If you don’t understand the Mass, you will never understand the Trinity

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Most Holy Trinity, Year C: May 30, 2010
Prov 8:22-31; Ps 8:4-9; Rom 5:1-5; John 16:12-15


On this Trinity Sunday, we begin the Mass as we begin every Mass: by making the sign of the cross, as the priest celebrant says, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

A couple years ago, when I was in seminary, I came to understand more fully what it is that we are doing when we begin with that invocation. I was taking an elective in Hebrew. And as practice we were reciting some of the translation of the Mass in Hebrew that Hebrew Catholics use in the Holy Land. And so we began by saying: “b’shem”—and immediately I was shocked very awake, because I knew what “ha-shem” meant—as we began, “b’shem ha’Av v’hab-Ben v’Ruach ha-qodesh.”

Ha-shem” in Hebrew means “the name,” but Orthodox Jews will speak of God in conversation as “ha-shem.” They do so, first of all, in order to show reverence by not actually saying aloud God’s name. But because “ha-shem” means, not just the “name” in a shallow sense; but it means the person; the character; the reality, the essence; the power; of the one who is named.

And so when we begin “in the name,” “b’shem,“in nomini,” of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we are entering into the reality, the mystery, the inner relationship of the Most Holy Trinity. And once a year the Church gives us this Trinity Sunday to reflect and better understand that mystery that we enter into at every Mass.


The Catechism tells us [234] that

The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life.

Now, whenever Scripture and Tradition speak of a “mystery,” they don’t mean some sort of crime that a detective is supposed to solve—like figuring out who killed Mr. Boddy in the library with the candlestick. No, instead, this kind of mystery is a deep and very important truth that used to be hidden in God, and which human reason could never discover on its own, but which now God has revealed to us. [cf. 237] And he has revealed it to us in order to draw us into it.

And so when we call the Trinity “the central mystery of Christian faith and life … the most fundamental and essential teaching in the ‘hierarchy of the truths of faith’… the source of all the other mysteries of faith,” we know that this revealed mystery is supposed to be like a wellspring flooding our life and transforming it. And yet:

  • How many Christians today do not understand the doctrine of the Trinity?
  • How many have fallen into one of the classic errors regarding the Trinity, which the Church has taught against for centuries? And perhaps they don’t even know it.
  • How many don’t see the point of the doctrine, and so just kind of ignore it?
  • How many are living with a certain empty space in their mind and heart? And maybe they are longing to fill this void, without even knowing it?

Is there a hunger for the Trinity in Christians today?

About three years ago, there was published a short Evangelical Protestant novel called “The Shack,” and it sold surprisingly well. The main character is a man, a husband and father, who has experienced a lot of tragedy in his life. And in the book he goes to a place where some of that tragedy happened: a “shack” in the woods; thus the title of the book. And while he is there, he is visited by all three Persons of the Trinity. Jesus is recognizably himself; and the Father and the Holy Spirit have each taken on human appearance. And this man talks to all three together.

Now I haven’t actually read the book; and I know there is a lot more going on in it than what I am speaking about. I’m also not going to tell you what those other two human forms are, that the other two divine Persons take on. But I simply want to point out two things that I think are shown by the success of this book:

  • First, that there is a hunger out there to understand the Trinity; a hunger for this doctrine to mean something to people; a hunger to really be in relationship with all three Persons.
  • And second, that into this void the book pours a false, a distorted and incorrect picture of what the Trinity is and how we relate to it.

Because all three Persons did not become incarnate as human beings. Only the Son did, as our Lord Jesus Christ. And he did so in order to draw us into a relationship with the three divine Persons that is so much more incredible than simply having a chat with three humans in a shack in the woods. And the place where we enter into this awesome relationship most clearly is the Mass. If someone doesn’t understand the Mass, they will never understand the Trinity, and they will never understand why it matters so much to each of us.

I’ll speak about that more in a moment. But first, let’s back up to the basics of the doctrine.

We believe that God is one and God is three. Are we blatantly contradicting ourselves, numerically? No, because we are counting in different respects. There are three distinct divine Persons, and one divine nature. Three Persons, one nature. When we speak of Christ, it is the inverse: one on those Persons took on human nature and so has two natures. But in the Trinity, it is three Persons, one nature. And the Catechism tells us:

We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons… The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God whole and entire. Each of the persons is that supreme reality, [namely], the divine substance, essence or nature. [253]

Now, even at this point we should be careful not to fall into error. Some people mistakenly think that only the Father is God, while Jesus is just a human being, and the Holy Spirit is some sort of force. No: the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are three distinct and coeternal divine Persons.

And it is also not the case that “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit” are just names for three qualities we see in one Person, or three ways that one Person relates to us, or three appearances that one Person has put on over time. There is a name for this error: it’s called Modalism or Sabellianism. And the Church teaches us that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are three distinct and coeternal divine Persons, in relationship with each other.

