May 31, 2015: Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity (B)

Trinity Sunday BIntroduction

The feast of the Blessed Trinity was introduced in the ninth century and was added to the general calendar of the Church in 1331 by Pope John XXII.

The dogma of faith we celebrate on this feast is this: there is one God and in this one God there are three Divine Persons; the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God. Yet there are not three Gods, but one, eternal, incomprehensible God.

The feast of the Blessed Trinity can be seen as a kind of finale to all the preceding feasts: the mystery of the trinity is a synthesis of Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost.  All three divine Persons contributed to and shared in the work of redemption:

  • The Father sent the Son to earth, for “God so loved the world as to give His only-begotten Son.” The Father called us to the faith.
  • The Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, became man and died for us. He redeemed us and made us children of God.
  • After Christ’s ascension, the Holy Spirit became our Teacher, our Leader, our Guide, our Consoler.

1st Reading – Deuteronomy 4:32-34, 39-40

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.”

On the eve of his death, God charged Moses to again proclaim the Law he received though the revelation at Mount Sinai. This re-proclamation constitutes the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth and last book of the Pentateuch.  The name is derived from the Greek word deuteronomion, or second law – not to indicate a new law, but a second telling of the law.

The recipients of this proclamation are the new generation of Israelites: all those who would have been under age 20 when the great exodus began almost 40 years earlier.

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?

Moses invites them to test the truthfulness of his assertion that God is singularly majestic.

His exaggerated suggestions to search back in time and canvass the entire heavens are a way of suggesting that the mighty deeds of God are not only unprecedented in history, they are also unparalleled in the universe.

Did a people ever hear the voice of God speaking from the midst of fire, as you did, and live?

An allusion to the bush that continued burning without being consumed by the fire, from which God spoke directly to Moses (Exodus 3:2).

The Israelites also heard the voice of God in the thunder at Mount Sinai while Moses was on the mountain.

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 his 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?

The second impressive deed of God was his choice of Israel among all the nations and his deliverance of them from slavery in Egypt.  The testing, signs, and wonders refer to the ten plagues of Egypt and the many signs performed in the desert.

The expression “strong hand and outstretched arm” is a military image that denotes strength and force, in defense and in attack.  In delivering Israel from Egypt, God has acted as a mighty warrior.

Moses is not just reminding them of God’s deliverance, he is also asserting that no other god could have accomplished this.

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,

Moses is speaking to this new generation of Israelites on the plains of Moab, where they are preparing to enter Canaan, the promised land.

Before they make this long awaited step, they must realize that Yahweh is Lord of all: everything in the heavens and on earth, including Canaan and the surrounding nations.

and that there is no other.

Monotheism is arguably Moses’ most daring claim of all.  The God of Israel is not merely a patron god among others; the God of Israel is the only God there is.

This is not a doctrinal statement grounded in a long and careful theoretical development, nor was it merely religious speculation.  It came from human experience, the events that took place in the history of a nation that was otherwise quite common.

You must keep his statutes and commandments which 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.”

Moses admonishes the people to commit themselves to this God who had been so good to them in the past, to accept God’s law and obey it so that he would be equally good to them in the future.

2nd Reading – Romans 8:14-17

Brothers and sisters:
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear,
but you received a Spirit of adoption,
through whom we cry, “Abba, Father!”
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit
that we are children of God,
and if children, then heirs,
heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ,
if only we suffer with him
so that we may also be glorified with him.

In today’s second reading, Paul explains the unique privilege of being children of God.

Brothers and sisters: For those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.

Israelites already believed that they were children of God (Deuteronomy 14:1); however, in that earlier tradition, the idea of children of God was associated with obedience to the law, not being “led by the Spirit.”

“If you put your confidence in baptism to the point that you neglect your behavior after it, Paul says that, even if you are baptized, if you are not led by the Spirit afterward you will lose the dignity bestowed on you and the honor of your adoption. This is why he does not talk about those who received the Spirit in the past but rather about those who are being led by the Spirit now.” [Saint John Chrysostom (ca. A.D. 391), Homilies on the Epistle to the Romans, 14].

For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption,

Saint Paul is playing on the meanings of pneuma (Greek), which is translated as “spirit,” by using three distinct senses of the word:

The “Spirit of God” is a divine reality, which activates, or compels us, to do God’s will.

The “spirit of slavery” is a disposition or a mentality.  Slaves obey blindly, out of fear, without knowing their master’s plan. Vitalized and filled by God’s Spirit, the Christian cannot possess the attitude of a slave, because he freely commits himself to God and submits to his plan.

The “spirit of adoption” is a relationship. This obviously doesn’t refer to legal adoption, but God has taken us unto himself with the status of a child, rather than of a slave (who belonged to the household but had no family rights or inheritance).

through which we cry, “Abba, Father!”

The Aramaic “Abba” is a familial, colloquial term of intimacy for one’s father.  In modern terms, it might be translated to “Dad” or “Daddy.” Having been taken into the family of God, we enjoy the status of being his children, and as such, have the right to call God “Father,” or “Daddy.”

“We have received the Spirit to enable us to know the one to whom we pray, our real Father, the one and only Father of all, that is, the one who like a Father educates us for salvation and does away with fear.” [Saint Clement of Alexandria (post A.D. 202), Stromateis, 2.78].

The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,

According to the law, two witnesses were required to corroborate the truth of a story.  Paul is making bold claims here, so he calls on witnesses to confirm the truth.  His two witnesses are the Spirit of God and our own spirit, which together testify to our status as children of God.

