Reflection & Dialogue: Mystery of the Blessed Trinity and Mystery of the Church
Today we celebrate the feast of the Blessed Trinity, or in the formal title “The Solemnity of the Holy Trinity”. The Trinity is something of an abstraction. We rarely, if ever, hear of devotion to the Blessed Trinity. The Trinity is recognized as the greatest and deepest of the Christian mysteries. It took centuries, with errors, heresies and bad formulations, for the Church to arrive at the formulation of or belief in the Blessed Trinity as we have it to day. Belief in the Trinity is belief in one God in three divine persons. As formulated in the latest Catechism of the Catholic Church<(paragraphs 253-260) 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 divine persons are really distinct from one another.
A brief survey of the development of the doctrine will help us to understand somewhat the development of the Church’s teaching with regard to the mystery. Any development had to take place within the strict Jewish doctrine of monotheism, namely that there is one God, and only one God. In the New Testament (as in Jewish piety) this God could be referred to as “Father”. Then there was Jesus who preached the advent of the kingdom. He once asked his disciples who people, and they themselves, thought he was. Peter, on behalf of the Twelve, said they believed he was the Christ, the Messiah (Mark; Luke, “the Christ of God”; Matthew, “the Christ, the Son of the living God”). The resurrection and the post-resurrection appearances opened a new period in Christian belief. Jesus was now seen as more than human; he was seated at God’s right hand, as Lord, that is the one who sends the Holy Spirit on the Church. By the end of the first century Jesus was worshipped as God, as is clear from the prologue to the Fourth Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, … and the Word was God. … And the Word became flesh and lived among us”. Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the Advocate, on the Church. The Holy Spirit was also worshipped as God. The Church did not have adequate biblical language to express its belief in this mystery, respecting Christian tradition and the underlying belief in one and only God. It resorted to the current Greek philosophical terms person, substance, nature (while recognising their partial inadequacy). The fourth-century formulation, still used, speaks of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as persons, really distinct from one another; not, however, three Gods, but each sharing the same divine nature or substance, and though distinct, all three are active in all the works of salvation, even if a given activity is referred to just one of the three persons.
So much for the theology of belief in Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as the Trinity, the one true God. Such theology does not necessarily make for devotion, or a greater understanding of the mystery of the Trinity. This great mystery of Father, Son and Holy Spirit reveals the innermost nature and life of God to us: God as love, as saviour, as unity. This mystery of the Blessed Trinity was revealed to us as source and model of our Christian life. In his farewell discourse at the Last Supper Jesus prayed to his Father for his followers, in all ages to come: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me, I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, … that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20-24). The Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers makes them, makes us, aware of our dignity as children of God, called and enabled to live according to the pattern of the inner life of God himself, as revealed by Jesus, and continued in the mystery of the Church. The Church will never be properly understood unless viewed as a mystery, the Body of Christ, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit called to live in accord with that deep mystery which is the Blessed Trinity, and as a witness on earth to the living God, the source of true life.