Last week we celebrated the feast of Pentecost, when the apostles and disciples were strengthened by the Holy Spirit to fulfill the mission Jesus gave them ten days before at his ascension. We see the marching orders Jesus gave them and us in today’s Gospel: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
He was sending them to proclaim the Good News about who God is, about how much he loves us and has done for us, and how we should respond. They were not only to proclaim the reality of God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — but to bring us into that reality through baptism in the name of the Trinity. That’s why ever since the early 1300s, on the Sunday immediately after Pentecost, the Church has celebrated the Feast of the Blessed Trinity: the entire mission of the Church is to continue Christ’s work of revealing the mystery of God’s identity and love, the mystery of who we are created in God’s image and likeness, and to invite and help us to become who we really are, in this life and in the next.
To celebrate this feast and to live it, we need first to come to some understanding of who God is, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We believe in the Blessed Trinity because we believe in Jesus who revealed the Trinity. God had prepared the Jews not only to welcome the Messiah but to recognize through revelation what philosophers like Aristotle achieved through reason: that there is a God and there can only be one God.
As we see in the first reading today, Moses said to the Jews, “Acknowledge today and take to heart that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other but to believe in God who is the only God.”
When the Messiah finally came, he revealed a huge mystery that went far beyond what the Jews were expecting: that the one God in whom they believe is not solitary, but a unity, a communion of three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and that the Messiah is the Son. He told them explicitly that the Father and he are one (Jn 10:30). He told them that he and the Father would send the Holy Spirit (Jn 14:26, Jn 15:26). And when he sent them out to baptize in the name of God, he didn’t give them the instructions to baptize in the “names” of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit — as if they were three different gods — but in the “name,” for they are fundamentally a union of three persons. This is what the term Trinity means. It was devised by the early Church apologist Tertullian around the year 200 from the Latin words “unitas” and “trinus,” literally “unity” and “three.” It signifies that there is a unity of three persons in one God.
Since the beginning of the Church, theologians have spent their life trying to penetrate this mystery and explain it to others. St. Patrick used the image of a three-leaf clover. St. Augustine used the image of the mind, with memory, reason and will. More recent minds have used the image of H20, which can exist as ice, water, or steam. But none of these analogies — though interesting and somewhat helpful — do justice to the reality of what the mystery of how three persons can exist in the one God.
When St. Augustine was in the middle of his voluminous and classic study of the Blessed Trinity, he took a walk along the beach in northern Africa to try to clear his head and pray. He saw a little a young girl repeatedly filling a scallop shell with sea water and emptying it into a hole she had dug in the sand.
“What are you doing,” Augustine tenderly asked.
“I’m trying to empty the sea into his hole,” the child replied.
“How do you think that with a little shell,” Augustine retorted, “you can possibly empty this immense ocean into a tiny hole?”
The little girl countered, “And how do you, with your small head, think you can comprehend the immensity of God?”
As soon as the girl said this, she disappeared, convincing Augustine that she had been an angel sent to teach him an important lesson: no matter how gifted God had made him, he would never be able to comprehend fully the mystery of the Trinity.
This, of course, does not mean we cannot understand anything. If we want to get to the heart of the mystery of the Trinity, we can turn to the most theological of the apostles, who meditated deeply on all that Jesus had revealed and, inspired by the Holy Spirit, said simply and synthetically, “God is love” (1 John 4:16).
For God to be love, he has to love someone. None of us can love in a vacuum; there must always be an object of our love. Who is the object of God’s love? It cannot be man, or the created world, or the universe, because all of these existed in time and God is eternal and therefore existed before time. It’s also impossible to say that God merely loved himself in a solitary way, because this would not really be love but a form of egotism and narcissism.
