Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Time Less Ordinary: Exploring the Holy Trinity in Trinitytide

This week we enter the longest season of the Church year, known most commonly as Ordinary Time, but I prefer the traditional name of Trinity-tide, because it identifies the central theological truth on which we should be focusing: that God is three Persons, and yet One.  Now that Jesus has been born, lived, died on the cross, resurrected, and ascended--and the Holy Spirit has descended--we can leisurely enjoy the experience of God as One. And yet the Trinity remains a perplexing concept to many people, including me.  It is especially perplexing, because the images of the Trinity we usually encounter are of an old man (God the Father), a youngish man (Jesus), and a bird (the Holy Spirit).  It is not an intuitive image if one is not pretty biblically literate.  But the image at left is far more instructive in communicating the essential point of it all:  these three persons are equal and part of a group or community.  After all, to be seated at table with others for a meal is a clear statement in most, if not all, cultures that these people are in some kind of caring relationship with each other.

I think the problem is that we get bogged down in trying to intellectualize a phenomenon that is fundamentally relational.  Seminary may have trained me to be a theologian, but as much as I love wading through abstruse theological propositions, these explanations are somehow inadequate and unsatisfying.  The accompanying video of a prayer and a litany to the Holy Trinity is not meant to solve these theological quandaries, but simply to commend personal engagement with God in God's fullness, as equally Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  The video is also meant to encourage us to think more expansively beyond the notions of God with which we are comfortable and to honor folks who are imagining a Jesus who not only looks European, but also African or Native American or Asian; and a Holy Ghost that is not only a dove, but breathing, wind, and spirit.  This is not New Age or postmodern pandering, but an acknowledgement that the Church's tradition and scripture have always included imagery that is diverse and evolving.  So, let's go deeper into our tradition.

What I did not have the space to say in the video is that both the prayer and the litany reveal a human striving for a healthier relationship with God and others.  We ask the Trinity to help us to overcome all of our vices and foibles, so that we may resemble in our own relationships the intimacy between the three persons of the Trinity.  As God is One, so we must strive to be one also.  The Trinity is above all a model of relationship, even when we cannot work out the finer detail of how it works.  The Church teaches us that each person of the Trinity is made of the same substance, and is equal in relationship to the others.  How can we not perceive that God is urging humanity to adopt this same model?  In a world rent by violence, war, murder, abuse, exploitation, and other sins, the importance of a personal and communal engagement with the Trinity is all the more urgent.  Tomorrow, we celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi, which in my mind, emphasizes that the kind of relationships the Trinity commends are embodied ones.  When we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, may we think of not only our relationship to Jesus in all his fullness, but of our relationship to everybody else in their fullness.


  1. I read recently that a better translation of the Greek for 3 *persons* in one God would be 3 *presentations* in one God. I personally fine this easier to wrap my head around and suspect that it would easier for children to understand also. You can 'present' yourself in various ways, but it's still the same person.

  2. It is true that "persons" is a problematic translation of the the Greek, prosopon, but we have to be careful not to fall into modalism or to lose the relationality inherent in God. To simply view the three persons (hypostases) of the Trinity as "presentations" makes it sound simply like differences in our human perception of God, rather than a diversity within God's essence. As I said, I am very open the different experiences people have of God, and we must be humble in the words we use to describe God, but we must also, I think, avoid shaping God in our human image, rather than acknowledging that the reality of God transcends our human categories. The theologian, Karl Rahner, provides a nice summary of translations of the these words in his work, the Trinity. Many of these definitions are equally confusing or abstract, so may not be helpful. Boethius' definition is "an individual substance of a rational nature, while Aquinas says that a person of the Trinity is a "subsisting relation." Rahner is closer to Aquinas and says that it is a "distinct manner of subsistence." This may all be navel-gazing theological double-speak to some, but it's also important to just be aware of the implications of one's talk about God. Karl Barth discusses this as "mode of being," but even here we can see that his use of the word "being," still avoids the trap of God's reality being dependent on human perception or consciousness, which the word "presentation" suggests to me.

    1. Very impressive reply to a statement that is simply to simplistic. There is the phenomenon of "indwelling" in which more than one "individuality "indwells" in an entity - physically. More commonly, the adversarial relationship of "possession" is identified with that phenomenon. But it has been written of the indwelling of two or more beings that are in harmony or even perhaps enough harmony to work together for a common striving. My views + thinking continues to evolve, striving to remain open enough to allow for that. So having said that, at the moment I sense The Father God as perhaps the archetype of this relationship where it can point the way of what is possible when individualities find others with which they resonate so deeply that they become more together. This may well + perhaps almost always has a duration that ends in separation in absolute harmony, possibly even to join again in the future for another striving.