Sunday, June 7, 2009
Thoughts On the Holy Trinity
There’s an ancient legend about a holy bishop walking along the seashore one day, trying to figure out the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
He comes upon a young child running back and forth between the water’s edge and a bucket on the sand.
The bishop watches the child for a time, then asks, “What are you doing?”
“Putting the ocean into my bucket,” says the child.
“But that’s impossible,” the amused bishop responds.
“Not nearly as impossible,” the child says, “as your trying to understand the mystery of the Trinity.”
On this Sunday we celebrate that great mystery. Many of us preachers fairly dread having to preach on Trinity Sunday. The Holy Trinity is humanly incomprehensible: who can understand it even a little bit? In forty-five years as a priest I don’t think that I’ve ever given a satisfactory sermon about the Trinity.
It’s a bit like the Oriental gentleman in another story to whom a well-meaning missionary was speaking about God the Father who created us, about God the Son who died and was raised up for us, and about the Holy Spirit of Love who appeared as a dove over the head of Jesus when He was baptized. After listening politely to the explanation, the Oriental gentleman said: “Honorable Father -- ah, very good. Honorable Son -- also very good. But Honorable Bird -- I do not understand at all!” And so, I can honestly say: “Honorable Holy Trinity -- I do not understand at all.”
Nevertheless, let me at least try to shed some light on what is, perhaps, the most important truth about the Holy Trinity: viz., that to know God as Three and, at the same time, as One is really about responding to God’s invitation to a relationship with God -- not just having information about God.
Let me share two stories of my own:
First, there was a man who lived in a city in the Eastern United States. When he was young he decided to devote his life to God with the religious Brothers of the Sacred Heart in Metuchen, New Jersey. After awhile, he decided that God wasn’t calling him to this vocation, so he left the order of the Brothers.
He eventually married a woman and they had two children: a boy and a girl. But a few years later his wife became ill with tuberculosis and died. Circumstances forced the man put his two children in the care of some nuns at an orphanage.
After a few years he married a second time and this wife bore him a son. By this time the man had begun treating treating people as an orthopedic therapist. Then, though no one seems to know what happened, the man disappeared one day, and left behind his young wife and his son who was now two years old. For eleven years the wife and her son didn’t know where the man had gone. But one day he was found and arrested by the police for failing to support his wife and child all those years. He paid for a short time, but then disappeared once again.
The second story is about this man’s only son from the second marriage. This boy grew up fatherless, without ever knowing or remembering his father. He had only a few pictures of his father from long ago: some photos of his father in a white medical uniform; several pictures of the boy sitting in the car with his father on the day when the boy had his first hair cut; another, happy picture of the father, the mother, and the boy at a lake, holding up a string of fish; a picture, also, of his father when he reappeared after eleven years: in jail clothes.
As the saying goes: “Like father, like son.” The boy, now a man, also married and had two children, just like his father: a boy and a girl. He loved them both. When they’d ask him, “Whom do you love the most?”, he’d say: “I love you both the most because I love you each differently, just as you are.”
The man’s relationship with his own son was special because he could be for that boy the father whom he never knew. He made sure to say to the boy “I love you” and to hug his son. The man enjoyed it when his son asked to do things with him and for him, things which the man hadn’t be able to do with his own father. Just to be called “Daddy” was magical!
The man in the second story, when he had his own son, experienced a love which eventually turned his loneliness and separation into wholeness. His experience taught him about three important things: creativeness, expressiveness, and oneness. And so you might say that this man was taught, in a rudimentary way, what the Holy Trinity is.
The first story which I told was about my own father, Robert. The second story is about me and my son, Andrew.
Until his recent illness, Andrew was a professional ballet dancer and choreographer for over twenty years. In him I’ve been blessed to see fatherhood from the other side. In my son I see what is expressed when one creates in love.
I’ve also had some intuitions about the gift of love which binds relationships into one. Fifty years after my father disappeared, I found my oldest stepsister and she was able to tell me much that I didn’t know about my father. Perhaps the most important thing which I learned from my stepsister was that my father really did love me, and that he had carried a childhood photograph of me with him for all those years.
Unfortunately, I also learned that my father had died in 1973. My sister told me that he had married twice more, and that I had a total of four stepbrothers and three stepsisters. All but one are still living, and currently range in age from 83 to 43!
I love my father because without him I wouldn’t have had the gift of life, nor would I have had the chance to express the potential goodness which he had.
I love my son, for in generating him and enabling him to go far beyond my own capacities and potential, I am, so to speak, “glorified”, and affirmed.
The Scriptures and the Creeds of the Church have always proclaimed these very characteristics about God the Holy Trinity: divine creativeness, divine expressiveness, and divine love which unifies. They also affirm that the life-giving Word of the Father, by which the world and creation came to be, is no other or different Word than that which is embodied and expressed in the person of Jesus, and is made continually present to the Church by the Holy Spirit.
St. Paul concludes his second Letter to the Corinthians with a wonderful blessing: proclaiming God’s creativeness, expressiveness, and unifying love: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” Blessing is, perhaps, the most unique way of proclaiming the Good News. It reminds us that we have life and faith only because God, Creator, Word-in-flesh, and Breath of Love, is committed to us and is with us always. The former Catholic Bishop of Tanzania, Christopher Mwolenka, writes: “The mystery of the Trinity is not a doctrine dealing with a division of power in the Godhead, but a statement about the way in which God shares [God]self with the creation and calls us who believe not so much to explain as to imitate that sharing by sharing our own lives with the creation.”
The God of Scripture is one God, the God which Isaiah, in the first reading, calls “Holy, Holy, Holy”, whose glory and presence fills the whole earth. But that God also chooses to relate to us through God’s “many-ness”, God’s Trinity: God as Father is our secure, providing protecting Parent; God as Word in Jesus, the only statement, in flesh, of the real God’s-honest-truth on which you and I can stake our very lives; and God as unseen yet Present in the deepest part of us: warming, comforting, helping, loving.
In the mystery of Pentecost, which we celebrated last Sunday, the Father and Jesus send the Spirit, whom author John Taylor calls “The Go-Between God”, to make the Holy Trinity more intelligible to us. Taylor says: “The Holy Spirit is that power which opens eyes that are closed, hearts that are unaware and minds that shrink from too much reality. If one is open towards God, one is open also to the beauty of the world, the truth of ideas, and the pain of disappointment and deformity. If one is closed up against being hurt, or blind towards one’s fellow-men, one is inevitably shut off from God also. One cannot choose to be open in one direction and closed in another.”
Some might consider that a hard saying. But it accords with who the thrice-Holy God is. And God cannot contradict Godself. Nor can we.
For you and I would be no more successful in rejecting what God is and wants us to be than the child who would try to put the ocean in his bucket, or the holy bishop who would fully understand the mystery of the Holy Trinity.
“Honorable Trinity -- I do not understand at all.”
But I did have a dream shortly after my first visit with my younger stepbrother and two stepsisters. In it my father and I met and embraced one other, communicating without words, and then walked off together. I felt utter joy and peace.
So it must be in the community of the Trinity.
So it can be, if we let it be, in the community of our lives with one another.