The liturgical calendar calls this Sunday "Trinity Sunday" -- a day set aside to "celebrate" the unique triune character of our God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is that very weighty subject that everyone wants to understand, but no one can explain.
Should we really say, "Celebrate" or should we say, “stumble over?” The complex theological doctrine of the Trinity has always managed to leave scholars somewhat frustrated and the faithful somewhat confused. Trying adequately to express the mystery of a God who is Three-in-One and One-in-Three tends to leave us tongue-tied. It is the first Sunday after Pentecost, and the feast day devoted to a central doctrine of the Christian faith. I want to remind all of you, Christians and others among you, that “doctrine” is an essential expression of a believer’s faith. It is very easy to think of the Christian faith as a lovely story about Jesus, or as a historical phenomenon involving God, or a series of ethical or social precepts, or even as an aesthetic and cultural experience. All of this is part true and part of the whole truth, but none of it can or must be used to avoid the fact that there is content, form, and substance to the Christian faith, a content that does not descend upon our assent for its validity, and without which our “assent”, whatever that may be, means very little. I think one of the important reasons for talking about the Trinity today is to help you think about the Christian faith as having a content that forces you not simply to act, which is easy, nor to feel, which is even easier, but to think. To open your minds and use your imaginations and wrestle with the implications of what you find as you think about the nature of God, as you imagine for yourselves the largest possible canvas; or the big picture. Symbols for the Trinity include a circle inscribed within an equilateral triangle. Actually, during the first eight centuries of Christian art, the image of the triangle for the Trinity was not widespread -- although on one of the gravestones in the catacombs there is a triangle in which the monogram of the name of Christ was placed.
The three persons were often represented in art, but they were shown separately. The first time they seem to have been placed together was in the fourth century, and that representation consisted of "the Hand, the Lamb and the Dove".
Some of the best attempts, however, have come exactly when we seem to be grasping at straws. Many of us have grown up gratefully with St. Patrick's cloverleaf image of the Trinity -- three leaves making up one clover leaf. Most find that to be the easiest to understand and accept, but it too falls far short. Here is another attempt at understanding the Trinity.
Remember as child playing with mercury when you were in grade school? Mercury is an unusual metal because it remains in liquid form at room temperature. This makes it both highly useful and potentially quite dangerous.
In elementary school there was a period of time when some of us started bringing small pill bottles to school with a few drops of liquid mercury swimming around in the bottom. During the duller parts of class, we would empty the contents of our bottles into the little craters on the desks that were designed to hold pencils. While the teacher droned on, we amused ourselves by taking the points of our pencils and dividing the large, single mercury bead into dozens of tiny little balls that shimmered and skittered on the desktop. Most amazing of all was that simply by rolling the small drops back to touch each other, they were all reabsorbed back to re-create the one large, silver ball.
The liquid mercury existed both as those separate beads and as that unified mass. When considered as one, it was seamless and whole, perfectly round and stable. But it also existed as those separate identities, themselves completely independent and with their own character.
Might this give us some hint into the workings of the triune God? God is whole, fully formed and diamond-perfect; not some piecemeal work that is stuck together with divine duct tape. And to think that duct-tape is every American’s answer to everything that is “broken”. Sorry, won’t work here. But as a Trinitarian reality -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit -- the divine is also known in seamless separateness. Not lopped-off parts that look incomplete, but individual beads of divinity that shimmer with their own purpose and power. Yet the whole is recalled at a touch, the three wholly part of the one. For many of us, however, words will always fail to capture the truth of the Trinity. But, do we miss the big picture, as it were?
Jesus counseled Nicodemus that if he really wanted to experience the kingdom of God, he himself would have to undergo a change of community and identity. He would need to be born again -- both "from above" and "anew." As a resident of this kingdom of God -- as a re-created individual, Nicodemus was told he would be introduced to the wind of the Spirit and the sacrifice of the Son. Faced with all these fresh categories of divine activity, little wonder poor Nicodemus could only stammer, "How can these things be?" Of course, in the modern age, we have the Sacrament of Baptism to be “born again” as it were, but that is for a different sermon. "How can this be?" is the great question throughout history when one is faced with the mystery of the Trinity -- Three-in-One and One-in-Three.
