Vocation Guide

The Light of the Trinity

by Fr. Benedict Ashley, OP

The First
Luminous Mystery

 The Baptism of Christ
In this passage at the very beginning of Jesus' public ministry we have the light of the ultimate truth that Jesus has been sent to reveal to us, the truth beyond all human reason, unknown to the Jews or to any other religion, that the One God is Three Divine Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In this truth is contained the answer to every question the human mind and heart can ask, the ultimate explanation of all creation and its entire history. I once asked a liberal Protestant pastor if he believed in the doctrine of the Trinity. He replied, "Of course! But I never preach on it, its not very practical."

I am afraid that not a few Catholics are of the same mind. This doctrine is central to our liturgy and Vatican II's renewal of the liturgy has even intensified this centrality by placing more emphasis on the Holy Spirit in order to meet criticisms of the Eastern Orthodox Churches who claim that Latin liturgy neglects the Spirit.  Yet if one were to ask the average Catholic one might well get the answer, "Oh, it's a mystery. I don't think much about it."

This ignorance of Trinitarian doctrine has even been exaggerated by certain efforts to work for a greater affirmation of the equality of the sexes. The Church traditionally affirmed the dignity of women by its devotion to Mary, but to some it seemed that Mary was, as they say, "placed on a pedestal" so remote from ordinary women that this tended to promote notions of female inferiority rather than to enhance women's dignity. Vatican II and recent Popes, however, have made it perfectly clear that nothing in the Scriptures or in the authentic practice of the Church is intended to degrade women as against men, but always to enhance their mutuality and equal dignity. Yet because of this misunderstanding we sometimes hear the terms "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" replaced by "Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier" or some such phrases. These names of God are not false but they can easily lead to the error called "modalism" which understands the Three Persons as merely different aspects of the One God. In the baptism of Jesus, however, and in the words used in our own baptism, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, son, and Holy Spirit" it is made clear that although there is one and only God, the divine nature is equally present in Three Persons. They are not, however, three gods, because the Father gives to the Son the totality of the Godhead and through the Son gives to the Holy Spirit that same totality of divinity, so that while distinct they are but one God.

That is indeed a mystery; how is it practical for us? That is what we need to meditate on as we say this first of the Luminous Mysteries, because it is indeed very practical, for three reasons that correspond to these Three Divine Persons. First, by seeing that the First Person is the source, or as St.Bonaventure loved to say, and as we find in the very ancient Second Eucharistic prayer, the "fountain of all holiness," the origin of all things, divine and created, from which all things flow and to which all must somehow return, we know that whatever evil we find in the world, will ultimately be overcome by the divine power.

There are some theologians who have tried to excuse God for the evil in the world by saying that his power is finite. Other religions have claimed that there is an evil as well as a good God struggling with each other. Others say that evil is only a dream, a mere error that if we think or meditate rightly will disappear. Yet evil is real, all too real! God has permitted it because he wishes his intelligent creatures to share in his freedom, and some, angels and humans, have misused that freedom and brought evil into the world. But God is all good and all-powerful and he permits evil only because in the end he will make it the occasion of a greater good. That is the light shed on us at Jesus' baptism when the voice of the Father declares to us that in his plan all evil will be overcome through his Beloved Son who has dwelt with him for all eternity.

Why then did Jesus call the First Person, Father not Mother, and teach us to do the same? I believe it was to affirm the fundamental teaching of the Old Testament that made Judaism unique among all the previous world religions. Many of the world religions do not clearly distinguish the Creator from the creation. They may be highly spiritual in their view of reality, like Hinduism and Buddhism, but they think of the created world as a thought or dream of God not as a reality that He has freely created from nothing. Or, like the world philosophies of Marxism and the Secular Humanism so influential today, they  deny the spiritual and reduce all things to matter and explain all things by the action of some world-energy, "The Force" or "Evolution."

Only Judaism, and our Christian faith and that of Islam, both rooted in Judaism, clearly teach that God freely created all things out of nothing. To put this fundamental truth about God into simple human terms, the Bible takes an example of a relationship that is known to us all, that of our parents who gave us birth. Thus it compares God both to a father (Ps. 103:13) and a mother (Is. 49:15). Yet there can be danger of a serious misunderstanding if the term "mother" is used of God. Many religions have mother goddesses and thus slip back into pantheism, identifying God with his creation, because our relation to our mother tends to be one of identity since we came from her body and are nursed at her breast. The symbol of Father better expresses God' absolute transcendence of his creation, because our father, though caring, is that protective power over the little child who is yet completely other than the child. Thus Jesus in calling the First Person of the Trinity his Father was affirming the fundamental truth of the Old Testament, the truth of creation from nothing, the first article of our Creed.

