Today is the Feast of the Holy Trinity.
Every Sunday is dedicated to the worship of the Triune God, and is called accordingly the Lord’s day; but the first Sunday after Pentecost is appointed by the Church a special feast of the Most Holy Trinity, because this mystery, as the fundamental doctrine of the Christian religion, began at once to be preached by the apostles, as soon as they had been enlightened and strengthened by the descent of the Holy Ghost. (9)
By Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1877
The mystery of all mysteries is presented to us today by the true Church of Christ, namely, the mystery of the Most Holy and undivided Trinity, to which we owe the deepest honor, love and devotion.
Our belief on this subject consists principally in the three following points: there is One true God, who rewards all good deeds and punishes all evil ones, either in this world or in the next; but there are, at the same time, three Persons, who according to Holy Writ, are called, Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Each of these three Persons differs from the two others, namely the Father from the Son, the Son from the Father and the Holy Ghost, and the Holy Ghost from Father and Son. This difference of Persons implies, however, no difference in their nature; for they all possess only one divine nature and essence. Each of these Persons is true God. True God is the Father: true God, the Son: true God, the Holy Ghost. But notwithstanding this, they are not three Gods, but One God; because all three Persons possess but one divine nature. In regard to men, we say that there are as many separate and distinct natures as there are persons; but in God, as St. Augustine teaches, we find a most perfect Unity in the Trinity, and a most perfect Trinity in the Unity: this means, there is only one God, but there are three Divine Persons.
The Father is the first Person, the Son, the second, the Holy Ghost, the third. The Father has no beginning nor origin from either of the other Persons. The Son is born from all eternity, in an incomprehensible manner, of the Father, and the Holy Ghost, in an equally incomprehensible manner, proceeds from the Father and Son at the same time. And yet the Father is neither older nor higher than the Son, the Son not younger nor less than the Father, and the Holy Ghost not younger nor less than either the Father or the Son. It is true, Christ has said in the Gospel: “The Father is greater than I am:” but these words must be understood as spoken by Him in His human nature. The Father is greater than Christ as Son of man; for as such, He is not from Eternity: as He took upon Himself human nature in time, that is at His Incarnation, nearly 2000 years ago. As far, however, as His divine nature is concerned, He is equally great and eternal as the Father; and as the Father is from all eternity, so the Son by His divine nature has no beginning. The same we believe and confess of the Holy Ghost: He exists equally from all eternity.
What we believe of the eternal existence of these three divine Persons we must also believe of their other perfections, namely, of the omnipotence, omniscience, infinity and the other attributes of God. Omnipotent is the Father; omnipotent is the Son; omnipotent is the Holy Ghost. Omniscient is the Father; omniscient the Son ; omniscient the Holy Ghost Infinite is the Father; infinite the Son; infinite the Holy Ghost. Not one of these three Persons is above the other in might, wisdom, infinity, or any other perfection. One is immeasurably perfect as the other. But although each of the three Persons possesses the above named attributes, there are, nevertheless not three Gods thus perfect; as although each Person is true God, there are not three Gods, but only one ; because the three Persons possess but one divine nature. The Son of God, the second Person, possesses, besides the divine nature, also the human nature, which He took upon Himself in the virginal body of Mary, and in which He suffered and died for us. He is true God and Man. This is what the true faith teaches us of the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity.
In the Old Testament this mystery was revealed to very few and only to the most beloved friends of God; in order, as the holy Fathers write, that the Jews, who were surrounded by heathens, and who were themselves prone to idolatry, should not have an opportunity to regard the three Persons as three Gods. The Prophets impressed them only with the truth that there was only one true God and that they must worship Him alone and not turn their thoughts to the idols of the heathens. But in the New Testament, the mystery of the Holy Trinity is revealed and announced in clear words. Not to mention many passages which have reference to this, let us only regard what Christ said to His Apostles: “Going therefore, teach ye all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”
In these words, Christ our Lord announced the three divine Persons, namely, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost: and at the same time their unity in one, as He does not speak in the plural, saying, in the names, but, in the name, in order to impress us with the truth, that the three Persons are but one God. To the above cited words of the Saviour, we will add those of St. John: “And there are three who give testimony in heaven, the Father, the Word and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one,” namely, in their nature and essence. (John, v.) After the Gospel had been preached by the Apostles, many thousands of Jews and heathens believed this mystery, and today it is accepted in all parts of the Christian world, as an undoubted truth. It is certain that this mystery is far beyond all human comprehension, and there is no article in our faith which is more inexplicable.
