Good morning, all, and happy Sunday! Wishing my Christian friends a holy and blessed Trinity Sunday: the only Feast in the Christian Year which is devoted to a doctrine, thus pointing to the importance of this doctrine – the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, one God in three Persons – to the Faith itself.
Why is it so important? Because it protects two of the key insights of the Christian faith: that God is One – Christianity is not tritheism; the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not three gods – and yet, at the same time, God is relational – not just with regard to His Creation, but in His very nature. And of course, it explains how, without tritheism, Christ can be God, as the Prologue to the Gospel of St. John (“… and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…”) and many of Jesus’ own sayings, recorded in the Gospels, assert.
Indeed, the great battle in the Christian Church has always been the precise identity and nature of Christ Himself. Is He merely a gifted and inspired human teacher and prophet, or is He in fact God? And if so, how is it that He is Divine? Was He created by God, adopted by God, or is He actually Divine in and of Himself? This was a major struggle in the 4th century – between the Arians (disciples of a presbyter named Arius) and the orthodox, catholic Christians, led by St. Athanasius – and it remains a struggle to this day.
Many today, Christians as well as non-Christians, believe Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ – the Messiah, the Anointed One of God – to be the Son of God, if at all, through adoption: that he was a great human religious and moral teacher, perhaps indeed “anointed by God,” but nonetheless human. The problem with this is that, if true – if Christ was only a human teacher, however great – then Christianity is but one human philosophy, one school of thought, among many in the “supermarket of religions.”
Orthodox, catholic Christianity – what some call “the Great Tradition” of Christianity – teaches something more radical, and ultimately far more rewarding: that Jesus the Christ was the Incarnate Word of God: that “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,” as the Prologue to St. John puts it. That the very Word of God Himself became Man for our sake, walked among us, taught us by word and example, died for us and rose again.
It is this which, to me, gives Christianity its power: not necessarily or primarily its moral teachings – many of which, as others have pointed out, may be found in other religions and philosophies. This is not surprising, if one believes that the human religious impulse comes from God and tends toward God, and that there is such a thing as natural, or general, revelation. But, orthodox Christians believe, Christ is the reality which pre-Christian myths foreshadowed, and toward which pre-Christian philosophies reached. To borrow the Platonic analogy of “the Cave,” they were the shadows on the wall; He is the thing itself.
But as I say, this is a debate which has raged since the earliest centuries of the Christian Church. Is Christ simply a man, however gifted? Or is He God? The solution reached at the Council of Nicaea, 325 AD, under (as Christians believe) the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was to affirm that Christ was indeed homoousios (of one single identical substance, essence, or nature) with God the Father, not (as the Arians would have had it) homoiousios, or “of like substance.” That is to say, Nicaea affirmed the full personal divinity of Christ: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God.” The first Council of Constantinople (381 AD) further affirmed that the Holy Spirit was the full Third Person of the Trinity; thus, what we nowadays call the “Nicene Creed” should properly be called the “Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.”
The Definition of Chalcedon (451 AD) more fully defined the relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ Himself, and the Athanasian Creed (so-called, it was not actually by St. Athanasius; dated c. late 5th/early 6th century AD) provided further explication on both the Doctrines of the Holy Trinity (one Nature in Three Persons) and the Incarnation (two Natures in one Person), while adding some imprecations against those who do not hold the fullness of these doctrines.
Trinity Sunday, the observance of which developed over time, celebrates the Holy Trinity, one of these two most distinctive and important doctrines of the Christian Church. It is important to note that the Holy Trinity, like the Incarnation, is a Holy Mystery: we can say what we can say about it, but ultimately, the details of this sacred reality are known but to God (“now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face,” as St. Paul said).
As one commentator has put it,
“By mystery the Church does not mean a riddle, but rather that the Trinity is a reality above our human comprehension which we may begin to grasp, but ultimately must know through worship, symbol [see the image in stained glass, above], and faith. It has been said that Mystery is not a wall to run up against, but an ocean in which to swim.”
Rather a fine metaphor, in my opinion! And it reminds me of the analogy of the Eastern Orthodox mystic St. Symeon the New Theologian, who compared our knowledge of God to a man standing beside a vast ocean at night, holding up a lantern… Here, at any rate, is the traditional (English language) text of the Nicene Creed, as used in the Western Church:
And here is another graphic image in stained glass, reminding us (in Latin) that the Father is neither the Son nor the Holy Spirit; the Son is neither the Father nor the Holy Spirit; and the Holy Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son: but all are God.
Wishing everyone, once again, a holy and blessed Trinity Sunday!