Yet creation as we see it is full of evil. How will that evil be overcome? The Father who sent his Son, who is equally the One God with his Father, to become incarnate in human nature, to be like us in everything but sin, yet to bear our sin, as proof of the Father's loving power in our behalf. Some ask today why the priest must be a man. Why cannot women who are often even better Christians, more intelligent, more caring than many men be ordained to the priesthood? Those who question the Church's tradition forget that Jesus is the Son and the not the Daughter of God. In becoming human he had a choice of being male or female.

Certainly, Jesus, who constantly showed his respect for women in ways very surprising to the culture in which he lived, did not prefer to be a man in order to show masculine superiority. It is just the reverse, I think. In Genesis 3:14-19 we read the prophesy that, because of the fall of our first parents, in the sinful world they have initiated the man will be cursed with poverty as he struggles "in the sweat of his brow" to earn food for his family in a hostile environment. And the woman will be burdened with child-bearing that will make her dependent on the domination of her husband and liable to his abuse. The Scripture is not approving of this misery; it is denouncing it as the consequence of sin. Hence, throughout history men have sinfully abused women and have set up the sinful ideal of machismo, according to which true masculinity is manifested by sexual prowess and violence.

Our society, for all its feminism, constantly builds up as hero the sexually promiscuous and violent man. Jesus was the reverse, a man who remained virgin and who turned the other cheek to his enemies. It is no accident I think that the great rival of Christianity today, Islam, preaches One God, but no Trinity, and appeals to masculine pride by permitting more than one wife and honoring as its prophet a warrior. To many men, vain in their maleness, our Savior is not an appealing model. Thus by choosing to be incarnate as a man, Jesus has made clear to men that true masculinity, does not exploit violence nor exploit women. Thus a celibate masculine clergy of priests ordained as servants (Jn 13:1-20) not overlords best symbolize Jesus as the Son of the Father.

The Third Person is most mysterious of all, the Holy Spirit, the giver and sanctifier of life. Some want to say that the Spirit is the Wisdom so often praised in the Old Testament, and they point out that this Wisdom is portrayed as a woman. Consequently, they want to speak of the Spirit as feminine. But the Wisdom of the Old Testament is a symbol first of creation, Mother Nature (8: 2-31) and then of the Chosen People, the Virgin Daughter of Zion, bride of God (Is 62: 1-5), and of the Law as the order of creation (Bar 2: 9-23). Jesus takes up that symbolism too by calling himself as John the Baptist had already done, "The Bridegroom" (Mt 9:15; 5: 1-13)) whose bride is the Church (Rev 21:1-13; Eph 5:23), most perfectly exemplified in its most holy member, his Mother, Mary (Rev 12:1-2). It is in this way that the Bible shows the dignity of womankind, raised to partnership with Christ, true God and true Man, as Adam and Eve before sin stood side by side before God the Creator.

In the early Church, just as the masculine priest was seen as the symbol of Jesus, the Christ; so the consecrated virgin, of whom Mary was the first, was the spiritual bride of Christ in the Church (1 Cor 7: 15). Thus as the priest reminds the married laity of Jesus' presence in the Church and of their discipleship in this earthly life, so the consecrated virgin reminds the laity that we have no earthly city and that in heaven there will be no giving in marriage, because this life of birth and death is ended, and eternal life begun for all (Mt 22:30).

The Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary (Lk 1:35) when Jesus became one of us, as he had overshadowed the creation (Gn 1: 1-2_. He is the Spirit of Love that unites Father and Son in the One God, and it is he who is the soul of the Church, sent first on Jesus in his baptism and then on us in our baptism to make us one with him. Thus this first Luminous Mystery gives us much to ponder in our hearts as Mary did. It is a very practical mystery because as we think it over we begin to see God's plan for us and how we are all being called daily into his kingdom.

Perhaps some of the things I have said may seem strange to you. I offer them to you simply as my own meditations, inviting you to join in this reflection on God's mysteries and to feel their sunlight entering your life. Certainly they will show you, man or woman, married or single, your great dignity before God and the certitude of your hope for true happiness. Next time we will see how these same truths develop in the second Luminous Mystery, the Marriage of Cana, at which, after Jesus' temptation by the Evil One, in the desert, Jesus' mother urges him to begin the ministry to which his Father has called him in his baptism.

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