NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL FEAST OF THE HOLY TRINITY
JOHN 16: 12-15 Link to all three readings at Bishops’ site
Jesus said to his disciples:
"I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.
But when he comes, the Spirit of truth,
he will guide you to all truth.
He will not speak on his own,
but he will speak what he hears,
and will declare to you the things that are coming.
He will glorify me,
because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.
Everything that the Father has is mine;
for this reason I told you that he will take from what is mine
and declare it to you."
The Feast of the Trinity has an interesting history in the Church. It is not a feast that dates to antiquity. In fact, in the pre-1970 Missal there is a format for the “First Sunday after Pentecost” though the Missal instructs that it be used during the week as the Feast of the Trinity replaces it. The establishment of the liturgical feast of the Trinity took nearly a millennium; the very use of the term “Holy Trinity” was not formalized until the time of the Great Councils (325-451 A.D.) though the phrase “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is found in the Scriptures. Sunday’s Gospel from John is a good example of the earliest thinking about the nature of God. Christians were accustomed to thinking of God in a three-fold way, particularly in proclaiming Jesus as Lord.
The integrity of a three-fold God came under fire with the appearance of the Arian Heresy of the fourth century, the contention that Jesus was not truly divine. The Emperor Constantine summoned bishops to a council at Nicaea in 325 A.D., which defined the divinity of Christ. Other councils were summoned to formalize definitions of the nature and relationship of the Godhead, culminating in the Council of Chalcedon in 451. After the Councils the Church began to promote devotion to God under the title of “Trinity,” for both devotional and educational motivations. Written traces of public prayers have been discovered throughout Western Europe from the time of the Dark Ages through the medieval era, and a formulary for a votive or private Mass of the Trinity dates to around 800 A.D. In monasteries in Germany and France the custom arose of a feast of the Trinity on the Sunday after Pentecost.
However, Rome resisted the innovation. According to liturgical historian Adolf Adam, Pope Alexander II (d. 1077) is reported to have said that no particular day should be especially devoted to a feast of the Blessed Trinity, any more than to a feast of the Blessed Unity (of God’s three persona), since the commemoration of both was celebrated every Sunday and even daily. It would be almost another three centuries before one of history’s most controversial popes, John XXII, introduced the feast to the universal Church during his exile in Avignon, France in 1334. (p. 167ff) John XXII was attempting to suppress the Franciscan Order during his reign, and his writings about the beatific vision were considered marginally heretical. It may be that establishing the feast of the Trinity, as well as canonizing St. Thomas Aquinas, won him some measure of redemption in the Church.
John XXII is long dead (and perhaps discovered to his delight that his writings about seeing God immediately after death were wrong) but the Feast of the Trinity remains. Homilists, preachers, and catechists have labored ad infinitum to explain the feast (difficult) without claiming to explain the Trinity itself (impossible). I came across an interesting understanding of this feast from an obscure saint, Rupert: “As soon as we have celebrated the Advent of the Holy Ghost, we celebrate in song the Feast of the Holy Trinity in the office of the following Sunday. The place is well chosen, for immediately after the descent of this divine Spirit, began the preaching and belief, and, through Baptism, faith and confession in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”
There is considerable realism and theological insight in Rupert’s description of the feast. From Luke’s account of Acts 2 it is clear that the Church understood its mission to preach the threefold reality of God and to baptize in the name of each persona, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Located where it is, immediately after Pentecost, Trinity Sunday celebrates the “content” of Apostolic preaching and the “detail” of the Church’s work. It would seem that among the aspects of Sunday’s feast is a celebration of what the Spirit has enabled the Church to do.
In Thomas Aquinas’s day, to be sure, and even among the works of post-Enlightenment philosophers, there exists a principle of sorts that our sense of mystery about God—or our hunger to know what is beyond our ken, as the reality of the Trinity, for example—is somehow a proof or at least an indication of God’s existence. A thoughtful person is from time to time overwhelmed by what he or she does not know. Some will approach this existential unrest by domesticating it in a variety of ways. In the case of the Trinity, I was catechized to believe that the formula “three persons in one God” was a test of my blind faith. In other words, an eternal mystery was reduced to a loyalty pledge, if you will.
What I do not see very often in catechetics is the free reign of personal mystery. The Church has always found the human experience of divine mystery unnerving. The above-named Pope John XXII found himself in conflict with the “spiritual wing” of the Franciscan Order, a group whose mystical experiences from reading the Gospel and the Rule of St. Francis led them to believe that the Church approved rule was a violation of the wishes of Francis and even Jesus himself. Such experiences led to serious suspicion of personal mystical experience. In fairness, I know of persons who under the guise of meditational communion with God are pushing personal agendas, which is why the old maxim “by their fruits ye shall know them” is as valid today as it has ever been.
All the same, exercise of the religious gifts of wonder and imagination, true gifts of the Spirit, are what energizes the creed and the worship of the Church. To reflect upon God and his works—as Father, Son, and Spirit—is absolutely necessary to animate the “things” we do as Catholic. Martin Luther, himself a mystic, never abandoned the Church teaching on sacraments, in large part because of his profound personal experiences of each. To let the mind soar to thoughts of our origins (Father), the infinite extent of love (Son), and personal potential and destiny (Spirit) to the point of quickening pulse and oblivion to distractions is communion with God—and probably the entire point of a feast of the Godhead.