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Diebus Saltem Dominicis: Trinity Sunday – We might want to get this one right

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The Catechism of the Catholic Church 234 says that the doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity is the

“central mystery of Christ faith and life.  It is the mystery of God in Himself.”

We might want to get this one right.

The other mysteries of our faith revolve around what God does and has done.  This Sunday we focus on the Doer.

In the early Church this Sunday was liturgically empty because the night and morning were spent in vigil at St. Peter’s Basilica.  However, in 1334 the second and longest reigning of the Avignon Popes, John XXII, imposed a feast in honor of the Trinity for the universal Church on the 1st Sunday after Pentecost.   You might remember John XXII as someone who centralized power in his own person, prompting William of Ockham to write a treatise against limitless papal power, as well as having preached heresy which, under pressure, he retracted before he died.   In any event, he also canonized St. Thomas Aquinas and may have composed the famous Anima Christi prayer… “Soul of Christ, sanctify me, Body of Christ, save me, Blood of Christ, inebriate me….”  Sort-of-Good Pope John wasn’t all bad.

While it is certain that every moment of Catholic sacred liturgical worship expresses praise of the Trinity, it is fitting that, on the Sunday after which we focus on the Holy Spirit, following on the Ascension of the Son to the Father, we should show our gratitude to the Triune God.  After the coming of the Sprit of Truth, what was before only faintly grasped about the nature and inner life of God came to be revealed more fully. As Blessed Ildefonso Schuster put it:

The doctrine of one God in three Persons marks the most sublime height of theological science, and confers on the followers of Christ a perfection and a dignity of so high an order that it may truly be said that this dogma constitutes the honour, the glory, and the salvation of the Church.

The Epistle reading is taken from the Apostle to the Gentiles Letter to the Romans 11:33-36 which is too sublime not to post:

33 O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”
35 “Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?”

36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever. Amen.

That last bit in Latin is: “Quóniam ex ipso et per ipsum et in ipso sunt ómnia: ipsi glória in saécula. Amen.”, which is the basis of the doxology (Greek doxa ‘glory’ + –logia ‘saying’) that concludes the Roman Canon.

Turning to the Gospel reading, we are in Matthew 18:18-20.  It is the account of the giving of the “Great Commission” after the Resurrection.  The verses before this recount that the Risen Lord told the eleven remaining Apostles to go to a mountain top in Galilee.  When the Lord appeared, they “took hold of His feet and worshiped Him”.  It is, therefore, typical of a theophany, a manifestation of the divine, which often occur on mountains. Matthew added that “some doubted”, which has always struck me as peculiar, given that Christ can now just show up in locked rooms and put Thomas’ hand into His side.  Perhaps that is a source of consolation.  Even the Apostles, right there with the Risen Lord, still struggled with faith.

How privileged are we to have an additional two millennia of reflection, with a developed Church and saints and miracles?

18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

The word “Trinity” is not in Scripture.  It is well-reasoned.  If the manifestation of the Trinity at the Baptism of the Lord wasn’t enough, with the image of the dove descending and the voice of the Father, this should help: the end of the Gospel of Matthew is a statement about the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  One important detail is that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are indicated as distinct Persons by the fact that Christ tells the Apostles to baptize “in the name” (eis tò ónoma – singular, not “in the names”) of the Three Persons.   These are three names of three Persons, not three names of one Person.

To be concise, we can say that the mystery of the Trinity consists in these points:

There are three Persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (aka Holy Ghost).  Each of the three Persons is truly God. All three Persons are one God only. The three Persons do not differ from one another in their essence, but only in their Person.  Particular external works are associated with each of the three Persons, namely, Creation with the Father, Redemption with the Son, and Sanctification with the Holy Spirit.  However, all three divine Persons cooperate in all three external works, Creation, Redemption, Sanctification.  These works are attributed to them individually because they correspond harmoniously with each Person. Creation suggests omnipotence, and therefore it is attributed to the Father, eternal origin of the Son and Spirit.  Redemption points to the Son, the divine Logos, the expression of the Wisdom of the Father.  Sanctification is associated with the Holy Spirit, who is the expression of the mutual Love between the Father and the Son.

