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CNEWA Connections: Trinity Sunday

Every year in the Roman Catholic Church, the first Sunday after Pentecost — which is the first Sunday when the liturgical calendar returns to Ordinary Time — is set aside as Trinity Sunday. To be honest, I have always found it a bit odd that this central tenet of our faith receives attention on only one Sunday a year. There is a feast or commemoration of Mary in every month of the year and some months have two. Even St. Joseph has two feast days, 19 March and 1 May.

The Trinity, the belief in one God in three divine Persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — is the absolute central core and mystery of Christianity. Put another way: Without the Trinity, there is no Christianity. One often hears preachers express how they dread preaching on Trinity Sunday and do not know what to say. One cringes on hearing the Holy Spirit referred to as the “forgotten Person” of the Trinity, which is theologically absurd, grotesque and, at very best, misleading. Whatever the reasons for this, it is a situation that must change.

One of the reasons for this situation may be confusion among many Christians — the result of confused preaching and teaching perhaps. I have the unscientific impression this is more the case in the West than in the East.  If most Christians were asked what makes them Christian, I suspect they would say, “because I believe in Jesus.” There is a great deal of emphasis in some quarters on “Jesus as my personal savior,” and piety for Jesus has sometimes almost entirely taken over Christian piety and practice.

But that doesn’t even begin to capture the full meaning, depth and breadth of what makes us Christian. Other religions revere Jesus. But that doesn’t make them Christian.

For example, as someone who has engaged in interreligious dialogue for more than 40 years, I know how much Jesus is revered and honored in Islam, where he is considered the greatest prophet until Muhammad. For Muslims, Jesus was conceived without a human father and his mother, Mary, is mentioned more frequently in the Quran than in the New Testament. In fact, there is a chapter of the Quran called sūrat maryam, “The Chapter of Mary.” And yet for all this no one would say Muslims are Christians.

Hindus believe some gods come to Earth and live among humans as avatars or “incarnations.” Some Hindus believe Jesus was an avatar of Krishna, who was himself an avatar of the great god Vishnu. This, however, does not make Hindus Christians.

The simple recognition of Jesus alone, even as personal savior, does not make one a Christian. What makes people Christian is the belief in the Triune God, that is, three persons in one God. To proclaim Jesus as personal savior alone is not the creed of Christianity. What Christians for over 2,000 years have believed is that the eternal Word of the Father was sent by the Father and became flesh (cf. Jn 1:14) through the working of the Holy Spirit. That is the Trinitarian expression of Christian faith. Overemphasis exclusively on Jesus fails to give adequate expression to what we believe. We have been saved by God (the Father, First Person of the Trinity) through and in Christ (the Son, the Second Person) through the working the Holy Spirit (the Third Person).

“It is important to stress that as Christians we do not merely believe we are saved by the Triune God — we experience our salvation as inherently Trinitarian.”

Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Theologians speak of the “immanent Trinity” and the “economic Trinity,” admittedly strange terms to modern ears. The immanent Trinity is the study of the Godhead in and of itself. Of course, the Trinity is an inexhaustible mystery. However, theologians and great saints have spent much of their lives studying and contemplating the Trinity.

More important to us on Trinity Sunday is the economic Trinity, called that because ancient theologians spoke of the “economy,” or plan, of salvation. Simply put, the economic Trinity refers to the role the Godhead plays in salvation. The whole saving relation of the Triune God to all of creation (cf. Rom 8:19-23), including and especially human beings, is the field of the economic Trinity.

This not something abstract. The Christian experiences salvation as Trinitarian. It is not as if Jesus left the Trinity for some 30 years, came to Earth, preached, died, rose from the dead — that is, saved us — and then went back to the Trinity in heaven. The Father sends the Son, who becomes incarnate, that is, like us in everything but sin. Through the life, preaching, death and resurrection of Christ, the Father saves humanity and seals our salvation by the Holy Spirit.

At its core, Christian prayer is Trinitarian. For the first 300 years of Christianity, almost all prayer was directed to the Father. The believer comes to the Father with confidence because that believer — baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit — is a real member of the Body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor 12:12-13; especially 12b) and a true child of God because they have received the Spirit (cf. Rom 8:14-17). For this reason, the Christian never prays isolated and alone. As a member of the Body of Christ — as one who through the Spirit of Adoption can call God “Abba” — even as a sinner, the believer approaches God with confidence and trust.

It is important to stress that as Christians we do not merely believe we are saved by the Triune God — we experience our salvation as inherently Trinitarian. It is not merely that we believe our prayer is Trinitarian. Our very faith in prayer, our faith in God, who hears and loves us, is based on our experience of prayer as the intimate communion with the Godhead. We approach God not as outsiders and beggars; through the working of the Holy Spirit, we approach the Father as members of the very Body of Christ itself.

Although dedicating one Sunday a year to the Holy Trinity seems odd to me — an imbalance in need of correction — it can nevertheless provide us with the opportunity to re-orient our Christian lives. It is easy to become scattered and unfocused, to let secondary or lesser things intrude and at times take over in our lives and faith. Trinity Sunday might be a good opportunity to once again re-orient ourselves to the center and core of who we are as Christians: a Trinitarian people from our baptism, which deeply impacts our experience of salvation, our experience of God and how we respond to that Godhead in prayer.

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