GOSPEL, FIRST READING & PSALM TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
It's the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity.
And yet at the same time that I say that, I also can imagine that this might be one of the most dreaded Sundays for preachers because we come up against this great mystery of God, the one God in three divine persons.
And so one of the things that priests and deacons have told me is that this is a tough Sunday to preach, especially since when you look at the actual readings that are chosen for Trinity Sunday, it's not always at first immediately apparent why these readings were selected and how to draw out the teaching of the Church on the Trinity from these particular readings.
So in this video what I am going to try to do is especially give some help to anyone out there who's having to preach on the mystery of the Trinity, because it is daunting, because this is a great mystery.
I want to begin our reflection on this Sunday first not with the readings themselves, but with a paragraph from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
There's a beautiful section on the Trinity in the Catechism which gives you a kind of summary of the Church's teaching on this mystery.
It is paragraphs 232-260, and there's one paragraph in particular that stands out for me.
It is Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 234, and this is what it says about the mystery of the Trinity:
The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them. It is the most fundamental and essential teaching in the “hierarchy of the truths of faith.”
That is a really strong statement.
I know before I started to study theology, if you had asked me what is the central mystery of the Christian faith, I probably would've said “well, it's the Eucharist, the source and summit of the Christian life.”
Or maybe I would have said it is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead or maybe even his atonement on the cross or something like that.
But that's not what the Church teaches, the Church teaches that the Trinity is the central mystery.
The mystery of God in himself; one God, three persons, is the central mystery of the Christian faith.
And yet for many of us, when we come up against the Trinity, we don’t know what to do with it.
For some people, they almost treat it as if it's a kind of a math problem, like
1×1×1 = 1, or you will hear different analogies used — like the clover or whatever — that actually can be sometimes misleading, trying to explain mystery of the Trinity.
And yet the Catechism says right here — and you can see this even if you just look at our life, our devotional life as Catholics, think about it for second.
The beginning of our life as a Christian is us being baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; and every time we enter a Church we dip our fingers into the water and we make the sign…we call it the sign of the cross, but it is also the sign of the Trinity.
It's in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, so even in those two moments, Baptism and the sign of the cross, these two most fundamental elements of Christian devotion tell us that Christianity isn't just about the cross.
It's about the Trinity, because the Trinity is the mystery of who God is in himself.
The cross is the mystery of what he's done for us, but the Trinity is the mystery of who he is.
And so what I want to do is look at the readings for this Sunday with that focus in mind, the centrality of the mystery of the Trinity, and see if we can unpack them in that light.
So what I want to do today is a little different.
Instead of beginning with the Gospel, I want to start with the Old Testament reading.
So let's go back to the book of Exodus 34, which is the reading for this Sunday.
This is the famous story of the Lord appearing to Moses on Mount Sinai after the destruction of the two tablets of the Ten Commandments.
So if you recall, Moses breaks the tablets when he finds the Israelites committing idolatry and then he has to go back up the mountain in order to get a new set.
And so in that context, in Exodus 34:4, we read these words:
So Moses cut two tables of stone like the first; and he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the LORD had commanded him, and took in his hand two tables of stone.
And the LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD.
Whenever you see the English word LORD in all caps, it is the sacred divine name YHWH, what’s called the tetragrammaton, those four holy letters that the Jewish people didn't actually pronounce.
We are not even quite sure how it's pronounced, but it's the name of the Lord, the personal name of the God of Israel…and it says:
The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” And Moses made haste to bow his head toward the earth, and worshiped.
And he said, "If now I have found favor in thy sight, O Lord, let the Lord, I pray thee, go in the midst of us, although it is a stiff-necked people; and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for thy inheritance."
You can understand why someone trying to preach this might be wondering what does this have to do with Trinity?
It is not clearly a reference to the Trinity.
If you just look at the literal sense of the text in its context, this is an account of Moses meeting God on Mount Sinai in order to get two new tablets of the Ten Commandments, so what does that have to do with Trinity?
Well if you read the text according to its spiritual sense, you are going to see something a little different.
In other words, one of the things that the ancient Church Father's knew is that although the Most Holy Trinity, the mystery of the Trinity, was not fully revealed until Pentecost, God allowed signs and shadows, and kind of hints of the mystery of the Trinity to be slowly revealed over the course of time in the Old Testament.
And when we go back and look at them through the light of the New Testament, we can see some clues and some signs of the mystery of the Trinity in these passages of the Old Testament.
So in this case, there are two key signs here.
First and foremost, notice verse 5 says “the Lord descended in the cloud.”
