Jun 11, 2017: Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity (A)

Introduction

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

The dogma of faith which forms the object of the 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.

This feast 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. It acknowledges the contributions of all three divine Persons to the work of redemption:

  • The Father sent his 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 – Exodus 34:4b-6, 8-9

Early in the morning Moses went up Mount Sinai
as the LORD had commanded him,
taking along the two stone tablets.

Having come down in a cloud, the LORD stood with Moses there
and proclaimed his name, “LORD.”
Thus the LORD passed before him and cried out,
“The LORD, the LORD, a merciful and gracious God,
slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity.”
Moses at once bowed down to the ground in worship.
Then he said, “If I find favor with you, O Lord,
do come along in our company.
This is indeed a stiff-necked people; yet pardon our wickedness and sins,
and receive us as your own.”

Prior to this reading, Moses led the people out of Egypt and through the desert to Mount Sinai.  Moses ascended and remained on Mount Sinai for forty days, during which time he received the ten commandments in stone.  When he descended, he found the Israelites worshiping the golden calf, and smashed the stone tablets. Moses pleads with God not to destroy the Israelites for their sin, and God relents.  God then commands Moses to make two new tablets and bring them up the mountain.

Today’s reading is a report of Moses’ encounter with God that follows, which is rich with covenantal language and meaning.

Early the next morning he went up Mount Sinai as the LORD had commanded him, taking along the two stone tablets. Having come down in a cloud,

This cloud both reveals and conceals the presence of God.  Throughout the people’s journey in the wilderness the presence of God was signified by the pillar of cloud, which they followed (Exodus 13:21).

the LORD stood with him there and proclaimed his name, “LORD.”

Unlike the earlier account in Exodus 3:13-15, Moses does not ask for God’s personal name.  Nonetheless, God reveals it: YHWH (“the Lord”)!

Thus the LORD passed before him and cried out, “The LORD, the LORD, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity.”

Since names were believed to contain withing them part of the very essence of the person named, what follows is considered to be an explanation of what God’s personal name means.  The explanatory phrase is not really an interpretation of the name itself, but a description of the divine essence.  It eventually became a creedal recital (Psalm 86:15; Psalm 103:8; Psalm 145:8; Numbers 14:18; Joel 2:13; Nahum 1:3; Nehemiah 9:17; Jonah 4:2).

All of these adjectives are relational (one is merciful toward another, gracious toward another, etc.), indicating that they identify the dispositions of God toward covenant partners.

“Merciful” (rahûm) is womb love, the kind of attachment one has for the child of one’s own body, or from a sibling born from the same womb.

“Gracious” (hannûn) is frequently used as a synonym for compassionate or merciful.

God is said to be “slow to anger,” reluctant to rain divine wrath on those who have violated the covenant relationship.

“Lovingkindness” (hesed) and “fidelity” (ĕmet) characterize the steadfastness with which God clings to the covenant partners.

Moses at once bowed down to the ground in worship.

Moses’ response to this spectacular revelation is worship; he prostrates himself in profound adoration.

Then he said, “If I find favor with you, O Lord, do come along in our company. This is indeed a stiff-necked people; yet pardon our wickedness and sins, and receive us as your own.”

Moses pleads for the people, referencing the favor (hēn) he trusts that is his in God’s eyes.  He admits that they are difficult and stubborn.  They do not easily follow directions and will test the extraordinary dispositions that characterize God.  Note that despite his admission of their sinfulness, he nonetheless identifies with them: “our company,” “our wickedness,” “receive us.”

When Moses requests that God “receive us as your own,” he is asking that they be God’s own inheritance (nahālâ).  The covenant already established Israel as God’s special people; this appeal suggests that the covenant relationship has been severed or is in jeopardy.

2nd Reading – 2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Brothers and sisters, rejoice.
Mend your ways, encourage one another,
agree with one another, live in peace,
and the God of love and peace will be with you.
Greet one another with a holy kiss.
All the holy ones greet you.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ
and the love of God
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

Our reading today comes from the final three verses of Saint Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, which form a greeting and an exhortation to the hearers.

Brothers and sisters, rejoice.

The passage begins with a typical Pauline exhortation.  The joy Paul advocates is not simply the human sentiment of delight; he is summoning the Corinthians to rejoice in the Lord, to find delight in Christ Jesus.

Mend your ways,

An implication that they have been living at odds with their commitment to Christ.

encourage one another,

Be a comfort to each other rather than a concern.

agree with one another,

Some translations have “be of one mind” here.  Paul is most likely referring to agreement on matters of faith and community order, not merely personal preferences.

This is not an idle statement.  Although it is common to find a variety of opinions and interests in every community, rancorous disagreement can cause serious divisions and lead to factionalism.

live in peace,

A peace that can embrace differences on one level because there is common faith on another, deeper level.

and the God of love and peace will be with you.

If the Corinthians follow his admonitions, they will experience the presence of the God of love and peace.  This is not to say that God’s presence is a reward for their fidelity; Paul consistently insists that it is precisely the grace of God that enables Christians to be faithful in the first place.

Greet one another with a holy kiss.

Saint Paul often ends a letter in this way, perhaps adapting the customary method of greeting a rabbi (see 1 Thessalonians 5:26; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 1 Peter 5:14).

“What is a holy kiss? It is one that is not hypocritical, like the kiss of Judas. The kiss is given in order to stimulate love and instill the right attitude in us toward each other. When we return after an absence, we kiss each other, for our souls hasten to bond together. But there is something else which might be said about this. We are the temple of Christ, and when we kiss each other we are kissing the porch and entrance of the temple.” [Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 392), Homilies on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians 30,2]

All the holy ones greet you.

