Scripture and the Liturgy

Trinity Sunday!

The Easter Season usually ends with a sort of “trifecta” of major feasts: Pentecost, Trinity, and Corpus Christi, as the Church celebrates the central mysteries of the faith before entering into Ordinary Time once more.

In any event, this weekend is Trinity Sunday, a meditation and celebration of the central mystery of the Christian faith, the dogma that distinguishes Christianity from all other religions.  Christians alone believe in one God, who nonetheless exists in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Strangely, our Readings for this Sunday tend not to be classic “proof texts” for the idea that there is more than one person in the Godhead.  Instead, the readings tend to focus on the character or essence of God.  This is appropriate, because as we will see, the character of God is very different, and the meaning of salvation history as well, when one knows God to be a Trinity of persons. 

Reading 1: Exodus 34:4b-6, 8-9:

Early in the morning Moses went up Mount Sinai

as the LORD had commanded him,

taking along the two stone tablets.

Having come down in a cloud, the LORD stood with Moses there

and proclaimed his name, “LORD.”

Thus the LORD passed before him and cried out,

“The LORD, the LORD, a merciful and gracious God,

slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity.”

Moses at once bowed down to the ground in worship.

Then he said, “If I find favor with you, O Lord,

do come along in our company.

This is indeed a stiff-necked people; yet pardon our wickedness and sins,

and receive us as your own.”

The context of this passage is very important, and hopefully the celebrant will explain in the homily.  This is not Moses’ first visit up the mountain.  It is his return visit after the debacle with the Golden Calf.  Moses had descended the mountain, interrupting his reception of the instructions for the Tabernacle, in order to regain control of the people, who were running wild in a pagan ritual-orgy in worship of the Egyptian bull god Apis.  He now returns to the mountain to intercede for the people and plead for forgiveness and covenant renewal.  God accepts his intercessions on behalf of Israel and agrees to forgive and renew the covenant, but Moses has an additional request: he wishes to see the face of God.  God cannot reveal his “face” (unmediated revelation) to Moses in this life, but he condescends to show his “back” (mediated or indirect revelation) to Moses on the mountain.  So God makes his presence pass before Moses while Moses is hid in a cleft in the rocks.  While his presence passes by, the LORD proclaims his “name,” that is, declares what his essence is:

“The LORD, the LORD, a merciful and gracious God,

slow to anger and rich in kindness (hesed) and fidelity (emeth).”

The words used to describe God’s attributes here are significant, in particular the Hebrew hesed, which means not merely “kindness” but rather “covenant fidelity or covenant love.”  In the Psalms it is usually translated “mercy.”  A closely related concept is emeth, which means “truth,” especially in the sense of “being true to someone.”  Hesed and emeth  are relational terms.  God is in His very being relational (the Trinity), and his greatest attributes pertain to the faithful and unfailing expression of love between persons.  The overflow of this love forms the covenant that God continually offers to humanity (see Eucharistic Prayer IV).

So why is this text read on Trinity Sunday?  On this day, we reflect on God’s very nature, and this is one of the most important texts of the Old Testament that addresses the issue of what God is.  The answer given is that God’s nature consists primarily in mercy, grace, forgiveness, truth, and especially covenant fidelity. 

This does relate to the Trinity, which has meaning for our redemption.  Several facts follow from the realization that the Son and the Spirit are God Himself.  First, it dawns on us that God did not send some other creature to suffer and die for us, but paid the penalty for our sins by himself.  Secondly, it becomes apparent that God does not merely share his energies or power with us, but shares with us his very life and self

For if God is not a Trinity, then Jesus the Son is a creature, and God sent a creature to work our redemption rather than doing it himself.  And if God is not a Trinity, the Holy Spirit is not God, but some active force or emanation from the almighty.  Therefore we do not receive God into our hearts through faith and the sacraments, but something else that radiates from him. 

Furthermore, the Trinity reveals that God is, in himself, a circle of self-giving love.  Prior to the creation of the universe, God did not exist as a self-aggrandizing sole individual, but he existed as a communion of persons bound by the gift of self in love: a possible way to think of it is that the Father continually gives himself to the Son, and the Son gives himself to the Father, and the self they exchange is the Holy Spirit.  Thus, the gift of self in love, which is the essence of hesed, belongs to God’s nature from all time.  It is not an accidental feature of God’s character that arises when he creates other beings to be loved.

So doctrine of the Trinity enables us to understand that faithful love (hesed) is at the heart of God’s nature, and he shares himself with us in a way more profound and intimate than we would ever have imagined. 

Responsorial Psalm: Daniel 3:52, 53, 54, 55, 56:

R/ (52b) Glory and praise for ever!

Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of our fathers,

praiseworthy and exalted above all forever;

And blessed is your holy and glorious name,

praiseworthy and exalted above all for all ages.