What is told in regard to it of St. Augustine is well known. This holy teacher while occupied in searching into the mystery of the Holy Trinity, took a walk on the seashore, where he found a boy, who having made a small hole in the sand, poured water from the sea into it with a spoon. After watching the boy for a long time, the Saint asked him what he was doing. “I wish,” replied the boy, “to pour the sea into this hole.” “O my child!” said the Saint: “that is a useless attempt. So small a hole cannot contain the immense sea.” “And you,” replied the boy, ” will be still less able to contain and comprehend, with your human understanding, the stupendous mystery of the Holy Trinity!” After these words, the child, who doubtless was an angel, vanished.
Truly this mystery is inconceivable and fathomless; yet we do right, nay more, we are bound under pain of damnation to believe it, as it is taught by Him, who can neither deceive, nor be deceived, as He is Himself eternal and infallible truth. God himself revealed it to us, and this is and must be sufficient for us to cast aside all doubts. Our understanding must, according to the exhortation of St. Paul, submit and become a prisoner in the service of faith. For, the words of God must be true, whether we comprehend them or not. And finally, why do we wonder that we are unable to fathom so great a mystery, when there are so many natural things which our understanding fails to explain? Besides, God does not command us to understand, but to believe it. “Believing is commanded to me,” writes St. Augustine. “To search into the mystery of the Holy Trinity, and to wish to comprehend it,” says St. Bernard, “is presumption; but to believe it is godliness.” Elsewhere, he writes these memorable words: “If any one asks how the Catholic faith in regard to this point can be true, I answer, that it should be enough for any one to believe that it is so. If any one goes further and attempts to explain what he is only expected to believe, he places himself in danger of losing his faith and with it his salvation.”
This was indeed the fate of many who, by their impertinent pondering, came at last so far that they protested against and denied the Most Holy Trinity.
It is unquestionable that there was no article of faith which in the early centuries was so much assailed as this one. The Jews would not admit of Three Persons in the Divinity; the heathens maintained the plurality of Gods. Some heretics professed only one Person; others denied the Divinity of Christ; and again others the Divinity of the Holy Ghost. There were some who said that the three Persons were only different names; while others taught that one Person was greater than the other, &c. The Arians, who contested the divinity of Christ, caused the greatest disturbance, the greatest evil in the Church of God, on account of their inveigling many bishops and several emperors into their false doctrines. They persecuted the Catholics, especially bishops and priests, as cruelly, and in some places, more cruelly than the heathens had done. It is known that many thousands of Catholics confirmed with their blood their faith in the Holy Trinity and in the Divinity of Christ, during the persecution of the Church by the Arians.
We read also of many astonishing miracles which God at that time wrought to confirm the truth of the Catholic Faith. In the last few centuries, almost all the errors of the ancient heretics have been renewed by the followers of Luther and Calvin, both of whom assailed the word ” Trinity,” and would not tolerate it. The old Catholic prayer, “Holy Trinity, One God, have mercy upon us,” both rejected. The bible of Luther does not contain the important text of St. John: “There are three who give testimony, &c.” He left these words out, because they lead to the conclusion that we have to believe in the Holy Trinity. Calvin taught that the words: “These three are one,” were not to be applied to their unity in nature, but only to their conformity of will.
