This Sunday we celebrate the feast of the Most Holy Trinity, following immediately in the wake of the great feast of Pentecost which we celebrated last week. We now find ourselves at an endpoint of sorts in the liturgical year, which follows the structure of the New Testament narrative, first commemorating the incarnation and life of Christ before turning to the Paschal Mystery and the birth of the Church. Yet it is also a point of departure, initiating what many rites refer to as the “season of Pentecost,” which corresponds to the saeculum in which we now find ourselves, between the descent of the Holy Spirit and the final glorification of the faithful on the last day. Trinity Sunday thus marks the advent of the age in which God has revealed himself to be an eternal communion of relations: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
For many of my students, and—who am I kidding?—for me as well, this revelation of God’s identity is a difficult and dangerous thing to contemplate. The temptation, of course, is to concretize it within an earthly analogy, and Lord knows that such analogies constantly present themselves on all sides. God is like a shamrock: one leaf with three stems. Or God is like a dance: two partners and the music that directs their unified activity. Or (ugh)God is like an elephant (I’ll spare you the rest). A charming, yet equally faulty analogy I once heard as a kid was that God was like a good southern cherry pie: you can cut the crust into three pieces, but the filling (the “essence” I presume?) never divides.
Even for those who can spot the limitations of these more homespun analogies, other more sophisticated reductions may also lie in wait, such as that proposed by the 12th-century monk Joachim of Fiore, who thought history itself to be divided in three “ages” corresponding to the three persons of the Trinity. His contention was that with the coming of Christ, the “age of the Father” gave way to the “age of the Son,” which would last until the year 1260, when “the age of the Spirit” would commence and God’s elect would establish a perfect kingdom of universal love, rendering all institutional structures and earthly authorities unnecessary and obsolete. Of course, his theory is deeply problematic, and was roundly rejected by the faithful (with the exception of a few friars who identified Joachim’s utopian kingdom with the Franciscan order) because it attempts to captivate the mystery of the Trinity within the modes of human thought and experience.
And yet I find myself doing that all the time. I may have moved on from the “Voltron model” of the Trinity, in which the persons combine to form some invincible composite; I may have even moved on from the “Janus-plus-one model” of a single head with three faces; yet the truth is that I cannot help but keep thinking of the Christian God in terms of models. I am no better than the student of mine who kept coming back each class with a new theory for the hypostatic union, to each of which I would predictably respond “no, that’s an example of the ___ian/ite heresy.” Exasperated, she finally said that “it seems like every solution can be a heresy” and that of course set up the ideal teaching moment when I simply replied “exactly.” As Robert Sokolowski so beautifully put it in his book The God of Faith and Reason,
the councils do not explain away the mystery, but neither do they just stipulate how Christians are to talk or not to talk about Christ. The councils do not merely set down verbal conventions. They allow the mystery to remain a mystery. They prevent the mystery from dissolving into incoherence, and they also prevent it from falling back into being a simple natural phenomenon. Some understanding of the mystery as a mystery is needed to keep it alive in this way (38).
At the end of the day, we Christians—and especially we theologians—need to admit that our words and concepts have only the slightest foothold on the realities which they attempt to signify and demarcate. Like St. Paul, we need to admit from time to time our “foolishness” and lay claim to it, particularly when we profess a God who is both one and three. We too often hijack the reality of our faith and hold it hostage to our intellectual ambitions and social pretensions. The foundation of our life of faith, and the profession of the triune God at the center of that faith, is not any discovery, insight or act or our own; it is rather the graced realization that we have been chosen. In the first reading for this Sunday, Moses exhorts the people to “fix in [their] heart[s] that the Lord is God, in the heavens above and on earth below, and that there is no other” (Dt 4:34), but his rationale is not theoretical, abstract or universal. The profession of one God is inexorably linked to Israel’s experience of the Lord’s saving act, in which he has drawn them out from among the nations to be his own chosen people.
Likewise, the followers of Israel’s Messiah rest our profession that Jesus is Lord on a particular historical act in which our liberation and election are simultaneous and inseparable. We believe not because we have figured anything out, but only because we have been chosen. There are few more comforting words in the New Testament than John 15:16: “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and appointed you that you should bear fruit and that your fruit should remain.” In this verse I hear the echo of St. Paul’s declaration to the Philippians—“I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus has taken hold of me” (3:12)—and it consoles me when I begin to domesticate and diminish the Spirit’s presence in the world. I too, like Kathryn, often imagine the disciples with nice, neat, manageable flames upon their heads, and then proceed to insert this image into the preformulated categories I use to interpret the world around me.
The reality of Pentecost, like the reality of the Trinity, is much more elusive and much more threatening than that. Surely one of the central points to be drawn from the crowd’s assumption that the disciples “had too much wine” is that they had no worldly category ready at hand to interpret what was going on before them. Public drunkenness was the best they could do to describe the movement of the Spirit made manifest to them, and so Peter was right to point out that it was only nine o’clock in the morning. And surely one of the central points to be drawn from the traditional representations of the Spirit through “fire” and “water” is that it is a reality which both enlivens and consumes us. It fills us with the very life of God, but only by continually clearing away completely our every claim to self-sovereignty.
I by no means wish to imply that we should do away with all the analogies, symbols and representations of the Trinity and the Spirit which we inevitably employ. Kathryn’s commentary last week beautifully illustrates the transformative role of such images. Yet we must not forget that these images are only paltry signposts pointing to a reality infinitely greater than themselves. It also bears mentioning at this point that the greatest “image” of God has always been and always will remain the human person—so great, in fact, that God makes it the highest aim of his Law to keep his people mindful that the divine image resides nowhere else.
Perhaps it would be fitting then to conclude this rambling reflection with a much more economical expression of the same basic idea. Many of you are doubtless already familiar with this poem, but I first came across it on the door of my colleague Thomas Sable, SJ. It was written by the great Polish bard Czeslaw Milosz, and is entitled “Veni Creator.” I hope you find it as beautiful as I do:
Come, Holy Spirit,
bending or not bending the grasses,
appearing or not above our heads in a tongue of flame,
at hay harvest or when they plough in the orchards or when snow
covers crippled firs in the Sierra Nevada.
I am only a man: I need visible signs.
I tire easily, building the stairway of abstraction.
Many a time I asked, you know it well, that the statue in church
lifts its hand, only once, just once, for me.
But I understand that signs must be human,
therefore call one man, anywhere on earth,
not me—after all I have some decency—
and allow me, when I look at him, to marvel at you.