Readings: Exodus 34:4b-6,8-9; Daniel 3:52-56; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; John 3:16-18
The difficulty of preaching on Trinity Sunday is not that of having to speak about a logical conundrum or a mathematical puzzle, but that of having to speak about a theological mystery whose depths are never exhausted and whose implications are never completely understood. There is too much to say rather than too little. We have come to know more about God than we can manage and so run the risk, in whatever we say, of failing to do justice to some other aspect of the mystery which we ought also to have mentioned.
The gospel passage just read, short as it is, nevertheless presents us with the question in this way: what must we believe about God if we are to take literally two of its statements, the first that God has an only Son whom he gave so that the world might be saved, the second that God has a love for the world which moved Him to give His Son for its salvation. They seem simple and straightforward, these statements. God loved the world and God gave His only Son.
They are so simple and straightforward, so familiar, that their implications can pass us by completely. The theology of the Trinity, developed in the early centuries of Christian history, spells out the implications of these statements, as well as of many other familiar and seemingly straightforward statements throughout the New Testament.
One option is to hear them as metaphors, not intended literally, but meant to teach us something about God that we would express literally in some other way. What 'only Son' means, we might say, is that Jesus is a unique human being, whose spiritual experience, knowledge of God, faith and trust in God, and so on, makes him stand out before all other spiritual teachers and guides. He is so far above the rest of us in this that we can call him, for all practical purposes, 'the only son', the human being who served God best during his earthly life, the one from among us who was most open to God and most filled with God's presence.
This understanding of Jesus was never a serious contender among Christians as a full statement of what it means to call him 'the only Son'. Of course all of it is true when applied to him. We believe him to be that human being most open to God whose love and obedience are the salvation of the world. But the Christian community always believed that there was also something divine about him, believed that he belonged as truly to the side of God as to the side of humanity.
So another view quickly emerged. Perhaps Jesus, while not being quite the same as God - for how could a man be God? - is a visitor from the divine realm who belongs more to that side than to our side. Perhaps from the court of the heavenly Father, where he has a special place, he is sent with a special mission into this world. So he is a divine being, something between God and man, and so very well placed, it might seem, to be the mediator.
But it was clear that his view was not going to be acceptable either. Someone who does not really belong to either place - who is neither truly God nor truly human - is not the kind of mediator who can do what needs to be done. (So some of the Fathers of the Church put it.) The mediator in whom we believe is one who belongs truly and fully to both. This is much more difficult to say, with a number of qualifications and distinctions needing to be made. But they are qualifications and distinctions with which we are all quite familiar for we say them every Sunday at Mass:
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven ...
If we want to say, then, that God gave his only Son, so that through him the world might be saved, and that this is not just a nice piece of poetry but is true in its simple and straightforward meaning, then we must begin to speak about the theology of the Trinity.
What moved God to give his only Son, Saint John tells us, is the fact that God loved the world so much. In the First Letter of Saint John it is put even more bluntly: 'God is love', it says. Once again these are simple and straightforward statements and the question is: how literally are we to take them? Is there love in God? If there is only a unitary God, and His creation below Him, then the word 'love' could only be used in some metaphorical sense. Because the distance between creatures and God is infinite, because their difference is infinite, because there can be no equality or mutual dependence between them, the term 'love' could only be used metaphorically of God. Between God and creation there could only be some kind of condescension but not love in the full sense of the word, meaning a relationship between persons that is equal and reciprocal.
But the fact that the Father has an only Son, who is equal in dignity and nature to himself, means that the Father has an equal to love. It means that to say 'God is love' and to say 'God is a trinity of persons' are two ways of saying the same thing. If we want to say, as I am sure we do, that the God we believe in is Love, and we want to understand this literally, then we must begin to speak about the theology of the Trinity. If we want to say, as I am sure we do, that God loves us and has enabled us to love Him in return through adopting us as his sons and daughters in Christ, then we must begin to speak about the Trinity.
Love between persons involves mind and heart, and so the other Advocate of whom Jesus spoke, the Spirit sent on the Church on the day of Pentecost, then easily found His place in this theology of the Trinity. The church came to understand the Holy Spirit as the love which unites the Father and the Son, the bond between them, their embrace. The Spirit too, we believe, is Lord and is the giver of life. He proceeds from the Father and the Son. With them He is worshiped and glorified as God. He has spoken through the prophets. We believe that the life-giving Spirit is at work in the Church, in baptism for the forgiveness of sins, in forming the communion of saints. We believe that the Spirit of love will bring about the resurrection of the dead, for the life he gives is not only the life of this world but also the life of the world to come.
Our simplest and most cherished Christian statements, like John 3:16, 'God so loved the world that he gave his only Son', have led the Church to develop its unique belief in the one God as a Trinity of persons. Far from being an esoteric corner of Christian life and reflection, the Trinity is at the heart of everything we do and are. We are baptized into a Trinitarian faith. We offer the Eucharistic sacrifice to the Father, through the Son, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Our gatherings begin in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. In fact, rather than saying that the Trinity is at the heart of everything we do and are, the whole point of today's liturgy is to remind us that everything we do and are is taken up into the heart of the Trinity.