Reading I: Prv 8:22-31
Psalm 8:4-5, 6-7, 8-9
Reading II: Romans 5: 1-5
Gospel: John 16:12-15
The doctrine of the Trinity has a reputation as being a brain-breaker. This is proven when one attempts to read some of the very abstruse theological treatises that have been written to explain the doctrine. Our scriptures for today, however, remind us of the doctrine’s much simpler origins. It emerged in the midst of poetic language like that of Proverbs and testimonies to experience such as that of Romans. John’s gospel portrays it as also being taught by Jesus himself, in his effort to reassure his disciples that they will not be left bereft of divine assistance even when he is no longer with them in the flesh.
In fact, nowhere in the scriptures do we find the Trinity named as such, nor any attempt to explain it in complex terms. What we do find is repeated efforts to use available images and metaphors to name the variety of ways in which God works in the world in constructive and loving ways. In Proverbs, for example, the author reworked what was probably originally an Egyptian poem about a goddess of wisdom who stood beside God as his consort. The biblical version presents woman Wisdom as God’s primordial creation who becomes the noble prototype and playful co-creator of the created world. Christian interpreters would later look back at this text and see in woman Wisdom the foreshadowing of both Christ and the Holy Spirit. Yet we have to be careful not to retroject these later ideas onto this text, which in itself presents a rather different – and very charming! — view of how God works in the world.
This reminds us that the articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity, as is the case with every doctrine, emerged through a historical process that not only took time, but went through some convoluted twists and turns before reaching a more settled phase. Again, in our own time it is best to keep it simple as we pray with the New Testament texts that are offered for this feast. In the Romans excerpt, Paul refers to God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit in very intimate, personal terms, as those who are close to us and guide us to spiritual fulfillment even in the midst of our afflictions. He doesn’t attempt to spell out differences among these divine Persons, nor does he go into any detail about their relationships with one another. His whole focus is on their love of us, and their complete collaboration in this work of care.
The Gospel is not so different. John depicts Jesus teaching that he, the Spirit, and the Father all are working together on behalf of those who belong to them. Jesus’s particular focus in this text is on the Spirit, which will draw on the life it shares completely with Jesus and the Father to guide the disciples into “all truth.” Here we have another reminder that even for those who knew Jesus when he walked on Earth, full insight into truth is always a process. “You cannot bear it now,” Jesus says, affirming that they would need time and struggle to be ready to fully understand who he was and how God wanted to be in their lives.
Just as it took the Church centuries of painstaking listening to the Spirit before it could definitively articulate the doctrine of the Trinity, it takes each of us a lifetime of learning and discernment to grow into a deep understanding of who God is for us. In the meantime, we can keep it simple, basing our lives on trust that Jesus, the Spirit, and the Father will always be there for us, working as one to assure that we will arrive where we are called to be.
Professor Emerita of Spirituality