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Three in One

Fr Dennis Smith, Trinity Sunday, June 11th, 2017

If we were Dominicans, perhaps of a somewhat traditionalist inclination, this morning’s homily – it being Trinity Sunday – would be given by the brightest theologian in the house – the Regent of Studies, the primus doctor. However, we are not Dominicans and for the homilist you’ve got me! However, it seems that in the past the Feast of the Holy and Undivided Trinity provided the opportunity for theologians to dazzle one another with their verbal and metaphysical gymnastics, as they indulged themselves in what Martin Luther called the mathematics of God.

On the whole we English are not much given to metaphysical speculation and abstract thought. So perhaps it is surprising that it was a feast which was popular in England long before the Pope in the fourteenth century enjoined its observance throughout the Western Church. It seems to have owed its popularity in this country to its association with Thomas Becket. For it was on this first Sunday after Pentecost in 1162 that he was ordained to the episcopate, having been in priest’s orders for a mere 24 hours. By local custom, the monks of the Cathedral Church of Christ in Canterbury, where Becket was ordained, observed this Sunday In honour of the Trinity and, so, from them perhaps with the encouragement of the new Archbishop, it passed into English usage as an annual liturgical celebration, at the same time providing us with the means of numbering the Sundays in the second half of the Church’s year. As a feast it’s presumably intended to be, among other things, a celebration of right belief – a celebration of orthodoxy, of the correct way of thinking and talking about God – the God who can scarcely be talked about at all and who is beyond the range and scope of human thought and definition. That being so, it’s not surprising that the language of Trinitarian orthodoxy is taxing, to ay the least, to the human mind and imagination – all that talk about Substance and Persons, about begettings and proceedings, about uncreatedness and incomprehensibility, about the Three who are distinct from one another and yet are altogether One, without confusion and division. The mind spins. Such linguistic and metaphysical contortions would seem to contrast sharply with the general thrust and tone of Christianity as a religion which takes facts and history seriously and is deeply rooted in particular historical events and circumstances which from Advent to Pentecost – from the Child in the womb to the descent of the Spirit – we commemorate and keep in memory in the liturgical cycle. But on Trinity Sunday we break from those specific historical events and people and turn our attention to the One who is the beginning and the end and to whom belong all times and seasons, the One who is.

On Trinity Sunday we seek to consider how God happens, how God is in himself, how God is God.

The quest goes back a long time. At the burning bush Moses asks God to tell him his name. The most likely translation of his reply is “I will be whom I will be” (Exod. 3:14).  Although God identifies himself to Moses as “the God of your Father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” (Exod 3 : 6), he seems to indicate that it is less important to know what he has been in the past and is in the present, than to be open and receptive to what he will be. Indeed in subsequent manifestations he will say of himself that he is “the one who is and who was and who is to come” (Rev 1 : 4-8) – he is both once and future: for he is not an entity among other entities : he doesn’t belong to any genus.

The Old Testament is full of this sense that it’s not yet clear what God’s name will be. In the New Testament there’s the gradual realisation that “the mystery hidden for ages and generations has now been made manifest” (Col 1: 26) among the children of men. However, it was precisely the revelation given in Jesus of Nazareth which challenged the first believers and compelled them to reconsider their understanding of God as the God of their Fathers, the God of Israel. Because of what they had “heard and seen with their eyes and looked upon and touched with their hands” (1 John 1 : 1), they had to re-think their whole idea of what it is for God to be God – a God who is not only Lord and Creator – and Law-Giver but a God who passionately longs to show us how to be fully and truly human beings made in his image and likeness. He does this not just by sending messengers and prophets to teach us and give us good advice but, without privilege and without safeguard, himself comes to us, to be with us as one of us, with us in flesh and blood, in sweat and spittle and not only risks his life for us but gives it – for us and for our salvation, our well-being, our freedom and our happiness. The snare is broken and we are delivered.

As the first believers tried to assimilate the significance of the things concerning Jesus in the days of his flesh, they couldn’t fail to take note of the fact that he had spoken of himself as having been sent into the world by One with whom he seemed to claim a relationship of particular and special intimacy and whom he called “Father”. Somehow in his mouth this seemed to be no mere metaphor or figure of speech. He also spoke of his continuing and abiding presence in the hearts and lives of those who would be moved and inspired to share his journey to the Father and his Kingdom.  He called this continuing Presence the Spirit, sent through him by the Father. Gradually those first believers came to see that all that had come to pass in Jesus of Nazareth had been foreshadowed in the Scriptures, “in Moses and the prophets” (Lk 24 : 44). Perhaps they remembered how, through their long and tumultuous history, God had been known under many names –Jahweh, Adonai, El Shaddai, Elohim. Perhaps too they remembered that the prophet Zachariah (14: 19) had foretold of the day when “the Lord will be one and his name one.” It is into that One Name of the three-personed God that we are baptised. It is to that Name that we bear witness. It is in that Name that we pray – to the Father, with the Son, in the Holy Spirit – to the One who will be whom he will be – our God and our all.

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