Many non-Christians (and even Christians who have not been well instructed) are often curious about many of the teachings of Christianity—terms, principals, theology, etc. Today (6/4/23), and every first Sunday after Pentecost, we Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity—this greatest and most difficult mystery of our faith to contemplate. And to call it a “mystery” does not mean that the answer does not exist, but rather that humanity cannot find the answer in fullness, but like a treasure hunt that never ends, are given only clues to its ultimate solution and understanding.
After all, we believe that the Trinity is one God of three distinct persons, all co-equal with one another, making up one God, and yet each one of them God in Himself. This is impossible for the limitations of the human mind to wrap around, but yet Christians believe is revealed by the very same Trinity—a mere glimpse into the divine life.
We hear of analogies—3 folds of one blanket, three candles coming together making one flame, the three sides of a triangle, and other such things … all of which woefully (and inevitably) fall short. Yet simply because it is beyond our understanding does not mean there is no value in reflecting upon it, especially in coming to a greater realization of the greatness of God.
The doctrine of God as Trinity was settled 1700-ish years ago. The council of Nicaea in 325 gave us the creed of faith we Christians often recite—descriptively (if unimaginatively) named the Nicene Creed—in which we say that the Son is “consubstantial” with the Father, that is, one God with Him. Then in 381 at the Council of Constantinople the divinity of the Holy Spirit was affirmed: “The Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, is God, one and equal with the Father and the Son, of the same substance and also of the same nature….” Only one God in the three divine persons—each not “part” of God, but wholly (and holy!) God.
As mentioned, any attempt to describe God inevitably falls way short. For instance, while Jesus is “begotten” of the Father, He is not a “creation” of the Father, because He always exists with the Father as He is the eternal wisdom of God … the eternal expression of divine thought, coexistent with the Father. Likewise, the attendant eternal love between Father and Son IS the Holy Spirit, coexistent with each. The love between Father and Son has no beginning, just as God has no beginning but is eternal; the Spirit Himself exists in virtue of the Father and the Son’s existence, eternal as the Father and Son are eternal.
To say that Jesus is a creation of God implies that the Father did or can exist without the Son…and that is not the case. Likewise with the Spirit.
The Father exists, therefore the Son must exist, and the Holy Spirit must exist. As another limping analogy, imagine yourself at this moment. You are you, and that which is of you makes up you. Are you you without your mind…your wisdom? Are you you without your passions and “heart”, most especially your love? You are you—unique, unrepeatable being that you are—because of those things…traits coexisting in the present “you”.
While the Bible never speaks explicitly of a “Trinity”, it refers to the Trinity even from the first verses: “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:2) and “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness …” (Genesis 1:26)
What about Jesus? Why do we believe that He is divine and a person of the Holy Trinity—these three persons that make up the One God? The first chapter in the Gospel of John: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” (John 1:1-3,14) And Jesus praying: “Father, glorify thou me in thy own presence with the glory which I had with thee before the world was made. (John 17:5) And most unmistakably at Jesus’ baptism: “…the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, ‘Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.’” (Luke 3:21-22) Similarly at the Transfiguration: “…a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’” (Matthew 17:5)
And, of course, the command of Jesus Himself for His disciples to go forth and “…make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (Mat 28:19) So, as C.S. Lewis eloquently stated, to place Himself at the same level as God as He does here, Jesus must have been either a charlatan, a madman … or truly God. And, as history shows by the spread of the teaching and fame of this otherwise uneducated, no-name, executed carpenter throughout the world, which of these seems likely?
Yet, even now, after two thousand years of the collective contemplation of the greatest minds of the Christianity, our understanding of the Holy Trinity is minimal at best. But then…how can it be otherwise? We, as His creation, can no more understand God than a painting can understand the artist. As God says through the prophet Isaiah: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9)
Yes, we could more easily reach up and touch the stars and understand the entirety of the universe than to understand God in the Trinity. But while being unable—indeed, incapable and unequipped—to do so, it nevertheless sparks wonder to gaze upon and contemplate the beauty of the night sky. How much more, then, the beauty of God who created it.
Editor’s note: Rev. Glenn Jones is the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and former pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Los Alamos.