What is to be concluded from this, I leave to others to find out. The more, however, the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity was assailed by the heretics, the more it was protected and defended by the Catholic Church. The Holy Mass begins daily with the sign of the Cross, the use of which is an emphatic confession of the Holy Trinity and an appeal to the same. This sign of the Cross is made several times during the day by all true Catholics, and as often as it is made, so often is the Holy Trinity acknowledged and honored. The same is done in holy Mass by the repeated Kyrie Eleison, and further by the Angelic song of praise: “Glory be to God on high:” by the Credo, or Nicene Creed, and lastly by the Sanctus, three times repeated; Holy, holy, holy! The prayers ordained by the Catholic Church, as well for holy Mass, as for all other occasions, all end with a confession of the Holy Trinity and an invocation to the same. All hymns of praise, used in the daily office of the priests and in other devout exercises end in the same manner. As often as the priest, during holy mass, or on other occasions, blesses the people, or things for the benefit of man, so often he invokes and confesses the only true God in three Persons. Every litany begins with this invocation and acknowledgment. After every Psalm is the Holy Trinity praised and honored with the well known words: “Glory be to the Father, to the Son and to the Holy Ghost, &c.”
All this, and much more, has the Catholic Church ordained to honor the Holy Trinity; and to the same end she instituted today’s Festival. She requires that we celebrate it most solemnly, that we not only renew our confession of faith in the most Holy Trinity, praise and worship the only true God in three divine Persons, but also give due thanks for all the benefits granted us. One of the reasons that the first Sunday after Pentecost was chosen for this celebration, lies in the fact that the mystery of the Holy Trinity as the principal article of our faith, was not publicly preached by the Apostles until after the Holy Ghost had descended upon them.
The Lutherans celebrate today’s festival with us, although this was instituted by a Pope, John XXII., and is not of such ancient date as many other feasts. Why, therefore, do they not also celebrate other feasts of the Catholic Church instituted by other Popes, and of much older date? They have again admitted into their bible the verse of St. John, which Luther had left out; but what is the reason that they do not eradicate so many errors with which their Bible is filled? The Lutherans also believe in One God and three Persons in the Holy Trinity, although this is an incomprehensible mystery, and it seems impossible to the human understanding that each Person is true God and yet all three only one God. Why, believing this, do they deny other articles of faith, especially that of the presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, and the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ? Why do they say, in regard to it, that it is impossible? Because they are unable to comprehend it. But the same God, who revealed the mystery of the Holy Trinity, has also revealed the other, and has commanded that we should believe the one as well as the other, under pain of eternal damnation. Whoever denies the presence of Our Lord in the blessed Sacrament, or the change of the bread and wine because it is incomprehensible, will surely soon be led to deny the greatest Mystery of them all, that of the Holy Trinity, because it is much more unfathomable! And it is just this which the Evil One tries to accomplish through heresy, in order to overthrow the pillars of the Christian faith. (5)
Feast of the Holy Trinity.
by Dom Prosper Gueranger 1870
The very essence of the Christian Faith consists in the knowledge and adoration of One God in Three Persons. This is the Mystery whence all others flow. Our Faith centers in this as in the master-truth of all it knows in this life, and as the infinite object whose vision is to form our eternal happiness; and yet, we only know it, because it has pleased God to reveal Himself thus to our lowly intelligence, which, after all, can never fathom the infinite perfections of that God, who necessarily inhabiteth light inaccessible (1 Tim. vi. 16). Human reason may, of itself, come to the knowledge of the existence of God as Creator of all beings; it may, by its own innate power, form to itself an idea of His perfections by the study of His works; but the knowledge of God’s intimate being can only come to us by means of His own gracious revelation.
It was God’s good-pleasure to make known to us His essence, in order to bring us into closer union with Himself, and to prepare us, in some way, for that face-to-face vision of Himself which He intends giving us in eternity: but His revelation is gradual; He takes mankind from brightness unto brightness, fitting it for the full knowledge and adoration of Unity in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity. During the period preceding the Incarnation of the eternal Word, God seems intent on inculcating the idea of His Unity, for polytheism was the infectious error of mankind; and every notion of there being a spiritual and sole cause of all things would have been effaced on earth, had not the infinite goodness of that God watched over its preservation.