“The Spirit of adoption … bears witness and assures our spirits that we are children of God after we have passed from the spirit of slavery and come under the Spirit of adoption, when all fear has departed. We no longer act out of fear of punishment but do everything out of love for the Father. It is right too that the Spirit of God should be said to bear witness with our spirits and not with our souls, because the spirit is our better part.” [Origin (post A.D. 244), Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans].

and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ,

If we are true children of God, then we are also heirs.  But heirs to what?  Certainly heirs to heaven and its rewards, but perhaps (although the text is not explicit) also heirs to the very inheritance to which Jesus is heir – the glory of God in the coming reign of God.

if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Whatever our inheritance may be, it is only gained through suffering.  It is our complete union with Jesus, including his passion, that entitles us to privileges.  As his co-heirs, we must walk in his footsteps.

“Here ‘suffer with him’ does not mean that we should sympathize and come to the aid of the sufferer, as it usually does in everyday parlance. Christ did not suffer in order to get attention, nor did He undergo weakness in order to gain the sympathy of those who felt sorry for Him. To suffer with Christ means to endure the same sufferings that He was forced to suffer by the Jews because He preached the gospel. … If we suffer with Him we shall be worthy to be glorified with Him as well. This glory is the reward of our sufferings and is not to be regarded as a free gift. The free gift is that we have received remission of our former sins.” [Diodore of Tarsus (ca. A.D. 345), Pauline Commentary from the Greek Church].

Gospel – Matthew 28:16-20

The eleven disciples went to Galilee,
to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.
When they all saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.
Then Jesus approached and said to them,
“All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father,
and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

Our gospel reading for today is comprised of the last five verses of Matthew’s gospel.  This climactic scene has been called a “proleptic parousia,” because it gives a foretaste of the final glorious coming of the Son of Man.  At that time, his triumph will be manifest to all; here it is revealed only to the disciples, who are commissioned to announce it to all nations.

The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.

“Eleven” acknowledges the tragic defection of Judas Iscariot, who had hanged himself (Matthew 27:5).  As with the mount of the transfiguration, the identity of the specific mountain is not known.

In the verses just prior to this passage, Jesus tells the disciples to meet him in Galilee, where his ministry had begun.  This helped to assure any doubters among them that he was the same Jesus whom they had previously known.

When they saw him, they worshiped,

This is the first time that the action of supreme worship of Jesus as God is mentioned in connection with the disciples, though the women had offered the same homage to him (Matthew 28:9).

but they doubted.

The Greek can also be translated, “but some doubted.”  The verb occurs elsewhere in the New Testament only in Matthew 14:31, where it is associated with Peter’s being “of little faith.”  It is used to indicate that they have faith, but their faith is not as deep as it should be.

In other words, they see Jesus and worship him, but not with full understanding.

Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

Again reminiscent of the transfiguration.  Jesus declared that all power in heaven and earth had been given to him, a reference to the Son of Man, who was exalted by God and granted eschatological authority (Daniel 7:14).

“In heaven and on earth” indicates the scope and universality of his power.

Go, therefore,

Employing that power, he commissions them.

and make disciples of all nations,

The great missionary commission is straightforward and all-encompassing: go out and make disciples of all nations.  All social and cultural boundaries are dissolved; ethnic and gender restrictions are lifted.

The universality of this commission has challenged believers from the time of its utterance to our very day.

baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.

The way to accomplish their mission is twofold: baptizing and teaching.

The trinitarian formula for baptism synthesizes elements already found in Jesus’ teaching. He spoke of God as his father (Matthew 11:25-27), and indicated the intimate relationship between them.  He also spoke of the Spirit who came upon him at his baptism (Matthew 3:16) and through whose power he cast out demons (12:28-32).  It is in this threefold name (one name, not three) that the disciples are to baptize.

This is perhaps the clearest expression in the New Testament of trinitarian belief, which designates the effect of baptism: the union of the one baptized with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The teaching referred to here is moral rather than doctrinal.  Those who hear the teaching are to observe his commandments, and in so doing, lead a radically different way of life.

And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

The phrase “the end of the age” is found only in Matthew.

Matthew’s gospel closes by echoing its introduction, where he explained that Jesus is Emmanuel (Matthew 1:23), “God with us.” Although he will physically depart from them, he will continue to be Emmanuel until the end of time.

Connections and Themes

Who is God? From tiny subatomic particles to the galactic expanses of the universe, all of creation cries out in splendor and majesty and glory.  Believers and non-believers alike are captivated by the grandeur of it all.  Some of those who gaze in awe wonder about its origin and its ability to sustain itself.  Surely there must be a creator, and what a creator there must be!  All creation proclaims the glory of God.  But who is this God, the creator of all things?

The first reading shows that God has revealed himself as one who desires an intimate relationship with people, who is willing protect and guide them, who forgives their disloyalty time and again.

In the second reading, Paul gives us an insight to the workings of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit leads us to become children of God, and as such, we become joined with Christ in his suffering and glory.

And in the gospel reading, we learn that Christ has been given all the authority in heaven and on earth, and hear his promise to be with us until the end of time.

All these are mere glimpses into the resplendent nature of our triune God, whose love for us is beyond human understanding.

God With Us, God For Us.   The little that we know about God’s own self, we know from Jesus.  He has told us about the divine procession: the Son proceeding from the Father and Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son.  He is the one who has told us that the Spirit is his Spirit.  We may only know about the mystery of God from Jesus, but we know about God from our own experience.  We know that God creates because we are immersed in creation.  We know that God saves because we have been freed from the bondage of our addictions, from the tyranny of our demons.  We know that God sustains because we are cared for by the very world within which we live.

Our experience tells us that God is with us.  More than this, it tells us that God is for us.  Everything we know about this phenomenal, resplendent, incomprehensible (words are empty to describe God) deity declares that God is passionately, boundlessly in love with us!

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