The Daily Offices

The Daily Offices from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, (Canada 1962), including daily Bible readings and occasional sermons from the Cathedral of the Annunication of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Ottawa

Monday, May 23, 2005

Trinity Sunday 2005


Q: How many Christians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Three, but they are really only one.

The Holy Trinity. Most of us are aware that the word “Trinity” does not actually appear in the Bible. Equally, many of us are aware that, because of that, some church groups maintain that the Trinity is a vain thing, fondly invented by the devices of man. However, how many of us are aware that even the secular definition of the word according to the Oxford Dictionary is “being three,” that definition being offered before the venerable Dictionary describes anything religious relative to the Holy Trinity.

Being three. One wonders whether the compilers of the Oxford Dictionary were perhaps under Divine influence in providing this concise definition. We might recall Moses asking God, who had appeared to him in the burning bush, who he should say had sent him to rescue His people Israel from Egyptian bondage. God’s answer? “I am.” And in the Temple, Jesus mentioned that Abraham had rejoiced to see His day; whereupon the Saducees scoffed saying, “You’re not even fifty years old; how could Abraham have rejoiced to see your day?” Jesus’ answer? “Before Abraham was, I am.” Only God can state for all time, “I am.” Only He can state that “He is” in eternal terms; His state of “being” is quite different than ours, in that He exists for all time. Being three.

Being three. “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matt. 28:19). Although the word Trinity does not appear in the Bible, the description of God being Three in One is found in many places in Holy Scripture.

Many of us might perhaps be aware that the Canon of the New Testament – that is to say, the agreed upon writings of the early Christian Church that would form part of the Christian Bible – the Canon of the New Testament was not closed until very near the end of the fourth century. Prior to that, especially in the second and early third centuries, only the four Gospels and Paul’s 13 letters were universally accepted. Between then and the aforementioned close of the Canon, there was significant and protracted discussion as regards the inclusion of some books, notably Hebrews, Jude, 2 Peter, 3 John and Revelation. Indeed some parts of the Church regularly used other books, such as the Epistle of St. Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas – books which ultimately were not included in the Canon.

Why do I mention this? Well, because during the time between our Lord’s Resurrection, Ascension to the Father, and the sending of the Holy Spirit – there’s that “being three” again, as mentioned in Scripture – between then, and the close of the Canon of the New Testament, the use of the word Trinity had become not only commonplace in the Church, it had become accepted doctrine, in fact the central dogma of the Christian Church. When did the word first appear? One Theophilus of Antioch, successor of Ignatius and Barnabas, in a letter to Autolycus, “an idolater and scorner of Christians,” uses the word in a context that indicates that its usage was commonplace among Christians. The date? 180 AD – some 200 years before the Canon of the New Testament was closed. We don’t know the precise date when Christians began to use the word; but it was clearly sometime before then.

Then some might ask, “Why was there not then a writing of the early Church chosen for inclusion in the Canon that did include the word?” Well for the same reason that if I say to you, “When you come to visit me in North Gower, will you be driving your assembly of wheels, tires, internal combustion engine, chassis, body parts etc.” you would understand, you would visualize in your mind an automobile. I didn’t use the word, but that is precisely what one would understand by the component parts.

Automobile – collection of many mechanical parts assembled for a specific purpose; Trinity – being three; the Holy Trinity – God being Three in One. Trinity is simply a pre-existing word used to describe concisely that which is throughout the New Testament. Being three. “For through Jesus Christ (sic) we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father” (Eph. 2:18). “But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name” (John 14:26, and there are many other Trinitarian references throughout Jesus’ Great Discourse in John Ch. 14 - 17). “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:2). “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all” (2 Cor. 13:14). It would be useful for all of us to know where are these passages of Scripture, and to be able to point them out to marginal Christians who deny the Trinity. If it sounds as if I am taking a shot at brothers and sisters – an especially bad thing to do the very day after we have prayed on the Saturday Ember Day following Pentecost for the Unity of the Christian Church – that is not my intention. It must be simply and clearly stated that belief in the threefold nature of God, the belief that One God exists in Three Persons and One Substance is a foundational belief as very clearly articulated in the pages of Holy Scripture. Denial of that makes one, at best, marginal.

