The Elusive Trinity

KatrinaCrossAbraham1The Trinity is a fundamental doctrine for Christianity but Christianity is a story of salvation before it is a set of doctrines. The Trinity is no exception. If we get the story right, we might get the doctrine right, but if we get the story wrong, then we get the doctrine wrong for sure.

John 3 tells of Nicodemus coming to see Jesus at night, suggesting he is in the dark. Jesus’ words to Nicodemus: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” (Jn. 3:3) don’t seem to follow from what Nicodemus has just said. It sounds like the answer to a question that was not asked. Is there an implied question to what Nicodemus did say? The only implied question I can pick up is: “How do I do the signs that you do?” If so, Jesus is saying that Nicodemus is asking the wrong question. Jesus says first that Nicodemus must be born again, or born from above, most likely both. Jesus “clarifies” the matter by saying that Nicodemus must be “born of the Spirit,” which is a problem since, like the wind, nobody knows “where it comes from or where it goes..” (Jn. 3: 8) Here, one Person of the Trinity enters into this story.

So far, Nicodemus is showing difficulty in knowing what he really wants, further indicating that he is in the dark. We are tempted to laugh at him for his obtuseness, but we would do well to ask ourselves if we really know what we want? So asking ourselves inserts us into the story where all of us are in the same pickle as Nicodemus, which is to say, we are all in the dark. René Girard is helpful here when he suggests that all of us don’t know what we want and so we all look to other people to show us what we want. That is, if we see (rightly or wrongly) other people wanting something, we tend to want it too. Girard also gives us the insight that since none of us knows what we really want, we end up in a social muddle that is fraught with conflict. In Romans, Paul tells us that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” (Rom. 8: 14) So, even though we don’t know what we want we can be born anew, from above, into the Kingdom if we let this Spirit, whom we can’t understand or grasp, lead us.

Then, in another non sequitur, Jesus tells us a mini-story: “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” (Jn. 3: 13) While Nicodemus and the rest of us have been thinking of rising above our humanity, Jesus has come down to take on our humanity and only then did he rise back up to heaven. So, trying to do the signs that Jesus did by some human technique is bound to fail and will keep us in the dark. But Jesus then retells a mysterious story in Numbers as a variant of the first story. During a medical and social crisis of plague in the wilderness, the sort of crisis Girard warns us will happen when we don’t know what we want, Moses was instructed to raise a bronze serpent so that any who look upon it are healed. Jesus is now claiming that he is the “bronze serpent” raised up on the cross. Raising Jesus on the cross is the result of our muddle over not knowing what we want and falling into violence as did the Jews in the desert. Yet looking at Jesus on the cross to the point of really seeing what we have done offers us a cure of our violence. Not only that, but so looking at Jesus will give us eternal life. In John, this phrase does not refer primarily to life after death but to the quality of life here and now (and presumably after death as well.) Being cured of our violence certainly is a way to an improved quality of life. This is the way of being born again, from above, of being children of God. Once born from above, our desires become much clearer and they are focused on the well-being of other people. More important, after coming down from heaven, Jesus did not return there until after he was raised up on the cross. What is above and what is below has gotten thoroughly turned around. We now have two members of the Trinity in our story.

Then Jesus briefly tells the same story in a different way: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (Jn. 3: 16) Jesus was not sent to condemn the world, although there was much to condemn, but Jesus was sent so that the world might be saved through him. Paul says that the Holy Spirit cries out within us: “Abba! Father!” This exclamation makes us joint heirs with Christ if we allow our desires to be formed by the Desire that flows through all three persons of the Trinity.

When presented as just a doctrine, the Trinity looks like an mutual admiration society of three. When presented as a story, the Trinity is a union of three persons dedicated to creating and re-creating humanity and all creation.

Trinity as Story and Song

eucharist1When we talk about the Trinity as a doctrine consisting of three Persons in one Deity, we tend to feel that we have grasped it to some degree. That is the way it is with concepts and doctrines. But the Trinity is a story much more than it is a doctrine. (See The Infinite round Dance.) As a story, the Trinity is no more graspable than the wind as Nicodemus found out. That is the nature of stories: to be ungraspable. Try to grasp anything in a story and you lose everything but the fragment you grasp. Might as well grasp at a note or two of a song and try to get a hold of the song. The story of the Trinity is the story of the Paschal Mystery, told succinctly in the famous verse, Jn :17, that God sent God’s only Son out of love for the world so that the world would not be judged but saved. In the sending, the Spirit acted out the bond of love between the Father and the Son. The Trinity also enters into the stories of each and every one of us as, through the Spirit, we cry “Abba! Father!” So it is that the Spirit makes us joint heirs with Christ. Paul tells us that as the Spirit enters our stories, we participate in Christ’s suffering and glory so that our own sufferings are shared by Christ and Christ’s glory becomes ours. After the threefold cry of “Holy!” in the temple, the Spirit sends the prophet Isaiah as the Father sends the Son and the Holy Spirit. Like Isaiah, we are sent by the Son and the Spirit to each other.

The Trinity as story shows us that a person is not a rugged individualist but is, in its very essence, a person is relationship. No relationship, no person. Our analogies with stories and music help us again here. The words of a story or a poem have very limited meaning individually but they take on much meaning in relationship to one another. The same is true with individual notes becoming a song when joined one to another. A triad is made up of three notes but it is one chord. The Persons of the Trinity hold nothing back from one another and ideally neither should we with one another. Trying to grasp our non-existent individuality is like trying to grasp a story or a song or the wind. If we are to be ourselves, we must let go as the Persons of the Trinity are always letting go so that we always go where we are sent whether it is halfway around the world or—as is most often the case—to the person next to us.

