Let the Scriptures Speak
Revealed in Story
Did a people ever hear the voice of God
speaking from the midst of fire,
as you did, and live? (Deut 4:33)
Trinity—the very word tends to move us immediately from the everyday world of concrete experience to the world of the eternal and the abstract. For persons of a certain age, thought of the three-ness of God summons images of shamrocks and triangles scribbled on blackboards by good nuns helping us fifth graders imagine how three and one could possibly go together. The word “Trinity” evokes philosophy (one nature, two processions, three persons, four relations, and technical terms like perichoresis). The word tends to move us from the heart to the head, and away from prayer and the life of faith. On the other hand, the names Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while they point us back to history and experience, evoke today distracting arguments about patriarchy and gender in our God-talk.
Mercifully, our Scripture readings for this feast remind us that the experience of the triune God long preceded the philosophical statements about it, preceded even the biblical accounts. Systematic theology provides a helpful distinction: the immanent Trinity (the “internal” relationships of the divine Persons) and the economic Trinity (the Father, Son, and Spirit as revealed in the story of Israel culminating in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—what early authors called the “economy” of salvation). Though the immanent Trinity is first in the order of being, it is the economic Trinity (God revealed in history as triune) that came first in human experience. The experience of the “three-ness” of God's actions necessarily provoked philosophical questions about the unity that God is. But it is to that prior experience of God that Paul, Matthew, and the Deuteronomist point.
First there was Israel's experience of coming to see that the maker of the universe is the one they called Yhwh, who rescued them from slavery in Egypt, and then again from exile in Babylon. Deuteronomy 4 (Second Reading) marvels at the wonder of Israel's being a people uniquely loved among the nations by the unimaginable Creator of all.
How that same God became supremely revealed in Jesus of Nazareth and how that divine self-revelation impacts Christian lives in the power of the Holy Spirit is glimpsed marvelously in this Sunday's brief excerpt from Paul's letter to the Romans. In this, the longest and most systematic of his letters, Paul writes to Christians he has yet to meet, introducing himself by laying out his way of preaching and explaining the Good News of Jesus Christ. The part we read today comes toward the climax of the heart of the letter, four chapters (Rom 8:14-17) presenting five models for speaking about Christian transformation—movement from solidarity with Adam to solidarity with Christ, from death to life, from slavery to freedom, from one contract (canceled by death) to a new one, and here from slavery to adopted “sonship.”
Working with an idea he first sketched, more elaborately, in his passionate letter to the Galatians (Gal 4:1-7), Paul compares their status as Christians to what happens when a household slave becomes an adopted son. In the social world of Paul and his Roman addressees, a childless couple desiring an heir would commonly adopt a favored servant. Thus a former slave suddenly became a member of the family; what is more, he had a handsome inheritance to look forward to. Paul uses that familiar experience as an analogy for Christian conversion and initiation. One finds oneself suddenly a son/daughter of God, brother/sister of the Son of God, and enabled by the gift of the Spirit of God to address the source of all creation with the intimate language of the Son’s prayer, Abba. Thus the Church came to pray, in its liturgy, to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.
It is in our prayer, then, more readily than in our formal theology, that we come to understand what it is to know God as a revelation of three divine persons. Our Christian prayer, especially our eucharistic worship, is not simply an act of faith in a philosophized abstraction but a response to the revelation of God in Jesus, the Christ of Israel, who empowers us with the gift of the Spirit to continue the mission of Jesus.
Heard against its biblical background, the grand commission of the risen Jesus at the end of Matthew’s Gospel is not merely a mandate to perform the baptismal ritual with the three divine names. It is also a commission to form communities who respond to the love of God revealed in Jesus by living the life of the Spirit taught in the Sermon on the Mount—a very concrete life of honesty, chastity, justice, nonviolence, and reconciliation.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
**From Saint Louis University