A prayer to the Holy Trinity opens and closes every mass. ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’ in Jesus last words to disciples at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. The catechism statement of ‘one God in three persons’, is not in the New Testament, nor even the word ‘Trinity’. Instead, scripture shows many aspects of how people encountered the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in life. It was most important in the history of Israel to stress that there was one God and not a number of deities as worshipped by the nations surrounding them but there are hints in various places in the Bible of a more complex understanding of the nature of God. In the first book of the Older Testament, Genesis as a climax to the poetic creation account, we find, ‘God said, ‘Let us make people in our own image.’
Other texts Christians have seen as foreshadowing the idea of a Triune God, include the Isaiah 6:1-3, where the prophet’s vision of God sees six seraphs, who cry out to each other: ‘Holy, holy, holy’ is the Lord Sabaoth,’ the three-times ‘holy’ as a hint. The personification of ‘Wisdom’ in some verses suggest a power along God which has aspects of the Holy Spirit and of Jesus as the eternal Word. (See the descriptions in the book of Wisdom, 7:22-8:1, and two in Proverbs 3:13-20, 8:22.)
In the New Testament, we have passages in Paul with a ‘three’, like 1 Corinthians 12:4-6, where Paul allots gifts to the Spirit, services to the Lord (Jesus) and ‘activities’ to God (the Father). The words concluding today’s Second reading are closer: ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.’ In the long farewell speech of Jesus in the Gospel of John (14-17), Jesus speaks often of the Father and the Spirit, and relates them in different ways, especially in chapter 14. It is not easy to disentangle some of this long speech, but it would be a good meditation for this feast.
The mass readings today present an overall view of how God relates to us, stressing a relationship of love within the Trinity which we too are called to share.
Exodus 34:4-6, 8-9
This account is close to the end of the book telling of the formation of the Jewish religion from the time of rescue from slavery in Egypt to the entrance into the Holy Land. After the giving of the Law and the people’s acceptance, there came a time when the Israelites rejected the God they had learned of from Moses, and it seemed possible that God would in response reject them as His chosen ones. Moses prays for them – with the words at the end of the reading – asking God to forgive a ‘headstrong’ and sinful people.
The ‘stone tablets’ were those engraved with the basic commandments of the Law. Moses takes them back o the mountain where he has before encountered God. Here he has another experience of God’s presence (a ‘theophany’ in theological language). God then defines His relationship to humanity in words of love. God is full of ‘tenderness and compassion, faithful, kind and slow to anger’. This self-description is repeated many times in the Older Testament, and often picked up in Psalms.
Our response verses are usually from the book of Psalms, but there are ‘psalms’ and hymns in other books. The choice for today are only the first verses of a long chant of praise. Daniel is one of the later books of the Older Testament, dated to around 165 BCE. It is a complex work with additions in Greek to a text in Hebrew and Aramaic. The book’s basic message is one of encouragement to keep true to God in time of persecution by the Hellenistic emperor, Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The story of Daniel, however, is set in the time of the Babylonian Captivity. For the full account of Nebuchadnezzar and the three young Jews thrown in a ‘fiery furnace’, read all of Chapter 3. When the three were miraculously saved in the flames, they recited a prayer of praise to God, in the form of a litany with a repeated response.
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
These words end St Paul’s letter correcting the problems of the community at Corinth. The advice is good for any Christians at any time, with the stress on peace, love and unity. The final words of blessing have become an enduring part of our liturgies as including all of the Trinity – ‘God’ here meaning ‘the Father’.
‘The holy kiss’ suggests a gesture in the early liturgies, and some have used the same phrase for ‘the sign of peace’ in our modern mass – although we use a handshake. The Greek word translated ‘kiss’ comes from the word meaning ‘to love’ and so means a greeting that conveys affection between friends.
These words come at the end of a longer dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus, a leader of the Jerusalem Jews, and the liturgy has inserted the first line to make that connection. In the setting of the mass, it circles back to the first reading, putting love at the heart of God’s dealing with the world. The whole section, while not always easy to follow, has variations of the relationship Father, Son and Spirit, as acting in our lives. In this selection, only Father and Son are mentioned. (I find it odd that the earlier part of this encounter mentioning the Spirit – 3:4-8 – is not included in the liturgy.)
The mass text picks up the theme from Exodus, stressing that God does not come to us ‘in condemnation’ but in love. It is by refusing God’s ‘tenderness and compassion’ that people may condemn themselves.
‘Believe in the name of’: in Hebrew thought the ‘name’ equates with the person so here it is a full acceptance of the loving, merciful God that comes to us through Jesus.
Communion Antiphon, Galatians 4:6
These words from St Paul are a fitting conclusion on the meaning of the Trinity for us: through the Spirit, we become children of God and learn to call him Father as Jesus did. The Aramaic word Abba is one Jesus used in prayer and children would have used in family conversations. (Females in this context are called ‘sons’ for it is in our union with Jesus the Son that we all can become the ‘family of God.’)