A few months ago a minor storm of controversy erupted when the Vatican issued a warning that some baptisms performed in the past quarter century may have been invalid because improper wording was used in the ritual. By implication, any sacraments received after that invalid baptism, including marriage and holy orders, would also be invalid. This was quickly clarified to point out that only a small number of people were likely affected by this. The problematic wording involved substituting “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier” for the traditional “Father, Son and Spirit” in the baptismal formula.
Often it seems easier to celebrate this feast than to understand the doctrine on which it is based. Even the great theologian and doctor of the church St. Augustine tells the story of meeting a small child on the sea shore who was filling a hole in the sand with buckets of water from the sea. He told her that it was impossible, and she looked at him and said, “And you’re trying to understand the Trinity.”
Naming God has always been a challenge. Perhaps this is why, when confronted with the burning bush, Moses wanted to know God’s name, and then was left with the enigmatic “I Am Who Am.” In our first reading today, Moses on Sinai has come to know the Lord better and is still grappling with the question of the divine identity. Exodus tells us, “The Lord proclaimed his name and passed by, crying out, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity.’” What God does tells us something about who God is. Thus, in the Gospel, we hear that “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.
One of the deepest truths that the doctrine of the Trinity reveals to us is that God is in relationship. The union of Father, Son and Spirit is a fluid one. The Trinity is always working, always moving, animating the world with divine life. We see this especially John’s Gospel.
The poets among us sometimes seem to do a better job of grasping the heart of the doctrine, but the words and images they use can’t be held up to intense theological scrutiny. Poets can suggest something powerful about who God is, but their words can’t define God. Indeed, no words can define God. God is ultimately beyond all words.
The challenges faced by the early church in understanding the Trinity had a lot to do with the need to reconcile the strongly monotheistic (one God) tradition of Judaism with the tendency of the pagans to have multiple gods for a variety of tasks and circumstances.
All this brings us back to our errant baptismal formula. While many people found the reference to “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier” to be a poetic way around what they perceived as patriarchal language, the fact is that no one person of the Trinity does one task more than another. The Son created with the Father; the Father saves through the Son; the Spirit is the ongoing presence of Father and Son in the world.
The Gospel writers tell us Jesus used Father, Son and Spirit in his own references to the divine activity he was accomplishing. Because of that revealed truth, we always begin and end there in our understanding of the Trinity.