The Holy Trinity (Father’s Day)

Father’s Day in the United States has an interesting history. While in Catholic Europe since the Middle Ages March 19, St. Joseph’s feast day, was held up as a day to commemorate the exemplary service of Jesus’s so called or putative father, it wasn’t until a mine disaster in West Virginia left a thousand children fatherless that a Methodist Church memorialized “fatherhood” on the fifth of July. The date, of course, was overwhelmed by Independence Day and the celebration wasn’t promoted beyond that grief stricken community. Not until 1912 when the designation Mothers’ Day called for equity for fathers here in June.

Being a child presupposes a father, even if only a matter of DNA. It poses a kind question as in how a story poses a prequel and a sequel to fill out its context fully. I want to use my time with you today to try to make sense of the divine Trinity in terms of narrative, of a story. Most of us, I fear, have come to the Trinity as a mystery not to be penetrated or comprehended but simply accepted. Rather, I want to invite us to try to tell the story of our own life in trinitarian terms, or better perhaps as a theological doctrine elucidated with reference to the semantic terms of our own life story. 

But with a twist: normally we would start at the beginning, as we have with the seven days of creation and Adam and Eve, and continue through the Noahic and Abrahamic Covenants and the Exodus and the giving of the Law focusing on our sinfulness and hence our need for a savior. This is how the Catechism traditionally progresses attention to the introduction of the messiah. But something so radical was revealed about God in the resurrection of Jesus, in fact in the whole incarnation, that we must start our story there. We begin our reflection on the New Creation with Jesus’ resurrection appearance in the upper room on the evening of Easter Day when he shows his disciple his hands and feet and breathes on them. In doing so he repeats the gesture in Genesis that made Adam a living soul and he commissions them to forgive sin: “whose sins you forgive are forgiven . . .” It is the very creative breath of God, the Holy Spirit, that enlivens us with the essence of God. As Paul puts it today in Romans 5:5: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Since God is love as John has it in his first epistle, then we participate in God’s being, in God’s substance. We grow into as it were from our baptism through our birth into eternity we grow into the “full stature of Christ.” 

We are created in the image of God, but until we saw ourselves in Christ we had been mistaken, and we continue to be mistaken, about the nature of that image, because we project onto the image of God our own violent tendencies, our own need to control others out of fear, greed, and resentment. The model of Christ the Second Person of the Trinity is expressed in the hymn in the second chapter of Philippians: “though in the form of God he does not take advantage of his status but empties himself taking the form of a slave being found in human form becomes obedient even to death, the shameful death of a criminal, strung on a cross.” In baptism, the catechism tells us, “We share in his victory over sin, suffering, and death.” And we do so more and more as we receive the love of God, as we participate in the love the Father has for the Son and the Son has for the Father. 

What is so radical about the Trinitarian revelation of God is precisely its relationality God is a community, a small group into which we are invited. The Greek word perichoresis describes the dynamic relational movement of God and within God. It is the physical expression of ecstatic love and joy, something like the famous 1910 painting by Henri Matisse called simply Dance 1 which shows five naked figures of unclear gender in a circle dance but very animated with hands clasped as they move invitingly in a circle. They seem almost to be falling so it becomes clear that they have somehow been taken over by the music or the dance itself and have lost or let go of their footing, of their staid self control. For me that is what the word perichoresis connotes, God on the edge of letting go, of being transformed. And so the incarnation is God’s way of opening up this relational three person dance so that others might be connected and become a part of the dance. It is quite a remarkable notion, the idea that God is structurally unstable, incomplete without the other, without you and me, without the whole of the created order. Christ contains all things in heaven and earth and in him they are reconciled, brought together, invited into the cosmic dance. 

It is the nature of that relationship, the relationship that the father has with the son, that mutual humbling of themselves, that constitutes the proper relationship between a father and a son, or more inclusively, of a parent and a child, between the old and the new, tradition and innovation. They respect and honor one another without envy or rivalry but with self-effacing mutual sharing. I’m learning as I grow into my own family that my role as father or parent only deepens and matures in its love for my children as I learn and relearn the dance of letting go, as I participate in the divine gesture of humbling myself before another who invites me to connect. 

Classically this participation in God, this being joined to God’s love by the Holy Spirit is the adventure of theosis, or divinization, the adventure of being drawn into God’s plan and purpose of redemption and renewal. I saw this yesterday at the memorial service for a Roman Catholic priest I have known and loved for many years in Kairos prison ministry that took place at a nearly full Serra High School auditorium in San Mateo. John Kelly left the parish ministry forty years ago to teach at that school and then became a community organizer creating Samaritan House which cares for homeless families in that county. Then he left and came to San Quentin. Scores of former inmates and fellow volunteers came to remember his loving service to them. He exemplified the process of being drawn into God’s Love for the sake of the redemption of the world. 

The Trinity is not just a unique doctrine or definition of God. It is a strategy for renewing the face of the earth through loving service. This poem of handed out at the memorial: 

“Whatever the question is, love is the answer. 

Whatever the problem is, love is the answer. 

Whatever the fear is, love is the answer. 

Whatever the illness is, love is the answer. 

Whatever the pain is, love is the answer. 

Love is the answer no matter what 

Because love is all there is.”