Written by Bishop Donald J. Hying Thursday, 24 January 2013 14:40
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that “the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them. It is the most fundamental and essential teaching in the ‘hierarchy of the truths of faith’” (234). For us, as Christians, the whole history of salvation is identical with the self-revelation of the Trinity to us.
You can read the entire New Testament and you will never come across the word “Trinity” because it took the church centuries to ponder, understand and articulate in precise theological and philosophical language the newness of the Christian understanding of God. Before Jesus, most cultures were polytheistic, i.e., they believed in and worshipped many different gods.
Just study Greek or Roman mythology and your mind will spin with the variety and number of deities. The Jewish insight that God was one, invisible, all-powerful and yet merciful and personally engaged in human history was a radical step forward!
In that important Jewish context, Jesus called God “Abba,” which we could loosely translate as “Daddy,” which is rather amazing when you think about its intimacy. He went on to reveal himself as the Son through his preaching, public ministry, death and resurrection and then sent the promised Holy Spirit to anoint the church and energize the proclamation of the Gospel. These startling revelations about God were new, life-changing, and — quite understandably — not always readily accepted and believed.
While Christians professed faith in the reality of the Trinity, especially by using the baptismal formula naming the Three Persons, much reflection, discussion and prayer was necessary for the church to put into human language this new way of understanding the identity of God.
Most of the early church councils, such as Ephesus, Nicaea and Chalcedon, spent their energy in working out some theological aspect of belief in the Blessed Trinity. Here are some fundamental points that the catechism beautifully lays out for us.
1. The Trinity is one. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons. The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God whole and entire. (253)
2. The divine persons are really distinct from one another. God is one but not solitary. (254) I like St. Augustine’s way of putting it: the Father is the Lover, the Son is the Beloved and the Holy Spirit is Love.
3. The divine persons are relative to one another. Each of them wholly abides in the other two, to form a unity in their plurality. (255)
All of this Trinitarian theology may seem rather complicated and abstract, so what difference does it make to us? As Christians who believe in the Trinity, we hold together in faith many seemingly opposite things:
- God is one and yet three in that unity.
- God is beyond us and yet abides within us, through the sacraments.
- God is divine and yet in Jesus became human.
- God is all-powerful and yet becomes vulnerable in that human life of Christ and continues to be so in the humility of the Eucharist.
- God is absolute mystery and yet has revealed himself to us in a definitive way.
Maybe the best way to express this paradox is that God is so beyond us that we can never fully possess him, but he is so close to us that we can never avoid him.
Just when we think we have God all figured out, he eludes us; just when we despair of ever knowing God, he gloriously appears in the most unexpected places.
This spiritual sense of pursuit, surrender, discovery and elusiveness is the adventure of our life! The doctrine of the Trinity holds together the whole mystery of God.