The Odor of Mystery

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity: 6-11-17

Peace be with You,

Last Sunday we celebrated what we may understand as the culmination of the Easter Season on Pentecost.  As we saw then, it is the sending of the Holy Spirit which enables our renewal, transforming us so that we might come to know our God ever more deeply, not primarily on an intellectual level, but an intuitive and experiential level.  Ultimately, this intuitive way of knowing speaks to our deepest yearnings for eternal life and happiness and far surpasses any cognitive grasping of the life of God, for while the Spirit catches us up in the very life of God so that we may begin to participate in it in a very real way here and now, this Divine Life we participate in far surpasses our understanding, remaining utterly mysterious.  It is this mystery which we take a moment this weekend to contemplate which will, in turn, give us the opportunity both to wonder at the glory of our God and gain a deeper understanding of who we are as human persons created in his image and likeness.

Before beginning to speak substantially of the mystery we celebrate today, it is pertinent that we keep in the fore of our minds that, ‘as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are God’s ways higher than our ways and his thoughts than our thoughts’ (Is. 55:9).  This is the prophet Isaiah’s way of telling us that God’s mode of existence is utterly different than ours, thus, anything we shall say moving forward will fall hopelessly short of describing with any exactness the mystery we celebrate today.  For as Augustine tells us, “if you have fully grasped what you want to say, it isn’t God.  If you have been able to comprehend it, you have comprehended something else instead of God” (Sermon 52.16; cf. Sermon 117.5).  Immediately the question may be asked, ‘Then why speak at all?  Why utter a single syllable?  For anything that comes forth from the mouth is incapable of ascending to the heights of Divine mystery, or transcending the boundaries of time such that we might, for a moment, comprehend the awful beauty of Divine majesty.

While no one could refute the claims made by such protests, the argument fails precisely because throughout all of history, God, in his gracious mercy, has deigned to reveal himself to and be spoken of by the human family, that we may come to know at least something of this mystery which we instinctively yearn for though cannot speak of.   Why?  Because he loves us! And “while nothing really worthy of God can be said about him, he has accepted the homage of human voices, and has wished us to rejoice in praising him with our words” (Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, 1.6,6).  Notice please the unfathomable love of our God on display here!  There is no honor we could bestow upon him that would increase his greatness; there are no words we could speak to embellish his glory; to make such claims would be in some way proportional to saying that an ant could understand the way the human mind works, or that the trees could allow the breeze to contort their limbs so as to call us by name.  Yet he bends down to us, making himself known so that we might speak of him precisely because he knows that in this our joy is complete (John 15:11).  For a vague comparison we may think of the way we feel in the presence of someone we admire, or the way a child writes a letter to their sports hero; just being in their presence or receiving a response from them makes the hairs on the back of our necks stand on end.  Take this experience and multiply it infinitely and you will still not feel the joy-filled love our God desires to bestow upon us by making himself known to us.

In looking at our readings for today, two things become readily apparent.  First, they do not spell out for us the Trinitarian doctrine.  The reason for this is simply that you will not find such a doctrine stated word for word anywhere in the sacred scriptures, either in the Old or New Testaments (we could say the same thing of the doctrine of the Incarnation as understood by the multitude of Christians for that matter).  To be sure, this sacred doctrine is scriptural, were it not, such a belief would be quite blatantly heretical.  That said, “though it be in Scripture, it does not follow that every one of us should be a fit judge whether and where it is in Scripture” (John Henry Newman, Plain and Parochial Sermons, Part 5, Sermon 23).  This, quite obviously flies in the face of any line of argumentation made by those who insist on having all doctrine spelled out explicitly in the Bible, who continually say “they will not believe it till it is proved to them from Scripture,” playing the role of “Thomas, who would not believe his brother Apostles that our Lord was risen, till he had as much proof as they, and who said, ‘Except I see and touch for myself, I will not believe’”(ibid.).

The hard and simple truth is that the beliefs which make up the core of the Christian faith are not explicitly defined in the Sacred text, and thus, to be a Bible believing Christian who demands they be “proved” there from is a contradiction in terms.  Some people may say, ‘well, it isn’t in the Bible, but it was pronounced early on in the life of the Church, before it was corrupted.’  This would place their line of demarcation between acceptable and unacceptable development of doctrine at 325, with the Council of Nicaea which pronounced Trinitarian doctrine.  Of course, this leaves them without the doctrine which forms our understanding of the Incarnation, the hypostatic union, which was not pronounced until 451 at the Council of Chalcedon.  And they may draw the line here, though this would leave them without an understanding of the personhood of Christ and his human and divine natures as having two wills pronounced at the Third Council of Constantinople in 680/681.  My point is the Holy Spirit, whose coming we celebrated last weekend has forever been at work educating the human family about who God is through self-revelation and inspiration, a revelation which reached its climax in the Incarnation, but which with the guidance of the Holy Spirit we continue to and will forever explore.  This is the second point demonstrated to us from our first reading and gospel for today.

Our first reading from the Book of Exodus is located just after the fiasco with the golden calf following the first giving of the Law (ch. 32) and just before the covenant is renewed with the people of Israel (ch. 34:10ff).  Here Moses is given the Law on a new set of tablets on Mount Sinai amidst a theophany.  As God descends upon the mountain we are told that he proclaimed: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty…” (Ex 34:6-7).  After the proclamation, Moses immediately prostrates himself in worship, asking God to make this people his own and accompany them on their journey to the promised land (Ex 34:8-9).  There are several important things to note in this exchange and we shall explore briefly.

