The Most Holy Trinity

Today’s readings

Talking about the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is perhaps the most daunting tasks for a preacher, but also one of the greatest privileges.  Here is one of the great mysteries of our faith, one that cries out for explanation, one that has kept the best minds of our religion occupied throughout time, and one that we, very likely, won’t completely understand until that day when we see our God face to face.

You may have heard me tell one of my favorite stories about Saint Augustine with regard to the Trinity.  The story goes that he was walking along the beach one day, trying to figure out the nature of the Holy Trinity.  As he walked along, he came across a little boy who had dug a hole in the sand right next to the shore.  With his little hands he was carrying water from the ocean and was dumping it in the little hole. St. Augustine asked, “What are you doing, my child?”  The child replied, “I want to put all of the water of the ocean into this hole.”  So St. Augustine asked him, “But is it possible for all of the water of this great ocean to be contained in this little hole?”  And the child asked him in return, “If the water of the ocean cannot be contained in this little hole, then how can the Infinite Trinitarian God be contained in your mind?”  With that the child disappeared.

We know, of course, the essential teaching: that we acknowledge and worship just one God, who embodies three divine persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  What that means for us as believers, though, is something that truly takes a lifetime, and then some, to figure out.

Just like any of the mysteries of our faith, the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is not one that can be appreciated in a vacuum, outside of relationship with the God we worship and adore.  And that’s just as well, I think, because, as Saint Thomas Aquinas taught, the Trinity can perhaps best be described as a relationship.  The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father, and the Holy Spirit is the love between the Father and the Son.  And this makes sense to us on some levels, because we all have been taught, and we all accept, that God is love.  And not just the kind of paltry love that our pop culture and society calls love, but love in the deepest of all senses, the kind of love that is self-giving and that intimately shares in the life of the other.  God is love, but God is better than the best love our feeble human minds can picture.  The love that is God is a love so pure that it would wholly consume us if we gave ourselves to it completely.  Just as difficult as it is for our minds to describe the Holy Trinity, so that love that is God is impossible for our minds to grasp.

But it is a love that can be experienced and lived.  We have seen, in the recent observance of Lent and celebration of the fifty days of Easter, that our God won’t stop at anything to be love for us.  Our sins were obstacles, horribly offensive to God, cutting us out of that intimate relationship and destining us for eternal destruction.  But God wasn’t having any of that.  No, instead he gave his Son, his only begotten One, to be our Savior, to pay the price for our sins, to die our death and to rise to new life so that we could have that too.  That is the love of God so deeply expressed in our religious experience.  And it’s a love we’re called to share, as we lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters, renouncing selfishness and allowing ourselves to get caught up in the lives of others.  I’ve experienced that over the last two and a half years that I’ve been here at Notre Dame, and I rejoice everyday at being part of this community.  It’s a feeling that I have for my family, of course, and I pray that you all experience it in your relationships as well.  Love is who God is and love is what we are called to become.

God as a relationship is a convenient concept for us, because our needs change during our lives, depending where we are on the journey.  Sometimes we need a parent.  And so relating to God as Father reminds us of the nurturing of our faith, being protected from evil, being encouraged to grow, and being corrected when we stray.  If you’ve had difficulty with a parent in your life, particularly a father, then relating to God as Father can also be difficult.  But still, I think there is a part of all of us, no matter what our earthly parents have been like, that longs to have a loving parental relationship.  God as Father can be that kind of parent in our lives.

And sometimes we need the Son.  Relating to God the Son – Jesus our brother – reminds us that God knows our needs, he knows our temptations, he’s experienced our sorrows and celebrated our joys.  God in Christ has walked our walk and died our death and redeemed all of our failures out of love for us.  God the Son reminds us that God, having created us in his own image and likeness, loves what he created enough to become one of us.  Our bodies are not profane place-holders for our souls, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and that very body was good enough to become the dwelling place of God when he came to earth.  Maybe you’ve never had a brother or sister or never were close to yours, but in Christ you have the brother above all others who is present to you in all your joys and sorrows.

Sometimes, too, we need a Holy Spirit.  Because we often have to be reminded that there is something beyond ourselves.  That this is not as good as it gets.  As wonderful as our world and our bodies can be, we also know they are very flawed.  The Holy Spirit reminds us that there is a part of us that always longs for God, no matter how far we have strayed.  The Spirit reminds us that our sins are not who we are and that repentance and forgiveness are possible.  It is the Holy Spirit that enables us to do the really good things we wouldn’t be capable of all by ourselves, the really good things that are who we really are before God.

