The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity in Scriptures and Art

Today’s readings speak of the work of the Trinity in creation and redemption.

James Tissot, “The Last Sermon of Our Lord,” ca. 1896
James Tissot, “The Last Sermon of Our Lord,” ca. 1896 (photo: Public Domain)

The Church reflects on the mystery of God himself — one God in Three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit — on the first Sunday after concluding the joyous season of Easter with Pentecost. (For Catholics in the United States, today is also the last day to fulfill the Paschal Precept, i.e., to receive Communion worthily, as the Church requires, during the Easter Season. For much of the rest of the world, that Easter “duty” was due last week but, by adaptation of the Council of Baltimore in the 19th century, American Catholics have until Trinity Sunday).

  Discussing the Trinity is a challenge because it is a mystery and because, while the Trinity is revealed in Sacred Scripture, the mature theological articulation of what it means to speak of “one God in Three Persons” only took place later, primarily during the great Trinitarian and Christological disputes of the fourth and fifth centuries. That was the era of the great ecumenical councils, like Nicaea and Constantinople. The Profession of Faith we declare at Mass is also known as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, because those councils began to structure it.

Pay attention to it: the Nicean-Constantinopolitan Creed, like the earlier Apostles’ Creed, are both built around the Trinity:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty …
and in Jesus Christ, his Only Son …
I believe in the Holy Spirit.

The other great creed of Antiquity — the Athanasian Creed — is explicitly constructed around Trinitarian dogmas. It is worth your reading today.

Today’s readings speak of the work of the Trinity in creation and redemption. The first reading (Proverbs 8:22-31) speaks of the Trinity’s work in creation, even before anything that was came to be. “And I found delight in the human race” (Proverbs 8:31), reminding us that God created humanity — male and female he created them — in his image and likeness. 

I mention this connection because we are sometimes prone to think of the Trinity as an abstract whose relevance to my life is probably unclear. It was the Jesuit Karl Rahner, I think, who once wrote that if the Trinity disappeared, many Christians might not even miss it because it is a mystery that has been rendered so mysterious (i.e., not explained) to them that it is in practice irrelevant.

But God made us in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-28). God is Trinity, so his image cannot not be affected by that Trinitarian reality, even if he doesn’t realize it.

God is not an isolated individual, a closed monad. God is a life-giving communion of persons (communion personarum). That is the God of whom we are an image, in whom he “found delight,” the “one creature whom God wanted for himself” (as St. John Paul II was fond of repeating, following Vatican II).

If man does not enter a life-giving communion of persons, he mars and deforms the image of God in whom he is made. This is what St. John Paul II meant when he insisted, in his first encyclical Redemptor hominis, that “man cannot live without love. He remains a being incomprehensible to himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it …” These are powerful words, and not just hyperbole. Man cannot understand himself apart from love because he is made in the image of a God who is Personal Love — and so, absent love, man is an existential contradiction. Modernity television and video games are rife with zombies, but the only real zombies are those humans who try to live as if the image of the Loving God inscribed in them doesn’t matter.

If the First Reading addresses creation — who we were made to be — the Gospel addresses salvation — who we can be in the light of our God-granted possibilities. The Gospel (John 16:12-15) is taken from Jesus’s long Farewell Discourse at the Last Supper. This particular passage talks about Jesus’s impending departure, which opens the door for the coming of the Holy Spirit (whose advent we marked in definitive form last week on Pentecost). The Holy Spirit completes Jesus’s work and enables its execution in his disciples. But Jesus’ work — his “food” — is his Father’s will (John 4:34). So, in today’s Gospel, Jesus makes clear that, in the work of salvation, the Holy Spirit gives what is Jesus’s, which is his because it is the Father’s. The whole Trinity created us, and the whole Trinity saves us. (This is why, in addition to being sacrilegious because it invalidated the sacrament, those priests who tampered with the form of Baptism to speak of baptizing “in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sanctifier” also demonstrated their basic theological ignorance).

If the theology of the Trinity using today’s readings alone is a challenge, finding its artistic expression is even more so. As I have noted, there are occasionally Sunday readings which are so abstract that few artists have attempted to express them on canvas. 

The Trinity is certainly one of them, and not surprisingly. As I noted over the past two weeks, as John (1:18) reminds us, “no has ever seen God. It is his only-begotten Son who has revealed him.” We saw this in the Ascension as depicted in the Drogo Sacramentary, where the Father is shown only as a hand reaching for Jesus, and in El Greco’s Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit appears in the form of a dove and tongues of fire. Elsewhere (1 John 4:12, 20) John reminds us that, while no one has seen God, God dwells in those who love the brother they see. That is perfectly in keeping with our First Reading which, by alluding in whose image we are made, makes clear that our fulfillment as persons as well as our salvation (which are, at root, the same thing) depends on love. 

To illustrate today’s Gospel, let’s harken back to our faithful standby, late 19th-century French artist James Tissot. Tissot’s detailed paintings of the life of Christ (many owned by the Brooklyn Museum) include a number of works centered on the Last Supper, including this Last Sermon of Our Lord. (Most Last Supper art naturally focuses on the Eucharist or, to a lesser extent, the mandatum, the washing of the Apostles’ feet. The extended Johannine Farewell Discourse receives comparatively little artistic attention).

In Tissot’s painting, Jesus is rightly at the center, in his usual Tissot white, flanked by Peter on his right and the youthful John on his left. There are 11 Apostles, because Judas has departed. Tissot’s journeys in the Holy Land frame his color palette and his costumes. The centrality of Jesus is appropriate for today’s feast since, as we have noted, Jesus is he who reveals God to us.

That said, this painting jars me, probably because it does not tally with my own imagined image of the Last Supper. Given the practice of reclining at table in the ancient world and mentioned in Scripture (John 13:23; Matthew 26:20; cf. Matthew 9:10), I am surprised to see Jesus and the Apostles standing during what purports to be his Last Discourse (which, in John’s Gospel, runs four relatively long chapters (14-17). Are we capturing the last moment before the imminent departure for Gethsemane (18:1)?