I read, he received it in private revelation from the Blessed Virgin and St. John the Apostle. It seems as if the explanation is too simple and profound for man to come up with unaided.

  8. To me Monsignor, it is not 1 and 1 and 1 is 1. It is 1 times 1 times 1 is 1, You see, The GOD The FATHER multiplies HIMSELF to The GOD The SON and The GOD The HOLY SPIRIT; The GOD The SON multiplies HIMSELF to The GOD The FATHER and The GOD The HOLY SPIRIT; and The GOD The HOLY SPIRIT multiplies HIMSELF to The GOD The FATHER and to The GOD The SON, yet THEY are ONE GOD, ONE in SUBSTANCE, ONE in DIVINE NATURE. That is how I understand The TRINITY, The TRIUNE GOD, not fully, not wholly understood or else I am delving into The Mystery or be declared an anathema, a heretic. Besides if I understand the TRINITY Mystery, GOD is not GOD anymore. I experience a little of this oneness in my family when my wife and I being one becoming one with our children in spite of theIr being individuals in themselves. GOD is GOD for YOUR CHURCH, let YOUR Love be in us. YHWH ELOHIM ADONAI.

  9. Dear Monsignor Pope, I don’t have any major explanations regarding your article, but I do want to thank you, for the preceding writers if I may be so bold, and say that this article in particular is one of the finest you have written to date. Keep up the good work. I can tell that as you grow older, that our God will continue to be at your side. Don’t ever let up. Your work as a Christian teacher is invaluable.

    God bless and keep you.

  10. Father told a cute story today at Mass for Trinity Sunday:
    A bishop was speaking to the confirmation class, and asked anyone if they knew what thy Trinity was. A shy girl raised her hand, and the bishop gestured for her to stand up. She stood but spoke quietly saying, “The Trinity are the Three Divine Persons Who are One and the same God, having One and the same Divine Nature and Substance.”
    The bishop, being a little hard of hearing strained to hear her, and when she was done said, “I didn’t understand you.” to which she replied, “You’re not supposed to understand it. It’s a mystery.”

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