It might seem like this mystery of the Trinity is a purely academic discussion. Does the Trinity affect our daily lives or make a difference in our here and now?  Is all this discussion just talk, or does it really make any difference?  Obviously, I don’t think it’s just talk.  Instead, the Most Holy Trinity must be shared with people in every time and place.  God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit wants to relate to all of us, be present to all of us, and call all of us to discipleship through common baptism, and it’s up to us to point the way to that Trinity of love that longs to be in loving relationship with all people.

However we need to relate to God right now, the good news is that he is there for us, giving us that relationship.  God is Triune because he wants to encompass our lives from beginning to end, from conception to life eternal.  Getting caught up in the relationship that is God is the project of our lives, and enables us to cry out with the Psalmist today, “O Lord, our God, how wonderful your name in all the earth!”

The Most Holy Trinity

Today’s readings

Today’s celebration of the Most Holy Trinity reminds us of the fact that God loved the world he created so much that he was determined to remain in relationship with it.  “God so loved the world,” the Gospel tells us, “that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”  That very familiar quote from John 3:16 has often been described as the entire Gospel all in one verse, because it tells us the reason for Our Savior’s coming, and the purpose for our existence, which is eternal life.

God wishes to remain in relationship with us, his creatures, because God himself is a relationship.  We will never really understand the Trinity in this lifetime, we know that, but we also know that in the Blessed Trinity, our Church has described God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  We recall this deepest of our beliefs every time we make the sign of the Cross, every time we receive a blessing, indeed every time the priest greets us at Mass with those familiar words: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you.”  God is a relationship: the Father with the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Son with the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit with the Father and the Son.  Three persons, one God, all in relationship.

But make no mistake, I don’t come before you today to define the Holy Trinity for you as if I’ve figured it all out.  This most profound of our beliefs remains perhaps the deepest of all our mysteries.  A story about St. Augustine tells us as much: The story goes that he was walking along the beach, trying to figure out the nature of the Holy Trinity. As he walked along, he came across a little boy who had dug a hole in the sand right next to the shore. With his little hands he was carrying water from the ocean and was dumping it in the little hole. St. Augustine asked, “What are you doing, my child?” The child replied, “I want to put all of the water of the ocean into this hole.” So St. Augustine asked him, “But is it possible for all of the water of this great ocean to be contained in this little hole?” And the child asked him in return, “If the water of the ocean cannot be contained in this little hole, then how can the Infinite Trinitarian God be contained in your mind?”  With that the child disappeared.

But just because the Trinity is a mystery, that doesn’t mean that we can’t talk about it.  In many ways, the mystery of the Trinity is a great blessing.  If we could really figure God out and define God in a neat set of explanations, it would be way to easy for us to simply file God away and never give a second thought.  Because we have to struggle with the mystery of the Trinity, this means we must constantly call God to mind and try to wrap our minds around God in new ways.  I once asked some fourth grade students to write down questions that they had about God.  The questions they had were wonderful:  Why can’t we see God?  Why did God create the world?  If God created life, then how did God become God?  Why does God love us?  Was God there when Jesus was dying?  Why does God forgive us after we’ve done something wrong?  How do we know the Holy Spirit is with us?  But there was one question that seemed to get to the bottom of it all for me:  What is God like? And I realized that question was where the rubber meets the road in our faith, and that question was the whole reason for celebrating this feast of the Holy Trinity: we have to every day examine what God is like so that we can remain in relationship with our God who is a relationship and who longs to remain in relationship with us.

Again, I’m not going to stand here and tell you the definitive answer to that question.  And that’s because there really isn’t one definitive answer to what God is like.  We could pass out cards right now and everyone could write down one thing that God is like.  And every one of us would be right in some ways, and every one of us would be wrong in some ways.  We could say that God is love, and we’d be right, but we’re wrong if we think of love in the limited way that we humans can conceive of love.  We could say that God is good, and we’d be right about that, but we’d be wrong if we think of God’s goodness in the way that a candy bar is good or a new car is good or even a new baby is good.  Our limited vocabulary can’t even come close to describing God.  As the song goes, our God is an awesome God, more so than any lyrics or other words could ever describe.