First, we must keep in mind what is happening here.  The Law is being given to Moses, the intercessor and mediator between the people of Israel and God and it is in the context of the giving of the Law where God describes himself, something of his character, if you will, to Moses.  For brevity’s sake, we might say he is describing both his justice and mercy, which are both always simultaneously present, and together demonstrate his love.  For God cannot change so that we might say he is angry in one instant and loving in another, he simply is, as he had previously revealed to Moses (Ex. 3:14).  How we perceive him, or experience his love therefore depends on our existential movement, not his.  Consequently, the Law becomes a standing revelation, if you will, of these qualities of his love and how we are to respond to him.  The Law then, is not to be seen as constraining us, but freeing us to live in right relationship with God.  This was precisely Paul’s point when he tells us that we have been freed from the Law, not that we ought not to live according to its teaching, but that we ought to live it in the freedom of love.  After all, what Christian would say we ought to do away with the Decalogue?  None, yet some set faith at odds with the Law which is unthinkable to Paul himself who tells us that “obeying the commandments of God is everything” (1 Cor 7:19).  Thus, the Law has always been about the free exchange of love between the Creator and his creation.  Why?  Because it is not a set of rules, it is a pronouncement of the way things have been created to be, how they are meant to relate to one another in harmony, a reality whose description reached its apex in the Incarnation of the Son of God, who tells us he did not come to abolish but fulfill the law (Matt. 5:17).

Next, we ought to notice the response of Moses to the presence of God; awestruck worship.  This is an expression of what is known as fear of the Lord.  It is this awestruck response which the Bible repeatedly tells us is the beginning of wisdom (e.g. Ps. 111:10, Proverbs 1:7 and 9:10).  Thomas Aquinas describes wisdom as “rectitude of judgment according to the Eternal law” (Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 45, a 2).  In other words, it is seeing things as they have been created to be, put differently, it is seeing things as God sees them.  Thus, Aquinas goes on to state that the result of living in accordance with wisdom is peace, and thus couples wisdom with the seventh beatitude (ibid. a. 6).  Therefore, putting together all of this, we might conclude that to live with a posture of awestruck worship is to live as a child of God (Matt. 5:9).

This leads us to today’s gospel which begins with perhaps the most well-known verse in all of Scripture, found on everything from home-décor, to wristbands and shoes around the world, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”; a beautiful passage which in itself speaks volumes, but has still more to tell us when taken in context.  In the verse itself, we are given a glimpse of the first two Persons of the Trinity, the Father and the eternally begotten Son.  Moreover, if we backtrack a bit and look at the context, Jesus says this to Nicodemus as a follow up to his telling him that “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5).  Thus, in the span of a few verses, we find, on the lips of Christ echoes of the Trinitarian life and what its irrevocable love for the human family does so that they may be availed of life to its very fullest (John 10:10).

The Father sends the Son in order to destroy the bonds which separate the Creator from the created, and, having these constraints destroyed, together they gift the human family with the Holy Spirit who, by sanctifying and justifying unites the human family to Christ, thus bringing them into the dynamic love which is the Trinitarian life.  Thus, we see three Divine Persons; a Father who is not the Son nor the Spirit, a Son who is not the Spirit nor the Father, and a Spirit who is not Father or Son.  Yet elsewhere, we find the same Son commissioning his disciples to baptize all people “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).  Notice he does not say names, but name, indicating unity among the Divine Persons, a plurality such that it cannot be understood nor spoken of apart from the unity.  We find the same insinuation in John, where Christ tells us the Spirit will glorify him, “because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that the Father has is mine.  For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:14-15).  Thus, we find a Son who possesses all that is the Father’s and a Spirit who possesses all that is the Son’s.  Therefore, without too much trouble we posit a unity and equality among the Three.  What we end up with, then, is a plurality in unity, in essence One God but in Persons three.  Having reached this point it is best to regress back into the silence of contemplation, refraining from uttering more than a whisper concerning the awful beauty of our God, like a secret we dare not speak too loudly of lest it be repulsed by a multitude of words and vanish from our presence.

My friends, today we come into the presence of our God to reflect upon who he is and what he has done for us in order that we may continually experience the Love which is his Life more deeply.  By way of summation we might condense all that has come before down to two takeaways.  First, our God is sheer mystery.  Therefore, to say one understands the Trinity is to succumb to the temptation of the original sin, i.e. to grasp at divinity and make it our own.  Second, and consequently, in the face of such overpowering mystery, the only appropriate response is one of awestruck worship.  Like Moses, we ought to bow before the presence of our God having full confidence in the message of the Incarnation, the having humbled ourselves we will be exalted along with him who became one with us, so that he might avail us of the power of his Spirit who enables us to live in accordance with the Law of Love, finding us plunging ever anew into the ocean of infinite love, from here until eternity (cf. Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 12).

Heavenly Father, in communion with your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, we offer you this day the totality of our being as gift from gift, imploring you to illuminate it by the fire of your Spirit so that every action performed and every word uttered be fragranced with the sweet odor of your love, engulfing the world with the scent of your glory.  Amen.

Your servant in Christ,

Tony

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