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Watch 2022-2023 online sermons » Robert Barron » Robert Barron - How To Understand the Trinity

Robert Barron - How To Understand the Trinity

Robert Barron - How To Understand the Trinity
TOPICS: Trinity

Peace be with you. Friends, we’ve come to Trinity Sunday. It's been called the preacher's nightmare. I've never agreed with that. I think Trinity Sunday is wonderful and a wonderful opportunity for preaching. Look, the Trinity is easy. It's one God. There are two processions: the Son from the Father, the Spirit from the Father and the Son. There are three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. And there are four immanent relations: active generation (the Father to the Son), passive generation (the Son to the Father), active spiration (the Father and Son to the Spirit), and passive spiration (the Spirit to the Father and the Son). Got it? That's the Trinity.

Now, you're probably gathering that's the hyper-technical language the Church has used to describe this mystery, and you're right. But let me just unpack that a little bit. So, one God. Christianity is a monotheistic religion. It inherited from ancient Israel this marvelous faith in the one God. "Hear, O Israel: the LORD your God is God alone". Any movement in the direction of multiple gods, of polytheism, is ruled out of court. All of the first followers of Jesus were monotheistic Jews. They remained clear in their monotheism. There's one God. The opening line of the Creed? "Credo in unum Deum". "I believe in one God".

So that's clear. So why do we talk then about two processions going on within this one absolute and perfect God? Well, here's why. Thomas Aquinas says the two great spiritual acts of God are intellect and will, knowing and willing, and the processions correspond to those two acts. Now, what do I mean? Well, God knows all things, but including and especially himself. God can form an "imago," an image of himself. Now, if this seems strange, it shouldn't, because we do the same thing all the time. I can form a picture or an image of myself, and it's reflected in our ordinary language. We'll say, "What was I thinking"? or, "What were you doing yesterday"? Well, there's some interrogator, who is I, but there’s also an interrogated, who is also I. I haven't split into two people, but yet I still say, "Well, what was I doing? What was I thinking yesterday"?

St. Augustine calls this in God "mens" (mind) and "notitia sui" (self-knowledge). The one who knows we call the Father. The one who is known we call the Son, the Word of the Father, interestingly who was from the beginning with God and who was God, as we hear in the prologue to John's Gospel. The first procession is the Son, the Logos, from the Father. God's "mens" (mind) and God's "notitia sui". Now, why do we speak of a second procession? Well, the Father generates his perfect "imago" called the Son. Since the two of them share the same fundamental being, the same Godhead, they look back at each other, they look toward each other, and they fall in love. Fulton Sheen beautifully talked about the sigh of love that connects the Father and the Son.

This Holy Breath we call the "Spiritus Sanctus," the Holy Breath. The Father (the "mens," the mind of God), the Son ("notitia sui," his self-knowledge), and then the Holy Spirit Augustine calls the "amor sui," the self-love shared by the Father and the Son. These are the two processions within God corresponding to the divine mind and the divine will. Okay? You with me so far? We therefore speak of three persons in God: Father, Son, Spirit. Now, how shouldn't we understand this? We should not understand it as three separate beings. And I know that's the danger of the language. So, I'm a person, you're a person, there's a third person. We're three persons. Well, that's three separate things, three separate beings. That's not what we're talking about.

St. Augustine said, "Well, why do we call them persons, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit"? His answer? "So we have something to say when people ask us what they are". See, his point was, any language we reach for is going to be misleading. It'll give the impression we're talking about three separate things. I love St. Anselm here following Augustine was asked the same thing. He called them three "nescio quids", which means in Latin, "three…I don't know what". Three "I don't know whats". Now, St. Thomas Aquinas, who, of course, is a high rationalist, gave us a wonderful bit of kind of rational poetry when he said this about the three persons. He called them subsistent relations. That’s very interesting, and here's why I say poetry: because in the philosophy he would have inherited, something is subsistent if it's a thing, it's a substance.

So here's the substance of the podium; here's me, I'm another substance; and we have a relationship. I'm standing behind it. It's in front of me. The relationship is derivative from the two substances. Thomas says, but in God, these three "personae," these three persons, Father, Son, and Spirit, are subsistent relations. They exist precisely as relations. They're not relations between two other things. They are themselves sheer relationships. The Father is the Father only in relation to the Son. The Son is Son only in relation to the Father. The Spirit is Spirit only in relation to the Father and the Son. Three subsistent relations, the persons. And then finally, I mentioned the four immanent relations.