But, though these three Persons are distinct, they are not different. That is, they do not have different personality traits—as if God the Father were grumpy and God the Son friendly. And they do not have different abilities—as if God the Holy Spirit were really good at making people holy, while God the Father were not so good. They do not disagree; they do not act in opposition to each other; indeed, they do not even act separately. And so, for this reason, any efforts to rename the three Persons of the Trinity are misguided. It is not as if only the Father creates, and only the Son redeems, and only the Spirit sanctifies. Not at all. All three work together. But, the Catechism tells us [258], each divine person performs the common work of all three according to his unique personal property.

What unique personal property is that? Not different personalities, or different abilities, or desires, or activities. Rather, the Catechism tells us [255]—at perhaps its most mysterious point but also its most fruitful—the real distinction of the persons from one another resides solely in relationship—in the relationships which relate them to one another in love.
[254] It is the Father who generates, who begets; the Son who is begotten; and the Holy Spirit who proceeds, who is breathed forth by the Father and the Son. As Fr. Jean Corbon has written [The Wellspring of Worship, p. 30]:

In the communion of the Blessed Trinity no person is named for himself. There is neither “in itself” nor “for itself”: terms that among us are signs of barrenness and death. In the communion of the living God, the mystery of each person is to be for the other…

“The mystery of each person is to be for the other.” The Father begets the Son; the Son is begotten by the Father; the Holy Spirit is breathed forth by the Father and the Son. The real distinction of the persons from one another resides solely in the relationships—and by these they are named: the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And through our baptism into Christ—the only-begotten Son made man—we have received adoption as sons and daughters; adoption into that relationship of Sonship that is what makes the Son the Son.

This is the “plan of his loving kindness”, that the Father conceived before the foundation of the world, in his beloved Son: “He destined us in love to be his sons” and “to be conformed to the image of his Son,” through “the spirit of sonship.” [257] It is only through the carrying out of this plan—this plan to draw us into the inner relationship of the Trinity—that the truth of the Trinity was ever revealed to us.

And this has everything to do with the Mass.

Pope John Paul II wrote [Vita Consecrata, 16] that Christ “is the Son who receives everything from the Father, and gives everything back to the Father in love.” This was true from all eternity, and in eternity that relationship between God the Father and God the Son is beautiful and glorious. And it was also true in our Lord’s earthly life as true God and true man; but we know that in his earthly life as Son it was not nearly so pretty or easy. And indeed, on earth, living out that relationship of Sonship was brought to completion in his Passion and death on the cross—which was broken and bloody; and which changed the universe! This Sonship—this relationship of Sonship that makes the Son the Son—this Sonship was made present and brought to fulfillment in this sacrifice.

And this Sonship will be made present at this Mass: when the priest celebrant, acting in the person of Christ the high priest, calls down the Holy Spirit, and makes Christ the sacrificial victim really present upon this altar—really present in his Sonship, “receiving everything from the Father, and giving everything back to the Father in love.” The Sonship, and the Fatherhood, of the Blessed Trinity, will be made present right on this altar, in this church, at this Mass, at the hands of this priest. Christ our Lord, eternally begotten of the Father, true God and true man, will be present, offering himself to the eternal Father, right here.

And where then is the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit, as we celebrated last week on Pentecost, was poured forth upon the Church in his mission by the Father and the Son; poured forth into our minds and into our hearts in baptism and confirmation and every other sacrament. And so where is the Holy Spirit in this Mass? He is in your heart and your mind, and in mine, drawing us into this Mass. And as, through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ makes present his one perfect sacrifice upon that altar, the Holy Spirit is moving us forward more and more, following where Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith [Heb 12:2], has led. Moving us to become more and more the adopted sons and daughters that our baptism has made us.

Now, in baptism, after the child or adult is baptized, they are brought to the altar—because that is the destination. And the Holy Spirit is at work in each one of us, today and at every Mass, drawing us forward more and more. And so the most holy people are sitting in the front pews; just kidding! But, figuratively, closer and closer to the person of Christ at this altar offering himself to the Father. Because, more and more, this should describe our life, as we are brought into being conformed to the image of his Son [Rom 8:29], “receiving everything from the Father, and giving everything back to the Father in love.”

This then is where we encounter the Holy Trinity. Not in a shack in the woods, having a chat with three humans. But in the Mass, where Christ makes present the sacrifice of his Sonship and draws us into it—so that what is his by nature may be ours by grace.

The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. If someone doesn’t understand the Mass, they will never understand the Trinity, and why it matters so much for us.

And that is why we do well to begin every Mass, “In the name”—“b’shem”—in the reality, the power, the inner relationship—”of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

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Published in: on May 30, 2010 at 11:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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