NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: DEUTERONOMY 4: 32-34; 39-40
THE SOLEMNITY OF THE MOST HOLY TRINITY [B]
USCCB link to all three readings.
Moses said to the people:
"Ask now of the days of old, before your time,
ever since God created man upon the earth;
ask from one end of the sky to the other:
Did anything so great ever happen before?
Was it ever heard of?
Did a people ever hear the voice of God
speaking from the midst of fire, as you did, and live?
Or did any god venture to go and take a nation for himself
from the midst of another nation,
by testings, by signs and wonders, by war,
with strong hand and outstretched arm, and by great terrors,
all of which the LORD, your God,
did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?
This is why you must now know,
and fix in your heart, that the LORD is God
in the heavens above and on earth below,
and that there is no other.
You must keep his statutes and commandments that I enjoin on you today,
that you and your children after you may prosper,
and that you may have long life on the land
which the LORD, your God, is giving you forever."
Although the Easter Season ended formally at the end of Vespers II or evening prayer last Sunday, May 20, and Ordinary Time [in its seventh week] resumed where it left off on Mardi Gras Tuesday, there is still no shortage of feasts to observe over the next three weeks. In addition to Trinity Sunday this weekend, the Feast of Corpus Christi is observed on Sunday, June 3. The Feast of the Sacred Heart is Friday, June 8, and in 2018 the Feast of St. John the Baptist falls on Sunday, June 24. It is too bad, I suppose, that we can’t spread out the wealth into the dog days of summer to spice up Ordinary Time, but behind each feast is a long and complicated history.
Trinity Sunday deserves considerable attention, because at its face the observance looks like a Feast of God. Presumably this is what every Mass observes, Sundays and weekdays, and as early as 1000 A.D. there was opposition to introducing this feast for universal observance. The first local observances began in Spain and Gaul (modern France) in the 600’s and the 700’s A.D. These regions worried about the ongoing heresy of Arianism, which denied the unity of three divine persons by asserting that God the Father had created Jesus, and thus Jesus could never be equal to God. The thought behind Arianism is still alive today in Unitarian churches, among others; Islamic theology holds a doctrine of one God and does not recognize Mohammed as a divine being.
The French and Spanish clergy preached devotion to God as a Trinity through the end of the Dark Ages, though the doctrine had been defined in the Christological Councils of the fourth and fifth centuries (Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon). By 1000 A.D. a feast devoted to the Trinity was established in the far western reaches of the Church celebrated on the Sunday after Pentecost. Pope Alexander (d. 1077) probably spoke for much of the Church, however, when he discouraged such a feast, observing that if the Church instituted a feast of the Trinity, it would have to observe a corresponding feast of the Blessed Unity as well. Adolf Adam, The Liturgical Year (1981), p. 167. Pope John XXII would eventually establish this feast universally in 1334.
Adams admits that the pastoral understanding of this feast has shifted over the second millennium, and not necessarily for the better. At the time of the institution of the feast on the first Sunday after the Easter Season, Trinity Sunday was a time to look back on the glorious work of all three persons of the Trinity in the glorious work of our Redemption. It was a day to reflect upon the Father giving us his Son, the Son offering his life for us, the Father raising the Son from death, and the Son breathing the Holy Spirit upon the disciples on Easter Sunday night. In other words, salvation was and is understood as a Trinitarian event. In fact, until 1970 Trinity Sunday was considered the final Sunday of Easter.
I should interject here that since medieval times there is a Church Canon requiring all Catholics to receive Holy Communion and make a good confession at least once a year, and this was elaborated to completing these deeds during the Easter Season, i.e., from the First Sunday of Lent to Trinity Sunday. This is what I was taught in 1956, and as a first communicant it was hard for me to picture a guy rushing up to communion at the last Mass of Trinity Sunday. The new code of Canon Law, the 1983 revision, states in Canon 920 that all the faithful are bound to receive the Eucharist annually, optimally during the Easter Season. However, this law is universally regarded as a minimalist bar of sacramental separation. The new code makes no mention of Trinity Sunday.
In medieval times and even down through today the concept of a unified working Trinity was deemphasized in favor of assigning functions to the members of the Trinity. God the Father is creator, God the Son is Redeemer, God the Holy Spirit is Sanctified. There may be a pedagogical advantage to teaching the Trinity in this fashion, but it is not good Biblical theology. As my pastor observed in his sermon last Sunday, the [Holy] Spirit brought order out of chaos in Chapter 1 of Genesis, the first Creation account.
The Lectionary readings for the three-year cycle of the feast of the Trinity oscillate between the glory of the One God and the multiple glories of his manifestations. Our first reading on Sunday is from Deuteronomy; although it is just the fifth book of the Old Testament, it was written much later, perhaps 600 B.C., at a time in history when Israel was actively engaging with cultures and religions of multiple gods. The sacred writer pens a farewell address from Moses shortly before his death with emphasizes the unity of God, to distinguish the One all-powerful God from the panoply of domesticated gods of Israel’s neighbors. There is little hint here on a trinitarian theme, nor should we expect to find one at this stage of God’s Revelation.
The Gospel from Matthew 28 is the first explicit mention of the idea of Trinity. In the closing of this Gospel, often called “The Great Commissioning,” Jesus dispatches his disciples to the corners of the earth to preach and to baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Put another way, a candidate for baptism is saved by the intervention of all three persons of the Trinity, which is as it should be.