Father, Son, Spirit
Before His Ascension, our Lord commanded His apostles to teach all of mankind and baptize them “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
You would think that this equal listing of the Holy Trinity would be enough to indicate that all three persons shared equally in the divinity.
But in the first three Christian centuries people used the phrase without any deep examination of its meaning. About 300 AD there arose in Alexandria, Egypt, a priest named Arius, who began to teach that Jesus, though the Word made flesh, was not equal to the Father, not God, but like us a creature, though, of course, the highest of all God’s creatures. Now Arius was no fool. He had a brilliant mind and presented “proofs” that at first seemed pretty convincing. As a result, a great turmoil arose in the Christian centers of both East and West. The Roman emperors and other rulers took sides in the dispute and “Arianism” which labeled Christ as just a man, caused trouble right up into the middle ages.
From the beginning of the squabble, however, the majority of Christian bishops and scholars knew that Arius was wrong. It was only a case of proving he was wrong on the basis of Scripture and Tradition. The first ecumenical council, held in 325 AD at Nicaea in Asia Minor, expressed the correct doctrine. The bishops having condemned Arius issued the profession of faith (The Creed) we continue to proclaim each Sunday at Mass, where we call Jesus Christ “one in being with the Father.” After that the loyal Catholic bishops especially St. Basil the Great also urged everybody to use as a forceful statement of their faith in the Trinity, the doxology (i.e. “glory-prayer”): “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.” How often we still use this prayer at Mass or in the rosary without realizing that we are crying out “You’re wrong!” to a man who 16 centuries ago dared to declare the Christ is not truly God! (See Matthew 28:19. Today’s gospel.)
Editor’s note: Original second paragraph ended before the word “divinity”. If a better word or phrase is known, it should be substituted.
-Father Robert F. McNamara
B219: I believe in God, but I have difficulty understanding the Holy Trinity. Does this mean that I have a weak faith?
Not at all! We are in the area of “mystery” when we speak about things “divine” because God is on a level far removed from our “human” capabilities of understanding. On the other hand, through his infinite goodness, God has revealed Himself to us in various ways: certainly in the common sense way (e.g., by observing nature); occasionally in the spectacular way (e.g., cosmic events at Fatima such as a “spinning sun” and rain without clouds; or the “burning bush” in Moses’ time); and the most important way, through his only son Jesus.
In Jesus’ words as well as his repeated actions of supernatural power (e.g., healings) we come to know the “personalities” of God. Jesus told us, “if you have seen me you have seen the Father.” We speak of the “works of power” as works of the Father; “works of wisdom” as works of the Son; and “works of love” as works of the Holy Spirit. And yet all of these “works” are done by all and are common to all in this “divine Godhead” (Thomas Aquinas’ attempt to explain the Trinity). It is indeed a “mystery,” but one which we accept and believe in faith.
We sometimes “draw a blank” when asked, “When did you last encounter God?” But if we ask, “When were you Christ to someone else,” or “When did someone become Christ for you,” then it begins to dawn on us that the Holy Trinity continues to be revealed daily! God dwells within us, from the moment of our Baptism. Jesus has sent us his Holy Spirit. Now it is our turn to “reveal God to others” by passing on his message of love and salvation (Matt 28:16-20). The Holy Trinity is revealed as a continuing interaction of love!
KNOW YOUR CATECHISM! The revealed truth of the Holy Trinity is the very foundation of our faith, and we express that in the Creed (see the Catechism – the Creed is lodged between CCC #184 and 185). The faith of all Christians rests on the Trinity (CCC #232). We are baptized in the name (not “names”) of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit – the Most Holy Trinity!
Q531: Trinity: another enormous mystery. How can I understand it better?
Here we are, fragile and needy persons, “little specks of life” on this huge planet called Earth. So what does our creator God do? He “limits” himself, and becomes one of us! As St. Paul puts it, Jesus “emptied himself” of his divine glory and power, and became human like us in all things except sin (Philippians 2:7). He “comes down” from his mighty throne in heaven, and “sits down” with his little children, teaching us his truths. Who sent him? Our heavenly Father, who loves all his children and calls us to holiness, to imitate Jesus.
True love always involves others. It is a relationship that almost “demands” three people! For example, my wife Patricia and I love each other deeply. And that love between us produced still more love, as children were born to us from our shared love relationship. Love is never selfish, but is giving, cooperative and creative.
As St. John would say, we can only love because God first loved us! So in that love relationship between our Heavenly Father and His only begotten Son, we find Love Itself: the Holy Spirit. As our Creed says, the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son; love produces love. This very same Holy Spirit empowers us at our baptism and confirmation to carry out the will of the Father – to make known his love for his children, and his desire for their eternal salvation.
In our Liturgy we hear stories about how God’s people struggled to be faithful to the Covenant with God. It is our story! So we need to approach the altar at communion time with great humility – our God desires to give himself to us in still another special way, the gifts of consecrated bread and wine, his very Body and Blood! This is Love! This is Trinity!
KNOW YOUR CATECHISM! The mystery of the Trinity in itself is inaccessible to the human mind, and is the object of faith only because it was revealed by Jesus Christ, the divine Son of the eternal Father. The faith of all Christians rests on the Trinity (CCC #232, 237, and especially 253-56).
In His Own Image He Created Them
Today’s feast celebrates the doctrine that makes Christianity different from all other religions: the Trinity. Reason can lead us to know that God is one, but only divine revelation can tell us of God’s inner nature. Exodus reveals God as slow to anger, merciful and loving, but making demands on us. John’s Gospel shows us a Jesus who as Son of God is loving but still makes demands on us. St. Paul ties it together when he urges the Corinthians and us to mend our ways and experience God as Trinity, calling down on us “the grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.”
To know God as Trinity is to believe that in God there is community. God is love and love by its very nature requires giving and receiving. If God is love, there must be community of persons who give and receive love among themselves. For us to believe in the Trinity it is not enough to accept the doctrine in the mind. We must live as the image of God giving to and receiving from others in love.
Lord God our Father, Lord Jesus our Redeemer, send forth on us your Holy Spirit that we may learn to live together here on earth according to your divine example. Help us to meet the demands of this common life and forgive us when we fail. Bring us one day to share more fully in the divine life of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.