Sunday, June 19, 2011
Trying To Understand the Holy Trinity
Today we celebrate both Father’s Day and Trinity Sunday. Many preachers, including me, feel quite uncomfortable trying to preach on the Trinity. It’s like rushing in to where angels fear to tread. The Holy Trinity is such a mystery; who can understand it even a little bit? In forty-seven years as a priest I don’t believe that I’ve ever given a truly satisfactory sermon about the Holy Trinity, which is probably a good thing for one’s humility!
There’s a story about an Asian gentleman 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 the Asian gentleman had listened politely to the explanation, he said: “Honorable Father -- ah, very good. Honorable Son -- also very good. But Honorable Bird -- I do not understand at all.” So, I suppose I could also say: “Honorable Holy Trinity -- that I do not understand at all.”
If we look closely at today’s readings from Scripture, we might notice that they help us understand better the most important truth about the Holy Trinity: namely, that to know God as Three and, at the same time to know God as One, has to do with responding to God’s invitation to be in relationship with Godself: and not simply about having information about God.
Let me tell you two stories:
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 New Jersey. After awhile, he decided that God wasn’t calling him to this vocation, and so he left the order of the Brothers. He later married a woman and they had two children, a boy and a girl. A few years later his wife contracted tuberculosis and died. The man’s circumstances forced him to put his two children in the care of the nuns at a local Catholic orphanage.
After a few years he married a second time and this wife bore him a son. By this time the man had set up shop as an orthopedic therapist, and began treating peoples’ ailments. Though no one seems to know exactly what happened, the man disappeared one day, leaving behind his young wife and his son, now two years old. For 11 years the wife and her son didn’t know where the man had gone. Eventually he was found, arrested and jailed for failing to provide support for 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 his white therapist clothes and shoes; several pictures of the boy sitting in the car with his father on the day when the boy had his first hair cut; another picture, a happy one, at a lake, showing the father, the mother, and the boy, holding up a string of fish; and finally a picture, also, of his father when he reappeared after 11 years: in prison clothes.
The boy grew up to be a man, and as the saying goes: “Like father, like son.” The man also married and had two children, just like his father: a boy and a girl. He loved them both, and when they would ask him, “Who do you love the most?”, he would say: “I love you both the most because I love each of you differently, just as you are.”
The man’s relationship with his own son was particularly unique, in that 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 had not be able to do with his own father. Just to be called “Daddy” was so magical!
This man in the second story, when he had his own daughter and son, experienced a love which eventually turned his loneliness and separation into wholeness. His experience taught him about creativeness, expressiveness, and oneness. And so you might say that this man was taught in a rudimentary way what the Holy Trinity is.
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Now, the first story which I told was about my own father, Robert. The second story was about me and my own children, particularly my son, Andrew.
For many years it bothered me how very little I knew about my roots, my ancestors, and especially about my father. Since my father left us before I was aware, I never really had the opportunity to call anyone “Daddy”. Luckily, I did, however, have two other very significant male “father” figures as I grew up: my grandfather, Harry, for whom I was named; and my stepfather, Tom, who became my friend as well as my parent, until he died much too early at the age of 44.
My son, Andrew, had a great career as a professional ballet dancer and choreographer for 22 years, performing with some of the finest companies all over the world, and once even on Broadway. So many times I stood and watched in awe as he danced on stage. In him I’ve been blessed to see fatherhood from the other side. In my son I’ve been able to see what comes forth from the depths of a person and is expressed when that person creates with dedication and love.
I’ve also had some intuitions about the gift of love which binds people into one through relationships. In 1988, fifty years after my father disappeared, I found my oldest stepsister, now 85, and she was able to tell me much that I didn’t know about my father. The most exciting thing I learned from her was that my father really did love me, and that he carried with him a childhood photograph of me for all those years that we were separated, and that he knew that I’d been ordained a priest. More exciting still, my sister told me that my father had married twice more, and that I had a total of 4 stepbrothers and three stepsisters: one who is now deceased, the others ranging in age from 85 to 43! Unfortunately, I also learned that my father had died in 1973 at age 69.
Through the years, I discovered that, though I didn’t know my father, I loved him and was very grateful that he had given me life, allowed me to exist. Without that I wouldn’t have had the chance to express all the potential goodness which he himself possessed.
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.
These very characteristics which have marked my personal story, and which, I’m sure, mark most of your stories, flow from the very life of God the Holy Trinity which today’s Scriptures proclaim: divine creativeness, divine expressiveness, and divine love which makes one.
The passage from Genesis (1:1-2:4a) for this feast affirms that the life-giving Word of the Father, by which the world and all creation came to be, is no other or different Word than that which was embodied and expressed in the human person of Jesus of Nazareth, and is now made continually present in the Mystical Body of the Church by the Holy Spirit.
St. Paul, in his second Letter to the Corinthians (13:11-13), concludes with a blessing proclaiming God’s creativeness, expressiveness, and unifying love. “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
Blessing is, perhaps, the most unique way of proclaiming the Good News. It reminds us that we have life and faith only because God is committed to us and is with us always: in Jesus and in the continuing self-gift of the Holy Spirit. The late Catholic Bishop of Tanzania, Christopher Mwoleka, once said: “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.” That’s really the core of the “Great Commission” in Matthew’s Gospel (28:16-20). It’s much more than a command to establish a few missions in foreign countries. True discipleship means obedient sharing of the teaching of Jesus wherever we are. Making disciples has nothing to do with proselytizing or increasing parish statistics. It has everything to do with taking the message of Jesus so seriously that, in and through the name of the Triune God, we creatively, expressively, and lovingly share ourselves with all the people and things around us in creation: no exceptions.
“Honorable Trinity -- that I do not understand at all.”
But fatherhood, sonship, and love which makes us one: these have gradually begun to make some sense to me as I’ve grown older.
This understanding was reinforced by a dream I had shortly after my first visit with my younger stepbrother and two stepsisters in 1989, sharing old photos and reminiscing, and after we had together visited my father’s grave. Not a word was spoken in the dream I later had, but in it my father and I came together, embraced each other, communicated with each other, then slowly walked off together. I felt utter joy and peace.
So it is in the community of the Holy Trinity.
And so it can be in the community of our lives.