Sunday, May 31, 2009

5-18-2008: Trinity (A)

Exodus 34: 4-6,8-9/Daniel 3:52-55/2 Corinthians 13:11-13/John 3:16-18
In seminary there was an entire course devoted to the Doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity. The priest-professor was thought by some to be a genius. He also suffered from some emotional or psychological malady. None of us students knew what the diagnosis was, but we all knew he had to take medication. We met for our class on the Trinity in the morning hours when, truth be told, half the class was still sleeping. Yet, there were elongated lapses of time during those classes when the priest-professor would become so enthused, excited, enthralled with the subject of the Trinity that we were all transported. To where, I can not say. Like the subject of an alien abduction, I can’t remember now the content of the lesson. But I do remember how electrifying it was. Of course, no one knew for sure whether the priest-professor was, at that moment, a mystic – or just the poor guy who forgot to take his meds.

The mystery of the Trinity: God in three persons: each equal in majesty and dignity and power yet distinct in person, where the Father is not the Son, nor the Son the Father, nor either the Spirit: three distinct persons in one divine nature. Succinctly stated, perhaps; but it remains to many, including myself, impossible to comprehend. Besides, it’s not a very enticing doctrine. Though at the very heart of the Christian Faith, the Trinity simply isn’t sexy enough to demand that much attention. Though it might rouse a stir now and then when some Mormon missionary or Jehovah Witness starts calling you a pagan for professing belief in three gods instead of one – and gets your Catholic up.

I visited China in 1984. The repressive and bloody Cultural Revolution had ended not too long before and Christians (among others) were just beginning to emerge from that dark night of persecution and terror. As part of our tour we were visiting a factory – to witness Chinese industriousness and the like. Bored to death, I managed to duck out a side door while the tour endured a lecture on making pots or rods or something of the sort. Walking behind the factory I discovered an attractive old well with a pagoda-type roof that offered a bit of shade. I was just sitting there when a young man, no more than twenty-five, approached. He was a factory worker on a break or, like me, on the lam. He spoke a little English and I spoke a little Mandarin from college and we tried to have a conversation. When he asked what job I did he didn’t understand the English word priest. So, I answered in Mandarin: shen-fu. I remembered the word for “priest” not from my Chinese classes at Brooklyn College (that experience was another kind of cultural revolution altogether) but from that great film classic with Gregory Peck as a missionary in China, Keys of the Kingdom. As soon as I said I was a priest, this young man - who would have grown up during the Cultural Revolution - made the sign of the cross. Could it have been merely coincidence, meeting a Catholic Christian in a country of one billion people whose government had just spent the last two decades trying to eradicate bourgeois western religion?

In the end, deep theological explanations of the communitarian nature of God have little impact. It is gesture, in myriad forms, that can successfully convey and convince us of the Trinitarian truth that lies at the heart of creation – that we are intimately connected, one to another, and to the Creator and his creation. St. Paul calls for us, the baptized, to greet each other not with some Trinitarian manifesto, but with a holy kiss. And the ancient practice of signing oneself by the simple invocation of Father, Son and Spirit - the binding, by one’s own hand, of left to right, head to heart, body to soul in an inner communion, an integration of matter and spirit, of time and eternity, of the human and the divine – placing yourself in and under the divine majesty, who has created each of us by his holy kiss.

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