Now if you look at Scripture from beginning to end, from Old Testament to New, whenever you see God coming in the cloud, whenever you see the cloud, this is always a symbol or an image for the spirit of God.
You will see this in the New Testament on multiple occasions.
Like in the feast of the Transfiguration, when God comes down upon the mountain, the Father speaks, “this is my beloved son,” the son is present, and his presence comes upon Jesus and the disciples “in a cloud,” they are overshadowed by a cloud.
And so that cloud there is a mystery of the Holy Spirit.
So you’ll see the connection between the cloud over and over again.
The Catechism actually says this in paragraph 697, that the cloud is a symbol for the Spirit.
Secondly, and this is even more interesting, when you see the Lord coming, notice what happens here.
It says “the LORD stood with Moses there.”
Now I think most of us when we see “the LORD” in the Old Testament, not without good reason, we just assume that means God the Father, that “The LORD” is the name of the Father.
But remember in the New Testament, Lord is one of the principal titles for Jesus, for the Son.
So in ancient Christian tradition, this is going all the way back to the Church Fathers — like Justin Martyr for example or Irenaeus — whenever they saw appearances of God, whenever the Lord would come down — especially if he appeared as a man, like the three men who come to Abraham in Genesis 18-19 — whenever those occurrences would happen, the ancient Church Fathers always said that that actually was the Son, in a sense, coming to humanity to speak to them, to appear to them, not in an incarnate way, but in a kind of way that prefigured what would ultimately happen in the incarnation.
So what do we have here?
The cloud symbolizes the Spirit and the Lord is an image for the Son, or for the second person of the Trinity, for the word.
And you don't have to take my word for this, you can actually again look at the Catechism, because in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 707, it gives us a hint as to how to interpret these ancient appearances of God in the Old Testament.
This is what the Catechism says:
Theophanies (manifestations of God) light up the way of the promise, from the patriarchs to Moses and from Joshua to the visions that inaugurated the missions of the great prophets. Christian tradition has always recognized that God's Word allowed himself to be seen and heard in these theophanies, in which the cloud of the Holy Spirit both revealed him and concealed him in its shadow.
This is a fascinating passage in the Catechism.
Notice what it is saying here.
The Word, the second person of the Trinity, also known as the Son, who would eventually become incarnate as Jesus Christ, would appear in the Old Testament often in and with the cloud, which was the Holy Spirit, both concealing and revealing the divine person.
So what you have in the Old Testament is these two divine persons, the Word and the Spirit, the Son and the Spirit, acting together in the theophanies, in the revelations, of God to patriarchs, to Moses, and to the Prophets.
So they are encountering the persons of the Trinity, but in such a way that they're still hidden and it is not fully revealed.
So when the Church picks a theophany for the feast of the Most Holy Trinity, it's reflecting that tradition of seeing these as a sign, as a shadow, of the fullness of the mystery of the Trinity that will be revealed in the New Testament, and as the appearance, in a sense, of two of the persons of the Trinity, the Word an the Spirit, or the Son and the Spirit.
Before I move on just a brief caveat because I want to be clear on this, this is not to say that Jesus became incarnate in the Old Testament — some people have made that error.
is not what we are saying.
We are saying that God comes and reveals himself, the tri-personal God, the three-person God, Father, son and Holy Spirit, that the Son and the Spirit in a special way come into the world to reveal God to the prophets and the patriarchs.
SECOND READING TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
Now that’s all just kind of background. The primary reason that this section is read for the feast of the Most Holy Trinity is the last verse there. When Paul greets the Corinthians and says:
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
That final greeting there, in that final greeting, we see a clear distinction between the three persons of the Holy Trinity—the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ (so there’s the second person, the Son), the love of God (which is a reference to the first person). For Paul, just as a side note, Paul does not often use the language of “the Father” in the way that Jesus does. So if you look at the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks about “the Father”—the heavenly Father, the Father, your Father, my Father—over and over and over again. And in the Gospels, He does it almost...I know it’s over 60, but it’s somewhere between 60 and 100 times. He just always refers to the Father, with a definite article.
Paul’s preference is to talk about the Lord Jesus and to talk about God and implying that the God to whom he refers is God the Father. So whenever you’re reading Paul, whenever you see the word God, you can actually kind of like add or supplement the word God the Father, and you’ll often be able to make sense of to whom he’s referring. So he’ll talk about the Lord Jesus and God. Obviously, Paul believes that the Lord Jesus is God in the sense that He is divine, but he will distinguish between God the Son (the Lord Jesus Christ) and then God the Father...who he will frequently just call God.