Not that the Old Testament Books were altogether silent on the Three Divine Persons, Whose ineffable relations are eternal; only, the mysterious passages, which spoke of them, were not understood by the people at large; whereas, in the Christian Church, a child of seven will answer them that ask him, that, in God, the three Divine Persons have but one and the same nature, but one and the same Divinity. “When the Book of Genesis tells us, that God spoke in the plural, and said: Let Us make man to our image and likeness (Gen. i. 26), the Jew bows down and believes, but he understands not the sacred text; the Christian, on the contrary, who has been enlightened by the complete revelation of God, sees, under this expression, the Three Persons acting together in the formation of Man; the light of Faith develops the great truth to him, and tells him that, within himself, there is a likeness to the blessed Three in One. Power, Understanding, and Will, are three faculties within him, and yet he himself is but one being.
In the Books of Proverbs, Wisdom, and Ecclesiasticus, Solomon speaks, in sublime language, of Him Who is eternal Wisdom; he tells us, and he uses every variety of grandest expression to tell us, of the divine essence of this Wisdom, and of His being a distinct Person in the Godhead; but, how few among the people of Israel could see through the veil? Isaias heard the voice of the Seraphim, as they stood around God’s throne; he heard them singing, in alternate choirs, and with a joy intense because eternal, this hymn: Holy! Holy! Holy! is the Lord (Is. vi. 3)! but who will explain to men this triple Sanctus, of which the echo is heard here below, when we mortals give praise to our Creator? So, again, in the Psalms, and the prophetic Books, a flash of light will break suddenly upon us; a brightness of some mysterious Three will dazzle us; but, it passes away, and obscurity returns seemingly all the more palpable; we have but the sentiment of the divine Unity deeply impressed on our inmost soul, and we adore the Incomprehensible, the Sovereign Being.
The world had to wait for the fullness of time to be completed; and then, God would send, into this world, His Only Son, Begotten of Him from all eternity. This His most merciful purpose has been carried out, and the Word made Flesh hath dwelt among us (St. John, i. 14). By seeing His glory, the glory of the Only Begotten Son of the Father (Ibid), we have come to know that, in God, there is Father and Son. The Son’s Mission to our earth, by the very revelation it gave us of Himself, taught us that God is, eternally, Father, for whatsoever is in God is eternal. But for this merciful revelation, which is an anticipation of the light awaiting us in the next life, our knowledge of God would have been too imperfect. It was fitting that there should be some proportion between the light of Faith, and that of the Vision reserved for the future; it was not enough for man to know that God is One.
So that, we now know the Father, from Whom comes, as the Apostle tells us, all paternity, even on earth (Eph. iii. 15). We know Him not only as the creative power, which has produced every being outside Himself; but, guided as it is by Faith, our soul’s eye respectfully penetrates into the very essence of the Godhead, and there beholds the Father begetting a Son like unto Himself. But, in order to teach us the Mystery, that Son came down upon our earth. Himself has told us expressly, that no one knoweth the Father, but the Son, and he to whom it shall please the Son to reveal Him (St. Matth. xi. 27). Glory, then, be to the Son, Who has vouchsafed to show us the Father! and glory to the Father, Whom the Son hath revealed unto us!
The intimate knowledge of God, has come to us by the Son, Whom the Father, in His love, has given to us (St. John, iii. 16). And this Son of God, Who, in order to raise up our minds even to His own Divine Nature, has clad Himself, by His Incarnation, with our Human Nature, has taught us that He and His Father are one (St. John, xvii. 22); that they are one and the same Essence, in distinction of Persons. One begets, the Other is begotten; the One is named Power; the Other, Wisdom, or Intelligence. The Power cannot be without the Intelligence, nor the Intelligence without the Power, in the sovereignly perfect Being: but, both the One and the Other produce a Third term.
The Son, Who had been sent by the Father, had ascended into heaven, with the Human Nature which He had united to Himself for all future eternity; and, lo! the Father and the Son send into this world the Spirit Who proceeds from them both. It was a new Gift, and it taught man that the Lord God was in Three Persons. The Spirit, the eternal link of the first Two, is Will, He is Love, in the divine Essence. In God, then, is the fullness of Being, without beginning, without succession, without increase, for there is nothing which He has not. In these Three eternal terms of His uncreated Substance, is the Act, pure and infinite.
