The Trinity

By 11:42 AM

Image result for paintings on the trinity

A priest went into a second-grade classroom of the parish school and asked, ““Who can tell me what the Blessed Trinity means?”” A little girl lisped, ““The Blethed Twinity meanth there are thwee perthonth in one God.”” The priest, taken aback by the lisp, said, ““Would you say that again? I don’’t understand what you said.”” The little girl answered, ““Y’’not suppothed to underthtand; ‘‘t’’th a mythtewy.

The mystery of the Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. The CCC says it is the source of all the other mysteries of faith.  We are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. We express our faith through word and actions with the sign of the cross. We acknowledge this mystery in the prayer Glory be to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

(The Trinity) is a mystery in the truest, highest, most beautiful sense of the word. (M.J.Scheeben)

"It is in the power of our spirit to gain the spiritual understanding of objects.  But to understand the Holy Trinity is not only not in the power of our spirit, but it requires a superabundant grace from God. (Evagrius of Pontus, "Centuries, 1, 79)

Permit me to share an extensive, but to the point, quotation from a presentation given by Professor Bruno Forte. 

“God the Father is never ending love, the eternal gratuitousness of Love. It is He who initiates in us all that we would be unable to initiate alone. In this manner God has made us capable of love: He was the first to love us and will never tire of loving us. When we are loved we begin to love. The Father is He who Loves eternally, who started to love from the very beginning and who provokes in us the history of love, contaminating us with His gratuitousness. 

“If the Father is He who Loves eternally, the son is He who is Loved eternally. He who has always allowed himself to be loved. The Son makes us understand that not only love is divine: allowing oneself to be loved is also divine, as is receiving love. It is not only gratuitousness that is divine, gratitude is also divine. God knows how to say thank you! The Son, He who is Loved, represents eternal reception, He is the one who has always answered yes to Love, the living obedience of Love. 

“Finally, in the relationship between He who Loves and He who is Loved there is also The Holy Spirit. In the contemplation of the mystery of the Third Divine Person there are two great theological traditions, the Eastern one and the Western one. In the Western tradition–from Augustine onwards–the Holy Spirit is contemplated as the bond of eternal Love, that unites He who Loves and He Who is Loved.  The Holy Spirit is peace, unity, the communion of divine Love. Therefore when the Holy Spirit enters us he unites us within ourselves, reconciling us, and uniting us with God and with all others.  The Holy Spirit bestows the language of communion, allows peace to exist, makes us capable of unity, because there is their personal love between He who Loves and He who is Loved, the bond of eternal charity, bestowed by One and received by the Other. 

“Alongside this tradition there is the Eastern one, in which the Paraclete is called the “ecstasy of God”: according to this concept the Holy Spirit is He who breaks the circle of Love, and creates in God the truth that “love does not mean gazing into each other’s eyes, but looking together towards the same goal” (A. de Saint-Exupery). This is the way the Spirit works in God: Not only does He unite He who Loves and He who is Loved, but he enables God to “exit” from him, because this gift is a divine one, the “ecstasy”, the “existing outside” God, Love’s exodus with no return.

“Each time God leaves himself, He does it in the Holy Spirit. It is so in the creation (The Spirit of God moved over the waters...” Gene 1:2). It is so in the prophecies.  It is so in the Incarnation (“the power of the Most High shall overshadow you” Lk 1:35).  It is so in the Church, upon which the Holy Spirit is effused at Pentecost (Act 2:1-13). The Spirit is therefore the freedom of divine Love, the exodus and the gift of Love. 

“When we will have allowed the Holy Spirit to reach out and transform us, we shall be unable to remain gazing into each other’s eyes, we will need to go out and take to others the gift of that love with which we have been loved. It is only there where there is this urgency to love that the fire of the Holy Spirit burns. A believer or a community that has welcomed the gift of the Holy Spirit, but that does not live this ecstacy of love, this uncontrollable need to bestow on others the gift of God in the testimony of words and the service of charity, would not have reached the fullness of love.  The Church would not be an “icon of the Trinity.” (Bruno Forte, God the Trinity)

Reflecting on the love of the Trinity, Pope Benedict XVI said: “We can in some way intuit this, whether we observe the macro-universe: our earth, the planets, the stars, the galaxies; or the micro-universe: cells, atoms, elementary particles. The “name” of the Most Holy Trinity is in a certain way impressed upon everything that exists, because everything that exists, down to the least particle, is a being in relation, and thus God-relation shines forth, ultimately creative Love shines forth. All comes from love, tends toward love, and is moved by love, naturally, according to different grades of consciousness and freedom.”

