Tuesday, June 1, 2010

05-30-2010: Soemnity of the Most Holy Trinity

Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity
Proverbs 8:22-31 / Psalm 8 / Romans 5:1-5 / John 16:12-15
In Mary Gordon’s just published Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter with the Gospels, she asked a priest-theologian friend of hers if he really thinks Jesus is God. “’I do,’ he said, ‘only I’m not quite sure what God is.’”

Disagreement on precisely that question has caused havoc, and not a little confusion, for quite some time. When the great Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci (who died 400 years ago this year), encountered the high culture of Imperial China he thought long and hard about what Chinese word he would use to identify the one true God. His predecessor, Francis Xavier, made a huge mistake when, in Japan, he relied on a Buddhist term to do the trick. Such difficulties ensued that Xavier decided to revert to using the Latin Deus instead. Unfortunately his pronunciation got him into more difficulty: the Japanese heard him exhorting them to believe in The Great Lie instead of The One True God. The difficulty is still evident today in Korea where, seeking to use pure Korean words and not co-opted Chinese terms, Korean Catholics and Protestants employ two entirely different words for God: a phenomenon that suggests how obscure God still remains – even for those of us who claim that the Trinitarian God is intimately closer to us than we are to ourselves.

The formulation of God as Trinity, the Feast we celebrate today, was long in the making and not really finalized until the fifth century at the Council of Chalcedon. Which begs the question: what might the first Christians have believed – how did the apostles really perceive Jesus? That famous verse from Matthew’s Gospel sums it up when Jesus asks his disciples, and Peter in particular: Who do you say that I am? Certainly the apostles could not possibly have understood Jesus to be the Second Person of the Trinity. As observant Jews it seems impossible that they could have understood or verbalized what the Church later realized was Jesus’ unique possession of both a divine and human nature.

Yet, it is clear from the gospels that the apostles saw Jesus as unique and were nothing less than mesmerized by his words and deeds. They were, literally, in awe of him. It took centuries until that feeling of awe – a term reserved for the sacred – could be verbalized in language attributable to the divine. What the Church insists we believe is that the initial feeling or perception of the apostles was eventually adequately rendered in language. What the Church does not, and cannot, insist is that the words of the Creed could ever fully express or exhaust that initial perception. In other words, for all the truth and beauty the Creed attests to in words, we still are not quite sure what the word God stands for. God remains a mystery despite our efforts to express who he is. But a mystery isn’t something we can know nothing about, Frank Sheed once said, it’s just something we cannot know everything about.

This means that the divine cannot be confined to defined categories or limited to certain actions. God can come to us in any way he wishes. In understanding God as a Trinity of Persons, the Church has left open for us an infinite number of ways to identify how the divine intimacy touches us. By defining the nature of God as Trinitarian, the Church reminds us that every time we experience the awe that the apostles felt when they encountered Jesus, we are, like them, standing before the divine.