For the last several months we have been following assigned scripture readings (from something called the “common lectionary, which many Catholic and Protestant churches use to guide the focus of Sunday services).
These assigned scripture readings have taken us all the way from the season of Advent last November (in which we awaited the birth of Christ), through the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany; through Lent and Easter; and even more recently, through Pentecost.
According to the common lectionary, the Sunday after Pentecost is called “Trinity Sunday.” In the Roman Catholic Church it is called “The Feast of the Holy Trinity.” Whatever language we use to describe this day, the focus is plainly on one of the more difficult (if not controversial) doctrines of Christianity: God as Trinity.
In a lot of different churches (including ours), Trinity Sunday is a time in which our hymns, prayers, sermons, and songs celebrate that God is one, who is mysteriously three persons: the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit; or said another way: the Source of All, the Word and Wisdom by which all things have their being; and the Presence of God.
Historically, the Church professes that God the Father (or God the Source) was powerfully revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures: as Yahweh, whose name means, “I Am that I Am.”
The Church further professes that God the Son (or the Word and Wisdom of God incarnate) was powerfully revealed in the person of Christ Jesus. The Gospel of John puts it this way: “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” In the human person of Jesus, the Word of God revealed the way, truth, and life of God: which we believe is a pathway of unconditional love, mercy, forgiveness, grace, restorative justice, and peace.
Thirdly, the Church professes that God’s Spirit (or Divine Presence), was powerfully revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures: especially as we read there about Spirit coming upon women and men as prophets, and as further revealed when Spirit came upon the disciples of Christ at Pentecost (and, we pray, upon us too).
These affirmations about God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; or Source, Word, and Presence have been with the Church for a very long time (and some would say since the very beginning of the Christian faith itself). Indeed, we find in some of the earliest New Testament writings affirmations that “God the Father of Jesus Christ” is the same God of the ancient Israelites (i.e., Yahweh: the I Am that I Am). What is more, we can find New Testament affirmations that Christ not only was a human prophet and healer, but even bolder faith claims: that before the earthly “Jesus,” the person of Christ shared the same form as God (or as John’s Gospel says, was “the Word” that was with God and is God). And, perhaps more readily found: are New Testament affirmations that God’s Spirit is the Presence of God among us.
And yet, if we’re honest, the word “Trinity” is not mentioned once in the pages of the New Testament. There are references to “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit;” or even “Source, Word, and Presence.” But you will never find the word “trinity” in the scriptures; nor is it ever used to describe the nature of God.
In fact, understanding God specifically as a “Trinity” is a doctrine that would be argued and hammered out within the first four hundred years of Christianity. Not all early Christians agreed with it. What is more, many of our traditional Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters believe we have turned the One God of Abraham (monotheism) into multiple gods (polytheism). Critiques be what they are: the doctrine of the Trinity eventually became the privileged doctrine about God in the many branches Christianity: whether Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodoxy, or Protestant.
So on “Trinity Sunday,” some churches will not only celebrate the Trinity, but will champion it as the “right” doctrine about God–above all others. We have to be careful about that. On the one hand, affirming principles of faith is part of what we do as a faith community–without which, we wouldn’t have much of a unique identity, nor a particular spiritual direction. On the other hand, affirming principles of faith can easily slip into theological arrogance (with the kind of attitude that sees “us” as “better” than “them”). But since none of us are God, we have to be careful not to think that “our answers” are always “the answers.”
To avoid any of that theological arrogance, it is best to approach Trinity Sunday not as anything obvious, nor as a test by which we measure other people’s “theological correctness,” but rather: as a Mystery.
Mysteries, in a spiritual sense, cannot be solved. That is not to say that spiritual mysteries leave us in the dark about all things, but they do reveal to us that there is only so much that the finite mind can know. Mysteries confound the mind–not in order to confuse us, but to bid us ever deeper into realms of faith. And such realms of faith (when not over simplified) require us to surrender to that one great (and knowable) truth: “we don’t know it all.”
If spiritual mysteries could be solved, they would be riddles.
And that, in turn, would mean that God a riddle to be solved–which would make God really small (and probably not worth believing in).
So let’s just admit it: every time we try to explain the Mystery of the Trinity, the explanation fails. For example: when we say that God is one God who is three persons, we do not mean that God has different modes. The Church has called that the “heresy” of modalism (remember that for trivia games down the road).
Or, we might try and say that God is like H2O: which can be solid, liquid, and vapor; aka: Father, Son, and Spirit. But in order for that description to capture the doctrine of the Trinity (according to Church teaching), H2O would have to simultaneously be ice, water, and vapor–always and at the same time.
We can try to describe the Trinity with finite examples, but we’ll keep coming up short. God is not an equation that can be demonstrated on paper. God is not an object for empirical study. God is not small enough to be described philosophically and theologically.
God is a Mystery.
And so if we affirm the Trinity, we shouldn’t affirm it out of any theological arrogance; nor should we affirm the Trinity just because it is an ancient doctrine that has been handed down for the last 1,600 years. That’s not faith.
If we affirm the Trinity, we should affirm it because of our experience of (and with) God:
That we encounter God as our Source, and cannot deny it.
That we encounter God, even more mysteriously, in Christ, and cannot deny it.
That we encounter God, invisibly, as an ongoing Presence in our lives… and cannot deny it.
If there is a point to Trinity Sunday, then, it is not to “figure out” God. We can’t. But the point of Trinity Sunday can be to open our consciousness to affirm the Mystery that God is: honoring how our experiences of God, as well as our faith tradition, encounters God as Source, God in Christ; and God in the eternal presence that we call Spirit.
But even if we cannot figure out God as Trinity, we do dare to claim that we can be image bearers of God–and if “image bearers,” then we can intentionally seek to reflect God (to the world) in other ways that God is three. Namely, we can seek to be like God who is creator; God who is redeemer; and God who preserves and empowers.
And what would that look like? Perhaps it means being like God who is creator: by imitating the God who creates things “to be” (to grow and change!); instead of being creators who want only rigid or unchanging creations.
Perhaps it means being like God who is redeemer: by seeking out restorative justice, and to be a people (like Christ) who seek to transform hurt into reconciliation (instead of nursing grudges; or bearing false witness).
Perhaps it means being like God who is empowers others: not by doing everything for others at all times, but by helping people to actualize their unique potential for themselves–so that they too can know the joy of living abundantly through the gifts that God has given them (and us).
And then: just imagine if the Church (throughout the world) spent our time trying to be a little more like God, instead of trying to figure God out.