We can know that there is a God by reason. Thomas Aquinas talks about the five proofs of God arrived at by reason. But to come to know that the one God is Triune in person comes to us in revelation by faith.  It is hard for our mind to wrap itself around this mystery. 

The II Vatican Council says that a mystery is a truth we are not capable of discovering apart from Divine Revelation. And even when revealed the mystery can only be embraced by faith. Thus, our understanding of a mystery on the human level will remain partial. The Council goes on to state that among all the mysteries revealed by God to us, that of the Trinity is the one most impenetrable to reason. This is in line with what Jesus says in Matthew 11:27: “All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.

St. Jerome says, in a well-known phrase: "The true profession of the mystery of the Trinity is to own that we do not comprehend it" (De mysterio Trinitatus recta confessio est ignoratio scientiae — "Proem ad 1. xviii in Isai.").

Story of St. Augustine

Saint Augustine, described the Trinity as comparable to the three parts of an individual human being: mind, spirit, and will. They are three distinct aspects, yet they are inseparable and together constitute one unified human being.

As there are three musical notes but only one sound; likewise, there are three persons but only one God.”  (Saint Ignatius)

St. Patrick used the three leaf shamrock to illustrate the mystery of the Trinity. Each leaf represented one of the three persons, but yet it was still only one shamrock.
For us there is one God, the Father, from whom is all; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom is all; and one Holy Spirit, in whom is all.” (St. Gregory Nazianzus, Orationes 39, 12)

Others use the analogy of the human person: one person but made up of mind, soul and body. Or one fire but it consists of flame, heat and light. Or the three states of matter: solid, liquid and gas.   

The Holy Trinity is first alluded to in the book of Genesis 1:26:
Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth."

In the Old Testament, we see that for a long time people believed in many gods. God revealed himself to Abraham and made him three major promises if he would follow him. Abraham passed this revelation down to his son Isaac who passed it on to his son Jacob, who in turn taught his 12 sons. However, during their exile in Egypt they succumbed to accepting also the gods of Egypt. God revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush experience as the God of your fathers, Abraham, Issac and Jacob.  It was hard for them to really believe.

God showed his power over the gods of Egypt through signs and wonders, with the final signs of the Passover event and the crossing through the Red Sea on dry ground. All during their 40 year journey in the desert, God revealed that there was no other God but himself. Even as they entered the Promised Land, Joshua had to challenge them. “Choose whom you shall serve. Either the gods of Egypt or the God of your fathers. For me and my household, we will serve the Lord God.” It wasn’t till much later that the oneness of God finally took solid root in the heart of the Israelites.  

It is expressed in The Shema: "Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one. (Deut 6:4) This was said several times during the day by the faithful covenant Israelite. It was acknowledged in the first of the Ten Commandments"Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” (Deut 5:7) 

The inklings of something deeper to the mystery of God were sprinkled throughout the Old Testament. The spirit that hovered over the waters at the beginning of creation and the new spirit and new heart that God will give in a new covenant with his people were samples of that revelation. 

It wasn’t until the coming of the Son of God in flesh in the person of Jesus that this fuller revelation of the mystery of the Trinity begins to take shape.  The Angel Gabriel speaks of the child to be born of Mary will be the Son of the Most High God. This child will be conceived in Mary not by human love but by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit.  

It was not normal for a Jew to address directly as Abba. Yet, Jesus at the age of 12 addresses God as his Father. Later on at the time of his baptism, a voice was heard that said: “You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” And it says that the Spirit fell upon Jesus in the form of a dove.

Later, Jesus begins to preach that he and the Father are one. He who sees me, sees the Father. I do the works of the Father. I am in the Father and the Father is in me. At other times, in John’s Gospel, he says that when he is lifted up from the earth, they would know that “I am”.  For the Jews this was blasphemy.  “I am who am” was the term God used to identify himself to Moses in the burning bush experience.  For all this the reason why Jesus is condemned to death was that he equated himself to God.

