Exodus 34:4b–6; 2 Cor. 13:11–13; John 3:16–18
God in the Most Holy Trinity is pure mystery. How three are also one, how Father begets Son and through Son, how the Holy Spirit proceeds—this is a mystery. We have these technical terms in our dogmatic theology to describe the relations of Father, Son, and Spirit, but it all points to the mystery that is God. Today we celebrate this mystery that is at the core of our faith.
There’s a pious legend about St. Augustine and the Trinity. It has no basis in anything Augustine wrote and appears to originate during the 15th century. St. Augustine is walking along a beach on the Mediterranean Sea, and he’s trying to wrap his head around the the Holy Trinity—the headiest of all Christian mysteries, no pun intended. He comes upon a little boy, who is scooping up water from the sea with a shell, and then carrying it over to a hole he has dug in the sand and dumping it in. Augustine asks him, “what are you doing?
The boy answers, “I’m going to pour the whole sea into this hole.”
Augustine shakes his head and says, “Son, that is impossible. It’s futile to even try.”
And the boy responds, “It’s no more futile than you trying to get the mystery of the Trinity into your head.” And with that, the boy, who is actually an angel, disappears.
The whole point of a mystery is to be mysterious. If we could comprehend it, it wouldn’t be a mystery, and it would be too small to be God. That, too, is a realization that Augustine came to in his theological reflections: if you understand it, it’s not God.
This notion is illustrated in the Hebrew scripture as well. In the first reading from Exodus, the Lord descends to Moses on Mt. Sinai and proclaims His name: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious…”
Now, this passage raises no questions for us in the English translation. That’s the way it is with scripture. The English translation seems so simple, but when you know the source language , the mystery deepens. That’s the case here, because where we say “the Lord, the Lord,” the Jewish reader reads “Adonai, Adonai,” which means the same thing. But that’s not what actually appears in Hebrew text. The Hebrew text uses the root for God’s actual name. We sometimes see it rendered as Yahweh or Jehovah, but no one really knows how it’s pronounced. So the Jewish people have accepted this mystery and instead always substituted either the word Adonai or the word HaShem—the name—wherever they see this four-letter root.
That’s the essence of mystery. Over-think it or over-define it, and you empty it of its power. This is a charge that many Eastern Rite Catholics and Eastern Orthodox often make of Latin Rite Catholics and our scholastic tradition. The Most Holy Trinity is one of the greatest of these mysteries, along with the Holy Eucharist. We can come up with theological formulas and terminology and fine, hair-splitting arguments and logical proofs, but when it comes down to truth, we are speechless in the face of mystery. And the Most Holy Trinity is a tremendous mystery.
I love the closing doxology in St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. Note that we often hear this in the opening greeting at Mass: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you.” What I love about it is that it captures particular elements of this Trinitarian mystery so well: the gift of grace that we receive by our Lord’s sacrificial act, the love of the Father through the Son that leads to the procession of the Holy Spirit, and the communion we have because of this love, this active principle in the Triune God. It’s such a concise summation of the Trinity’s action. I love that we preserve it in our liturgy.
The reading from the gospel of John is another of those simple formulations of the evangelion, the good news. When we talk about evangelization or sharing the gospel, we’re referring back to this word evangelion that was in the original Greek of the written gospels. John gets right to the point: God the Father so loved the world—that is, all of creation—so much, that even as broken as it was, He extended reparation and salvation through the death of His son. John is telling us that the Divine Physician makes house calls. We fall from God, and He comes to rescue us—to save us. Jesus’ name actually reflects this fact, as it literally means in Hebrew, “God’s salvation.”
Now it’s common for people to dismiss the hard truths of Catholic doctrine about sin and to focus only on God’s mercy. Certainly we must trust in God’s mercy because it is ultimately how we are redeemed and saved. But we must not forget that justice and mercy are a package deal. If there were no Divine justice, there would be no need for God’s mercy. The blessing here is that God makes His mercy available to anyone. Jesus did not come to condemn, as John writes, but that the world might be saved through Him. So what condemns us if it is not Jesus, whom the Father has appointed as judge over Heaven and Earth?
The truth is that we condemn ourselves. We do it in our everyday actions, when we choose what we will over God’s will, when we dismiss the needs of others because of our unnecessary wants, when we turn our backs on the truth and the right and the moral because it is scary or inconvenient. It’s either our will or God’s will, and if we choose self over God, we condemn ourselves to our own will, and He will let us have what we choose.
God is the greatest good, but we are so often distracted by lesser goods and even by things that aren’t good at all. And we all do this. In a few minutes, we will commune with the greatest good on this altar, but how often do we slouch to this altar begrudgingly? How often do we look on our religious obligation as a chore? God offers us the greatest good—Himself—for our salvation, and we only have ourselves to blame if we turn away from Him. But His mercy is available to us if we turn and embrace it.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.