Love and Eternity: What Trinity Doctrine Actually Means
The first Sunday after Pentecost is Trinity Sunday, the day when well-catechized Catholics fear what they might hear from the pulpit.
For example, you might hear that the Trinity is like three lit candles twisted into a flame, or like a three-strand rope. But then they would all have the same role. Fail. Maybe they are like the sun, have warmth, light and movement? An egg that has shell, white and egg yolk? Tritheism. Fail. The elements can be separated. The same applies to a tree with branches, leaves and roots.
How about water, which can be ice, liquid or steam? Modalism. Fail. How about the three room dimensions (length, width, height)? They collapse but are different. Not that bad. There is also no triangle that has different sides but cannot be divided. And so on.
After all, the Trinity is the most difficult and mysterious of all our dogmas, and yet it is "the central secret of our faith" (CCC 234). You may remember the story of how St. Augustine of Hippo tried to explain this secret. His work on the Trinity was the first major work of systematic theology in Latin. A medieval legend, often depicted, tells how one day Augustine saw a child on the coast who tried unsuccessfully to empty the sea into a hole in the sand with a shell. The bishop noted that this was an impossible task. The child, really an angel, said Augustin's project of understanding the Trinity with human reason was even more impossible.
A solid introductory description of the Blessed Trinity can be found in the first paragraph of the so-called Athanasian Creed, attributed to the great Greek church doctor of the 4th century, but probably from the Latin Gaul of the 5th century. First, it says that those who wanted to be saved must have the Catholic faith. It continues with a description of how the divine qualities are attributed to each of the three people: each is un-created, limitless, eternal and almighty. Their divine nature is the same, but they are three different divine people, not three different gods. "So whoever is saved, think of the Trinity," it says in this creed.
There was no special day for the Blessed Trinity in the early church, but to combat Arian heresy, Catholics developed creeds and an office for Sundays with chants, answers, a foreword, and hymns. In the ancient Gregorian sacramentary we find prayers and the foreword to the Trinity. Pope John XXII (D. 1334) ordered a universal festival in honor of the Trinity on the first Sunday after Pentecost. This day was raised by Pope St. Pius X (died 1914) to the dignity of a first class festival. A feast was held for the Novus Ordo.
Aside from its historical pedigree, there is logic for the time of the Holy Trinity Festival. Before that, we focus on the Ascension of the Son to the Father, then the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and then the Triune God the following Sunday. God the Father created us through the Son who redeemed us and revealed us more fully (GS 22). God the Holy Spirit sanctifies us in the Holy Church of Christ so that we can enjoy the Trinity Fellowship in the coming life.
A spiritual writer, Pius Parsch, compares the end of the Pentecost octave, which remains in the traditional calendar, with the Ite Missa est at the end of the Holy Mass. However, sometimes we take a break on special occasions before leaving the church to sing the Te Deum. The Holy Trinity Sunday crowns the cycles of Advent through Epiphany and Lent until Pentecost, just as the Te Deum crowns and sums up our joy, gratitude and aspirations.
Here is the collection from Trinity Sunday:
Deus Pater, qui, Verbum veritatis and Spiritum sanctificationis mittens in Mundum, admirable mystery tuum hominibus declasti, da nobis, in confessione verae fidei, aeternae gloriam Trinitatis agnoscere and Unitatem adorare in potentia maiestatis.
This is glued together from new material and is part of the 1962 Collect. The term "admirable mystery" is used to describe the trinity in the minutes of the June 411, 411 summit in Carthage between Catholic and Donatist bishops. St. Augustine was a key player in this meeting.
Super literal version:
O God the Father, who, by sending the word of truth and the spirit of sanctification into the world and explaining your astonishing mystery to people, give us in the confession of true faith to recognize the glory of the eternal Trinity and to worship unity in that Power of majesty.
God, our Father, granting us by sending the Word of Truth and the Spirit of Sanctification into the world, who have revealed their miraculous mystery to mankind, we pray that by confessing the true faith we will be the Trinity of Eternal Glory acknowledge and revere your unity, mighty in majesty.
