Scripture and the Liturgy

Trinity Sunday

(These commentaries are available in book form here. )

Pentecost is not supposed to mark a spiritual highpoint, from which we then regress and go back to being our slovenly selves. 

Rather, Pentecost should be a dramatic infusion of spiritual energy climaxing a period of formation that has been ongoing since the first week of Advent.  Pentecost propels us, like a shot out of a cannon, into the “world” of Ordinary Time, in order to do effective combat with sin, death, and the Devil.

This Sunday marks approximately the half-way point in the liturgical year, and at this temporal center, we pause to reflect on the central mystery of our Faith, the Most Holy Trinity.  This seems appropriate on the heels of Pentecost, because it is through the Holy Spirit that the whole Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—dwells within our soul.

Predictably, the Readings view the mystery of the Trinity from different angles.

Our First Reading is a passage that became the focus of great controversy in the ancient Church, as the doctrine of the Trinity was being worked out, specifically during the Arian controversy:

1. Reading 1 Prv 8:22-31

Thus says the wisdom of God:
“The LORD possessed me, the beginning of his ways,
the forerunner of his prodigies of long ago;
from of old I was poured forth,
at the first, before the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no fountains or springs of water;
before the mountains were settled into place,
before the hills, I was brought forth;
while as yet the earth and fields were not made,
nor the first clods of the world.

“When the Lord established the heavens I was there,
when he marked out the vault over the face of the deep;
when he made firm the skies above,
when he fixed fast the foundations of the earth;
when he set for the sea its limit,
so that the waters should not transgress his command;
then was I beside him as his craftsman,
and I was his delight day by day,
playing before him all the while,
playing on the surface of his earth;
and I found delight in the human race.”

The controversy in antiquity focussed on verse 22, translated in the lectionary, “The LORD possessed me ….” The word translated possessed in English is qaneh in Hebrew, which is a homonym meaning either “create” or “acquire, purchase.”  During the Arian controversy, both sides—Trinitarian and Arian—assumed that Divine Wisdom in Psalm 8 was figure of the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ.  The Arians insisted qaneh meant “created,” and thus the text proved Jesus was a creature, thus not fully divine.  The orthodox insisted it just meant “acquired,” and referred to the timeless begetting of the Son.  Grammar and lexical research, however, cannot resolve the question.

Pondering this text now, so many years after the Arian controvery is passed, we may rightly ask, Who does Lady Wisdom represent here, the Son or the Spirit?  Other biblical texts associate both with divine wisdom.  John 1:1 famously identifies Jesus as God’s “logos,” which could be understood broadly as “reason” or “wisdom.”  On the other hand, Wisdom 7:25 and other texts identify Lady Wisdom as the “breath” (that is, Spirit) of God.  We may correctly say that both or either the Son or the Spirit are being typified in this passage.  Both preceded creation.  Both were active in creation: the Second Person as the creative “logos,” the third as the “creator spirit” who “renews the face of the earth.”  This illustrates how united the Son and the Spirit are in their processions and their actions.  The fathers used two illustrations of this unity: as oil cannot be separated from the skin once it is rubbed in, so the Spirit and the Son cannot be separated.  As one cannot speak without uttering one’s breath, so the Son cannot proceed from the Father without the Spirit.

This passage from Proverbs reminds us that hundreds of years before the coming of Christ, the Holy Spirit was inspiring ancient Israelite authors to pen religious poetry that is difficult to reconcile with a monopersonal view of God.  This strongly personified Lady Wisdom implies that in some mysterious way, there is more than one person involved in the divine act of creation.   

P. Our Responsorial Psalm is Ps 8:4-5, 6-7, 8-9:

R. (2a) O Lord, our God, how wonderful your name in all the earth!
When I behold your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars which you set in place —
What is man that you should be mindful of him,
or the son of man that you should care for him?
R. O Lord, our God, how wonderful your name in all the earth!
You have made him little less than the angels,
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him rule over the works of your hands,
putting all things under his feet:
R. O Lord, our God, how wonderful your name in all the earth!
All sheep and oxen,
yes, and the beasts of the field,
The birds of the air, the fishes of the sea,
and whatever swims the paths of the seas.
R. O Lord, our God, how wonderful your name in all the earth!

This lyrical and mysterious Psalm praises God for his gratuitous benevolence to a certain “son of man.”  But who is this “son of man”? The interpretation of the Psalm hinges on it.  Actually, the “son of man” could be taken four equally legitimate ways: as a reference to (1) Adam, (2) humanity generally, (3) David the author, or (4) the Son of David, the Messiah.  All four meanings are inter-related.  However, in the context of this Mass, we recall that Our Lord’s favorite self-identification was “the Son of Man.”  Psalm 8 was among the texts alluded to when he employed this title.  Psalm 8 describes a certain “son of man” who is made “a little less than the angels”—a description of the period of the incarnation—but then is crowned with glory and honor, and placed as king over all creation.  The prefigurement of Christ is clear to see.  This Psalm stresses the human nature of the Second Person, who nevertheless exercises the divine prerogative of rule over the cosmos on behalf of God the Father.