Moving on, rather than get into strange things well-catechized Catholics suffer through from the pulpit on this Sunday, such as helpful heretical analogies (e.g., water, which can be ice, liquid or steam, which is modalism), let’s instead spend space on one of the most common Trinitarian things we do, a gesture which outwardly identifies us as Catholics and which, when done well and thoughtfully, strengthens our Catholic identity.  I mean, of course, the sign of the cross.

We make the sign of the cross because we have always made the sign of the cross.  St. Augustine thought the gesture was handed down from the Apostles.  The early Fathers of the Church speak often of the sign of the cross.  For example, one of the earliest of the Latin Christian writers, Tertullian (+240) wrote:

“In all our coming in and going out, in putting of our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross” (De corona militis I,3).

Speaking of Apostles, in depictions of St. John the Evangelist, his iconography often includes not just an Eagle but the saint with hand raised in the manner of blessing over a chalice out of which is crawling a snake or little dragon.  As it is told, when John was in Rome, one of the ways the authorities tried to kill him was by poison.  John blessed his food, I imagine because he always blessed his food with the sign of the cross no doubt, and the poison crawled out of the cup.  There’s an incentive for saying your prayers before meals!

We can make distinctions about making the sign of the cross. After all, qui distinguit bene docet… He who makes distinctions teaches well.  I’ll leave apart the signs of the cross which the priest makes liturgically, though that is a fascinating plunge into history and symbolism.  For us as individuals we can distinguish mainly two signs, small and large or Latin.

The small cross is made with the thumb of the right hand on the forehead, mouth and breast while saying Christ’s own Trinitarian formula we read and heard in the Sunday Gospel.  We sign our head, the principle and principal part of the body, in the name of the Father, the mouth in the name of the divine Word spoken from eternity, and the heart in the name of the Spirit as the seat of charity, sacrificial love.  We say, in the “name of”, as mentioned above, for each of the Persons, not carelessly or even ostentatiously in the manner of some liberals omitting it for the Son and the Holy Ghost as well.  This threefold repetition of “in the name of” reveals the distinction of the Persons and their unity.

Moreover, in symbolically sanctifying each of these three places of the body, we thereby renew our intention that our thoughts, our words and works that come from the heart be pleasing to the God, helpful for our salvation, and good examples for others.

The large, Latin Cross, is made from forehead to breast (the longer vertical), and from shoulder to shoulder (the shorter horizontal), as Roman, Latin Catholics from the left to the right (Easterners go the other way).   The meaning of the larger can be the same as the smaller, adding also that the Father is the first of the Persons, the origin of the other two, that the Son came down from the Father in the Incarnation, and, in the horizontal movement, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and from the Son.  I believe also that it was Innocent III (+1216) in his liturgical work De sacro altaris mysterio said that the movement of the hand from the left shoulder to the right was also symbolic of salvation moving in Jesus from the Jews to the Church.  Similarly, that is an explanation of moving the Missal during Mass in the Vetus Ordo from the Epistle side (the right as you look at the altar) to the Gospel side.

That said, I’ll make the sign of the cross over this column, lest I cross you and you be cross with me for taking more of your time.

I conclude with this: the first part of the sol-called Athanasian Creed, just because it is so wonderfully obnoxiously Catholic. The first part of the Creed is Trinitarian and the second part is Christological.   It was not penned by St. Athanasius (+373), but it was long attributed to him.  In fact, Gregory of Nazianzen (+390) wrote of a “confession” about the Trinity made by Athanasius, so we may as well stick with the title.

Stand up, have some fun, and read this aloud on Trinity Sunday!  Make the sign of the Cross before and after!

Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic faith. Which faith unless every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the Catholic faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated. The Father infinite; the Son infinite; and the Holy Ghost infinite. The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite. So likewise the Father is Almighty; the Son Almighty; and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties; but one Almighty. So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord; the Son Lord; and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords; but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity; to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; So are we forbidden by the Catholic religion; to say, There are three Gods, or three Lords. The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.

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