In Bishop Herman’s most recent St. Louis Review article that he wrote about today’s celebration of the Holy Trinity, he tells a story about teaching a 2nd grade class at Epiphany. He doesn’t say when but I assume it was quite a while ago. He was trying to explain to the children about the Trinity and told them it is very complicated. One little girl in the class raised her hand and said, “No, it isn’t,” and proceeded to explain it quite well. My question is – which one of you was that? Because I need some help.
The Trinity, as I’m sure you’ve been told before, is a mystery. When the Church uses the word mystery, she doesn’t refer to something like Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of Baskervilles. It isn’t as though Benedict Cumberbatch is going to walk through the door and suddenly enlighten us to the meaning of the clues. By “mystery,” the church means that, by definition, we will never fully understand because the answer eludes our logical abilities. There are lots of mysteries in life: the Trinity, who put the empty milk carton back in the fridge, why the word abbreviation is so long, men might say that women are a great mystery.
Being asked to take a risk of faith in the Trinity is not beyond the sort of leaps we take every single day. Take men and women for instance. Somehow, even though no person can fully know another person, men and women every day take a leap of faith and commit to each other in marriage. Every mystery has its origin in the heart, and these mysteries speak to the fact that life is so much more than surface level. Eternity hums with every beating heart, and every beautiful thing is fathered forth from the God who is beyond change, the God who is vast beyond imagination.
Often, explanations of the Trinity begin with abstract theology, which kind of misses the point. We know the Trinity not through theoretical argument, but through history. God reaches out and interacts with us. He communicates and gets involved. Books are written about him. This means that we know about the Trinity first of all by the way in which God has entered into and changed our lives. This is what he has been doing since the beginning of time.
Evelyn Waugh, a Catholic writer and convert who has been very influential in my own faith journey, traveled to the depths of Ethiopia in the 1930s. While there, he went to the monastery of Debra Lebanos and observed a Mass in the Coptic tradition. In most of the Eastern traditions, the liturgy has barely changed since the first century. The entire sanctuary is closed off and the laypeople never see the altar. There’s also lots and lots of incense and chanting, lots of highly symbolic actions. Thinking about how different Mass is, Waugh makes an interesting observation. He says,
“I had sometimes thought it an odd thing that Western Christianity, alone of all the religious of the world, exposes its mysteries to every observer.” By this he means the astonishing fact that, at Mass the laity can see the altar and actively participate in the Sacrifice. There’s a priesthood of believers here and your presence adds to the fruits of the Mass but it’s kind of amazing that even non-Christian guests are welcome be here and see it all.
Waugh goes on, “Many people regard the growth of the Church as a process of elaboration – even obfuscation; they visualize the Church of the first century as a little cluster of pious people reading the Gospels together…with a simplicity to which the high ceremonies…of later years would have been bewildering.” This is exactly the conception that I grew up with! I’d always thought that the Church became more ritualistic and complex over time. It’s actually the other way around.
Waugh says, “At Debra Lebanos I suddenly saw the classic basilica and open altar as a great positive achievement…I saw the Church of the first century as…dark and hidden as a seed germinating in the womb; legionaries off duty slipping furtively out of barracks, greeting each other by signs and passwords in a locked upper room…candle-lit, smoky chapels of the catacombs. The priests hid their office…their identity known only to initiates.” The early Church struggled with and ultimately held onto the truth with heroic stubbornness. All around were the mystery religions of pagan cults, crazy ideas, heresies, and confusion. St. Paul spends great amounts of time warning about them, and the early Church Fathers debate and clarify and pray to figure this stuff out. The rational, light-filled, transparent worship of the Church is the result of thousands of years of development. Now we have priests praying at altars while the mysteries unfold in clear view.
This is exactly how the dogma of the Trinity has been clarified. It did not emerge fully formed as a simple, rational idea and then over the years become enormously complex, but is the result of the historical action of the Trinity in the Church through the ages. And as we experience God’s action in our lives, the life of the Trinity begins to make more and more sense because we are sharing that life more and more.
The Trinity has been God’s nature from the very beginning, but in the beginning it was all very confusing – waters formless and void, strange gods, and floods. When Moses arrives he talks about how God the Father is, in essence, coming out of hiding. God is speaking clearly, forming the Israelites into his chosen people, giving them the law. The Father reveals to them his filial concern and abiding love for his children.
Then, the second person of the Trinity appears when the time is right. Our Lord is made incarnate and reveals even more clearly that the Trinity is a relationship of persons, a father and a son, and that the Trinity has broken itself open and poured out its love upon humanity.
Finally, before he leaves Our Lord promises the arrival of the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Now God not only walks among us as a fellow human being, but he rests in the very hearts of those who invite him in.
First, the Father, then the Son, then the Holy Spirit until the entire Trinity is arrayed before us. Each revelation drawing us closer as God makes himself more and more vulnerable. Each further intermingling of God’s life with ours is a step out of the darkness and into the light. He’s holding nothing back, and if he is, ultimately, unknowable this is because he has no end and every time we come closer to him he has more to reveal.
Through the power of the Spirit we are joint heirs with Christ, children of the same Father, meaning that the Trinity has drawn us entirely into its mystery. His thoughts are not our thoughts, but his heart speaks to ours.
Behold, says Our Lord, I am with until the end of the age.