So “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” (second person of the Trinity), “the love of God” (the Father, first person), and then “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (third person of the Trinity)... “be with you all.”
Now that last line there, “fellowship of the Holy Spirit” is actually an important phrase. So if you’re like me and you grew up in the late twentieth century, when you hear the word “fellowship,” you probably think of J.R. R. Tolkien’s classic work The Fellowship of the Ring
—because fellowship is a bit of an archaic term. Although, in many Protestant Christian circles today, it’s still very much used to describe the fellowship between believers—in other words, the time spent with other believers in which we build one another up, have social bonding and prayer and growth together in the Body of Christ. So in Protestant Christian circles, it’s customary to talk about having a good time of fellowship...which is a beautiful way of expressing that. But it is a little archaic, so in some translations you’ll either see “fellowship” or you’ll see the “communion of the Holy Spirit.”
Now that word in contemporary Catholic circles also has its own set of connotations. So if I say the word “communion” without any further qualification, you’ll probably be inclined to think of the Sacrament of Holy Communion—that is the Eucharist. But that’s not what Paul is referring to here, in context.
So the Greek word that Paul uses here in context is koinōnia
It comes from the Greek word koinos,
that means “common.” So when a person has fellowship or communion or koinōnia
with someone else, it means we have something in common. And in this case, the thing that we have in common—or the person that we have in common—is the Holy Spirit. So the koinōnia
, the communion of the Holy Spirit, is the fellowship that the saints, that Christians possess with one another through the common gift of the Holy Spirit that they’ve all received in Baptism. It’s the bond that unites those who are members of the mystical Body of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.
So Paul here is finishing his greeting by doing two things. First, he’s speaking about the three distinct persons of the Holy Spirit. Although notice, he treats them all as unified. The way the grammar of the sentence works, it’s:
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit…
He wraps them all up together:
...be with you all.
So we have all three persons, and this is in effect, then, a trinitarian greeting. It’s a trinitarian conclusion to the letter of 2 Corinthians.
Now you don’t have to take my word for it. You can actually look at the words of St. John Chrysostom. We’ve mentioned St. John Chrysostom before. He was one of the first people to write a commentary. His commentary on 2 Corinthians—which may actually be the earliest commentary on 2 Corinthians, now that I’m thinking about it. Chrysostom might be the first to do that, because it’s not one of Paul’s more popular letters. In his commentary on that, St. John Chrysostom says this about the final greeting, so listen to his words. He’s writing to the 4th century Christians living in Constantinople. He’s preaching through the letters of Paul, kind of like we’re doing in the second readings of the lectionary. And when he gets to the end of 2 Corinthians, this is what John Chrysostom has to say:
Paul closes his letter with prayer, taking great care to unite them all with God. Those who claim that the Holy Spirit is not God because he is not inserted with the Father and the Son at the beginning of Paul’s letters are sufficiently refuted by this verse. All that belongs to the Trinity is undivided. Where the fellowship is of the Spirit, it is also of the Son, and where the grace is of the Son, it is also of the Father and the Spirit. I say these things without confusing the distinctiveness of the Persons but recognizing both their individual and the unity of their common substance.
Chrysostom’s Homilies on 2 Corinthians,
paragraph 30. And for our purposes here, the main aspect of that that I think that’s interesting and significant is Chrysostom pointing out that the way the Paul uses the greeting at the end of the letter presupposes the divinity not just of Jesus Christ or of God the Father, but also of the Holy Spirit. The way he includes the Spirit in this final greeting
implies that just as the Lord Jesus Christ is divine and the Father is divine, the Spirit is also divine. It implies the equality of persons —
not the sameness, but the equal stature of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. So Paul doesn’t say, just to give you contrast, he doesn’t say, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the communion of Paul be with you”...or “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God the Father and the communion of Peter be with you.”
He doesn’t include a human being here in the list of the three. He includes that divine person of the Holy Spirit, which there was controversy about in the 4th century when John Chrysostom was writing. There were some Christians who were denying the full divinity of the Holy Spirit, and one of the arguments that they would make is that sometimes Paul begins his letters by talking about “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God be with you all,” and he doesn’t mention the Spirit. And so some of the people were saying—some of the heretics were saying— “Aha, look! Paul doesn’t think that the Holy Spirit is equal to the Father and the Son.”
So Chrysostom points to the ending of 2 Corinthians as a proof text, as an example, of the fullness of the divinity of the Holy Spirit, which was a crucial text for the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, which we’re celebrating on this feast of the Most Holy Trinity.
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