Column: Belief in the Trinity predates discussion of it

by Father Mike Stubbs

In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, we often overlook the significance of the words we say.

For example, when we tell another person who is leaving “goodbye,” we are asking God to accompany that person. “Goodbye” is a contraction of the phrase “God be with you.”

Even at church, where we would think that we would pay attention to the religious significance of the words we say, we sometimes gloss over them. Our Catholic prayers, our liturgy, constantly refer to the Holy Trinity. And yet, their meaning often goes over our heads. To bring us back to that Trinitarian focus, this weekend we observe Trinity Sunday, the feast which celebrates the mystery of the Holy Trinity.

The Gospel reading for Trinity Sunday comes to us from the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Mt 28:16-20. It shows the Risen Christ appearing to the 11 disciples and commissioning them before his ascension to heaven.

When the disciples see the Risen Christ, they immediately fall to their knees to worship him. By that gesture, they recognize that he shares in God’s nature. It has taken them a while to arrive at that conclusion. Earlier in Jesus’ public ministry, they had witnessed the miracles which revealed his divine power. Through his teachings, they had heard Jesus speak on God’s behalf. And now that Jesus is risen from the dead, the disciples behold his glory. They recognize that Jesus shares in God’s nature, even though they may lack the words to express that concept.

So, as usual, Jesus comes to their aid. He supplies the terminology to describe that belief, in a phrase encapsulated within his instruction to them to baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Notice that while this phrase points to the mystery that we usually call the Trinity, it avoids the word itself. In fact, nowhere in the New Testament will the word “Trinity” appear. It will surface only later in the church’s history, to mark further reflection on that mystery and a deeper understanding of it.

That reflects the typical order of events in the development of doctrine. First comes the belief. Then, the words to express that belief follow.

So often we reverse that order. We teach children the words of the creed, then hope that they will grow into the beliefs that the creed expresses. Why should we be surprised that that sometimes does not happen, and they end up with a hollow faith? On the other hand, if they have already learned the words, they will then possess the vocabulary to express their faith once they arrive at it.

In any case, the feast which we celebrate calls us to go beyond the words and to experience the reality to which they point — the mystery of the three persons in one God, the Holy Trinity. Face to face with that mystery, we are driven to imitate the example of the disciples in the Gospel reading and fall to our knees in worship.

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