…teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
3 June 2012
We are accustomed, I think, to regard every Mass and every liturgical celebration as being directed to God the Father through Christ in the unity of the Holy Spirit. After all, the Roman Canon begins with, Te igitur, clementissime Pater, per Dominum nostrum Jesum Christum, and many collects are directed to God the Father, through Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. And yet, these three divine Persons are not three gods, but the one and only God. Nor is any divine Person subordinate to any other. On the contrary, all are inseparable in being, all equal in dignity. Thus, even though the way we speak appears to separate the Persons of the Trinity from each other and subordinate one to another, the threefold Unity in Trinity which is God forces us to acknowledge with Dom Guéranger, that
[e]very homage paid to God by the Church’s liturgy has the holy Trinity as its object. Time, as well as eternity, belongs to the Trinity. The Trinity is the scope of all religion. Every day, every hour, belongs to It. The feasts instituted in memory of the mysteries of our redemption center in It. The feast of the blessed Virgin and the saints are but so many means for leading us to the praise of the God who is One in essence, and Three in Persons.
Accordingly, to keep the limitations of human language from producing in the minds of the faithful a false or heretical understanding of the Godhead, the Usus antiquior of the Roman rite wisely gives expression in various ways to the truth that all worship is directed to the Triune God, the Blessed Trinity. In keeping with today’s feast, allow me to give you not one, but three examples of this. As you may recall, during the Offertory, after praying to each of the three divine Persons, the celebrant then beseeches the Holy Trinity to accept the oblation being offered to It in memory of the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ. And towards the end of the Mass, just before imparting the final blessing, the celebrant again prays to the Blessed Trinity, asking that the devotion and docility of his service may be pleasing to It, that the Sacrifice of the Mass which he has offered may be found acceptable, and that it may obtain forgiveness for him and for those for whom he has offered it. And then there is today’s preface. Not surprisingly it directs us to the mystery of the Holy Trinity, succinctly encapsulating the perennial teaching of the Church; namely, that God is One, not in the singularity of one Person, but in the Trinity of one Substance. All three divine Persons are equally God without difference or discrimination, such that in confessing the true and everlasting Godhead, we adore distinction in Persons, unity in Essence, and equality in majesty. In the Usus antiquior, this pithy instruction on the Trinity is presented to us not just on Trinity Sunday, but on most of the Sundays after Pentecost — the liturgical time that corresponds perfectly with the historical present, when the Church continues to carry out the mission which Christ entrusted to her in the power of the Holy Ghost, whereby the Father draws all those who believe to Himself. In doing so, we are reminded of the ultimate reason why we should be interested in loving Christ and keeping His commandments, especially the one that bids us to love one another.
It so happens that the Ordinary Form, for reasons known only to liturgists, lacks the abovementioned prayers, restricts the use of the preface of the Holy Trinity to today’s feast, and omits the doxologies found in the Usus antiquior. As a result, I would not be surprised if many Catholics these days labor under the false impression that some sort of inequality or subordination exists among the Divine Persons. Be that as it may, the Ordinary Form would doubtless be greatly enriched if those prayers which, so to speak, keep the Trinity of Persons together were incorporated into it, and if the Preface of the Holy Trinity were used for the Sundays after Pentecost. But I digress…
Since every Mass is directed to the Holy Trinity, it took a while for the idea of a special feast in honor of the Blessed Trinity to catch on. In the eighth century, the monk Alcuin composed a votive Mass in honor of the Trinity. However, the man who did the most to promote today’s feast was St. Thomas à Becket. On this very day in 1162, which was also the First Sunday after Pentecost, Thomas was consecrated archbishop of Canterbury. Soon afterwards, he decreed that, in memory of his consecration, a feast in honor of the Trinity be celebrated on this Sunday throughout the land. Some two centuries later, in 1347, Pope John XXII extended this feast to the entire Western Church. Following the lead of the martyred archbishop of Canterbury, he too placed it on the first Sunday after Pentecost. That such a feast be celebrated right after Pentecost is far from arbitrary. For Pentecost Sunday commemorates the descent of the Holy Ghost on the Apostles, which was necessary if they were to carry out their mission to spread the Good News, of teaching all nations, and baptizing men in the Name of the holy Trinity.
As much as could be said about how there arises in the Godhead this distinction in Persons, it can be reduced to God’s eternal act of knowing and loving Himself. In knowing and understanding His own divine essence, God generates a perfect Image, a perfect Word or Idea of Himself within Himself. This perfect mirror Image or Idea of God is so perfect as to be God Himself. This intellectual generation is implied in the opening words of the Gospel according to St. John, which we hear at the end of every Mass: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Similarly, when God loves Himself, there proceeds from Him what Scriptures call the Holy Spirit. Just as God’s understanding of Himself generates within Himself a divine Idea or Word of Himself, so too, in loving Himself, there arises in God the presence of Himself as the Object of His love, which Presence, as an impetuous Force, as an irresistible Sigh, as subsisting Divine Love, drives Him towards His own infinite loveliness.
Now, perhaps some of you are asking yourselves, does this mystery of our faith really matter? What difference does it (or should it) make in my life that there are three divine Persons subsisting in the undivided unity of the Trinity? All one has to do to answer that question is to look at how other people have interacted with their various gods. Among the ancient pagans, the endless myths about the gods reflected and justified the sin and violence found on earth. The best you could hope for is to become another god, a practitioner of sacred sin and violence. That’s a lot different from the idea that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever should believe in Him may not perish but may have everlasting life”; or that the Son of God became man to die for our sins and show us what divine love looked like; or that the Son of God was born of a woman so that we could be born of the Holy Ghost and drawn to the Father so as to be immersed in that inner life of Being Itself! If this is our destiny — indeed, if we are made partakers of the divine nature here and now — how foolish the man who goes through life observing only the outward forms of the true religion, with no desire to be united to and immersed in the Object of these outward forms; with no desire himself to know and love God with his whole heart, and with his whole soul, and with his whole mind, and with his whole strength, and his neighbor as someone called to the same eternal destiny as himself! That’s right: if God did not so love us as to desire to share His life with us, it would be pointless to act with the supernatural motive of charity, seeking first the kingdom of heaven, asking God to forgive us our own sins, according to the measure that we forgive those who sin against us. The more we think we can afford to treat God with indifference, the less we have a reason to complain when we discover ourselves living in a Hobbesian world, where every man is in a constant state of war with every other man, and where the life of every man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.
In sum, then, let us always believe in the divine Trinity and the threefold Unity, taking care that no one seduces us from the faith and truth of the Catholic Church, that we may be able to lay hold of the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the flesh and life everlasting through the one, true, and holy Catholic Church, in which we learn of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God, to whom is honor and glory forever and ever.