“Consubstantial,” “Only Begotten,” the Trinity, and the Mass

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Trinity Sunday, Year B: June 3, 2012
Deut 4:32-34, 39-40; Ps 33; Rom 8:14-17; Matt 28:16-20

Over the past six months, we have celebrated the mysteries of our salvation: the Incarnation and birth of our Lord Jesus Christ; the Paschal Mystery of his passion, death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven; and, last week, the sending of the Holy Spirit upon the Church at Pentecost. And so, as the Church has done for some 700 years, we now turn to what the Catechism calls “the central mystery of Christian faith and life… the mystery of God in himself… the source of all the other mysteries of faith”—that is, the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity.

We begin each Mass by entering into that mystery, by entering into “the name”—the being, the power, the reality—”of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And we will see that truly entering into the Mass has everything to do with the life of the Trinity.

“When they all saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.” Although our Lord Jesus had risen gloriously from the dead and appeared to the disciples over 40 days and is standing right in front of them, so that they worship him, it seems that some of them still aren’t completely sure of what is going on. And this might be how many of us feel when we come to the doctrine of the Trinity. We know it’s important; we affirm it in the Creed every week; but are we completely sure of what is going on?

And over these past six months, as we have celebrated these mysteries of our salvation, we have also been reciting that Creed using the new translation. And we have said that our Lord Jesus Christ is “consubstantial with the Father.” Consubstantial: what does that mean? We don’t use that word any other time!

But this is important to understand—because the Catechism tells us that the basic structure of the doctrine of the Trinity boils down to three points (252). God is one in substance (or essence or nature); God is three Divine Persons, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit; and the distinction between these persons is found in their relationship to each other, which those names name.

“Consubstantial” is that first point, so that the Catechism can speak of “the consubstantial Trinity.” (253) Now, at the heart of that word is the word “substance.” And there’s the trouble, because the term is being used with a precise philosophical meaning that is very different than the way we use it in our common English today. We tend to use the word of something physical but very undefined: as in, “There’s some sort of sticky substance on the bottom of my shoe!” But that isn’t the philosophical meaning at all, which instead identifies what something is.

Imagine for a moment that you and a friend are walking through a field in thick fog, so that you can’t see very far in front of you. You see something up ahead. “What’s that?” “I think it’s a man.” You walk a little further. “No, wait, actually it’s a tree.” Simple, right? Well, you’re talking about substance, in the philosophical sense. “What is that? It’s a man. No, it’s a tree.” Substance. That’s why you might hear next week, on Corpus Christi, the term “transubstantiation”: because the substance, “what it is,” changes, from bread and wine to the Body and Blood of Christ. And that’s why we affirm in the Creed that Christ is consubstantial, “of the same substance,” as the Father: what the Son is is what the Father is; just as what the Holy Spirit is is what the Father is and what the Son is. Not just similar, but the same: “consubstantial,” “of the same substance.”

And this phrase comes right after another, that the Son is “begotten not made.” We know that any one of us can make something that is not us. But it is very different and very special for a father to “beget” a child, for a mother to give birth to a child: because we thereby generate another person, who in a sense is us, is the same as us. Now, when it comes to human persons, we end up very different. But when, by analogy, we speak of God the Father begetting or generating God the Son, then we have two truly distinct Divine Persons who are consubstantial, “of the same substance.” And what distinguishes them is their relation: the Father’s fatherhood, the Son’s sonship.

Why do I go into this? Because this has everything to do with the Mass! Consider: what is this sonship? What is this relationship that distinguishes the Son as Son? Pope John Paul II wrote (Vita Consecrata, 16) that the Son “receives everything from the Father, and gives everything back to the Father in love.” Now, he did this from all eternity, receiving all the goodness, the being, the love, the beauty that is found in the Father, and giving it all back in love. And, incarnate as our Lord Jesus Christ, he continued to do this in every moment of his earthly life, bringing it all to completion in his great sacrificial self-gift in love upon the cross.

What is it that happens in the Mass? That sacrifice is made present right here on the altar; Christ receiving everything and giving everything back to the Father, right here; the sonship of God the Son being lived right here! We are in the presence of the very heart of the Trinity!

But that’s not all. Another, less obvious, change in the new translation of the Creed is that we affirm that Christ is “the only Begotten Son of God” rather than just “the only Son of God.” Why is that important? Because God the Father has other sons and daughters: us! Through baptism, we receive adoption, as St. Paul tells us, as sons and daughters of God the Father: adopted into the sonship of the only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ.

Now, if our Lord Jesus is made present in the Mass living out his sonship, then we are also meant to live out that sonship that we have been adopted into. And that is why Christ is made present in the Mass: not only to receive everything from the Father and give everything back in love, but to lead us in doing the same thing, in living out that sonship. So that we offer ourselves to the Father with him—indeed, “through him and with him and in him, O God almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor in yours, forever and ever.”

And, speaking of the Holy Spirit, where is this Third Person of the Trinity in all this? In your hearts, indwelling through baptism; drawing you forward after Christ; drawing you to Mass, drawing you forward, spiritually, to offer yourself with Christ and in Christ.

And that is what the Mass is all about. To enter into the heart of the Trinity: not just as observers—though that would be pretty amazing in itself—but as sons and daughters, adopted into God the Son, exercising that sonship in union with the only Begotten, giving ourselves completely to God the Father. May we enter into this more deeply at this Mass than ever before.


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