Scripture and the Liturgy

Trinity Sunday!

Hello, readers! Most of you know that my commentaries are now available in book form here at Emmaus Road Publishing, so that means going forward I just can’t put my whole commentary online. So starting this Sunday I’ll be focusing on just one of the Readings, and the rest of my commentary will be in the book. I think for the rest of this Year B I’ll focus on the First Reading.

This coming Sunday is the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity.  While the Trinity might evoke a “Ho-hum, don’t we know that already …” response from many Catholics, the doctrine of the Trinity is essential to—and distinctive of—the Christian faith and is vital to our daily prayer and walk with God.  The doctrine of the Trinity touches on who God is; if one has this doctrine wrong, one has the wrong idea of God and may in fact be worshiping a god who does not exist.

The Trinity is by no means a dead theological issue, either.  Most obviously, Jews and Muslims protest this doctrine, which they believe destroys the unity of God.  For them, God is monopersonal.

Among groups that share a tradition with Christianity, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unitarians, and “Jesus-only” Pentecostals all dispute the doctrine of the Trinity.  Mormons are not, strictly speaking, monotheists: in their view the Father and Son are different gods.  Jehovah’s witnesses are modern day Arians—they believe in one God (the Father) but deny the divinity of Jesus Christ.  Unitarians are post-Christian theists.

Many years ago, when I was co-pastor of a congregation with a large number of African-American members, we used to hold joint worship and fellowship events with other African-American churches.  While having a joint event at a bowling alley one weekend, I remember being quite surprised to find out, over a basket of chips and cheese, that my colleague, the pastor of the Apostolic Pentecostal church with which we were fellowshipping, did not hold to the Trinity.  That was my first exposure to the “Jesus-only” movement.  I didn’t follow all his explanations, but it seemed he held to a form of the heresy of “modalism”—the Father, Son, and Spirit were modes of existence of the one God, whose name was Jesus.

Contrary to this, the Catholic Church holds God is three persons and one essence.  This seems like a formal contradiction, but it is not: we are not claiming that God is three persons and also only one person; or three essences but one essence.  These positions would be logically impossible.  Still, the Trinity is a mystery.  But mysteries are not unique to theology or religion: in physics, it’s well-known that light is both a wave and a particle.  How can this be?  No one knows, but experiments show it to be the case. Could it be that the creator of light is just as mysterious as light itself? So the doctrine of the Trinity is like the nature of light: it is difficult to understand, but nonetheless it is a brute fact.

In any event, the doctrine of the Trinity remains a live issue both with other religions and within the broader Christian tradition.  The Church dedicates this feast day to the celebration of the Trinity, because she knows the doctrine and reality of the Holy Trinity is central to her identity.

1.  The first reading is Deuteronomy 4:32-34, 39-40.

Moses said to the people:
“Ask now of the days of old, before your time,
ever since God created man upon the earth;
ask from one end of the sky to the other:
Did anything so great ever happen before?
Was it ever heard of?
Did a people ever hear the voice of God
speaking from the midst of fire, as you did, and live?
Or did any god venture to go and take a nation for himself
from the midst of another nation,
by testings, by signs and wonders, by war,
with strong hand and outstretched arm, and by great terrors,
all of which the LORD, your God,
did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?
This is why you must now know,
and fix in your heart, that the LORD is God
in the heavens above and on earth below,
and that there is no other.
You must keep his statutes and commandments that I enjoin on you today,
that you and your children after you may prosper,
and that you may have long life on the land
which the LORD, your God, is giving you forever.”

The Trinity is a “Tri-unity”: God is both one and three; one essence, three persons.  This reading emphasizes the oneness or unity of God: “The LORD is God in the heavens above and on earth below, and … there is no other.”

God demonstrated to the Israelites that he existed—and other gods didn’t—during the Exodus, by “signs, wonders, and war.”  The famous Ten Plagues were actually progressive demonstrations that the Egyptian pantheon didn’t exist.  For example, the first plague (Nile to blood) showed the Nile was no god; the ninth (three days of darkness) showed the impotence of the supposed “sun god” Amon-Re; the tenth plague (death of the first born, including Pharaoh’s heir) showed that Pharaoh was no divinity.  All the other plagues “de-divinized” lesser gods, as well.

Although this text from Deuteronomy emphasizes the oneness of God, there is a hint of the Trinity even here.  Moses refers to the “voice of God” (=the Word, the Second Person) coming forth from the “midst of fire” (=sign of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person).  Although God had not clearly revealed his triune nature, all three Persons were involved in God’s relationship with Israel. This is one of many places in Scripture where the “voice of God” (qôl ‘elohîm or qôl YHWH) is personified. Perhaps the first is in Genesis 3:8, which can be construed as: “They heard the Voice of the LORD God walking in the garden.” It light of the revelation of Jesus’ divinity as the Second Person and the logos or Word of God, these passages take on new significance. Already in pre-Christian (Second Temple) Judaism, there was a growing awareness that God’s Word was somehow also an agent and person. In the ancient Targums—Aramaic “Amplified Bibles” written to explain the Scriptures to common Jews in their spoken language—the narrative of the Old Testament is re-written in such a way that God never acts directly. All divine actions are performed by God’s “Memra,” the Aramaic term for “word.” For these and other reasons, even some Jewish scholars like the famous Daniel Boyarin have argued that pre-Christian Judaism entertained notions of multiple persons in the Godhead. Theologians call this “progressive revelation.” As the time of the coming of the Messiah neared, God’s revelation of Himself to his people became increasingly clear.

A happy, holy, and very blessed Trinity Sunday to you!

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