The Holy Trinity, Book of Hours, attributed to the Dunois Master c.1445, The British Library, London, UK.
[Jesus said “the Spirit of truth] will glorify me,
because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.
Everything that the Father has is mine….” John 16:14-16.
If there is one, central, overriding mystery of Christian belief it is the reason for today’s solemnity, the Blessed Trinity of Three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in one God. From the dawn of realizing this truth, scholars have grappled with it for centuries, trying to come to grips with what is, essentially, a mystery. In human reasoning there is no way three equals one; but that is what Christians are asked to believe and accept. The other two great monotheistic religions are baffled at this acceptance, but there it is. Consider Jesus’ last words in the gospel of Matthew 28:19: “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…..” Pretty clear don’t you think? Jesus didn’t seem to have any doubts or confusion here, so why should we? Ah, but puzzles or mysteries just cry out for explanation in the human experience. We can’t stand anything inexplicable. What on earth is the Trinity? Well, 2000 years of experts trying (and really failing) to answer that question essentially means there is no answer, just intimations and echoes in the human experience, as we are God’s sons and daughters. First of all, though, let’s look at the gradual revelation of the Trinity in Scripture.
God’s first entrance into human history occurs in the 12th chapter of the Book of Genesis. Abram, an old man living in Haran in northern Mesopotamia about 3000 years ago, heard a still small voice, and obeyed the instructions the voice gave him to move to Canaan and wait for further instructions. The voice, who eventually gave Moses the divine name, Yahweh, or I Am Who Am, was the all-powerful and all-loving One God of all. Down through about 2000 years, this still small voice revealed all sorts of divine qualities which set this God apart from the dozens of other gods of that time and place. Then a man appeared who was, according to the Angel Gabriel, God’s Son, who in turn promised to send the Holy Spirit of God to us once he had ascended back to his Father in heaven, and did. We have been trying to figure all that out ever since. But there is one intriguing pre-echo of the Trinity in the Book of Genesis. Abraham (Abram) and his wife Sarah were very old, certainly over 90. Well one day three strangers arrived at their dwelling (Genesis 18:1-15). Scripture states clearly that “The Lord appeared to Abraham…..(who) looked up and saw three men standing there…” Well they turned out to be angelic beings, who promised that Sarah would become pregnant and bear a child. Sarah was hiding and listening to the conversation, and she laughed, not surprisingly. The Lord asked her why she laughed; she said he hadn’t. “You laughed” the Lord insisted! Well she gave birth to Isaac, a name which means “he laughs”. But look at that Scripture passage; it clearly states the Lord is present, but Abraham sees three individuals……
Symbol of the Trinity, Dome of Blessed Trinity R.C. Church, Buffalo, NY, USA.
If we Christians believe we are God’s children, then there must be something in our DNA which reflects our divine Parent. Remember that Jesus essentially gave us one command to obey, stripping away the hundreds of mini-rules he was born into as a Jewish boy. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34). He then tied this love of them to his love of God his Father: “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30). Then last Sunday’s gospel, the feast of the Descent of the Holy Spirit, Pentecost, Jesus said that “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him” (John 14:23) and furthermore: “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything…” (John 14:26). So in some way the Holy Spirit emanates from the union of the Father and the Son. So I think love is the key to accepting the mystery of the Trinity.
In human experience, love is the ultimate experience of being human. The total acceptance of one person by another, and its complete return by the other is universally accepted as the perfect experience of being human. It is the root of all happiness and confidence. If two people like that have been together for years, then it can be noticed that each in some deep way knows what the other is thinking, feeling, even about to say. Their union, as it were, has made them into one person. Not only that, but one of the most winning traits in such a true loving union is that they are welcoming to all others, and invite them into their presence openly and willingly as friends. As the final song in the musical of Les Miserables says, “to love another person is to see the face of God”. Additionally, of course, that union of love usually welcomes new life into the world as an expression of that true love. When it all goes right, nothing is more beautiful in life. That is the echo of the Trinity in our life, I believe. It is the DNA God shares with us.
Now, to parallel that image even further, there is the gender identification of God which makes it even more acceptable. I have talked about this before, but is is worth repeating. Jesus is clearly male, and frequently called God his Father. So in our human understanding (though the total mystery of God transends all our comprehension), two persons of the Trinity are male, leaving the enigmatic person of the Holy Spirit. Well, our English translations universally call the Holy Spirit “he” also, rendering the third person of the Trinity also male. Now English has basically discarded the gender of nouns, unlike most of the European languages. In French, for example, a door is la porte, and is feminine; teacher is un professeur, and is masculine (even if the teacher is a woman), and so on. In English, he, she and it apply logically to whatever you are talking about. So a door is “it”. A teacher is neutral, can be either masculine or feminine depending on the circumstance, and so on. So whenever you read “he” in English, that person is unquestionably male. So if the Holy Spirit is called “he”, he is male! But Jesus spoke Aramaic, not English, where the word for that same entity is feminine, so why isn’t the Holy Spirit called “she”? Ah… Our Christian scriptures were all written in koine Greek, meaning the common Greek spoken in the streets at the time they were written. The Greek for spirit is πνεύμα, pneuma (pronouncing the p; we get words like pneumatic from it in English) and it is neuter, neither masculine not feminine. So logically, God’s Holy Spirit was “it” in the original Greek. In English that sounds bad. When the Greek scriptures were translated into Latin, πνεύμα was translated as spiritus, from which we get our word spirit. And that Latin word is masculine. So the Spirit became ‘he’ ever afterwards probably from that connection. Again, Jesus didn’t speak Greek or Latin; he spoke Aramaic, a version of Hebrew. In his language, the word spirit, רוח or ruach (ru-ackh), also meaning wind and breath, is feminine. Hence if we are to be true to Jesus’ understanding of God’s Holy Spirit, we should refer to the Third Person of the Holy Trinity as “She”. Take a look at the Old Testament Book of Wisdom. God’s Spirit is always referred to as “she”. Thinking in that way, the Holy Trinity immediately takes on a radically different sense for English-speaking people. The love of Spirit and Father emanates as the Son, couldn’t you say? And that understanding allows English speakers to identify much more easily with the greatest mystery in Christianity and the word love becomes much more understandable. Additionally, today’s gospel would have Jesus say: “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when she comes, the Spirit of truth, she will guide you to all truth. She will not speak on her own, but she will speak what she hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming. She will glorify me, because she will take from what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:12-20) A little different don’t you think?
Finally, a small reflection on the nature of love. The song in Sound of Music says “Love isn’t love ’till you give it away”, (and hopefully is returned). In that case, isn’t it logical to say that it takes at least two persons to achieve it? How can a single-person God be love in that case? And considering our own place in the universe, doesn’t it make sense for us to be loved into existence by a God capable of love even before the Big Bang? So today’s feast recognizes the source of eternal love, and hence life. Such was the love of Jesus for his Father that he was prepared to fulfill the task his Father gave him, to fulfill all the prophecies concerning the Messiah in Scripture, wherever that may lead. So, in our turn, we are invited into that same love which will flourish into happiness, and ultimately eternal life with the source of love itself.
The Trinity, Pinterest.