“Saints” or “holy ones” (hágioi) is a common reference to members of the Christian community, those who have been joined to Jesus through faith and baptism.

Paul is stating that the Christians who are with him join him in greeting the Christians in Corinth, reminding them of the much broader community of believers with whom they are united.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the holy Spirit be with all of you.

In all of the Pauline epistles, this is the richest and most instructive final blessing, and is clearly trinitarian in character.  It notes the gift of grace, received through Jesus Christ; the love God has for all of creation, which is the source of all good things; and the community of the Holy Spirit, within which believers are rooted.

There is no more meaningful benediction with which Paul might end his letter.

“If there is one grace, one peace, one love and one fellowship on the part of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, surely there is one operation, and where there is one operation, certainly the power cannot be divided or the substance separated.” [Saint Ambrose of Milan (A.D. 381), The Holy Spirit 1,12,13]

Gospel – John 3:16-18

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him.
Whoever believes in him will not be condemned,
but whoever does not believe has already been condemned,
because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

Our reading for today comes from the much larger story of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus (John 3:1-21), to whom he is explaining the extent of God’s love.

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,

The scope of divine love is described.  God’s love for the world is so deep and so magnanimous that, for the world to be saved, nothing is spared, not even God’s only Son.

The word here for “gave” is dídōmi, a verb associated specifically with the giving of a gift.  This Son was truly a gift from God, a statement which underscores his immense and unparalleled generosity.

Ancient Israel continually marveled at the love God had for his chosen people; however, this passage is remarkable in its explicit declaration of God’s love for the entire world.

so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.

Those who believe are saved; those who do not believe call down judgment upon themselves.

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

The world was created as good, but it often stands in opposition to God and consequently is in need of being saved.

The verb for “send” is apostéllō, indicating that the Son had a sacred, all-encompassing mission to fulfill — highlighting serious responsibility.

Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

As noted in our discussion of the first reading, in the Jewish culture, one’s name shares the full identity of its bearer.  When baptized “in the name” of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the person becomes a member of God’s family and is invested with the power and authority of that family. One who rejects the name rejects all that it entails and already stands condemned.

Connections and Themes

The Most Holy Trinity.  The Trinity is a fascinating mystery that continues to capture our imagination.  How can three persons constitute one God?  The Catechism of the Catholic Church outlines the dogma of the Holy Trinity this way:

253 The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons, the “consubstantial Trinity”. The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God whole and entire: “The Father is that which the Son is, the Son that which the Father is, the Father and the Son that which the Holy Spirit is, i.e. by nature one God.” In the words of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), “Each of the persons is that supreme reality, viz., the divine substance, essence or nature.”

254 The divine persons are really distinct from one another. “God is one but not solitary.” “Father”, “Son”, “Holy Spirit” are not simply names designating modalities of the divine being, for they are really distinct from one another: “He is not the Father who is the Son, nor is the Son he who is the Father, nor is the Holy Spirit he who is the Father or the Son.” They are distinct from one another in their relations of origin: “It is the Father who generates, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds.” The divine Unity is Triune.

255 The divine persons are relative to one another. Because it does not divide the divine unity, the real distinction of the persons from one another resides solely in the relationships which relate them to one another: “In the relational names of the persons the Father is related to the Son, the Son to the Father, and the Holy Spirit to both. While they are called three persons in view of their relations, we believe in one nature or substance.” Indeed “everything (in them) is one where there is no opposition of relationship.” “Because of that unity the Father is wholly in the Son and wholly in the Holy Spirit; the Son is wholly in the Father and wholly in the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is wholly in the Father and wholly in the Son.”

The challenge of faith placed before us by this feast is not one of comprehension, for try as we might, we will never really understand the mystery of the Trinity.  Rather, it is a challenge of acceptance.  We are invited to believe in God’s tender working in our lives, and such conviction should prompt us to live out fully that faith.  Paul exhorts us to do just that in today’s second reading.

This is more a day for humble gratitude and renewed commitment than for theological speculation, as important as such speculation may be.  As we reflect on God’s goodness in our lives, we will begin to appreciate Moses’ response: the mystery of God’s goodness overwhelmed him and he fell prostrate in worship.  We have all been touched by God’s grace, love, and fellowship, and so we all have much for which to be grateful.

Gracious and merciful.  The God who is beyond our comprehension is also the God who has reached down into the chaos of our world in order to save us.  We see this in both the first reading and the gospel.  The covenant language in the reading from Exodus underscores God’s unfathomable goodness.  God’s graciousness and mercy are not rewards for our fidelity; they are instead extended to us in our sinfulness.  It is God’s saving grace that transforms us, not any merit on our part.  In the gospel, we are assured that Jesus was sent into the world to save it, not to condemn it.  Such openness and love is so unlike human sentiments, it’s no wonder that all we can do is stand in awe.  Our inability to express adequately this exaltation is itself praise of God — it is an acknowledgement of God’s surpassing glory.

A trinity of unity. The trinitarian phrase found in the letter to the Corinthians is so expressive of the love God has for us that it has been incorporated regularly into the liturgy.  It declares that through his death and resurrection, Jesus has opened for us the treasury of divine grace.  It also proclaims that the love of God has forged the bonds of community that unite us.  Created in the image and after the likeness of this God, we are called to unity among ourselves.  As incomprehensible as it may seem, it is primarily through the unity we share that we will manifest the unity that exists in God.

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