The Trinity — the Life of God himself — is a mystery, as no doubt many a homily today will declare. That’s true: we can and never will penetrate that reality, even if our hope is fulfilled, we are saved, and see God “face to face” for eternity.
Should that surprise us? No. Even human experience prepares us for that. Consider the experience of love, especially young love. Two people are fascinated with each other. They want to know ever more about the other. Even the little details are important. The Polish singer, Seweryn Krajewski, captured it in his song, “List do jedzącej Eurydyki” (“A Letter to Eurydice as She Eats”). The scene is a cafeteria where every day he sees a girl eating breakfast with another man:
Because you just can’t imagine
How beautifully you eat your pancake
And sip your juice.
Because it means so much to me
How you hold your knife and fork …
Some might consider those thoughts “romantic” or “poetic,” untampered by “real life.” When we do, we lose a lot. The secret of love, it seems, is that one keeps alive the fascination — indeed, deepens it — as time goes by.
So, yes, the human experience of love already points us to the inexhaustible mystery of the other person. If we can say that about a human person, a created being, how much more can we say it about his Creator, the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit?
Because, despite the mystery, St. John audaciously defines that “God is Love” (1 John 4:8). It’s not just that God loves (among other things), but that “God is Love.”
I refer back to the First Letter of John for two reasons. First, because if the eternal, almighty and infinite God is Love, then how much more can we plunge into his depths without ever remotely exhausting them? If human love remains fascinating, how much more God?
(Sometimes one gets the impression that heaven is some quiet, restful place serenaded by too much harp music. That caricature is profoundly misrepresentative. As anyone who has really loved knows, love is hardly passive. Love is ever active, ever fascinating. So is heaven.)
Second, I refer to 1 John because, in that text, he recaps today’s Gospel: “In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins” (4:9-10).
Theologians distinguish between what they call the “immanent Trinity” or the “ontological Trinity” and the “economic Trinity.” The “immanent Trinity” is how God is in himself: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, with their varying relationships of begetting and procession. The “economic Trinity” is how God relates to us, as our Creator, our Redeemer and our Sanctifier — not that these are “jobs” of particular persons of the Trinity (because the entire Trinity is always involved in all these works) but because we experience God in how he created the first Adam and us, re-created us through the Second Adam, and applies the work of redemption to us through sanctifying grace.
Today’s Gospel (John 3:16-18) emphasizes the Trinity in relation to us: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (v. 16). God did not have to create us. Even less did he have to redeem us. God did not need us to love: God’s Love is absolute, infinite and perfect in the Trinity: three Persons who love each other so absolutely they are Love.
But God’s superabundant love chose to share his life with man and, even “when through disobedience he had lost your friendship, you did not abandon him to the domain of death. … And you so loved the world, Father most holy, that in the fullness of time you sent your Only Begotten Son to be our Savior. Made incarnate by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, he shared our human nature in all things but sin” (Eucharistic Prayer IV).
So it’s not by accident that the Gospel for Trinity Sunday tells us what the Triune God who is Love does for us out of love. “God so loved the world that he sent his Son into the world …”
One of the most important books I read this past year was Margaret Turek’s Atonement. A world that loses a sense of sin also loses a sense of why it needs a Savior — from what are we to be saved? We then wind up with two, equally false extremes: on the one hand, a caricature of God the Father, eternally offended, who is “out for blood” to meet justice, on the other, an illusory God who simply overlooks sin as a “mistake” done by us who are “not perfect” but whom God “understands,” turning a blind eye to what we have made ourselves into because sin is real: a real gaping hole in our being.
Turek’s somewhat dense theological treatment shows us that the Son of God in justice suffered for man, not because God is “out for blood” but because God loves us. God’s “anger” is not something different from his love: having made us in his image and likeness for life with him forever, God cannot “lovingly” look indifferently on our free choice to turn from that likeness and love, as if rejecting the love of the living God is a legitimate “choice.” God wants us to be his “sons in the Son” and cannot acquiesce in what makes that filiation impossible. In bearing our sins, Jesus also bears our experience of abandonment by God, yet by nonetheless remaining faithful to the Father (who nevertheless supports him all the way) he exemplifies the path after sin of faithful obedience that turning to God (under God’s grace) entails.
So, while the Trinity may be a mystery, even the economic Trinity — God’s dealings with us — remains an unfathomable mystery because the depths of Love cannot be plumbed.
Today’s Gospel is illustrated by a medieval manuscript illumination by the 15th-century northern Italian artist Taddeo Crivelli, famous for his Biblical illuminations. It is held by, but not currently on exhibit at, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
The Trinity is typically depicted in one of two ways. The more common way is to picture God the Father, his Son Jesus “seated at the right hand of the Father,” and the Holy Spirit as a dove hovering between or over them.
Crivelli opts for another way of depicting the Trinity, which became popular in his day and remained so especially through the 1600s: “The Throne of Mercy.”
(I remember first seeing one of these illustrations above the altar of the parish church in Commana, France, one of the churches that make up the beautiful “parish closes” of western Brittany – but that’s another story.)
The “Throne of Mercy” emphasizes the economic Trinity — God the Father appears as presenting his Son on the cross to us, with the Holy Spirit in the picture. It’s as if the Father is inviting us to contemplate God’s love for man in the words of the Good Friday Reproaches: “What more could I have done for you? Answer me!” “Do you understand what sin is, what you have lost, and how much I love you to fix all that?” And, since “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3) the Paraclete is present, offering God’s life — sanctifying grace — to those who turn to God.
Surrounding the Godhead are seraphim (in the red) and cherubim, witnesses to God’s offer. This is “God’s throne” when it comes to us: the offer of mercy by a God who loves us more than we ourselves.
If we imagine Jesus coming at the Last Judgment or God being “angry” at us it is because, as St. Faustina reminds us, Jesus revealed to her: “Before I come as the just judge, I am coming first as the King of Mercy” (Diary, no. 83). But man is not free to ignore God, to treat him as an “option.” Certainly not the God whom Crivelli tries to depict: “Before I come as a just Judge, I first open wide the door of my mercy. He who refuses to pass through the door of my mercy must pass through the door of my justice” (Diary, no. 1146).
Which one is it, man?