The sacred Liturgy, whose object is the glorification of God and the commemoration of His works, follows, each year, the sublime phases of these manifestations, whereby the Sovereign Lord has made known His whole self to mortals. Under the somber colors of Advent, we commemorated the period of expectation, during which the radiant Trinity sent forth but few of its rays to mankind. The world, during those four thousand years, was praying heaven for a Liberator, a Messiah; and it was God’s own Son that was to be this Liberator, this Messiah. That we might have the full knowledge of the prophecies which foretold Him, it was necessary that He himself should actually come: a Child was born unto us (Is. ix. 6), and then we had the key to the Scriptures. When we adored that Son, we adored also the Father, Who sent Him to us in the Flesh, and to whom He is consubstantial. This Word of Life, Whom we have seen, Whom we have heard, Whom our hands have handled (St. John, i. l) in the Humanity which He deigned to assume, has proved Himself to be truly a Person, a Person distinct from the Father, for One sends, and the Other is sent. In this second Divine Person, we have found our Mediator, Who has reunited the creation to its Creator; we have found the Redeemer of our sins, the Light of our souls, the Spouse we had so long desired.
Having passed through the mysteries which He Himself wrought, we next celebrated the descent of the Holy Spirit, Who had been announced as coming to perfect the work of the Son of God. We adored Him, and acknowledged Him to be distinct from the Father and the Son, Who had sent Him to us, with the mission of abiding with us (St. John, xiv. 16). He manifested Himself by divine operations which are especially His own, and were the object of His coming. He is the soul of the Church; He keeps her in the truth taught her by the Son. He is the source, the principle of the sanctification of our souls; and in them He wishes to make His dwelling. In a word the mystery of the Trinity has become to us, not only a dogma made known to our mind by Revelation, but, moreover, a practical truth given to us by the unheard of munificence of the Three Divine Persons; the Father, Who has adopted us; the Son Whose brethren and joint-heirs we are; and the Holy Ghost, Who governs us, and dwells within us.
Let us, then, begin this Day, by giving glory to the one God in Three Persons. For this end, we will unite with holy Church, who, in her Office of Prime, recites on this solemnity, as, also, on every Sunday not taken up by a feast, the magnificent Symbol, known as the Athanasian Creed. It gives us, in a summary of much majesty and precision, the doctrine of the holy Doctor, Saint Athanasius, regarding the mysteries of the Trinity and Incarnation (It is a psalm or hymn of praise, of confession, and of profound, self-prostrating homage, parallel to the Canticles of the elect in heaven. It appeals to the imagination quite as much as to the intellect. It is the war-song of faith, with which we warn first ourselves, then each other, and then all those who are within its hearing, and the hearing of the Truth, Who our God is, and how we must worship Him, and how vast our responsibility will be if we know what to believe, and yet believe not.) (3)
We have thus far lived out the drama of Christ’s earthly life — His Nativity at Christmas, His revealing Himself as God at the Epiphany, His time in the desert at Lent, His Passion and Resurrection at Good Friday and Easter. We recalled His glorious Ascension, and at last week’s Pentecost, the Holy Ghost has descended upon the Church, sent by the Father and the Son. (1)
God’s Triune Nature has been fully revealed, and now we celebrate the Most Holy Trinity on this day, hearing in today’s Gospel, “All power is given to Me in heaven and on earth. Going therefore, teach ye all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all the things whatsoever I have commanded you; and behold I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world” (this is known as the “Great Commission”). (1)
And with this Mass, the Time After Pentecost, the season that represents the Church Age, begins. Vestments today will be white. (1)
Symbols for the day are the natural symbols of the Trinity — the shamrock used by St. Patrick to explain the Trinity to the ancient Irish, the pansy — viola tricolor — called the “Trinity Flower,” a candle with 3 flames, the triangle, the trefoil, 3 interlocking circles, etc. (1)
Image: Trinity, “Die Hl. Dreieinigkeit mit Krone” (wohl für einen Kirchenaltar) Öl auf Leinwand, ca. (11)