So I want to go back to this idea of God as a relationship.  I do that because it’s one of a million ways I could talk about the Trinity today.  But I do it also because I think that God as a relationship is such a very appealing way to think about God.  We all know how much our good relationships mean to us, and so it is very desirable to think of our relationship with God, and of the relationship that is God.

Because sometimes we need a parent.  And so relating to God as Father reminds us of the nurturing of our faith, being protected from evil, being encouraged to grow, and being corrected when we stray.  If you’ve had difficulty with a parent in your life, then relating to God as Father can also be difficult.  But still, I think there is part of all of us, no matter what our earthly parents have been like, long to have a loving parental relationship.  God as Father can be that kind of parent in our lives.

And sometimes we need the Son.  Relating to God the Son – Jesus our brother – reminds us that God knows our needs, he knows our temptations, he’s experienced our sorrows and celebrated our joys.  God in Christ has walked our walk and died our death and redeemed all of our failures out of love for us.  God the Son reminds us that God, having created us in his own image and likeness, loves what he created enough to become one of us.  Our bodies are not profane place-holders for our soul, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and that very body was good enough to become the dwelling place of God when he came to earth.  Maybe you’ve never had a brother or sister or never were close to yours, but in Christ you have the brother above all others who is present to you in all your joys and sorrows.

Sometimes, too, we need a Holy Spirit.  Because we often have to be reminded that there is something beyond ourselves.  That this is not as good as it gets.  As wonderful as our world and our bodies can be, we know they are also very flawed.  The Holy Spirit reminds us that there is a part of us that always longs for God, no matter how far we have strayed.  The Spirit reminds us that our sins are not who we are and that repentance and forgiveness are possible.  It is the Holy Spirit that enables us to do the really good things we wouldn’t be capable of all by ourselves, the really good things that are who we really are before God.

Maybe God comes to us as Trinity because one face of God is not sufficient to be God for us creatures who are constantly changing, and constantly struggling.  One day we need the Father, tomorrow we may need the Son and down the road the Holy Spirit.  Whatever we need, the point is that God is there.  Always was, always will be.

So back to that fourth grader’s question:  What is God like? Well, that’s a reflection I think I’ll leave you all with today.  What is God like?  I hope you struggle with that question your whole life long.  I hope I do too.

 

The Most Holy Trinity

Today’s readings

Today’s feast has us gathered to celebrate one of the greatest mysteries of our faith, the Most Holy Trinity. Today we celebrate our one God in three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. You have probably heard me tell one of my favorite stories about Saint Augustine with regard to the Trinity. The story goes that he was walking along the beach one day, trying to figure out the nature of the Holy Trinity. As he walked along, he came across a little boy who had dug a hole in the sand right next to the shore. With his little hands he was carrying water from the ocean and was dumping it in the little hole. St. Augustine asked, “What are you doing, my child?” The child replied, “I want to put all of the water of the ocean into this hole.” So St. Augustine asked him, “But is it possible for all of the water of this great ocean to be contained in this little hole?” And the child asked him in return, “If the water of the ocean cannot be contained in this little hole, then how can the Infinite Trinitarian God be contained in your mind?” With that the child disappeared.

Indeed, the greatest minds of our faith have wrestled with this notion of the Holy Trinity. How can one God contain three Persons, how could they all be present in the world, working among us in different ways, and yet remain but one? Even the great Saint Patrick, who attempted to symbolize the Trinity with a shamrock, could only scratch the surface of this great mystery.

I think the Trinity isn’t the kind of mystery one solves. And that’s hard for me because I love a good mystery! When I have the chance to just read what I want to read, it’s almost always a mystery novel. I read Agatha Christie all the time growing up, and I’ll often go back to some of her stuff even now. My love for mysteries probably explains why I like to watch “Law & Order” and “CSI.” It’s great to try to figure out the mystery before the end of the book or the end of the show. But, if you like mysteries too, then you know that the mark of a good mystery is when it doesn’t get solved in the first six pages. It’s good to have to think and rethink your theory, right up until the last page.

The kind of mystery that is the Holy Trinity is a mystery that takes us beyond the last page. This is one we’ll take to heaven with us, intending to ask God to explain it when we get there, but when we get there, we’ll most likely be too much in awe to ask any questions. And so we are left with the question, who is this that is the Holy Trinity? How do we explain our one God in Three Persons? Who is this one who is beyond everything and everyone, higher than the heavens, and yet nearer than our very own hearts?