The Father to the Son, we call that active generation. The Father generates his interior Word. But the Son has a relation to the Father called passive generation; he is generated by the Father. The Father and the Son operating together, they breathe forth the Holy Spirit. We call that active spiration. It's just a word they made up in the Middle Ages: "spiratio," to breathe out. The Father and Son together breathe out the Spirit. And then finally, the Spirit relates to the Father and Son by means of what's called passive spiration. He allows himself to be breathed out. Very interesting now. We're talking about the source of all reality, the ground of being, the Creator God. What's he like? Is he one? Yeah, absolutely. "Credo in unum Deum".

We're not talking about three gods. But yet, listen now, within this great primordial unity of God, there is something like a play of diversity, a play of "communio". Something like a family set of relationships obtains. Remember, if you heard me last week talking about the Holy Spirit, the one and the many. Do we find something like a coming together of the one and the many within God? Yes. Yes. And is that surprising if God is the ground of all reality, and we can see within our creative reality both unity and diversity? Are we surprised that the two of them can also be found in a way within God himself? That's the Trinity: God who is one and three.

Now, that's high philosophical language. Where did it come from? It came from this very strange figure, Yeshua from Nazareth. Jesus speaks of himself as being sent, doesn't he? He was sent by the one he calls Father. Well, at that point, he's like Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. Any of the great prophets or patriarchs might have said, "I was sent by God the Father". Okay; so far so ordinary. But then, everybody, as I've insisted again and again, Jesus is not simply one more in a long line of prophets; rather, he consistently speaks and acts in the very person of God. "My Son, your sins are forgiven". "You've got a greater than the temple here". "Unless you love me more than your mother and father, more than your very life…" He stills the storm at sea.

Jesus speaks and acts in the very person of God. Therefore, he's God, but he's also sent by another whom he calls Father. He's the unique Son of the Father, and yet he speaks and acts in the very person of God. Hm. Now, take one more step. The Father sends the Son into our humanity, into our human condition. He sends him to preach and to teach and to heal. But then he sends him all the way out. He sends him all the way to the limits of godforsakenness. He sends him into suffering, into degradation, into death. Yes, even into a kind of feeling of the absence of God. "God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" says the Son to the Father.

You see what's happening here is this stretch of the Father and the Son. What keeps them from breaking apart? The love that they share called the Holy Spirit. And look again: at the limit, the Son is at the limit of godforsakenness; he's gone into suffering, into death; now he's been buried, at the limit of godforsakenness, now, in the Holy Spirit, the Son returns to the Father gathering to himself in principle all those who had wandered far from the Father. As I run as a sinner away from the Father, where am I running? Into the arms of the Son. And therefore the Son and the Father gather us sinners together into the Holy Spirit.

Ah, that's where it came from. It was that primordial experience that planted within the early Christian community this idea of God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. Now, what comes to later expression, what I began with, that's Augustine, that's Anselm, that's Aquinas, and company. That's a later high philosophical reflection upon it. But it comes from the great Paschal Mystery of the Son gathering all of us, in the Spirit, back to the Father. That's where it comes from. And now, can I give it its biblical summation? We find it in the First Letter of John. "God is love". He doesn't just have love. Love isn't one of his attributes. Love is what he is. How did they know that? How did they know that? Because they saw this sending of the Son all the way to the limits and then they saw the gathering back in the Holy Spirit.

And it's from that primordial experience that the reflection upon the three persons of the Trinity finally comes. Chesterton said that. The Trinitarian language is just the theologically precise way of stating that God is love. If God is love, that means within the unity of God, there must be a lover (we call him the Father), there must be a beloved (we call him the Son), and there must be the love that they share (whom we call the Holy Spirit). Trinity is just a very elaborate and theologically precise way of saying that God is love. One more point as I close. The one, the two, and the three. The one: Is it good? Yeah, that's the number of unity. We're together. We're one. Does the one carry a shadow? Yeah. I said it last week. It's called oppression. Imperialism. We're all one. Everything's just down to one way of thinking, doing, and being.

So one carries the shadow of oppression. Okay. Therefore, one gives rise to the two. Now, is two a good thing? Yeah. It means diversity. It means otherness. It means the possibility of conversation. Good. The two is a good thing. But does two carry a shadow? Mm-hmm. Conflict. Over and against. Isn't it true, too, fellow sinners, the minute we have diversification, there's always the possibility now of conflict. So one carries the shadow of oppression. Two carries the shadow of conflict. What's the three? That's the number of love, because the three is not simply one, not simply two, but the coming together of the two in the one.

It's the reconciliation of the many in the one. It's therefore the language of love. This is why it's not surprising that all over the world, go across the cultures, the prominence of the number three. Well see, we Christians know why, because finally it reflects the three who is God, the God who is love. Okay. I know I've given you a lot today to muse on. But can I make this final suggestion? Think about all of this whenever you make this simple gesture: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit". That's what that gesture is awakening in us: a sense of the Lover, the Beloved, and the shared Love. Not just the one or the two but the three, which is the number of love. And God bless you.
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