At the same time Jesus taught that the Father and he would send the Holy Spirit, upon the Apostles. He used terms like this to identify the Spirit: another Advocate, Spirit of Truth, the one who would testify to them about Jesus, the one who give them the words to say in times of trials, the one who would teach them all things, the one who would empower them as Jesus was empowered, the one who would be with them always.

In Jn 16:12-13 we read: “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.  But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.  He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming.”

Being orthodox Jews, the Apostles and the early Jewish converts had a hard time putting this revelation of the One God who is Triune into words. In fact, the term “Trinity” is not found in the NT.  The idea is. But other terms are also not found explicitly in the Bible such as “incarnation” the mystery of God becoming man. Also if baptism is necessary for salvation, where in the NT does it say the Apostles were baptized in water? It doesn’t. Yet, they preached this necessity to others, because they too had been baptized, even though it is not stated as such.

How did they initially express this revelation of the Trinity? In the introductory remarks on Paul’s Letters we read: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Then it was expanded: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” The Father was identified as God; Jesus as Lord and the Holy Spirit. Those three identifying terms appear frequently in the New Testament writings. For instance, in Ephesians: for through Jesus we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.”

The Great Commission which Jesus gave the Apostles proclaims "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Mt 28:19) What do we notice in this commission? First, The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinguished as three distinct Persons. Second, each is recognized as God since they are on the same level. One is not greater than the other. Third, while each is distinct, we are baptized into the name of, not names of.

It was only later as different heresies arose challenging the full understanding of the mystery of the Trinity that the term Trinity came to be coined. The first to use the term Trinity The early church father Tertullian (c. 155-230) is believed to have first used the term trinity to describe the God of the Bible.  Around the same time,  Theophilus of Antioch about A.D. 180 speaks of "the Trinity of God [the Father], His Word and His Wisdom (To Autolycus II.15).  It was probably towards the end of the Fourth Century that the use of the term was fully used in the official teachings of the Church. This is not unusual. It takes time for the proper terminology to be found to describe a mystery. 

This mystery of the Trinity is one of beliefs that separates Christians from other religions, including Jews and Muslims, Mormonism and Jehovah's Witnesses,

The challenge to the doctrine of the Three Persons in One God took many forms. There were those who could not accept the divinity of Jesus or the humanity of Jesus. The most popular was Arianism. He said that Jesus was not God in the same way the Father is God. Modalism said that God is one but the terms Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not persons but different ways God acts. Modern day Oneness Pentecostalism holds the same.  Macedonians denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Unitarianism teaches one God, one Person. 

With each of these the Church resisted by maintaining the revelation received from Jesus and clarified by the Spirit about the Trinity

We express this mystery more fully in the Creed, which we profess each Sunday. 

I believe in One God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.

"I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through  him all things were made. For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.

"For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.

"He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.

"I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets..

"I believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic Church. I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen."

What do we believe about God? He is one God but three persons, distinct but sharing the one substance or nature. In the Creed, we profess that they are consubstantial. As such they are co-equal and co-eternal, one in essence, nature, power, action, and will.  As one Council said: Each is God, whole and entire. 

The CCC uses three philosophical terms to help us better understand the Trinity. 1) the term “substance” or “nature” designates the unity of God: each shares the same nature; 2) the term “person” designates the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in their real distinction from one another; 3) the term “relation” designates the fact that their distinction lies in the relationship of each to the others. 

“How can plurality co-exist with unity, or unity with plurality? To examine the fact closely is rashness, to believe it is piety, to know it is life, and life eternal.” (Bernard of Clairvaux)

God reveals himself through his work and communicates himself through his life. As the Creed said we attribute the work of Creation to the Father, the work of Salvation to Jesus and the work of Sanctification, Empowerment and Mission to the Holy Spirit. Early Church Fathers stated that “everything the Trinity does is done by the Father, Son, and Spirit working in unity with one will. The three persons of the Trinity always work inseparably, for their work is always the work of the one God.” 

"O superessential Trinity, infinitely divine and good, guardian of the divine wisdom of Christians, lead us beyond all light and everything unknown to the highest summit of the mystical Scriptures, where the simple, absolute and imperishable mysteries of theology are revealed in the luminous darkness of silence"…It is really in silence that we learn the secrets of this darkness ... which shines with dazzling light.... While remaining completely intangible and invisible, it fills minds that know how to close their eyes with the most beautiful splendours" (Theologia mystica, I, 1). Dionysius the Areopagite, an Eastern theologian

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