For God to be love, there needed to be an eternal relationship of love, with one who loves, one who is loved, and the love that unites them. This is what exists in the Blessed Trinity: The Father loved his image, the Son, so much that their mutual and eternal “spirated” or “generated” the Holy Spirit. They exist in a communion of love. The three persons of the Blessed Trinity are united in absolutely everything except, as the early Church councils said, their “relations of origin,” what it means to be Father, what it means to be Son of the Father, and what it means to proceed from the Father and the Son.
These theological insights about the blessed Trinity may seem theoretical, but they become highly practical when we reflect on the fact that we have been made in the image and likeness of God and called to communion with God. To be in the image and likeness of God means to be created in the image and likeness of a communion of persons in love. There is an obvious application of this to the family. At the beginning of the book of Genesis, we read, “God created man in his image, in the image of God he created THEM; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). God created us in his image not principally as individuals, but male and female. As Pope John Paul II taught in his famous Theology of the Body, we reflect the image of God most when man and woman exist in a loving communion of persons in marriage. There, like in the Blessed Trinity, two people can love each other so much that their love can generate a third person, who is the sign and fruit of their one-flesh loving union. The more the family is a loving communion, the more it will resemble God, and this is the principal mission of the family in the world.
There’s another application of the truth of our being created in the image and likeness of God and called by God to communion, one on which I would like to spend the majority of our time: to the Church. St. Basil the Great, a fourth century doctor of the Church, taught that the Church has the duty to reflect God’s nature by becoming a communion of persons who love each other as God loves us. This was easily and readily seen in the early Church. The Acts of the Apostles states, “The whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32). That they were united in heart and soul was seen in the fact that everyone was selling their possessions and giving the proceeds to the Apostles to use to care for those in most need.
Jesus prayed to His Father on Holy Thursday — as we looked at two Sundays ago — that we would be one just as He and the Father are one. He implored that we may be so completely one that the world may believe that the Father sent him (Jn 17:11,22). Our unity in love, in other words, would be a verification of Jesus’ words about God as a loving communion of persons. This is what was seen in the early Church.
Another way of looking at this same reality is that the Church is called to be a family of brothers and sisters who love each other. The Church is God’s family, which is constituted by the sacrament of baptism in the name of our triune God. In the second reading today, St. Paul says tells us that in the sacrament of baptism, God the Father adopts us as his children. We receive the Holy Spirit so that we might cry out “Abba! Father!” and recognize that we are children of God and joint heirs with Christ to the blessings of divine filiation and love. St. John wrote beautifully in his first letter, “See what love the Father has bestowed on us in letting us be called children of God, yet that is what we are!” (1 Jn 3:1-2). That we are truly children of God was emphasized by St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, when he taught, “we are no longer strangers and aliens, but citizens with the saints and members of the family of God” (Eph 2:19).
The sad reality is that, unlike at the time of the first disciples, most often in the Church we do not live in a communion of love. We are not of one heart and one soul. We do not behave as brothers and sisters in a functional, loving family. To use St. Paul’s terms, instead of relating to others as children of God, we treat them as strangers and aliens. This is easily observable at the level of the universal church, where there has been alienation among Catholics and Orthodox and among Catholics and Protestants.
But even at the level of this parish, we do not yet have the unity Jesus prayed for and wants of us. Would St. Luke be able to write of us what he wrote of the first disciples in Jerusalem, that we’re of one heart and soul and willingly sacrifice all we have and are with others? It seems to be, that for the most part, we’re courteous and polite to each other, but we treat others more as strangers than spiritual siblings. There are two basic, easy and quick tests, I think, to examine our own attitudes.
The first is to take a look around and ask yourself whether you know everyone’s — or almost everyone’s — name. Most of us, even those from big families, would know all of our cousins’ names, but those sitting before, behind or beside you this morning are not just distant cousins but spiritual brothers and sisters. We cannot relate to them as brothers and sisters, we cannot possibly love them as Christ calls us to do, unless we get to know them. Getting to know them begins with getting to know their names. If you see those around you whom you do not know, please take the time after Mass today to introduce yourselves.
