By: Fr. James Gross
Believing in one God is a relatively simple thing. Accepting what Jesus has revealed to us about God’s true identity is another matter. Scholars of other monotheistic religions, like Islam, for example, don’t trouble themselves over this question. They say, “God is one,” and are done with it. But we who pledge faith in Christ have to take seriously what he has taught, even if we find it to be inconvenient or baffling.
There’s so much to God that we cannot know, but in the Church’s teachings on God as a trinity of persons, we have a breakthrough. On one hand there is God, the creator of everything, infinite in power, and on the other hand there is humanity, creatures with limited knowledge and all sorts of weaknesses. Our abilities of reason and intellect help us a great deal, but they alone do not bridge this enormous gap between us and God. God sent His only Son, Jesus, to Himself be that bridge, and to enable us to peer into the inner life of God in a way that we never could through our own faculties.
Consider this example: let’s say you come upon a large, warehouse-style building with absolutely no windows. If you cannot get inside, there’s no way to tell what it looks like. Now imagine there’s a small window along one wall. It’s not as good as walking around in the structure, but you can see well enough to get the layout of the interior. That’s what the Church does for us.
Our scripture readings today give what I call cursory indications of the Holy Trinity. To add to what they have to say, I took a look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Along with the Bible, every Catholic household without exception ought to have a copy. Here’s just a taste of what you will find in the Catechism on the subject of the Trinity.
The Holy Trinity is a communion of persons, and therefore perfectly one. In God there is not a single person, but there exists among them a total unity. In the persons of God one finds no contradiction or dissension. Each one is constantly a complete gift of self, a gift of love, to the others.
Each divine person is distinct. They are not interchangeable, or like three separate costumes the same actor would wear during a stage production. The identity of each person flows from their relationships to each other, and not from some act that one can perform but another cannot. The Father is “Father” because He has a Son, and vice-versa. The Holy Spirit is their bond and pledge of love, personified, flowing out from them both.
To describe this reality, the church struggles to find just the right terms, since all we can really do is come close. One term that works well is substance. All three persons of the Trinity consist of the same thing, or substance, so to speak, but all three Persons are distinct beings. Here are a couple of examples from nature that I like to use. First of all, imagine that you’re enjoying a mild, clear summer’s evening. You notice one cloud rising above the western horizon, behold it for a moment, and look away. A minute later you look at the same spot and see two clouds. The first cloud didn’t make the second one, and so the second one is not of a lesser status. The clouds are equal, of the same substance, but are two distinct clouds. We might say one proceeded from the other.
Another example that illustrates the idea of “three-in-one” is an apple. Let’s pretend I’ve cut an apple in half and am holding a cross-section for you to see. You could identify three distinct parts: the skin, the flesh, and the core. None of these parts turns into any of the others. But all three are apple. Take one away, and something essential is missing. So it is with God: the three Persons are distinct and not interchangeable, but they are not made up of three different things, so to speak.
The question then arises: what about us? How did we come along? It’s not as though God was bored or incomplete. The reason for creation was to express God’s love and glory in something outside of Himself. We exist because of God’s abundantly gracious and free will. There is none other who could force God to create. But not only did God create the universe: He placed within it creatures who uniquely bear the stamp of His image and likeness—men and women. Chapter one of Genesis states that on the sixth day God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Pay attention to that wording. He didn’t say, “Here’s what I’m going to do.” He used the word us, a plural pronoun. The author of Genesis gives the world in that sentence its first hint of what’s really going on in the life of God.
This celebration in the Church is really about the gift of revelation. Jesus, the Word of God, through both His message and His personhood, revealed the nature of God to an extent beyond which we could figure out on our own. Jesus is for us the window into the mystery, making it possible, as he told the woman at the well, to worship in Spirit and in truth. God sent His Son, not to condemn, but to be the means of our salvation. Jesus came to ransom us all who by sin were led astray, and to disclose God’s very identity to us. Anyone who is aware of this but still says, “God is God and that’s plenty good enough for me,” is not acting out of wisdom, but ignorance.