“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Matthew 28, 16-20
When it comes to writing a reflection on the Holy Trinity, I struggle. Like every other card-carrying Catholic and Christian I can publicly proclaim at least once a week: “I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth…I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, who for us became human…I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son…” (Nicene Creed). But that does not mean that I can get my little head around it. Those statements encapsulate theological concepts which I accept in faith, but which I cannot prove. I can also say that I believe I was loved into life by my loving parents who reflected to one another and to me something of God’s love. And I am convinced that God loves me. But I cannot prove that I loved my parents in return, just as I cannot prove that I love God. Every year, one week after Pentecost, the Christian Churches celebrate “The Feast of the Holy Trinity” – the only Church festival that celebrates and puts the focus on a theological concept that theologians have tried to explicate for centuries. Their efforts, however laudable, have been attempts to explain the unexplainable. We are fooling ourselves when we fall into thinking that we can satisfactorily explain God. For that matter, do we ever think that we can fully understand and explain anyone whom we know and say we love? Moreover, I am convinced that Jesus was a man of his own time and culture, and that as he travelled the length and breadth of Palestine proclaiming the boundless love of God for humanity, he was not conscious of himself as being “The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity”. That became an article of faith in the institutional Church 13 centuries later, and only after much theological speculation. A more recent attempt to explain God as Father, Son and Spirit became a New York Times best-seller. It is a novel entitled The Shack, written by Canadian, William Paul Young and was No.1 on the New York Times fiction list for 147 consecutive weeks. Young personifies Father, Son and Spirit as three humans who, by their love, and compassion, and their skill in gently challenging, transform the lives of a grieving family whose daughter/sibling was abducted and murdered. Published in 2007 (Windblown Media, USA), it has sold 20 million copies. It has not exactly been lauded by scholars of theology, but it deals, in an innovative and even provocative way, with the mystery of God as Trinity. Young depicts the Father as a black woman named Papa, Jesus as a Middle-Eastern carpenter and the Spirit as an Asian woman called Sarayu (Hindi, meaning a refreshing wind).
Having said all that, I dare to suggest that no theologian has given us a better or more appealing description of God than John, who in his first letter wrote: “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4, 7-8).
While many of us can recall our primary school days and the religious knowledge we gathered with the help of the prescribed catechism, we may well be slow to recognise the lasting impact made by the catechism on our adult lives. Here is an extract from one of the catechisms of my primary school days:
Q. How many Persons are there in God?
A. In God there are three Divine Persons, really distinct, and equal in
all things–the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
This is just one of the questions and answers which I and my peers learned so well by rote that we could repeat them in our sleep. What sense I made of it is anyone’s guess. But I believed it, because I was given to understand that rejecting it would put me in danger of ending up in hell. Generations of children have passed through Catholic primary schools across the globe since the 1950s (my era). While there has been an evolving approach to religious instruction over the last seven decades, I offer just one example of how one particular child (Clement) recently made meaning of what he heard as a 5-year-old pre-schooler at his local Catholic school. The story is told by his grandfather, who had overheard Clement giving a theological dissertation to his younger sister, Ruth: “Ruthie, we believe in three Jesuses: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And the Spirit is the best one ‘cause it’s holy.” Grandfather says he just can’t wait to hear Clement’s take on the Immaculate Conception.
The Catholic Church was more than 13 centuries old before the Solemnity of the Holy Trinity found its way into the liturgical calendar. Despite our intellectual struggles with trying to understand the mystery of God, the focus of this coming Sunday’s celebration is on the revelation of God to our world as creator, on Jesus, who taught us about the boundless love of the God who loved us into life and who alone we seek, and on the Spirit of that love who dwells deep within us and frees us from isolation and enlivens us to live as community. The concept of God as Trinity helps us to see God as loving community, and it is yearnings for love and for community that are the deepest desires of every human heart.
It is love that is at the centre of the readings we encounter on Trinity Sunday. – the Love (God) who created our world and set it on its evolutionary journey; the Love that was so overflowing that it became one of us in the person of Jesus and showed us how to love; and the Love who could not even imagine leaving us alone and who is present to us in every moment of our lives. That, too, is something that I struggle to get my little head and heart around. Yet that’s what Jesus commissioned all his disciples to proclaim to our world.
The Quaker writer, Philip Gulley, in 2012, published a book entitled: The Evolution of Faith: How God is creating a better Christianity. In it, he told the story of an elderly Quaker woman who had spent most of her life reaching out to people in need. This is his story: “As I came to know her better, I was astounded at the many ways in which she had blessed hurting people. Though her income was modest, she lived simply so she could give generously. Though her many commitments kept her calendar full, she still found times to be present to those who needed comfort. The longer I knew her, the more I marvelled at her kindness, given the scarcity of her resources. Her humility made her reluctant to talk with others about what she did. But one day she let slip the principle that guided her life, when she said to me: ‘Little is much when God is in it.’ I have reflected on that often, coming to appreciate its truth more and more as the years pass. Little does become much when love is present. Jesus knew that. He knew that even the smallest gesture of love could transform the darkest of situations, and so fully committed himself to divine love that we are still awed by his life…We can be like him when we say yes, as thoroughly as we can, to the Divine presence that is also in us. As we do that, our lives and the lives of others will be transformed. God’s joy will be in us, and our joy will be full.”