The Most Holy Trinity
JOHN 3:16-18 (Exodus 34:4b-6, 8-9; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13)
This gospel reading seems an unusual choice for Holy Trinity Sunday, since the Holy Spirit is not even mentioned – the Person of the Trinity whom Pope Francis recently spoke of as the Forgotten One. This gospel does however speak of the love of God and sometimes the Holy Spirit is spoken of as the love engendered out of the mutual love between Father and Son from all eternity. As we say in the Creed, “I believe in the Holy Spirit…who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” A major theme of this gospel is the overflowing love of God, “who so loved the world that he gave his only Son….”
The love of God for the creatures he created “in his own image and likeness,” destined them to have eternal life. As things turned out according to the history of humanity and the theology of the Bible, the goal of eternal life for humankind was in some danger. Therefore “God gave his only Son” for this reason, “that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This surely repudiates the strange belief of some Christian communities that God created some to be saved and others to be damned. Even Thomas Jefferson, not known for his respect for Christian theology, expressed his opinion that such a teaching was the worst ever conceived by man.
John repeats the concept of God’s love for his creation in different terms, “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” If we understand "the world" as humanity, this is John’s restatement that God’s love is not limited to some, but extends to all his human creatures destined to have eternal life with him. It would be difficult, but perhaps not impossible, to interpret creation to damnation as an expression of God’s love. The final sentence of today’s gospel attributes damnation not to the will of God but to the will of the individual human being, “He who believes in him is not condemned. He who does not believe is condemn-ed already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Condemna-tion is their choice, not God’s choice, for God respects the free will of humankind and only permits, not causes, human beings to bring condemnation on themselves.
The Holy Trinity, three Divine Persons in one God, is a revealed mystery, not knowable through reason or nature. First use of a Trinitarian expression in ritual is the command of Jesus in the Great Commission, “…baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” There was no known liturgical feast of the Trinity until the year 1091 at the monastery of Cluny in France. Thomas Becket, English archbishop and martyr (1170), introduced a feast of the Trinity at Canterbury in England. Pope John XXII extended the feast of the Holy Trinity to the universal Church in 1321.
The Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325 evolved formulas of belief and proclaimed them as official teachings of the Church. Further development in the First Council of Constantinople in 381 put into a permanent creed professions of belief in the Trinity, a creed which from that time on to this day is proclaimed by all the people at every Sunday Mass. An addition to this creed was made beginning in the sixth century and was accepted only gradually and grudgingly in Rome as late as the eleventh century. From its beginning and into our time this addition, the procession of the Holy Spirit not from the Father through the Son but from the Father and the Son, has been a bone of contention between the West and the Orthodox Churches of the East.
A great divider between Judaism and Christianity to this day is the Christian belief in the Holy Trinity. Faithful Jews quote the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear (Shema), Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord….” To which we reply that the Lord God is indeed one and unique but the revelation of the New Testament bids us to understand the one Lord God in three Divine Persons, yet one Lord God. Our creedal pronouncements neither explain nor exhaust how the Trinity can be expressed, but we believe that these pronouncements were formulated under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are therefore without error, and sufficient for our faith and practice.
There has been a long struggle between Trinitarian (One God, three Persons) and Unitarian (One God without any further distinctions) beliefs. Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to a friend, expressed his opinion that the whole world would soon be Unitarian. Despite his brilliance in some matters, this has not happened. The reformers of the 16th century, Luther, Calvin and others, held strongly to the Trinitarian Creed which they inherited from the catholic Church. Calvin, founder of Presbyterianism, was known for his ruthless, murderous treatment of any who professed Unitarian beliefs. Greek philosophical terminology gave us the possibility of bringing the oneness and the threeness together in our creeds. With St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 we realize that for now “our knowledge is imperfect, but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Then I shall understand fully, just as God has fully understood me.”