A reflection on the readings for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, June 4, 2023.
St. Augustine of Hippo, a great philosopher and theologian, was once preoccupied with the doctrine of the Trinity. He wanted so much to understand the doctrine of one God in three persons and to explain it logically. One day as he was walking along the seashore and reflecting on the Trinity, he saw a little child all alone on the seashore. The child made a hole in the sand, ran to the sea with a little cup, filled the cup with seawater, and finally emptied the cup into the hole she had made in the sand. Back and forth she went to the sea, filling the cup and pouring it into the hole. Augustine approached her and asked, “Little child, what are you doing?” She replied, “I am trying to empty the sea into this hole.” “How do you think,” Augustine asked her, “that you can empty this immense sea into this tiny hole with this tiny cup?” She answered back, “And you, how do you suppose that with your small head, can you comprehend the immensity of God?” With that, the child disappeared.
The first thing the doctrine of the Trinity teaches us is that there are some realities too great for us to get into our little brains.
It took Christianity three hundred years to finally arrive at a formula that somehow honored the richness of the Christian experience of the triune God. The creedal formula which we profess even today has been handed down to us through the history of the Church from the Council of Nicea in 325: there is one God in three divine persons.
But the development of our understanding and reverence for the Holy Trinity did not stop there. Later, in 1215, the 4th Lateran Council promulgated the formula of the Holy Trinity, acknowledging that, “We firmly believe and profess without qualification that there is only one true God, eternal, immense, unchangeable, incomprehensible, omnipotent, and indescribable, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; three persons but one essence and a substance or nature that is wholly simple. The Father is from no one; the Son is from the Father only; and the Holy Spirit is from both the Father and the Son equally.” More than a century later, in 1334, Pope John XXII established the feast of the Most Holy Trinity for universal observance on this particular Sunday.
Can we understand the Trinity logically? We don’t! One parishioner said, “The mystery of the Trinitarian God is a lot like our pastor. I don’t see him through the week, and I don’t understand him on Sunday.”
We will not understand the Trinity, but we can bow down to this mystery in holy humility. We may assume that we have understood God, articulated our faith well, and worshiped in spirit and truth. We may believe we have captured the best version of God. The Trinity challenges this ill-conceived assumption of ours. God defies all our formulas, logic, numbers, theories, and images. We cannot put God in our prefabricated thoughts. The truth of God exceeds us. Therefore, our best response to the Trinity is humility.
The Triune God points to diversity. There are three distinct persons. The Father creates. The Son redeems. The Spirit sustains. It is not that one person reveals himself in three different ways, but that three persons reveal the one God in interrelated unity. The Trinity shows us that unity does not mean uniformity and diversity does not mean division.
We also experience that the Triune God is communal. God by nature is not a recluse, nor does God enjoy loneliness. The Triune God is not an admirer of individualism as we perceive it today. The Triune God is a community. God does not live in isolation but rather in a community of love, of relationships among three persons. In the 14th century yet again the Trinity was discussed in the Council of Florence, which stated that “The Father is entirely in the Son and entirely in the Holy Spirit; the Son is entirely in the Father and entirely in the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is entirely in the Father and entirely in the Son.”
We also witness that the Triune God constantly seeks relationships. The Father established a covenantal relationship with the people of Israel. He said, “You will be my people and I will be your God” (Jeremiah 32:38). The Son entered a relationship with His people on the Cross and in the eucharistic covenant. The Spirit of God sustains the covenantal relationship with the Church, leading the community to the Father through the Son.
The most pernicious heresies that block us from properly relating to the Triune God are not those of formal dogma. Instead, it is subtle arrogance about our understanding, along with the individualism that deceives us into thinking we are self-sufficient, that prevents us from loving our God. Instead of learning from the Trinitarian community of love, we think we can have community or family on our own terms, that we can eliminate diversity in favor of uniformity, and that we can have God Himself without dealing with each other in the messiness of a community.
We will never fully grasp the Trinity. What we do understand is that the Trinity demands humility. The Trinity demands that we celebrate diversity, constantly seeking relationship with God and with others. The Trinity is not an exclusive club; it is an inclusive community where you and I can also find a place. Most importantly, we understand that it is a community of interdependent persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We pray that our life, faith, families, work, and communities may become a reflection of our Triune God.
Image Credit: Rublev’s icon showing the three Angels being hosted by Abraham at Mambré. Early 15th century. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.
Fr. Fredrick Devaraj comes from India. He was a member of the Congregation of the Holy Redeemer, the Redemptorists of Bangalore Province. Now he is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Missouri, serving at St. Alban Roe Catholic Church.