In the Heart of God
Trinity Sunday. Fr Richard Joseph Ounsworth suggests that Trinitarian faith gives us the courage to be humble.
While it might be true, as many biblical scholars insist, that we cannot read the doctrine of the Trinity straight out of the pages of scripture, we come pretty close to it in chapters fourteen to seventeen of St John’s Gospel. These words, spoken by Christ at the Last Supper, and culminating in his high-priestly prayer to the Father, may be seen as the first ever homily – by which I mean a sermon preached at Mass – and the first ever Eucharistic Prayer.
And it is fitting that this should be the text from which, more than any others, the Church has discovered and elaborated the truths about God and the relations between the three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that we celebrate today. Because these words of Christ explain the meaning of what is about to take place when he offers his life on the Cross for the salvation of the world. The self-sacrificial death of Jesus is at once an offering to the Father and an offering to us, and it shows us that the love that lies at the heart of the Trinity – we might say, the love that is the Trinity – is identical to the love that drives Jesus to offer his life for his friends.
To put it another way: the Cross shows us the nature of God, and the nature of God is self-giving love. God did not start loving in this way when he became flesh for us, but loves thus from all eternity, as the Father loves the Son with a love which is the Holy Spirit. But that love, we might say, spills over into the world. In fact, it is the spilling over of divine love which brings about the creation of all things. We hear in our first reading how the Wisdom of God delights to be at play among human beings. It is not that God created the world, or humanity, out of some need in himself. God, by his very nature, lacks nothing, needs nothing. Everything he does as Creator he does not for his sake but for ours, and yet he truly delights in creating us and holding us in being.
That love culminates in the Cross, is most clearly and definitively expressed there, because on the Cross he is able to offer everything, his very life, visibly and tangibly, within his creation. As he offers his human life to the Father, Jesus offers his divine life to us, and so St John tells us not that he died but that he ‘gave up the ghost’ or ‘handed over the Spirit’.
Or, as St Paul puts it in our second reading ‘the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given us.’ To have the Spirit – the life of God, which is love – dwelling within us is what makes it possible, St Paul tells us, to endure suffering, and indeed to boast about our sufferings. This is an interesting choice of word for Paul, because the whole of the Letter to the Romans is an extended diatribe against boasting. The puffing up of one person against another, ‘bigging oneself up’, as one might say, at the expense of another, is for Paul the source of all disunity and discord that threatens the union and communion between people that Christ offered his life to bring about. And yet we can boast: we can boast in suffering, we can boast in weakness. In other words, when the Christian boasts it is not ‘bigging oneself up’ but ‘smalling oneself down’! As John the Baptist puts it elsewhere (John 3:30), ‘he must increase, I must decrease.’
To do this goes against all our natural instincts. Dare we allow ourselves to be so vulnerable? What will give us the courage to humble ourselves, to reduce ourselves? Our Gospel today suggests it will be the confidence that our faith is true. We trust Jesus, trust him enough to follow his example, trust him to lead us where he has already gone, through self-sacrificial death into the fulness of life. We believe that he has told us the truth about himself, the truth that comes through Jesus from the Father is now spoken in our hearts by the Spirit. And that truth is that we are loved. We are loved into existence, and are being drawn by that love into the life of the Trinity. If we really believe that, we have nothing to fear.
Image: detail from Trinity with Saint Mary Magdalen and Saint John the Baptist, Archangel Raphael and Tobias, from Sant’Elisabetta delle Convertite, Florence, attributed to Botticelli, photographed by Lluís Ribes Mateu