Sunday, 22 May 2016

TRINITY SUNDAY (Year C)

Readings: Proverbs 8:22-31; Psalm 8; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15

It is possible to imagine a unitarian God who would have certain divine attributes. We can imagine such a God as being, living, and knowing, for example. In fact these were the attributes the Greek philosophers gave to spiritual or divine realities. Such a God has no arms, however. He may be able to condescend in some sense. But he will not be capable of stepping down, or opening up, or bringing us in to share his life. Without a wisdom shared and a spirit sent forth what connection would we have with such a God? What kind of life would there be in such a God? Above all, how could we truly say that such a God is love?

Many preachers behave in a queer way on Trinity Sunday. They become self-deprecating and apologetic. They might tell us that Trinity Sunday is some kind of postscript to the Easter season, an odd 'feast in honour of a dogma', a strange teaching which we are obliged to accept while being equally obliged not to think about it because 'it's a mystery'. They often end up speaking about the Blessed Trinity as if it were just a more complex unitarian God, basically the same kind of thing with a more interesting private life. Or they turn God into a committee that is in perfect agreement about everything.

But to say that something is a mystery does not mean 'there's no point in thinking about it'. It means rather that 'there's no end to thinking about it'. We can certainly say what the Blessed Trinity does not mean, even if we cannot say what it does mean. And if we paid attention over the past eight weeks to the gradual unfolding of the meaning of Easter in the liturgies of the Church, then we have already seen the mystery revealed in the death and glorification of Jesus. We have seen that the Trinity is not a postscript or an appendix to the paschal mystery but is the heart of it, what Jesus came to show us, the love God is, laid bare for us to contemplate. The paschal mystery is not just about Jesus, a noble and worthy prophet. It is about him as Son of the Father. It is about him returning to the Father who had already glorified him before the world was made, and from that place sending, from the Father, the Spirit of truth. The Spirit is sent to abide with the disciples forever, to lead them into all the truth, to bind them into the unity which is the love uniting Father and Son.

'The Spirit of truth will guide you to all truth': we hear it in today's gospel reading. Thomas Aquinas is daring in how he interprets this. If we are to think rightly about creation and salvation, he says, we must know the Trinity. So the fulness of truth into which the Spirit leads the disciples is the truth not just about God but about everything, because everything is included in creation and salvation. A few weeks ago we marked the second centenary of the birth of Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher and religious thinker. For him the truth is Christ: it is impossible to know the truth without knowing Christ. Those who persevere in the search for truth will discover that it is Christ. And in finding Christ we find the Father and the Spirit.

A friend wrote a letter to me years ago in which she gave me my favourite image for the Trinity. She spoke of her brother and his daughter, recently born, and the relationship growing between them. She told me that her brother was saying to his daughter, over and over again, the word for 'love'. (This was happening in India and I do not know in which language the word was spoken - but it doesn't matter, which is the point of the story.) The child at that stage could have no understanding of what her father was saying to her but as the word passed between them - so my friend wrote - the reality it signifies was being established and strengthened between them.

Readers of these homilies will know already that one of my favourite phrases from the writings of St Thomas Aquinas is his description of the Son as the Word that breathes Love. Here is the Blessed Trinity: the Father speaks a Word that breathes Love. Physically, there can be no word without breath, without life and energy. Intellectually, or spiritually, a sound is only a word when it has not just life and energy but meaning and sense. So the Father utters his Word carried on the breath of the Spirit and we are embraced by that Word and Spirit, coming to dwell among us, abiding with us, dwelling in us, the arms of God wrapped around us and taking us into God's heart.

This is our situation. A Word spoken between God and ourselves establishes and strengthens the reality it signifies, the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. We may not understand very much of this mystery hidden before the ages. But it means, Paul says, that we have been given access to a grace in which we now stand. We can rejoice in the hope of sharing the glory of God. The Father has spoken a Word that breathes Love, and that Word has found its way to our heart (its life and energy) and to our lips (its meaning and significance).

The human father speaking 'love' to his daughter will be delighted at any babbling that comes back in reply. Saint Gregory the Great says that all our talking about God is a kind of babbling: all preaching, all theology, all prayer too, is but a balbutiendo, an infant's meaningless gurgling. St Thomas uses the same word to talk about the human quest for truth, not to despise it for its humble achievement but to encourage it to stretch and grow.

Because God is a Trinity of Divine Persons, God is truly tender love and so a source of delight. The first reading speaks of this delight, with the Word or Wisdom of God playing happily, creation unfolding as a wonderful adventure, a dramatic game. Gregory the Great says that creation echoes what the Father said in uttering his Word and so creation is Word-shaped and teaches us much about Him. There are creatures, including ourselves, who not only echo the wisdom of God but are capable of responding to it, not only hear but understand, not only understand but talk back (even if it is mostly babbling). For all the poverty of our words, and the poverty of the love they express, we have a great hope because God has not remained isolated in his splendid mystery. God's love has been poured, is being poured, into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. Herbert McCabe summed it up, as so often, with exquisite precision: to say 'God is love' and to say 'God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit', are simply two ways of saying the same thing.

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