Archive for the ‘Trinity’ Category

What God Does Is Who God Is

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.


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The lectionary has a way of surprising me when I least expect it. After the deliciously concrete and down-to-earth readings this past week, as we ease into summer Ordinary Time, I admit I wasn’t especially looking forward to tackling the Solemnity of the Trinity. The doctrine so often gets lost in heady discussions around technical Greek terms from the greatest councils of the early church. All undeniably important, but not really what I want to think about on a green and rainy, occasionally stormy Sunday in June.

Then just before bed last night I looked at the Scripture readings for today and was pleasantly surprised to discover one of my favorite readings from the Book of Wisdom:

then was I beside him as his craftsman,
and I was his delight day by day,
playing before him all the while,
playing on the surface of his earth;
and I found delight in the human race.

Because of the connection with the Trinity, it’s easy to read the words of personified wisdom as referring to both the Holy Spirit and the co-eternal Son working with the Creator in a fluid, creative, loving relationship to bring forth life on the earth as a work of art. This image of God’s spirit as craftsman particularly appeals to me, I think, because of my own interests in the ancient fiber crafts: spinning, weaving, knitting. Creating, meditating, losing myself in the texture, the color, the process as important as the end result—craft becomes prayer. My knitting needles and spinning wheel keep my hands busy in much the same way that a rosary might, letting my heart and mind drift where they will. It becomes a question of focus. And in the process, a deep mystery like the Trinity is not so much understood as absorbed and lived.

And speaking of finding delight in the human race, little Evan Robert came to church today for the first time and his great aunt got to hold him through much of the liturgy. I can’t help myself being completely absorbed in watching every little movement on his face, thinking of nothing in the world except that little sleeping person in my arms. And that, too, is a manifestation of that deeply creative love that we share with the Trinity, God’s life in us and through us, uniting us and pulling us out of ourselves.

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