If one were to read chapter 4 from the Book of the Revelation according to St. John, one can add a bit of imagination to the understanding. It does not state a dad-blasted thing about the Trinity. In fact it may simply add to the confusion. (Read Revelation 4) We are taken by St. John the Divine on a guided tour of the spiritual imagination. We are given insight into a visionary’s vision. The glimpse through the open door into the wonders of heaven allows us with St. John to leave the level of debate and argument and enter the realm of the imagination, where wondrous and strange things point to the wonder of all things. In this part of the Book of Revelation, the text is an invitation to expand consciousness of our minds, to push beyond our petty realities, and to see this things that were, that are, and that are to be. John invites us to a new form of seeing, and like the novice guided to see a painting once thought familiar, by a discerning guiding critic, one begins to see new and different and wonderful things. It is very much like a little girl in Sunday school. She was busy drawing with all of her crayons and all of her might when her teacher asked her what she was drawing. “I am drawing a picture of God,” she said. Her teacher replied, “But, my dear, nobody knows what God looks like.” To which the little girl replied without stopping her strokes. “They will when I am finished.” I believe that just settles it! Such is the purpose and confidence of St. John, to draw us a picture of God that we will recognize when he is finished. Don't waste your efforts trying to make sense of all that wonderful symbolism, trying to figure out what the twenty-four thrones mean, the seven flaming torches, the sea of Crystal, and all that. Look at the passage and see the great white throne in the middle, and the peals of thunder, and the lightning. If it sounds awfully familiar to you, it's probably because your vision now comes up with the vision of the Wizard of Oz. I hate to disappoint all of you, but God is even bigger than that and he does not live in the Emerald City either! In reading the Book of Revelation, especially chapters such as this, one must not be distracted by the details, so much as looking at the big picture. Keep inside the object of all this frantic activity and exquisite detail. What is the center of it all? The One who sits on the throne, who lives forever and ever. All this energy and imagination is directed to the worship of One who was, and is, and is to be; who rules, that is, who sits upon the throne and who lives forever. It is to the One who sits upon the throne that these glorious creatures full of wings and eyes sing without pausing for breath. The picture of God is of One who is the Creator, and by whose will all things that are, are. We have caught a glimpse through the open door into heaven, and we have seen a God who is worthy to be worshiped because he is the good creature of us all, who himself will last forever, for he is forever. That is the big picture; the biggest picture possible. When we think about God, some may be impressed by the majesty and glory, some by the raw and awesome power, or the thunder and the lightning; for others it may be the goodness and benevolence that impresses. But God is all of this and more! Such a big picture of God nearly defies imagination, but it is only imagination that will allow us to grow and be able to see something of that picture. We must remember that the object of Christian theology is not to reduce incomprehensibilities to our small size but rather to make us grow up in some small degree to the capacity of the subject. St. John gives us his wonderful vision, seen as through a crack into heaven, and the Church has described that same vision in its efforts to describe God in the doctrine of the Trinity - that which was, that which is, and that which is to be. Creation is time past. Redemption is time present. The ultimate justice of God is time future. The Trinity is the attempt of the Church to paint that big picture of God and to understand it in ways that extend and expand the ordinary consciousness. The Church baptizes her faithful in the name of the Trinity; she blesses the living and the dead in the undivided name of the Trinity; and the signing of the cross is Trinitarian in form and in expression. Why does the Church cling to the Trinity in the face of the claims of the modern need for tidy and useful thoughts? Why does the Church cling to the Trinity when it is so hard to understand? The Church is bound to the Trinity because it works to explain the unexplainable and it helps to draw for us the big picture, it satisfies our need to engage and stretch and stimulate our imagination, it enlivens our worship, it stimulates our debate, and he gives us cause to wait out the impatient adversities of this fallen and falling world. The Trinity is the expression of our ultimate optimism in the face of our provisional pessimism. The Trinity allows us to imagine, experience, anticipate, and celebrate the wholeness and unity of God, and the only appropriate response to all of that is to worship him with those who fall down before him saying, “Thou art worthy, O Lord our God, to receive glory and honor and power, because thou didst create all things; by thy will they were created and have there being.” Such is to experience the fullness, the wholeness, the unity of God; the one who was, and is, and is to be; the big picture. No definition can help us understand the Trinity. Only our imagination looking at the big picture will help us to simply accept in faith a God who is bigger than our imaginations can hold! God Love You + + The Most Rev. Robert Winzens Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church San Diego, Ca.