A Mystery Almost Too Good to Be True

Though it celebrates the most profound mystery of the Christian faith, this feast presents a great challenge to all Christians, especially on a Sunday morning in May. The traditional formulation of the doctrine, “three persons in one God,” is puzzling to contemporary people, for whom persons normally means “people” (even though they realize that this is not really true of the Trinity). In my pre-ordination study of theology four decades ago, the treatise on the Trinity was the Rubik’s cube of theology, summarized in the old saw: four relations, three persons, two processions, one God—and no proof. And, I would add, little apparent relevance to our spiritual lives.

The best place to find how the Trinity shapes our lives is the article “Trinitarian Spirituality,” in the Collegeville Dictionary of Spirituality, edited by Michael Downey and the late Catherine M. LaCugna. Some phrases capture its dynamism: “[T]he doctrine of the Trinity affirms that it belongs to God’s very nature to be committed to humanity and its history, that God’s covenant with us is irrevocable, that God’s face is immutably turned toward us in love, that God’s presence to us is utterly reliable and constant.... Trinitarian spirituality is one of solidarity between and among persons. It is a way of living the gospel attentive to the requirements of justice, understood as rightly ordered relationships between and among persons.”


Though not explicitly Trinitarian, today’s readings convey the fundamental mystery that the Triune God reaches out to people in love, seeking the deepest communion. The reading from Exodus follows the apostasy of the people in worshiping the golden calf. Moses again ascends the mountain to intercede, offering his own life for the people. This evokes yet another revelation of God (Lord=Yahweh), as a merciful and gracious God, “slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity,” truly a God who knows the suffering and weakness of humanity and is constantly summoning them back to his love and mercy.

The selection from John contains one of the most quoted New Testament texts, chiseled into churches and displayed on bumper stickers: “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” The God who heard the cries of his people in Egypt, witnessed their affliction and came down to save them (Ex. 3:7-10) now sends his Son, the Word made flesh (Jn. 1:14) so that “the world,” that is, everyone who believes in him, may be saved.

Though the first half of the Gospel is constantly cited as an index of God’s love, the last phrases (most often left out) raise questions today: “Whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” There are Christian groups today who believe that explicit belief and confession of Jesus as savior are necessary for salvation, which leads at times to heroic missionary activity, as it once did for missionaries like St. Francis Xavier. Contemporary Catholic theology wrestles with this issue by stressing the necessity of explicit faith juxtaposed with the statement of the Second Vatican Council, that salvation is possible for “those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience” (“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” No. 15).

The Gospel of John does not present a theology of non-Christian religions, but it is written both for fence-sitters like Nicodemus (3:1-15) and for John’s persecuted community. He cautions against those “who preferred darkness to the light, because their deeds were evil.” For John judgment is not something that happens at the end of history; it takes place within history, as people consciously choose evil over good and turn away from the covenant God of love, mercy, grace and truth (see 1:16-17). The ultimate mystery is that the Trinitarian God who reaches out in love is the same God who gives freedom to reject that love.

The solemnity of the Holy Trinity offers the foundation of Christian hope. We are not loved by a distant God, but by one whose Son offered up the very life of God for our sake. The church today lives in the gift of the Spirit from Father and Son, which forms us into sons and daughters of God (Gal. 4:1-7). This Spirit, which touches all those created in the image and likeness of God and who bear the imprint of the last Adam, is capable of leading people who love the light into ever more profound unity and reconciliation.

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