The Trinity, anonymous 16th century, Church of Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand, Poitiers, France.
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father,
and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit… Matthew 28:19.
For Christians, it could be said that there are three great revelations of the Divine in human history. First is recorded in the 12th chapter of Genesis, when that still small voice addressed an old man, Abram, instructing him to move to another country where he would be granted descendants and land. There he began to understand that this voice was that of a previously unknown God, intervening for the first time in human history. Then came the third chapter of the Book of Exodus, where God, present in the famous burning bush, revealed to Moses the divine name of God, Yahweh, or I AM WHO AM. That established a relationship between God and Moses, and through Moses to the Hebrew people. It was then that they became God’s Chosen People, united in accepting God’s law. Then today’s gospel (and at several other moments in the New Testament) reveals that God is Three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That final revelation has confounded people and scholars evermore. How can the One True God be Three Persons? Of all the mysteries in our shared belief, that is the most profound of all, completely inexplicable to the other two great monotheistic religions. And today we celebrate it!
First, an interesting thought. God the Father is, in human understanding, a male figure. The Son is another obvious male figure. But the Holy Spirit? Traditionally the Holy Spirit in English is also a “he” (also in French and other languages). Why? Well, the New Testament is written in Greek, where Spirit is rendered by the word πνεύμα (pneuma, pronouncing the p). We get such words as pneumatic (of or relating to air, gases, or wind) from that same source. But grammatically that word is neuter, neither male nor female. In English almost all nouns are neuter, save for male and female persons. That would mean that the Holy Spirit grammatically would be rendered “It” in English, which is clearly unacceptable. The Latin for Spirit is Spiritus, masculine, from which we get our own word in English. If it were feminine it would be Spirita, but it isn’t. And almost certainly it is from the Latin that we get our masculine designation for God’s Holy Spirit. But…. Let us look a little further back. Jesus almost certainly spoke Aramaic, a variant of Hebrew. In that language, spirit is rendered רוּחַ (ruach, ruah or ruwach), and this word is feminine. So whenever Jesus talked about God’s Holy Spirit, his understanding of it would clearly have been feminine. Hence the Old Testament Book of Wisdom (also called the Wisdom of Solomon), written in Hebrew, consistently calls the Spirit “she”. You could say that God’s Wisdom, as described there, is a prefiguring of the revelation of the Holy Spirit by Jesus:
With you [God] is wisdom, who knows your works and was present when you made the world, and who understands what is pleasing in your sight and what is right according to your commandments. Send her forth from the holy heavens and from the throne of your glory send her, that she may be with me and toil, and that I may learn what is pleasing to you. Wisdom of Solomon, 9:9-10.
Now all this is very interesting, but what does it have to do with today’s feast? Two Sundays ago, the second reading described God in a unique way as God is love (1 John 4:16). In our human understanding, true love is always experienced between two people. That kind of love is very different from all other sorts of love, such as in “I love pizza”. It’s a shame we don’t have different words for different types of love in English, as they do in Greek, which has at least four! But the context in English usually reveals which kind of love we are talking about. In the musical Les Miserables, for instance, the final song says To love another person is to see the face of God, and it is perfectly clear what kind of love is meant. It is the deepest, most profound, utterly unconditional love that humans can experience. And generally speaking, for most people, that is the love between man and woman, a love so life-giving that it gives forth new life! So my point is simple. The Holy Trinity is the model of love: Love between Father and Holy Spirit, with Son as its constant and eternal expression. That is a love we can understand and accept and into which we are all invited. Pushed further, there is another dimension we can see in human experience. Loving couples who have been together for a long time seem to know what the other is thinking and feeling. There is a unity and acceptance there which is so profound that the two seem to have become one. And almost always such a love is utterly accepting of other people; it is not an exclusive love, but a love which encompasses everyone. The Trinity is even beyond that with three persons so united in that profound bond of love that they are one, the One True God. That is the only way I can begin to understand the greatest Christian mystery of all. And it is through love that we each approach God.
This provides the foundation for our own lives here on earth. The model of service which Jesus taught time and again, demonstrating love for each other, comes directly from the Trinitarian expression of love. As our anointing at baptism conferred on us the vocation of being Christ (or Anointed One) to the world, so we too must embody the openness and love of God as shown in the Trinity in all our dealings with each other here on earth. The Trinity should inspire all our life’s work; it is that on which we will be judged. Jesus, the Son of God, received his vocation (to be the world’s Messiah) from his Father, and with the love and strength of God’s Holy Spirit, was enabled to obey that vocational mission to its bitter end. And so it was that he defeated death itself, which was unable to defeat the life-giving force and power of the Holy Trinity of light and love. And here we are, God’s adopted children through baptism, with the same vocation, via our various talents and gifts, to be Christ to the world, having the same power and strength of the Holy Spirit to fulfill God’s will in each of us. Hence we, too, may worthily hope for life after death having obeyed God’s will for each of us to the best of our ability. Even when we stumble therefore, the God of Love will pick us up, time and again, for that is what a loving parents will do for their child. That is what the Holy Trinity of Love will always do for us.
Holy Trinity Window, Lutheran Cathedral of St. Mary, Visby, Gotland, Sweden.