R/ Glory and praise for ever!

Blessed are you in the temple of your holy glory,

praiseworthy and glorious above all forever.

R/ Glory and praise for ever!

Blessed are you on the throne of your kingdom,

praiseworthy and exalted above all forever.

R/ Glory and praise for ever!

Blessed are you who look into the depths

from your throne upon the cherubim,

praiseworthy and exalted above all forever.

R/ Glory and praise for ever!

The revelation of God’s nature prompts praise from us, his people.  The Church turns to the Song of the Three Young Men, the song of praise they sang while being sacrificed in the fiery furnace.  The fiery furnace is an image of the burning love of God, which is more than our mortal nature can bear.  Yet God sustains us supernaturally, so that we can praise him while plunged in his presence.  The young men were being sacrificed because of their covenant fidelity to God expressed by their refusal to worship idols.  Their willingness to be faithful to God to death leads to a greater knowledge and experience of God’s nature. 

Reading 2: 2 Cor 13:11-13:

Brothers and sisters, rejoice.

Mend your ways, encourage one another,

agree with one another, live in peace,

and the God of love and peace will be with you.

Greet one another with a holy kiss.

All the holy ones greet you.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ

and the love of God

and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

Our Second Reading gives us a more explicitly Trinitarian text.  Although the doctrine of the Trinity is not explained in detail in the text of the New Testament, the reality of the Trinity must be presumed in order to make sense of the assertions and statements of the apostles and other sacred writers.  For example, in the concluding blessing of this short passage of St. Paul, it would be inappropriate to put the “grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” and the “fellowship of the Holy Spirit” in poetic parallelism with “the love of God” unless all three realities were of equally dignity.  If Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit were mere creatures, they could not be the source of “grace” and “fellowship” on par with the “love of God.”  Furthermore, the term “grace” is particularly freighted, as elsewhere Paul develops the concept as a divine attribute.

Benedict XVI explained that dogmas are nothing other than authoritative interpretations of Scripture.  Another way to look at them would be as “truths one must assume in order to make sense of all the Scriptural data.”  The doctrine of the Trinity helps us make sense of this threefold blessing in 2 Corinthians 13 and many other passages as well.

Gospel John 3:16-18:

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,

so that everyone who believes in him might not perish

but might have eternal life.

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,

but that the world might be saved through him.

Whoever believes in him will not be condemned,

but whoever does not believe has already been condemned,

because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

Love is the essence of the Trinity.  The Trinity tells us that God is not a monopersonal individual who had only himself to love before creatures were made.  Self-love is an imperfect form of love.  Therefore, God would have needed creatures to love in order to achieve perfection of love.  God would have been imperfect in himself.  Self-giving love is the highest form of love: “Greater love has no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.”  From all eternity Father and Son exchange their Life for each other.  Therefore, the gift of the Son by the Father to the world, and the Son’s gift of Himself for the world and for his Father, is nothing other than an invitation for the world to enter into the circle of love that defines God’s essence. 

Why is it necessary to believe in the Son?  Because only Jesus reveals to us the full truth about God.  Moses revealed some truth about God.  Mohammad portrayed God as an omnipotent, monopersonal master who has no children in any sense, does not give himself to or for us, and does not share with us his very being.  The Buddha was technically an agnostic, unconcerned with discovering God’s nature or even clearly affirming he existence of God.

Alone among the religious teachers and philosophers of the world, Jesus claims in word and deed that God is a loving Father who gave his only Son for the salvation of the world, and that the Son is, finally and mysteriously, the Father’s own Self, for “I and the Father are one,” and “He who has seen me, has seen the Father.”  Therefore, whoever does not believe in the Son is condemned forever to labor with an inadequate understanding of God, which leads—perhaps sooner, perhaps later—to estrangement from God.  We become like what we worship.  How important, then, truly to understand the nature of the God we worship.  The worship of the Trinity should lead us to a life of self-giving love.

Furthermore, while we struggle on this earth to learn consistently to give of self and never to become selfish, which is another name for sinfulness, we can comfort ourselves with the certain hope that what awaits us after this life is to be assured into that circle of self-giving love which is God, the Holy Trinity. Heaven will not be a trip to Disney World or some sleepy half-conscious union with the “infinite divine,” but an ecstatic, intense, intimate, and eternal communion with persons, first of all the Three Divine Persons, but then also all our brothers and sisters who make up the Body of the Second Person, and like us are engulfed in the flaming circle of love.


Moses spent his whole life trying to get to the land of Israel but died on the border. Now you have a chance to go where he could never reach! I’m leading a pilgrimage to the Holy Land now scheduled August 20-30, and we have plenty of capacity for any who would like to join. It will be a unique and unforgettable experience, as we will be one of the first pilgrimages back after the shut down, and the Christian communities of the Holy Land will be extremely glad to see us. Information and registration is here.

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