June 12 – Trinity Sunday
Trinity Sunday is the first Sunday after Pentecost in the Western Christian liturgical calendar, and the Sunday of Pentecost in Eastern Christianity. Trinity Sunday celebrates the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, the three Persons of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
“But when the Spirit of truth comes he will lead you to the complete truth…”
Ah, the Holy Trinity. Eggs, shamrocks, fruits, states of matter (liquid, solid & gas), mathematical diagrams, and even the sun itself have been recruited through the centuries by theologians and catechists to illustrate the puzzling concept of a Triune God. How can one God be three persons and how can three persons be still…one God?
Christianity’s insistence on basing its concept of God’s nature on this mathematical impossibility (1+1+1=1?) in the face of puzzled intellectuals and bewildered nine-year olds alike, is often answered with slightly embarrassed, if not empathic nods followed by the use of one, if not all of the above available analogies in an attempt to shed some light. This popular catechism of the Trinity almost always concludes with the phrase, “but God is mystery” said in piously hushed tones and a sagely wrap-up that “we are simply not meant to know such things.”
Thus, most of us grow up accepting the Trinity as a weird curiosity, a particular quirk of our faith best less spoken of to avoid embarrassment, awkward contradictions and of course, the ever-looming spectre of heresy. We treat the Trinity in the same way we treat quantum mechanics — probably true, but best left to the experts. You can probably imagine my trepidation when I found out I had been assigned this Oxygen entry.
What is my approach? Rather than talk about how one God can be three persons, I want to contemplate on why a God who is three Persons matters. What difference does it make to our faith and, even more fundamentally, of reality itself, since we believe that everything was created by this God.
To do this, it is necessary to briefly consider the alternative monotheistic option, namely — the single- person God. This concept of a single-person deity is at the heart of all of the major monotheistic world religions, except one — Christianity. However, it is not difficult to conceive that a single-person God would function in a completely different way from the Father, Son and Spirit. The reason why I make this contrast is because while we Christians profess a God of a triune nature, much of our assumptions of how this God acts largely remain ‘single-personed’. But if God were a single-person god, then God will look and act exactly like the single-person gods of the other faiths. In other words, not being as God is, God will not act as God does.
Let us consider creation. If God is a singular person being and for eternity has been that way, we can infer that that is clearly the preferable state of affairs. Why would a God who is entirely satisfied by himself and has neither known any relationship, or what it is like to love another, find it in his nature to cause anything else to exist? (If the answer is that God was lonely or bored than it would imply that God created out of a sense of lack in Godself. If God needed to create in order to feel complete, then God would cease to be god since such a god would not be self-sufficient.)
A Triune God on the other hand, would create the world and would do so not out of any sense of lack of love, but as an overflow of love from within his very nature. In John 17:24, Jesus said, “Father, you loved me before the foundation of the world.” Before the universe was created, God, for unimaginable eternity, had existed as a divine community of one undivided essence but in three distinct Persons. The Father loves and delights in the Son infinitely. The Son loved by the Father reciprocates with the same love of the Father. Their mutual love meets and breathes forth an uncreated subsistence who is the third person of the Trinity.
Thus, the Holy Spirit is described in the Nicene creed as the One “who proceeds from the Father and the Son,” as their bond of union. It is not a coincidence that at the Baptism of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, in the appearance of a dove, appears at the exact moment the Father proclaims, “This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11) At the Father’s affirmation of His love for Jesus, the Holy Spirit as the personification of that love comes upon him. We see a snapshot of the inner life of the Trinity that has been going on for all eternity expressed in that single moment in time and space.
Why does it matter that God is Trinity? There are at least three implications of this to our lives.
1. God is love. The Trinity tells us that being loving is not something that God does; it is who God is. The Doctrine of the Trinity destroys any unworthy ideas of God’s love. God is not lonely or bored. The Trinity tells us that God’s very nature is a love relationship of mutual delight, a reality that existed eternally even before creation came to be. Love is the beginning and end of all God’s actions.
2. Creation is an outflow of God’s love. Creation is not something necessary for God to do, but it is very characteristic for a Triune God. We almost hear the delight of God in the act of creation in the first reading (Pro 8:22-31). The Father delights so much in the Son that He desires to have that love overflow to many other sons and daughters – that the Son “might be the firstborn of many brothers” (Romans 8:29) True love always desires to love people more and to love more people. Therefore, the God who is eternally loving creates, so that God may have many others that He might love. People like you and me.
3. The Love of God is poured into our hearts by means of the Holy Spirit — Rm 5:5
Interestingly, nowhere in scripture is mentioned the love of the Son for the Spirit, the Spirit’s love for the Father or the love of the Spirit for mankind. Instead, the bible only speaks of the Father’s love for the Son, the Son’s love for the Father as well as the Father’s and Son’s love for humanity. The implication is that the Holy Spirit is not just the agent who ‘applies’ God’s love to believers but that the Spirit Himself is the very love of the Father and the Son poured into our hearts! That is why when we receive the Holy Spirit, we experience a greater love for Jesus because we love with the love of His Father, and we love our Heavenly Father more because the same love Jesus has for His Father is in us. Thus, our communion with God (and with each other) consists of partaking in the Holy Spirit, or God’s love. I could go on. In truth, I have barely scratched the surface of why the Trinity matters. The place of relationships in our lives, the form our redemption takes and the outworking of our sanctification all take the contours of the Trinity. My hope is that this reflection would inspire you to set aside your shamrocks and eggs to seek and contemplate deeper into this divine mystery. (What else is a mystery for if not to draw us deeper?)
On Trinity Sunday, we celebrate not a curious quirk of our faith, but a supremely wondrous truth that undergirds all of reality. Nothing is more foundational, nothing exceeds the height of its importance. But at the end of the day, our goal is not merely to understand the Trinity intellectually, but to know God experientially. To know the Trinity is to know the living God. Our pursuit – when properly done – is an invitation to experience God’s overflowing love and to share in the delight of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit forever. This is why we were created.
But when the Spirit of truth comes he will lead you to the complete truth – (Jn 16:13)
(Today’s OXYGEN by Leonard Koh)
Prayer: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
Thanksgiving: That You, Triune God are both the goal of our journey and the means by which we find you. Thank you for choosing to reveal your love to us through the sacrifice of the Son and the sending of the Holy Spirit into our hearts.