Someone may have been on autopilot and added that "we are praying". Our Latin prayers often have a sentence like "Tribue, Quaesumus". This prayer doesn't.
In this prayer I hear echoes of manifestations (epiphany) of the Trinity in Scripture: at the baptism of Jesus by John in Jordan, when the Holy Spirit was seen as a deaf and the voice of the Father was heard (see Luke 3) and when Jesus was heard was transfigured before the eyes of Peter, John and James (cf. Matthew 17). God "made known, manifested, shown, proclaimed publicly" (Declarasti, an abbreviation of Declaravisti, from Declararo), the miraculous secret (Admirable Mystery) that he is three in one, a trinity of divine persons, God the Father, God that Word of truth, god the spirit of sanctification, a god.
For true Christian belief (vera fides) it is necessary that we recognize (agnoscere – "proclaim, allow or admit that something is our own, acknowledge, possess") that God is triune, a God who is divine in nature in one has perfect unity of three different divine persons. Man can only infer this truth, as ancient Greek neoplatonic philosophers did. You almost got there. Only through the gift of faith can we confess this secret in an authentically Christian way (Confiteor). What reason and reason strive for must complete revelation and the grace of faith.
In our collection we adore the Gloria Trinitatis, the Maiestas Unitatis. They have "power" (Potentia). "Glory" and "Majesty" in our liturgical prayers are booming with the last things.
Maiestas is conceptually related to Gloria, Greek Doxa, and Hebrew Kabod in the writings of the Latin Fathers. Maiestas and Gloria are more than simple splendor. They express our recognition of God as God. They also indicate the powerful divine quality that God shares with us and through which we are transformed. The transforming glory that we will receive in heaven was hinted at in Moses' meeting with God, who descended on the tent like a cloud. After these meetings, Moses' face shone so brightly that he had to wear a veil.
Marvel, friends, at the gift that awaits us, provided we die in God's friendship. We no longer have to grope for God through a dark glass. We will meet MYSTERY face to face.
If you try to explain this secret to someone along with the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Athanasian Creed, you might consider it.
In the mystery of God's one- and three-fold nature, we believe that the One God, from eternity before material creation and time itself, wanted a perfect community of love and therefore expressed himself in a perfect word. This has always been so in an absolutely all-encompassing moment of being, in which there can be no distinction between past, present or future, no sequence of events in the way we observe things that are bound up in matter and time, like we are. The word that God uttered beyond and outside of time was and is a perfect self-expression that contains everything that is God and that has all the characteristics of the speaker: being, omniscience, omnipotence, truth, beauty and personality.
So from eternity there has always been the divine persons in perfect unity – the God who spoke the word and the word that was spoken, the God who creates and the God who creates, the true God with and from him true God, God-worshiper and God-created, different father and different son with the same indivisible divine nature. There was never a time when this was not the case. These two people consider and consider each other forever. They have known and loved each other from eternity and embraced each other in a perfect gift of self-giving. And since a self-gift of these perfect divine people, which differs, while being only of a divine nature, is a perfect mutual self-gift, perfectly given and completely received, the gift between them also contains everything that each person has: being, omniscience , Omnipotence, truth, beauty and personality. So from eternity there have been three divine persons with an indivisible divine nature, God the Father, God the Son and the perfect mutual self-giving of love between them, God the Holy Spirit.
This is the basic salvation teaching that we as Christians believe in and that we celebrate on Trinity Sunday. This is the One and Three God, in whose image and likeness we are made. At the core of everything else we believe in and hope for, we find this mysterious teaching of the divine relationship, the triune God.
The community of the people in the Trinity is written in our beings as images of God. Our dealings with others should reflect the community for which we were created in God's loving plan. We must also do our best to honor the Trinity here in everything we do, think and say, so that we can earn part of its divine, transforming glory for eternity. Uncover God's future glory reflected here and now in everything you say and do.