One of the best minds of our faith, Saint Thomas Aquinas, has described the Holy Trinity as a relationship. The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father, and the Holy Spirit is the love between the Father and the Son. And this makes sense to us on some levels, because we all have been taught, and we all accept, that God is love. And not just the kind of paltry love that our pop culture and society calls love, but love in the deepest of all senses, the kind of love that is self-giving and that intimately shares in the life of the other. God is love, but God is better than the best love our feeble human minds can picture. The love that is God is a love so pure that it would wholly consume us if we gave ourselves to it completely. Just as difficult as it is for our minds to describe the Holy Trinity, so that love that is God is impossible for our minds to grasp.

But this picture of God as a relationship is important to us, I think, because we need to relate to God in different ways at different times. Because sometimes we need a parent. And so relating to God as Father reminds us of the nurturing of our faith, being protected from evil, being encouraged to grow, and being corrected when we stray. If you’ve had difficulty with a parent in your life, particularly a father, then relating to God as Father can also be difficult. But still, I think there is a part of all of us, no matter what our earthly parents have been like, that longs to have a loving parental relationship. God as Father can be that kind of parent in our lives.

And sometimes we need the Son. Relating to God the Son – Jesus our brother – reminds us that God knows our needs, he knows our temptations, he’s experienced our sorrows and celebrated our joys. God in Christ has walked our walk and died our death and redeemed all of our failures out of love for us. God the Son reminds us that God, having created us in his own image and likeness, loves what he created enough to become one of us. Our bodies are not profane place-holders for our souls, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and that very body was good enough to become the dwelling place of God when he came to earth. Maybe you’ve never had a brother or sister or never were close to yours, but in Christ you have the brother above all others who is present to you in all your joys and sorrows.

Sometimes, too, we need a Holy Spirit. Because we often have to be reminded that there is something beyond ourselves. That this is not as good as it gets. As wonderful as our world and our bodies can be, we also know they are very flawed. The Holy Spirit reminds us that there is a part of us that always longs for God, no matter how far we have strayed. The Spirit reminds us that our sins are not who we are and that repentance and forgiveness are possible. It is the Holy Spirit that enables us to do the really good things we wouldn’t be capable of all by ourselves, the really good things that are who we really are before God.

It might seem like this mystery of the Trinity is a purely academic discussion. Does the Trinity affect our daily lives or make a difference in our here and now? Is all this discussion just talk, or does it really make any difference? Obviously, I don’t think it’s just talk. Instead, as our Gospel suggests today, the Most Holy Trinity must be shared with people in every time and place. God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit wants to relate to all of us, be present to all of us, and call all of us to discipleship through common baptism, and it’s up to us to point the way to that Trinity of love that longs to be in loving relationship with all people.

Sometimes the hymnody of our faith can express what prose alone can’t get at. The great old hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy” by Reginald Heber sums up our awe of the Trinity today. Join me in praising God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit by singing that last verse:

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
All thy works shall praise thy name, in earth and sky and sea.
Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty,
God in three persons, blessed Trinity.

The Most Holy Trinity

Today's readings

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What is God like?

rublev_trinity_iconToday’s celebration of the Most Holy Trinity reminds us of the fact that God loved the world he created so much that he was determined to remain in relationship with it.  “God so loved the world,” the Gospel tells us, “that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”  That very familiar quote from John 3:16 has often been described as the entire Gospel all in one verse, because it tells us the reason for Our Savior’s coming, and the purpose for our existence, which is eternal life.

God wishes to remain in relationship with us, his creatures, because God himself is a relationship.  We will never really understand the Trinity in this lifetime, we know that, but we also know that in the Blessed Trinity, our Church has described God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  We recall this deepest of our beliefs every time we make the sign of the Cross, every time we receive a blessing, indeed every time the priest greets us at Mass with those familiar words: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you.”  God is a relationship: the Father with the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Son with the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit with the Father and the Son.  Three persons, one God, all in relationship.

But make no mistake, I don’t come before you today to define the Holy Trinity for you as if I’ve figured it all out.  This deepest of our beliefs remains perhaps the deepest of all our mysteries.  A story about St. Augustine tells us as much: The story goes that he was walking along the beach, trying to figure out the nature of the Holy Trinity. As he walked along, he came across a little boy who had dug a hole in the sand right next to the shore. With his little hands he was carrying water from the ocean and was dumping it in the little hole. St. Augustine asked, "What are you doing, my child?" The child replied, "I want to put all of the water of the ocean into this hole." So St. Augustine asked him, "But is it possible for all of the water of this great ocean to be contained in this little hole?" And the child asked him in return, "If the water of the ocean cannot be contained in this little hole, then how can the Infinite Trinitarian God be contained in your mind?"  With that the child disappeared.