2.  The Second Reading is Rom 5:1-5:

Brothers and sisters:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
through whom we have gained access by faith
to this grace in which we stand,
and we boast in hope of the glory of God.
Not only that, but we even boast of our afflictions,
knowing that affliction produces endurance,
and endurance, proven character,
and proven character, hope,
and hope does not disappoint,
because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts
through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

This short and beautiful doxology is one of my favorite passages from the Epistle to the Romans, because it so fully captures several essential features of salvation and the Christian life: faith, grace, suffering, growth in virtue, and charity.

The passage also describes the particular work of each of the three persons in the mystery of salvation.  We are reconciled (have peace) with the God the Father through the work of Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit we have received from him. 

This passage is very important in helping to solve the (false) conflict between “salvation by faith” and “salvation by works.”  How does our faith interact with our works in the process of salvation?  St. Paul explains: by faith in Christ we attain peace (reconciliation) with God the Father, who then fills us with his love through the Holy Spirit.  That divine love that now dwells within us, allows us to fulfill God’s law by doing good works.  Can we take any pride in this?  Not at all, because it is all the work of God. 

G. Our Gospel is John 16:12-15:

Jesus said to his disciples:
“I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.
But when he comes, the Spirit of truth,
he will guide you to all truth.
He will not speak on his own,
but he will speak what he hears,
and will declare to you the things that are coming.
He will glorify me,
because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.
Everything that the Father has is mine;
for this reason I told you that he will take from what is mine
and declare it to you.”

This wonderful Gospel text makes a beautiful transition from last week’s focus on the Spirit and Pentecost with this week’s meditation on the Trinity.  Here Jesus continues to teach the apostles about the Spirit, but in the process he explains the relationship of the Spirit to the other persons. 

“When the spirit of truth comes, he will lead you into all truth.”  When I was a Protestant, I sometimes took this verse as a promise of personal infallibility, provided I was sincere.  All I had to do was pick up my Bible, pray to the Spirit for inspiration, and everything true would come to me.

However, the phrasing of this statement, as well as its context, suggests it is not a promise of infallibility to each Christian.  The Greek reads, “He will lead you all into all truth,” in other words, the word “you” is second person plural.  Jesus is speaking to the apostles as a group. They are the seed and nucleus of the hierarchy of the Church, the font of the episcopal conference.  So we still believe: when the successors of the apostles are gathered together, as they once were in the upper room, the Spirit will not fail to lead them into the fullness of God’s truth. 

“He will declare to you the things that are coming.” This line seems striking, since it is written down by John the Apostle, whom tradition identifies also as the author of Revelation, the book which reveals all the things that are coming soon. 

Everything that the Father has is mine … he will take from what is mine and declare it to you …”

Here we see the unity of the Godhead as well as the principle of the development of dogma. 

The Father and Son are so united, they possess all in common, and out of the treasury of this infinite common goodness, the Spirit joined to them “declares” or makes known the truth to the Church.

Even if there is much truth about God that can be reduced to writing, nonetheless, the mystery of God and his saving works is too infinite to be exhaustively written down.  Knowing this, Jesus did not leave the Apostles and the Church with a book, but with the Spirit, who would continue down through the ages “taking from what is mine” and “making it known to you.”

This is what, in fact, has happened.  Down through the ages, the Church has entered ever more deeply into the mystery of God.  The doctrine of the Trinity is itself a good example.  The reality of the Trinity is the foundation of the cosmos.  God has always been and always will be Triune.  The Scriptures bear witness to this fact, even if they do not define the Trinity in its particulars.  The definitions and particulars had to be worked out over centuries, as the Spirit “took from what is mine and made it known to you,” through the writings of the saints and the decisions of the councils.  Gradually, the picture of the truth became ever sharper, reaching a milestone of clarity at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.  The picture did not change, and never will.  This is not an evolutionary process.  Rather, the picture becomes ever clearer, ever better defined.

Sometimes we wish we lived in the time of the early Church, when—we imagine—there was greater energy and purity of faith.   However that may be, we should be grateful that we live now, when we do, because we greatly benefit from the vastly greater clarity the faith enjoys now than it did in the early centuries.  In those ancient days, if someone claimed that Jesus had been created, you would have known instinctively that he or she was wrong, and had some Scriptures (e.g. the Gospel of John) to rely on, but without any clear, definitive, written judgement of the Church.  Now, every person on the globe can access the entire Catechism of the Catholic Church—which is delightfully clear and specific—via the internet in seconds.  Never has it been so easy to know the truth of salvation. 

We should be grateful for the many councils, fathers, and doctors of the Church through the centuries who have been instruments of the Spirit, enabling Him to “take what is mine and give it to you,” enriching and clarifying the faith and the truths of God for our benefit, making it easier to believe and to live a life of holiness.

“To whom much has been given, much will be expected.”  Throughout the history of the Church, the Spirit has given us much from the Father and the Son, a great body of teaching to “guide us into all truth.”  This Sunday, let us give thanks to the Holy Trinity for the riches and clarity of our faith, and all the teaching we have received to help us understand and practice the way of salvation.  Further, let’s beg the Holy Trinity for the actual graces that we need to give a good return on the “deposit of faith” that we have received, in good works and apostolic outreach.

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