Summary: We take the lowest place to imitate the Trinity
The term “Trinity” does not appear even once in the Sacred Scriptures. Theophilus of Antioch used it to describe God about 150 years after Christ’s death and resurrection, so it may have come into usage some time before that. What it means is that God exists as one God, one divine nature, but as three distinct but completely united divine Persons. Three prosopon and one physis. Three personae, one naturae. And that doesn’t even begin to plumb the depths of this, the greatest Christian dogma; this, the greatest Christian mystery.
We can see an early expression of the mystery in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Paul takes on the most profound physical posture, kneeling, in adoration of the Father, the Pater, from whom every family, every patria, in heaven and earth is named. It is worth noting that only three times in the NT do we see this term. The ordinary word for “family” makes it equivalent to “household,” a group of people who live together. But the word “patria” emphasizes common origin, common paternity. Since every creature comes from the Father, every creature is related to every other one. That’s particularly true for us humans. We are all brothers and sisters, because we all come from one Father.
But Christians are blessed beyond that common paternity. We have the Holy Spirit, the gift of the Father, and through the Holy Spirit, we possess inner strength, inner power, inner might, through the riches of God’s glory. We have the four “hinge” strengths or virtues on which hang the whole of a holy life. The first is prudence, which strengthens our consciences so we can make virtuous decisions, choosing right over wrong. The second is justice, by which we give to everyone what is his due, even if it inconveniences us. The third is fortitude, the strength to stand up for the good in the face of our own fears and worries. The fourth is temperance, by which we act with God to temper our appetites, our thirst for pleasure. It means that we put our own enjoyment behind the needs of our soul for growth, and the needs of other people for the fulfillment and recognition of their rights.
Paul completes this trinity of blessings with a prayer for his readers. What he wants is immense. I’ll read it again: “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fulness of God.”
Pope Benedict, in his master work Introduction to Christianity, pays tribute to the Trinity in words I hadn’t seen earlier in my life. We hear all the time the words of John 3:16, John’s commentary on the extent of God’s love for us. “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” We heard very recently at Mass that Jesus loved us so much that He gave up His divine glory to take on the nature of a slave, dying a slave’s death on the cross. What our beloved former Pope points out is that God is constantly loving us to his own detriment. God loves to the point of divine abnegation, divine condemnation. He who made the universe, in the process of lifting us out of the swamp felt our spit on His face, felt our sharp whip on His back, felt our nails in his hands and feet. It’s as if someone was drowning, and a selfless rescuer jumped in the water to save him. As the drowning man felt the rescuer’s grasp, it’s like he pushed him away and bit and scratched him. In the end, the drowning man was safe on the shore, and the rescuer was dead.
That’s how much God loves us.
Of course, the power of the Father raised Jesus from the grave, and we who believe in this divine Rescuer--this deliverer who saved those who didn’t want to be saved– look forward to participating in His resurrection. We haven’t deserved a bit of it, not one iota of His love. He delivered us when we had no right to deliverance. And how, you may ask, is this possible?
The Father, in eternity, outside time, utters the Word. The Word is so perfect, the Word is a divine person. Father sees the Word, the Son, as perfectly lovable; the Son sees the Father with the same understanding. Their love-song, perfect as He is, is a divine love-song, the Holy Spirit, whose proper name is Love. Father and Son joined in the unity of the Holy Spirit, as we pray every Lord’s Day. Their love overflows into a universe of Creation. Their family love overflows into the human family, the patria. And so the human family comes into existence: complementary human persons called husband and wife, bound in the most intimate love, the most imitative love like God’s. Their love in cooperation with that of the Trinity brings forth a person–perhaps many persons–called child. So the human family is an imperfect facsimile of the divine family, the perfect family, the Trinity.