The Holy Trinity and the Successor of St. Francis
Sunday 19 June 2011
There are at least two, if not more, things that remind me of my summer in Bolivia. The first is the surprising (to me) chill of the weather. I did not come prepared for the overcast and cold temperatures of Santa Barbara at this time of year. “June gloom” the friars here call it. There are no heaters in the rooms, this is, after all, California. So we feel whatever temperature the weather presents. It’s rather cold, not quite as cold as Cochabamba during the summer (their winter), but cold nonetheless.
The second is the architecture of the mission church. It seems clear that 16th – 17th – 18th Century Spanish colonial churches are similar in both North and South America. Very narrow, long, dark places of worship. Although here the liturgy is celebrated in English and the music is simply out of this world (in the worship aid there is an ad at the back of the program announcing summer-long auditions to sing in the Mission Santa Barbara chorus and schola).
This is the Solemnity of the Holy Trinity, perhaps one of the more traditionally difficult feasts on which to preach, but one of my favorites no less. The temptation for many preachers, I surmise, is that they regress to their theological training and unfortunately use a lot of theological jargon, which leaves the congregation just as confused about the Trinity as when they arrived.
I think part of the problem stems from readings selected for the day. Granted, the second reading form the Pauline Corpus, from which we get the presider’s greeting at the beginning of each Mass, was well selected. However, the first reading really should have been from Baruch, Wisdom, Genesis, Sirach or one of the other Hebrew Scriptures that highlights the symbols of Divine Immanence present in the Old Testament.
That is how I would first approach a homily on the Trinity. Not unlike when I teach about the Trinity in an academic setting, I think the first thing we should do is approach the question of “Who is God?” the way Israel did, recognizing the ways God’s presence is made manifest in and through Creation.
In a sense, this is how Fr. John Vaughn, OFM, this morning’s presider began his reflections. In addition to being a friar in residence here at Santa Barbara, he is a former Minister General of the entire Order of Friars Minor. In other words, he is one of the living successors of St. Francis of Assisi – certainly a humbling consideration to behold. He mentioned the book of Baruch and talked about God’s Wisdom (Sophia, Hochma) present in and working through Creation. It is then Paul and the early Christian community that recognized that Jesus of Nazareth was the Incarnate Wisdom of God and we continue to experience that Wisdom in the Holy Spirit, very much active in our world.
The Trinity is an intimidating concept when taken from the Thomist manual Summa Theologica and presentations of theology akin to that tome. Yet, if we return to Scripture, to the symbols of Divine Immanence in the Old Testament, to Paul and John’s Gospel in the New Testament (Jesus’s identification as “the image of the invisible God” and “One with the Father”), things seem to make more sense.
As with so many Doctrinal expressions, the limitations of Hellenistic language causes all of us to reach a ceiling of comprehensibility, perhaps even more so today than when Greek metaphysical thought was intuitive. The Hylomorphism of Aristotelian philosophy and the NeoPlatonic undertones of some expressions of the faith can distract believers or even cause people to misunderstand what it is we believe and how it is inchoately expressed in Scripture.
This is our task as believers in the modern world: to take Pope John XXIII’s insight to heart and carefully distinguish the content of faith from its contextual articulation. Such a mission is not easily received by those who wish to maintain incomprehensible articulations, which mean little if not nothing to the majority of Christians. But to overcome the tendency to stay in the outdated discourse of centuries past is to neglect the primary task of theology – God-Talk – which is to express, reflect and seek understanding of our faith.
The Solemnity of the Holy Trinity offers us an opportunity to recall this very urgent need. There are indeed excellent ministers of the Gospel out there who strive to make the doctrine of the Trinity accessible, but my guess is that most do not (or are unable). As I tell my students, every doctrine in the Christian faith is connected to the Trinity – from Creation and Revelation to Eschatology and Salvation.
So may Almighty God bless us on our pilgrimage of life and faith, to better understand God and God’s relationship to Creation, the God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
PS – Happy Father’s Day!