Fine, we’ve established that the Trinity is a central dogma of the Christian Church that must be accepted by all who would call themselves Christians, and that the use of the word Trinity is not a bad thing; but how do we understand the Three being Oneness of God? Which is to say, how does one possibly undertake to preach about the inner life of God? If you will bear with me, let me read you from the opening paragraph of the Doctrine of the Trinity as articulated in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, “This doctrine is held to be a mystery in the strict sense” – do tell, oh, that’s me, not the definition – “a mystery in the strict sense that it can neither be known by unaided human reason apart from revelation, nor cogently demonstrated by reason after it has been revealed. On the other hand it is maintained that, though the mystery is above reason, it is not contrary to it, for it is not incompatible with the principles of rational thought.”

Many attempts utilizing many different techniques and symbols have graced the history of the Church: a triangle – three points yet one shape; three intertwined circles; the shamrock. All of these fall dreadfully short, because they attempt to understand the Divine using common symbols. We might keep in mind phrases from the Bible such as “my thoughts are not as your thoughts,” and, “my ways are past finding out.”

Yet still, human inquisitiveness ensures that we will continue to try to understand the unknowable. One of the better symbols, I think, that has ever been contrived is that on our bulletin cover. The Latin is easily unravelled: “God” in the centre, “Father” in the upper left circle, “Son” in the upper right circle, “Holy Spirit” in the bottom circle, the arms joining the three outer circles to the one in the centre saying “is,” the arms joining the outer circles saying “is not.” Each of the three Persons is God, but they are not each other. When we think of each of the Three Persons, we sometimes attach certain “functions” to them. At the beginning of the Litany we pray, “O God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth; O God the Son, Redeemer of the world; O God the Holy Ghost, Sanctifier of the faithful.” But we also acknowledge that the Son was with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit at the Creation of the world, and so on – which is to say, they do not operate independently, but rather in perfect unity.

Another mystery of the Trinity is that of being of one substance. Let’s refer to our bulletin cover again. In your mind, put H20 in the centre circle; water in the upper left, ice in the upper right, and steam in the lower. The diagram works just as perfectly as it does for God, and shows how one substance can exist in three forms. Indeed, if we look at nature, which has been described often as God’s general revelation (as opposed to Scripture being His special revelation), we see “being three” all over the place: the aforementioned solid, liquid, gas; space, time and dimension; animal, vegetable, mineral; length, height and depth; carbon, hydrogen and oxygen; and so on. Are not all of these perhaps meant to be reflections of the nature of God? Being three; three in one.

And yet, as mentioned, any attempts to use nature, the natural, to describe the supernatural are going to fall short. Human symbolism cannot possibly describe the Infinite Unknowable. Let us simply rejoice in that which God reveals to us in nature, and in His special revelation, about His supernature. If there is anything that we must hold on to, something that we need to grasp firmly in terms of understanding what God in Three Persons is, let us take to heart that which is repeated many times in the pages of the New Testament – God is love, and insofar as we, His creatures are able to reflect even the tiniest bit of that Divine Love, we manifest Him, in all Three Persons to the world.

In closing, may I read to you a very short poem by John Donne. It is comprised of three stanzas, each of three lines, and in the third stanza each line contains its own triplets.

LORD, who hast form'd me out of mud
And hast redeem'd me through thy bloud,
And sanctifi'd me to do good;

Purge all my sinnes done heretofore:
For I confesse my heavie score,
And I will strive to sinne no more.

Enrich my heart, mouth, hands in me,
With faith, with hope, with charitie;
That I may runne, rise, rest with thee.

And now to God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, Being Three, Three Persons in one God, be ascribed, as is most justly due, all honour, might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, both now, and for evermore. Amen.