The First Sunday after Pentecost is Trinity Sunday, the day when well-catechized Catholics dread what they may hear from the pulpit.
You might, for example, hear that the Trinity is like three burning candles twisted together to have one flame, or like a three-stranded rope. But then they would all have the same role. Fail. Perhaps They are like the sun, having heat, light, and motion? An egg, which has shell, white and yolk? Tritheism. Fail. The elements can be separated. The same for a tree which has branches, leaves, and roots.
How about water, which can be ice, liquid, or steam? Modalism. Fail. How about the three dimensions of space (length, width, height)? They coincide but are distinct. Not too bad. Neither is a triangle, which has distinct sides, but which cannot be divided up. Et cetera.
The Trinity is, after all, the hardest, most mysterious of all our dogmas, and yet it is “the central mystery of our Faith” (CCC 234). You might recall the story of how St Augustine of Hippo struggled to explain this mystery. His work On the Trinity was the first great work of systematic theology in Latin. An oft-depicted medieval legend narrates how Augustine, at the seashore one day, saw a child vainly attempting to empty the sea into a hole in the sand with a shell. The bishop remarked that this was an impossible task. The child, really an angel, riposted that Augustine’s project of trying to grasp the Trinity with human reason was more impossible yet.
For a solid introductory description of the Most Holy Trinity, look at the first paragraph of the so-called Athanasian Creed, attributed to the great fourth-century Greek Doctor of the Church but probably from fifth-century Latin Gaul. Firstly, it says that those who wished to be saved must hold the Catholic Faith. If goes on with a description of how the divine attributes are ascribed to each of the Three Persons: each is uncreated, limitless, eternal and omnipotent. Their divine essence is the same, but they are three distinct Divine Persons, not three different Gods. “He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity”, states this Creed.
In the early Church no special day was designated for the Most Holy Trinity, but to combat the Arian heresy Catholics developed creeds as well as an office for Sundays having canticles, responses, a preface, and hymns. In the ancient Gregorian Sacramentary we find prayers and the Preface of the Trinity. Pope John XXII (d 1334) ordered a universal feast in honor of the Trinity on the first Sunday after Pentecost. This day was raised to the dignity of a 1st Class feast by Pope St Pius X (d 1914). It was made a Solemnity for the Novus Ordo.
Its historical pedigree apart, there is a logic to the timing to the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity. Before this, we focus on the Son’s Ascension to the Father, then the Holy Spirit’s descent on Pentecost, and then the Triune God on the Sunday after. God the Father created us through the Son who redeemed us and revealed us more fully to ourselves (GS 22). God the Holy Ghost sanctifies us in Christ’s Holy Church so we can enjoy communion in the Trinity in the life to come.
One spiritual writer, Pius Parsch, likens the end of the Octave of Pentecost, which remains in the Traditional calendar, to the Ite Missa est at the end of Holy Mass. However, sometimes on special occasions we pause before leaving church to sing the Te Deum. Trinity Sunday crowns the cycles of Advent through Epiphany and Lent through Pentecost, just as the Te Deum crowns and summarizes our joy, gratitude and aspirations.
Here is Trinity Sunday’s Collect:
Deus Pater, qui, Verbum veritatis et Spiritum sanctificationis mittens in mundum, admirabile mysterium tuum hominibus declarasti, da nobis, in confessione verae fidei, aeternae gloriam Trinitatis agnoscere, et Unitatem adorare in potentia maiestatis.
This is glued together from new material and part of the 1962 Collect. The phrase admirabile mysterium is used to describe the Trinity in the minutes of the summit of June 411 in Carthage between Catholic and Donatist bishops. St Augustine was a major player at that meeting.
O God the Father, who, sending the Word of Truth and the Spirit of sanctification into the world, declared Your astonishing mystery to men, grant us, in the confession of true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and to adore the Unity in the might of majesty.
God our Father, who by sending into the world the Word of truth and the Spirit of sanctification made known to the human race your wondrous mystery, grant us, we pray, that in professing the true faith, we may acknowledge the Trinity of eternal glory and adore your Unity, powerful in majesty.
