Each semester I teach a short introduction into the doctrine of the Trinity in my Theological Foundations course. I am never satisfied with the way it goes. First of all, it is, as I said, much too short. How can I cover the depth and breadth of this foundational, integral doctrine in just a few class sessions? I also dread falling into banalities about mystery when I teach the Trinity. I want to challenge students’ preconceived and often dismissive attitude towards what up until this point has seemed to be some complicated, unsolvable divine math problem. At the same time, I want to push their imaginations beyond that of the simple and dangerously literal images that have informed many of them throughout their childhood religious education. (If only three leaf clovers were not in such abundance!) I want them, in the words of Elizabeth Johnson, to begin to see that the mystery of the Trinity is “a most practical doctrine,” one that should have great and lasting effects on the way Christians integrate their faith into their everyday lives . In short, I want them to come and see that Trinity is more than esoteric doctrine and it is not—at least for my Christians students—beyond their concern. I want them to see that the mystery of the Trinity is the basis for Christian living.
Today’s gospel, and, in fact, this entire celebration, shows us that the Trinity is not mystery in the sense that we can say nothing about it. Not at all. Jesus tells his disciples to go out to the whole world and preach the good news and baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In order to preach, we must have something to say and language with which to it. Pentecost shows us that the Holy Spirit, the spirit of truth, reveals herself in and through human language—fragile as it is. The name of Trinity proclaims that God is God of and in perfect, loving relationship. God’s love, that is, God’s self, spills into every nook and cranny of the universe and is brought to consciousness in human beings. In short, God is love. This divine love has been most fully revealed in the ministry, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Paschal mystery and the mystery of the Trinity are two sides of the same coin. Our faith in one leads to the other. Our faith in one is faith in the other. Baptism into these central mysteries should have profound, lasting effects on how we live our lives.
But as the liturgical line “the mystery of faith” tells us, Trinity remains shrouded in mystery, for no words, no explanation can do justice to the depth and breadth of our loving God. Thus, our Trinitarian utterances must be spoken with deep reverence and humility. We must remember that the mystery of the Trinity is not only to be proclaim and preached. Again, it must be lived. If the mystery of God’s love does not inform and form the mystery of how we love, the sign of the Cross is reduced to an empty gesture.
So how can this doctrine, this mystery, make any sort of difference in the ordinary lives of ordinary Christians? We must remember that because human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, what we say about the Holy Other also reveals something about what it means to be fully human. If God is love, as our Trinitarian language proclaims, our human relationships must also reflect this divine love. We come to know the depth of God in and through loving others. In Johnson’s words, “Knowing God is impossible unless we enter into a life of love and communion with others” . Thus Johnson declares the Trinity a “most practical doctrine.” We witness to our faith in the Trinity in and through the way we practice love in our daily lives.
It is fitting that the Church celebrates the Holy Trinity on what would be the eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time. During this time in the liturgical year we are no longer in the fasting of Advent or Lent nor the feasting of Christmas or Easter. Renewed by our fasting and feasting, we return to numbering our days and weeks, ordering our lives to the gospel. This Solemnity followed by next week’s celebration of Corpus Christi, helps usher us back into Ordinary time, reminding us that the mystery of God’s grace and goodness continue to flow into the world—even in the most seemingly-ordinary stuff of life.
On both the mid-term and final exams, I always ask my students to reflect on a covered topic that they enjoyed studying. In spite of my own dissatisfaction with how the Trinity classes go, many students choose to reflect on the Trinity—even a few months later on the final exam. Some are intrigued by the complexity of its historical development. Others appreciate the chance to reflect on the mystery of Trinity. And a handful note how important and even practical the Trinity is for living a Christian life. I think Jesus himself would agree that a handful is always a sign of hope.
1. When I teach the Trinity, I assign the tenth and final chapter of Johnson’s Quest for the Living God titled “Trinity: The Living God of Love.” See Elizabeth A. Johnson, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, (New York: Continuum, 2007), 202-225.
2. Elizabeth A. Johnson, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, (New York: Continuum, 2007), 223.