The word “theology” comes from the Greek language and can be roughly translated “a word about God.” The study seeks to understand that which relates to the divine. The expression is a good term for such an enterprise because God is not bound by time and space nor limited in any way. So what we say about God and our understanding of him will be essentially limited, in other words, to “a word.”
The mysteries of faith are articulated in word, symbol, story and image for to truly understand them one has to enter into the mystery itself. The classic definition of theological study is “faith seeking understanding” (St. Anselm). The quest or “seeking” is an endless process in this life because the mystery of God, who is love, can never be emptied of its meaning nor grasped in its entirety. There is always more to experience.
Today we celebrate Trinity Sunday. The solemnity celebrates the doctrine of the Holy Trinity of one God in three divine persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The praise of the Holy Trinity is woven into the fabric of our prayer life. For most Catholics the very first prayer we ever learn is the Sign of the Cross, whereby we invoke the divine: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
The prayer is a reminder of our baptism where we have been immersed in God’s love made known to us through the cross of Jesus Christ. So from the earliest years of our lives we have been praying to the Holy Trinity.
The Trinity is a mystery. The reality of the oneness of God coupled with the distinction in persons; in other words, the relationship between unity and plurality is challenging to describe. Symbols have been used to describe the reality that is on one hand so far above us that a prose description will not do it justice. The equilateral triangle is a classic symbol. Three equal lines with three equal angles form one geometric shape.
St. Patrick used the shamrock as an image to describe the Holy Trinity: three leaves on the one stem. A shamrock with one leaf missing would not be identified as a shamrock. Seeing such a plant, one would say that something is missing. Generally it would not be called a shamrock without the three leaves.
Another image is that of a stream that turns into a river that turns into a lake or ocean. The substance is the same in all three yet distinctions can be made; hence we do not call a stream an ocean nor an ocean a river yet they are all one.
Another image is that of human sight. We have two eyes yet through them we have one vision. Still another image of the unity in plurality comes from the world of music. Playing a chord on a musical instrument, for example a piano, comes from three distinct notes yet makes one harmonious sound. If one of the notes is missing or if another note is substituted the sound will be “off” and it would not be recognized. Images and symbols help us to gain insight into the reality of the three in one.
We use the expression “mystery” to describe the reality that is so great that its meaning cannot be exhausted by words. One way to describe this is to compare a mystery to other terms that are occasionally associated with this expression: enigma and problem.
A problem, for example in mathematics, is something that one seeks to solve; or in relationships, something that seeks resolution. An enigma is a problem that is beyond solving. It is more puzzling than intriguing.
A mystery, on the other hand, is something that one does not seek to solve or resolve. Rather it is something to experience and ponder. The contemplation of the reality is itself the reward. It is not so much reaching a conclusion but dwelling on its beauty. A good way to think of mystery is that it is not “a wall to run up against, but an ocean in which to swim.”
Our entry into the mystery of the Holy Trinity comes through God’s self revelation. He invites us to know him, to love him and to serve him. Jesus is the doorway into divine life. God is made known in and through his Son. In Jesus we see the Lord of love and mercy take flesh.
The first reading for today’s liturgy is from the Book of Exodus. In the passage the Lord God comes down from Mount Sinai unseen in a cloud and stands by Moses. The Lord then proclaims his name and cries out: “The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity.”
He announces his name. Recall that in the ancient mindset the name of a person reveals their identity. Then the Lord describes who he is: He is merciful, gracious, patient, kind and faithful. God makes himself known to Moses and through Moses to all the Israelites.
The self-revelation of God comes to fulfillment in Jesus Christ. St. John the Evangelist speaks of God’s merciful love in terms of Jesus. The evangelist writes: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”
The life that is offered through Christ is “eternal;” in other words it is the divine life itself that is shared with mankind. The passage continues: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” In Christ the mercy of God takes flesh. In Christ we see the love of God in human form.
The evangelist speaks of God the Father in relation to the Son. As the Gospel continues we continue to hear of the Son’s relationship with the Father as well as the promised Spirit. God makes himself known to us through his only Son, Jesus.
In the Second Letter to the Corinthians St. Paul offers a greeting to the faithful invoking the Holy Trinity: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” Although he does not use the term “trinity” he speaks of the three persons in that one greeting. The invocation of God, the calling upon his name, is done through reference to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As theological understanding continues to develop terms and expressions will be applied to the realities that understanding represents: “persons,” “nature,” “trinity,” etc. All these assist us in contemplating the mystery of God and his great love.
As we meditate on the mystery of the Holy Trinity we recognize a loving relationship that is God himself: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We recognize that he invites us to share in his divine life by becoming one with his only Son. We dwell on the reality of God’s love, mercy, faithfulness, kindness and graciousness that we experience throughout our lives in so many different manifestations. We give thanks to God for making himself known to us and inviting us to share in the abundance of his divine life.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.