Ever-living, Informing, Loving
“God so loved the world that he sent his Son” John 3:16
So across the expanse of planet earth there are this day many millions who live in civilizations in which in ways often obscure, sometimes evident, love is valued, reason is honored, and power exercised through form not violence; and all this because the Church whom God called was obedient to the revelation that He is Trinity: omnipotent creative love, the source of an intelligible world. The truth of that revelation is not established by its effects but by its Author, but its effects, the consequences of faith in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, One God, are on this Trinity Sunday occasions for rejoicing and gratitude.
Long ago, in obedience to the words of the Savior and the witness of the prophets, the Church sought to say what cannot, but must, be said: God is Blessed Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, One God in three persons. There would later be technical exposition, but in the beginning the Church was confronted with what were in the light of faith the facts: God was Father, for He had a Son, whom He had begotten eternally; Jesus of Nazareth was that Son, consubstantial with His Father, in whom the divine paternity was realized perfectly; the Holy Spirit sent by Jesus was the very spirit of God, who spoke by the prophets and who lit the fire of Pentecost, and who is the love through whom the Father eternally begets the Son.
Over time the inspired attempt to say who God is was called the doctrine of the Trinity, a word first used by Theophilus of Antioch in 168 to name a reality that had lain in the experience of the Church. Establishing such facts as the begotten equality of the Son in the face of the predisposition to believe that what is dependent is, to however small a degree, lesser; its companion truth that ‘there was no time when the Son was not;’ and with these the fact that the persons were not functions or aspects but realities; and the cardinal insight that the Son is mystically not only Son but the Word through whom all things were made, the source of form and intelligibility; this work was the work of four councils and five centuries, culminating is the triumphant statement of the Church’s third creed, a masterpiece of thought and fidelity now largely unknown, which bears the name of the great Athanasius.
The Athanasian Creed, written in the happy days when ‘catholic’ was not a word in controversy and clarity not an offense, begins with triumphant assertion:
Whosoever would be saved, it is before all things necessary that he holds the Catholic faith, which unless one keeps it inviolate he will without doubt perish eternally.
Now this is the Catholic faith, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in unity, without either confusing the persons or dividing the substance. For the Father’s person is one, the Son’s another, the Holy Spirit’s another; but the divinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is one; their glory equal, their majesty coeternal.
Hard words, judgmental, a scandal of precision to post-modern ears, but also true. But to refer again to the evidence as we have it in history, true. Look out into the great world. That God is love is a truism we teach our children, but a truth that is mere sentimentality unless the Athanasian Creed is true. It is easy to forget that the very foundation of science is the intelligibility of the world, which can be observed and honored but which cannot be ‘proved;’ as it is easy to forget that the existence of a gentled world, in which the weak are protected, in which greatness of heart is measured in discipline and self-surrender, is a consequence of presuppositions that can be summoned to the surface of experience only with difficulty but which presuppose the truth that the Son is Word through whom all things bear the stamp of intelligibility.
Even our great errors are born of truth, anchored in the Trinitarian being of God, misused. An allegiance to the omnipotence of God without the notes of form and self-giving will always lead to vulgarity of power, or an indomitable will unmoderated by reason. Neglect of the truth that reason is rooted in the mystery of love will father in us a rationalism that destroys what it seeks to know.
The Athanasian Creed expresses an inspired, centuries-long effort to say what can be said of God. But, as the Creed also tells us, salvation consists not only in the knowledge that allows our confession of the truth but in the actual formation of our very selves: worship. The word in the Athanasian Creed is a form of veneror, which means respect, honor, worship. It is all very well, indeed essential, that mankind can, given the light of intellect, know what can be known of the mystery, seeing even now in a glass, darkly, but seeing still; but to know what is and not to acknowledge it is the warrant of inauthenticity. Thus from the time when Jesus took bread and broke it, God the Blessed Trinity had been known and worshipped in the breaking of bread. Even this Sunday, even when love must make its way through the ruins, the act most common in this world will be the offering of bread and wine so that these may become the Body and Blood of Jesus for us. And that offering will begin with thanks given “to the Father most holy, through your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, your word through whom you made all things, whom you sent as our Savior and Redeemer incarnate by the Holy Spirit.
There are simpler religions. There is the religion of all powerful will. There is the religion of reason. There is the religion of experience. What the Athanasian Creed calls the Catholic faith is blessedly complicated, finally a mystery. It is power informed, reason informing, love giving Himself. The doctrine or dogma of the Blessed Trinity comprehends all of these and more, ideas and more than ideas rightly held as evidence of the Mystery, reality itself.
Give thanks that we are the children of the Blessed Trinity. Glory be to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and forever.