We have all kinds of solemnities, feast days, and other special days in the church year. We commemorate happenings in the life of Christ: Mary’s visit from Gabriel announcing the miraculous child she was to bring into the world. We celebrate the arrival of the Three Kings, the Baptism of our Lord, the Transfiguration when the glory of Christ is revealed, and on Palm Sunday, we celebrate Jesus riding triumphantly into Jerusalem amidst palms and cheers. We celebrate the empty tomb and Resurrection of Easter, the glorious Ascension, the explosive coming of God’s spirit to the church at Pentecost—and then we have Holy Trinity Sunday. And suddenly it is like we have moved from these great events in the life of Christ, and now— tadah!! We are celebrating a…a…a church doctrine.
In the many years I sat in the pew, it is like there was this wonderful celebration of Easter and Pentecost came to a screeching halt and suddenly we have the economics teacher from the movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” “Buellar, Buellar, Buellar.” He comes up to the pulpit, blows the dust off an enormous leather-bound book, clears his throat saying—well it doesn’t matter what he says, because in my mind, the last of the Pentecost streamers were floating to the ground. The party is over, fade the music, turn out the lights…. It is church doctrine Sunday. Wake me up next week for Corpus Christi Sunday….
And then I went to seminary. I would love to tell you that the Systematic Theology courses made the theology of Most Holy Trinity exciting, accessible and engaging—but, my professor was not quite as interesting as Ferris Buellar’s teacher—although oddly, he sounded about the same.
Don’t misunderstand me—I am not disparaging the Most Holy Trinity – I joyfully mark myself with the sign of the cross – “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” But I have always wanted a good answer as to why God is triune – that is, Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – and yet one God.
When I was in elementary school, I thought it was kinda cool that we had three Gods. Later I sorta discovered that wasn’t the way it was. I didn’t understand why, but I faithfully nodded. At some point a well-meaning teacher offered that the Trinity was a job description: Father as Creator, Son as Redeemer, and Holy Spirit as Sanctifier. Hmmm? That doesn’t sound quite right. In high school while reading church history I discovered that folks in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries went to war over trying to explain the Trinity – and we are not talking about a war of words.
But I reached a point where I realize that as comfortable as we are with “Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” – when we speak about the three great monotheistic religions- Judaism, Islam and Christianity – that the other guys are over in the corner shaking their head and whispering, “Well, not really….” The inference is that we Christians are the confused cousins who, deep down, don’t really believe in one God.
Systematic theology wasn’t a lot of help—not as helpful as it wanted to be, but then I began to study the medieval Franciscan theologians. The Franciscans such as Bonaventure and John Duns Scotus inherited a way of thinking about the Trinity that came from the earliest writings of the Church in the eastern Mediterranean. A way of reflecting on the meaning of a triune God that was free of the ordered, structured, need-to-explain-everything-in-detail kind of approach common in the Roman-influenced west. The Eastern Fathers of the Church were much more mystical about it all – and that seems quite appropriate when trying to approach the mystery of a God who Sacred Scripture has revealed as Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
After reading the Cappadocian Fathers, Hugh of St. Victor, Bonaventure, and more – I finally came to the realization that what appears as a simple verse of Scripture said it all. And if you want to memorize just part of one verse, here’s a good one: 1 John 4:16 …. ready… “God is love.” Not, “God loves, but is really something else.” Simple and plain – you want to know who God is? God is love. And what struck me was, that it is Christianity – on our best days at least – that proclaim this revelation God is love.
The Franciscans were very much influenced by the writings of Hugh of St. Victor on this verse and what it revealed about the Trinity. In short, here is the essence of what Hugh of St. Victor wrote about the nature of God and how a Trinity is the natural implication of a God who is love.
The love of one for oneself is ego-centric and self-absorbed – who wants to be around someone who only loves his or herself? Is it really love? The love of two for each other to the exclusion of all others – “I love you,” “And I love you,” “I love you,” “And I love you” – ad nauseum is annoying at best and wears thin. And is this really love? But where there are three, and each loves the others and attends fully to the others with all their being, you have a love that is not only inclusive, but one that pours oneself completely into the others. This is love – ever giving one’s self way from a fountain fullness of love pouring forth in love. In short – if God is truly love, then God within God’s self is three persons and one nature of love.
But such a whirling dervish of dynamic love cannot be contained within. The Cappadocian Fathers wrote that this fountain fullness of love, intrinsic to the internal life of the Trinity is a perichorisis, a divine dancing in and out of each other that whirls and swirls until it explodes into Creation— giving life. An internal love of Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, moving outward, creating the world in love, structuring all life to find its ultimate destiny in love.
So, maybe many churches this day are celebrating “church doctrine Sunday,” but what we are called to celebrate on this day is the revelation – not of some minimalist functioning of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier – but of a God who is love and all that love implies. We celebrate that God has revealed to us the insight into what it means to believe – not just a God who is all-knowing and all-powerful – but a God whose most intrinsic nature is love – who created us in love, redeems us because of love, and sanctifies us because love finds its completion in the other.
It is breathtaking, it is compelling, it is the revelation of God. And that is worthy of celebration – and so the Church holds it up for our attention – to ponder, to hold dear, and to know that on this day – and all days until the end of time – you are loved – because that’s who God is.