At an equally fundamental level, whether we treat others as siblings or strangers can be seen in where we sit for Mass. When families come to Church together, they almost always sit together, because they love each other and want to be close to each other. All of us observe that readily with married couples and among blood relatives. If a husband and a wife were sitting on two opposite ends of the Church, many of us would begin to wonder if everything is all right. If brothers and sisters came to Church and divided to the four corners, we would all know at once that there’s some love missing in that home. But how do we who have become sons and daughters of the same loving Father through baptism sit here in this Church? When I look out from this pulpit across this 2,040 seat Church, at most Masses I see people sitting alone behind columns. Others sit so far away from their fellow parishioners that they could not possibly extend to another a tangible sign of peace. Many others choose to sit in the back pew, even if there are twenty empty pews in front of them. It frankly breaks my heart to see this and I think it must break Christ’s sacred heart, because it is an obvious sign that we don’t yet look on each other as brothers and sisters, but rather as strangers.
Imagine if you were sitting at your family dinner table and, even though there were open seats beside you, your family members instead chose to sit in seats far away. What would you think and how would you feel? It wouldn’t really matter if one of your brothers or sisters or children or parents said to you, “I like this seat more than the one next to you,” because each of us instinctively knows that meals are supposed to like natural sacraments of unity; if someone puts personal preference over unity, there’s something wrong.
It’s the same way at Mass. If someone puts personal preference over communion, there’s something wrong. I know that when I got here, many people sat in strange places because the sound system was so bad and it was the only place they could hear. But now, with the new sound system, that’s no longer an issue. We proclaim a message about how we view others, whether as strangers or siblings, by our body language, which includes where we sit. We can proclaim that we love and care about each other and want to be close to them or we can communicate that we think the other one smells or that we prefer not to get to know them. And I ask you: please don’t succumb to the lie of the devil suggesting that Jesus doesn’t care about “little things” like where you sit. Imagine if during the Last Supper, all of the apostles scattered to the various corners of the upper room, far from him and far from each other. Do you think it wouldn’t have mattered to him?
The Eucharist is a sacrament of unity, given to us by the Trinity. Its purpose is to bring us into communion with God and communion with each other, to make us the body of Christ as we receive the body of Christ. It is an action of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, first to give us Jesus’ body and blood and second to unite us, in one heart and soul, in one body. This whole double transformation is seen in the Eucharistic prayer.
We can conclude by looking at the one I’ll use today, Eucharistic Prayer III. We first state the Trinitarian reality of the origin of life and the call to a holy communion with God and others: “Father, you are holy indeed… All life, all holiness comes from you, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Then we invoke all three persons to bring about the miracle of transubstantiation: “And so Father, we bring you these gifts. We ask you to make them holy, by the power of the Holy Spirit, so that they may become the body and blood of your Son….”
Next, after that transformation of bread and wine into Jesus’ body and blood, we ask the same Father to send the same Holy Spirit, to transform US into Jesus’ body: “Father, … grant that we who are nourished by his body and blood, may be filled with the Holy Spirit and become one body, one spirit in Christ.”
Finally, we proclaim that our allowing the Holy Spirit to do this work is not only our way to thank God for his love, but the path by which we enter into the Church triumphant, the communion of saints within the communion of persons in love who is God: “May [the Holy Spirit] make us an everlasting gift to you and enable us to share in the inheritance of your saints.”
As we prepare to receive this sacrament of Holy Communion, we ask God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to bring us into communion with Him and with each other. In the words of Jesus, we ask him to make us so completely one in this parish that the world may know that the Father sent the Son to reveal the triune communion of love and that the Father has loved us as his adopted children even as he loved his only begotten Son. (Jn 17:23).
Editor’s Note: This article was adapted from a past homily written by Fr. Landry for Trinity Sunday (Year B).
Father Roger Landry is the pastor of St. Anthony of Padua in New Bedford, MA and Executive Editor of The Anchor, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River.
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