But just because the Trinity is a mystery, that doesn’t mean that we can’t talk about it.  In many ways, the mystery of the Trinity is a great blessing.  If we could really figure God out and define God in a neat set of explanations, it would be way to easy for us to simply file God away and never give a second thought.  Because we have to struggle with the mystery of the Trinity, this means we must constantly call God to mind and try to wrap our minds around God in new ways.  I had the great pleasure of preaching about the Trinity to our school children on Friday.  The fourth grade was preparing the Mass, and I asked them to write down questions that they had about God.  I was so deeply touched by the questions they wrote to me, and it was one of the greatest thrills of my priesthood to be able to speak to them about those questions.

The questions they had were wonderful:  Why can’t we see God?  Why did God create the world?  If God created life, then how did God become God?  Why does God love us?  Was God there when Jesus was dying?  Why does God forgive us after we’ve done something wrong?  How do we know the Holy Spirit is with us?  But there was one question that seemed to get to the bottom of it all for me:  What is God like?  And I realized that Adam’s question was where the rubber meets the road in our faith, and that question was the whole reason for celebrating this feast of the Holy Trinity: we have to every day examine what God is like so that we can remain in relationship with our God who is a relationship and who longs to remain in relationship with us.

Again, I’m not going to stand here and tell you the definitive answer to Adam’s question.  And that’s because there really isn’t one definitive answer to what God is like.  We could pass out cards right now and everyone could write down one thing that God is like.  And every one of us would be right in some ways, and every one of us would be wrong in some ways.  We could say that God is love, and we’d be right, but we’re wrong if we think of love in the limited way that we humans can conceive of love.  We could say that God is good, and we’d be right about that, but we’d be wrong if we think of God’s goodness in the way that a candy bar is good or a new car is good or even a new baby is good.  Our limited vocabulary can’t even come close to describing God.  As the song goes, our God is an awesome God, more so than any lyrics or other words could ever describe.

So I want to go back to this idea of God as a relationship.  I do that because it’s one of a million ways I could talk about the Trinity today.  But I do it also because I think that God as a relationship is such a very appealing way to think about God.  We all know how much our good relationships mean to us, and so it is very desirable to think of our relationship with God, and of the relationship that is God. 

Because sometimes we need a parent.  And so relating to God as Father reminds us of the nurturing of our faith, being protected from evil, being encouraged to grow, and being corrected when we stray.  If you’ve had difficulty with a parent in your life, particularly a father, then relating to God as Father can also be difficult.  But still, I think there is part of all of us, no matter what our earthly parents have been like, long to have a loving parental relationship.  God as Father can be that kind of parent in our lives.

And sometimes we need the Son.  Relating to God the Son – Jesus our brother – reminds us that God knows our needs, he knows our temptations, he’s experienced our sorrows and celebrated our joys.  God in Christ has walked our walk and died our death and redeemed all of our failures out of love for us.  God the Son reminds us that God, having created us in his own image and likeness, loves what he created enough to become one of us.  Our bodies are not profane place-holders for our soul, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and that very body was good enough to become the dwelling place of God when he came to earth.  Maybe you’ve never had a brother or sister or never were close to yours, but in Christ you have the brother above all others who is present to you in all your joys and sorrows.

Sometimes, too, we need a Holy Spirit.  Because we often have to be reminded that there is something beyond ourselves.  That this is not as good as it gets.  As wonderful as our world and our bodies can be, we know they are also very flawed.  The Holy Spirit reminds us that there is a part of us that always longs for God, no matter how far we have strayed.  The Spirit reminds us that our sins are not who we are and that repentance and forgiveness are possible.  It is the Holy Spirit that ena
bles us to do the really good things we wouldn’t be capable of all by ourselves, the really good things that are who we really are before God.

Maybe God comes to us as Trinity because one face of God is not sufficient to be God for us creatures who are constantly changing, and constantly struggling.  One day we need the Father, tomorrow we may need the Son and down the road the Holy Spirit.  Whatever we need, the point is that God is there.  Always was, always will be.

So back to Adam’s question:  What is God like?  Well, that’s a reflection I think I’ll leave you all with today.  What is God like?  I hope you struggle with that question your whole life long.  I hope I do too.