Almost 30 years ago, when I was a Paulist novice, I sought some guidance from my confessor regarding my bumbling prayer life. He told me to pray personally – not just to God in general, but to each Person of the Trinity. At the time, I found his advice surprising - and somewhat perplexing. For me, the Trinity was always a bit of an abstraction – a doctrine I duly believed in, of course, but not something I gave a lot of thought to.
I say this, despite the obvious fact that I was baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, on which occasion my godparents on my behalf made a profession of faith in the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. My sins have been forgiven many times in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; and as a priest I have in turn many times absolved the sins of others in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. As a priest, as the Church’s representative, I have also witnessed marriages, at which rings have been exchanged in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We have all been blessed – and have blessed ourselves - in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Finally, the principal prayers of the liturgy are all addressed to the Father, through the Son, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. In short, my entire life – and the lives of all of us, both individually and as a Church community – have been defined, formed, and shaped by the awesome mystery of who God is, that defines the Triune God’s relationship with us and ours with God.
Admittedly, the words we use to talk about the Trinity, words like “nature” and “person,” when used not as we use them in ordinary language, but as arcane technical terms of philosophical language, may seem – especially perhaps to post-modern ears – to be much too abstract. For all its apparent abstraction, however, the doctrine of the Trinity is our fundamental – and uniquely Christian – insight into who God is. It distinguishes Christian faith from all other religious beliefs – including the other monotheistic religions.
Human beings, created in the image and likeness of God, have a built-in, natural longing for God. As St. Augustine famously said, “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.” Yet, while the existence of a God may be knowable by the natural light of human reasoning, who God is in himself, however, is something we could never know on our own. That had to be revealed to us. Hence, God himself has revealed who he is – one God in three distinct Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We do not worship three gods, but one God – a unity of Persons in one divine nature or substance. Each of the three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is truly God. They are not three modes or appearances of God, but three identifiable Persons, each distinctly God, but in relationship to each other, that is to say, their distinction resides solely in their relationship to each other: the Father to the Son, the Son to the Father, and the Holy Spirit to both.
There is a famous 15th century icon which purports to portray the Trinity, utilizing an ancient tradition of imaging the 3 Persons of the Trinity in the story of God’s appearance to Abraham in the form of 3 angels. In that icon, the Father is seated on one side, gazing lovingly at the Son (the most public figure in the picture, who is seated prominently in the center, gazing lovingly at the Father), while the vibrantly-robed Holy Spirit is seated on the other side. In this image, the three Persons appear to gaze at each other in mutual, loving communication, into which the Son seems to be inviting us as he points out into the world, even as he continues to gaze lovingly at his Father.
On the one hand, the doctrine of the Trinity expresses our uniquely Christian insight into the inner life of God – where the Son is the image of the Father, the Father’s likeness and outward expression, who perfectly reflects his Father, while the Holy Spirit in turn expresses and reveals the mutual love of Father and Son. At the same time, the Trinity also expresses something fundamental about how God acts outside himself. Who God is in himself is how God acts; and how God acts reveals who God is.
Already in the Old Testament, God was revealing himself as reflected in personified divine Wisdom: the first-born of God’s ways, poured forth from of old, at the first before the earth [Proverbs 8:22-23]. Our redemption was not some divine after-thought. The incarnation of the Son and our redemption were part of the plan of creation, externally expressing the inner life of God.
God’s action outside himself is the indivisible, common work of the Trinity, which each Person performs according to his unique personal property. Thus the 2nd Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 553 confessed: “one God and Father from whom all things are, and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom all things are, and one Holy Spirit in whom all things are.”
It is, of course, the Son, one in being with the Father, the visible image of the invisible God, through whom, as St. Paul wrote to the Romans, we have gained access by faith to the grace in which we stand [Romans 5:2]. Risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father, the Son has sent the Holy Spirit upon his Church, which is the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. In St. Paul’s words, the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us [Romans 5:5]. The Holy Spirit is inseparable from the Father and the Son, in both the inner life of the Trinity and his gift of love for the world. The Holy Spirit unites us with the Father in the Body of Christ, the Church. Through the sacraments, Christ continues to communicate the Holy Spirit to the members of his Church. Thus, in the Eucharistic Prayer, at the very heart of the Mass, the priest petitions the Father to send the Holy Spirit, so that bread and wine may become the body and blood of Christ and that those who receive Christ’s body and blood may then be transformed into the image of Christ as participants in the mission of the Church.
So it is no merely theoretical abstraction that God's grace is given to us from the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. As the 4th century Bishop and Doctor of the Church, St. Athanasius, famously wrote in one of his letters: “When we share in the Spirit, we possess the love of the Father, the grace of the Son, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit himself.”
Homily given at St. Paul the Apostle Church, May 30, 2010.