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The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity

Last Sunday I attended a Mass which was celebrated by the Archbishop of Dublin, Dermot Farrell in the Church of Our Mother of Divine Grace in Ballygall. As required by Covid restrictions the number of people in the congregation was limited.   Still, it feels good to be back again in the company of others and we were there to celebrate a very important Feast Day, that of the Holy Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The doctrine of the Trinity is undoubtedly a somewhat neglected one, partly because it ultimately eludes our limited human grasp.  The dangers inherent in the issue of the humanity of Jesus versus his divinity might seem daunting enough without adding the Holy Spirit to the equation!

However, the reality is that our very lives as Christians are dependent upon our belief in the triune God.  We express our faith in the Trinity every time we make the sign of the cross indicating that we live in ‘the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  God the Father is made known to us in the person of Jesus Christ who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and it is this Spirit which continues to work in the life of the Church; the same Spirit who dwells within our hearts and elevates our whole consciousness.

When it comes to describing how God is, God’s inner life as it were, many turn to the use of verbal imagery and metaphors.  For example, St Patrick used the shamrock.  Nature provides us with other metaphors.  One comes from the early Church when bishop Tertullian imagines the Trinity as a plant, with the Father as the root, the Son as the shoot breaking forth into the world, and the Spirit as that which fills the earth with flower and fruit.

Absolute Mystery

The official teaching of the Church is that the Trinity is an absolute mystery.  God is triune: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, coequal and coeternal, and yet each distinct one from the other, but not to the point where we have three gods.  The Father alone has not been brought into being because he is eternal.

He generates the Son and sends forth the Holy Spirit, with or through the Son. The Son is brought into being by the Father, but he is of the same substance as the Father “true God of true God”.

The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and or through the Son and has a distinct salvific mission in history, creating the community of faith in the Church and forgiving sins.  Although there are three Persons, there is only one divine nature or essence.  Because of the unity of essence, there is a mutual indwelling of the Persons, i.e., of one in the other.

One of the difficulties with the doctrine of the Trinity is the way in which the term person is used when talking about the father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Applying the modern usage of this word could leave us in the dangerous waters of three consciousnesses and possibly three Gods.  Furthermore, there is a tendency to view these persons as male despite the fact that the root word ‘ruah’ is feminine in Hebrew.  Such issues have led to much speculation about the problem of language and the ways in which we talk about God.

The Icon of Rublev

In his famous Icon, Old Testament Trinity, c1424, Andrej Rublev provides us with a wonderful way in which to contemplate the life of the Trinity.  It captures powerfully the essential relational dimension which words can sometimes only confuse.

The three figures are shown seated in a circle each one pointing towards the chalice in the centre of the table.  This cup of blood is symbolic of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

The angel representing Jesus looks upon the angel to his right who is God the Father. The latter meets that gaze and in so doing indicates involvement in the suffering of his Son. The angel to the right is the Holy Spirit clothed in olive green and blue.  This figure too looks towards the Father and there is an implied equality with Christ in the way his/her head inclines in an identical manner.  All three are gentle creatures who could be either male or female.

The Trinity and Living

The Trinity challenges us to behave in a way that is inclusive of all and in a way that is accepting of all.  This has huge implications not only for ecology but also for global poverty, the persecution of minorities, the blatant corruption and greed of politicians and others in power as well as the homeless and refugees.

We are all individuals with an innate desire for communication with others while we love and when we suffer.  The Trinity shows us like nothing else how to celebrate our identity within a community of faith that calls on us to affirm our trust and joy in being part of something greater than ourselves.

Written by Marie – Therese Cryan

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