Someone may have been on autopilot in adding that “we pray”. Our Latin prayers often have some phrase like “tribue, quaesumus“. This prayer doesn’t.
In this prayer I hear echoes of manifestations (epiphanies) of the Trinity in Scripture: at Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan when the Holy Spirit was seen as a dove and the voice of the Father was heard (cf Luke 3) and when Jesus was transfigured before the eyes of Peter, John and James (cf Matthew 17). God “made known, manifested, showed, proclaimed publicly” (declarasti, a shortening of declaravisti, from declaro) the wondrous mystery (admirabile mysterium) that He is Three in One, a Trinity of divine Persons, God the Father, God the Word of Truth, God the Spirit of sanctification, One God.
It is necessary for true Christian Faith (vera fides) that we recognize (agnoscere – “announce, allow, or admit a thing to be one’s own, to acknowledge, own”) that God is Triune, One God having one divine nature in a perfect unity of three distinct Divine Persons. Man can reason toward this truth on his own, as ancient Greek Neoplatonic philosophers did. They almost got there, too. Only by the gift of Faith can we profess (confiteor) this mystery in an authentically Christian way. What reason and intellect strive after, revelation and the grace of faith must complete.
In our Collect we adore the gloria Trinitatis, the maiestas Unitatis. They have “power” (potentia). “Glory” and “majesty” in our liturgical prayers boom with the Last Things.
Maiestas is conceptually related in the writings of the Latin Fathers to gloria, Greek doxa and Hebrew kabod. Maiestas and gloria are more than simple splendor. They express our recognition of God as God. They also indicate the mighty divine characteristic which God will share with us and by which we will be transformed. The transforming glory we will receive in heaven was foreshadowed in Moses’ meetings with God who descended like a cloud upon the tent. After these meetings Moses’ face shone so brightly that he had to wear a veil.
Marvel, friends, at the gift that awaits us, provided we die in God’s friendship. We will no longer have to grope for God as if through some dark glass. Face to face we shall meet MYSTERY.
If you are faced with trying to explain this mystery to someone, along with the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Athanasian Creed, you might consider this.
In the mystery of the One and Threefold nature of God we believe that, from all eternity, before material creation and time itself, the One God desired a perfect communion of love and therefore expressed Himself in a perfect Word. This was always so in an absolutely all-embracing single instant of being in which there can be no distinction of past, present, or future, no sequence of events in the way we observe things bound in matter and time as we are. The Word which God uttered beyond and outside of time was and is a perfect self-expression, containing all that God is, perfectly possessing every characteristic of the Speaker: being, omniscience, omnipotence, truth, beauty, and personhood.
Thus, from all eternity there were always in perfect unity the divine Persons – the God who spoke the Word and the Word who was spoken, the God who Generates and the God who is Generated, true God with and from true God, God Begetter and God Begotten, distinct Father and distinct Son having the same indivisible divine nature. There was never a time when this was not so. These two Persons eternally regard and contemplate each other. From all eternity they knew and loved each other, each embracing the other in a perfect gift of self-giving. And since a self-gift of these perfect divine Persons, distinct while having but one divine nature, is a perfect mutual self-gift, perfectly given and perfectly received, the very Gift between them also contains all that each of the Persons have: being, omniscience, omnipotence, truth, beauty, and personhood. Thus, from all eternity there are three divine Persons having one indivisible divine nature, God the Father, God the Son and the perfect mutual self-gift of love between them, God the Holy Spirit.
This is the foundational saving doctrine we believe in as Christians and which we celebrate on Trinity Sunday. This is the One and Three God in whose image and likeness we are made. At the core of everything else we believe in and hope for, we will find this mysterious doctrine of divine relationship, the Triune God.
The communion of Persons in the Trinity is written into our beings as images of God. Our dealings with others ought to reflect the communion we were created for in God’s loving plan. We must also do our best to give the Trinity glory here in all that we do, think and say so that we may merit a share of Its divine transforming glory for eternity. Unveil God’s reflected future glory here and now in all you say and do.
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