God So Loved the World

NicodemusRight after Jesus had turned over the tables of the money changers in the temple and driven out the sacrificial animals, Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin approaches Jesus by night. In the strange dialog that follows, we see Jesus reaching out to a member of the establishment that he has just challenged, but we also see this same establishment figure stammering as he tries to understand Jesus and fails. This is a time for stammering as it is a time of transition. Jesus has just ended the sacrificial age with his actions in the temple. The question is: What is the new age going to be?

Nicodemus is confounded when Jesus tells him that he cannot see the kingdom of God without being “born anew,” born “from above” by water and the Spirit. The water and the Spirit both suggest baptism. The Greek word baptizmo means to be overwhelmed and just as Jesus was overwhelmed by both water and Spirit in the river Jordan in the account in the synoptic Gospels. Jesus wishes for Nicodemus and all of us to be overwhelmed by both. In this dialogue, however, Nicodemus is overwhelmed with puzzlement and perhaps, so are we. Jesus then compounds Nicodemus’ puzzlement (and ours!) by suddenly shifting to Moses raising the bronze serpent in the wilderness, a mysterious event recorded in Numbers. The bronze serpent was raised during a social crisis driven by a plague. (Both the disease and the violence against Moses were contagious.) The phrase “lifted up” refers to Jesus being raised on the cross and then being raised from the dead. The bronze serpent, then, becomes an image of Jesus being raised on the cross to draw all people out of the society overwhelmed by violence into a new society as free of violence as Jesus is himself. It seems that being born “from above” entails being born from the raised up cross, which is the entry into a new way of living, what John calls “eternal life” several times in his Gospel. After all, St. Paul said that “we were buried therefore with him [Jesus] by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).

This is the context of the famous words that follow in John’s Gospel: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn. 3:17) These words echo, in a different key, the acclamation of the voice from heaven after the sky opened up declaring that Jesus is God’s beloved son in whom God is well pleased. Baptism, then, initiates us into this love of the heavenly father. If God so loves the world, then God is not bringing a winnowing fork or a rod of iron as John the Baptist expected, but is bringing only himself, wounds from the cross and all, to lift all of us out of the world’s overwhelming violence to overwhelm us with his love.

John goes on to assure us that God did not send the Son into the world “to condemn the world, but that in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn. 3:18) These two verses should be strong enough to prevent us from thinking that the solemn verses that follow concerning condemnation take back even a smidgeon of the proclamation of God’s love. The judgment is not God’s judgment but the self-judgment of those who “loved darkness rather than light.” If God’s very Being is light and we don’t like it, what else can God do but keep on being the light until, hopefully, we learn to like it and then love it and so turn away from the darkness in our hearts and turn to the cross that gives us a new birth from above?

Baptism: Overwhelmed by Christ’s Love (1)

lakeGray1“We were buried therefore with him [Jesus] by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”  Rom. 6:4

If baptism is our initiation into Christ, our entry into the Paschal Mystery, then baptism is the underlying, ongoing dynamic of our lives in Christ. Dying and rising with Christ is something we need to do every day. The Greek word baptismo means to be overwhelmed, inundated. In baptism we are overwhelmed by and inundated with the Paschal Mystery. I will explore this mystery by looking at a few key scripture passages that give us variations on this one theme.

Jesus himself was baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. For John, it was a baptism of repentance from the violent society of his time, to prepare for God’s winnowing fork in “the wrath to come.” But when Jesus comes, he does not bring a winnowing fork; he only brings himself and asks to be baptized. As he is baptized, the heavens open, the Spirit descends, and a voice from heaven says “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.”

These words refer to two key verses in the Hebrew Bible that tell us what baptism is all about. These words ring out in Psalm 2, addressed to the king, the Messiah, who is being singled out from the nations that are raging together and rising up against the Lord and his anointed. The inundation of baptism draws Jesus out of the inundation of the nations raging with each other. In Jesus, we too are drawn out of this inundation in the sense of being freed from raging against everybody else. We are not freed from being the target of these raging nations when they unite against the one who has been freed from their wrath. These same words also refer to Isaiah 42:1, the first line of the first song of the Servant of Yahweh. Throughout these songs, we find that the servant has been called out of a violent society and becomes the victim of that society’s violence. Unlike the psalmist who threatens the raging nations with a rod of iron, the Servant does not retaliate in any way against the violence inflicted on him. In baptism, we too are overwhelmed by the Servant’s suffering but then we are overwhelmed by the Servant’s vindication by God.

John’s Gospel does not narrate the baptism of Jesus but, as in so many other instances, John shows us the underlying story in a different key. When Nicodemus approaches Jesus by night, Jesus tells him that one cannot see the kingdom of God without being “born anew,” born “from above” by water and the Holy Spirit. Jesus seems only to compound Nicodemus’ puzzlement (and ours!) by suddenly shifting to Moses raising the bronze serpent in the wilderness. However, the bronze serpent was raised during a social crisis in the form of a plague. (Both the disease and the violence against Moses were contagious.) The phrase “lifted up” refers to Jesus being raised on the cross and then being raised from the dead. The bronze serpent, then, becomes an image of Jesus being raised on the cross to draw all people out of the society overwhelmed by violence into a new society as free of the violence as Jesus is himself.

This is the context of the famous words that follow: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” If God so loves the world, then God is not bringing a winnowing fork or a rod of iron, but is bringing only himself, wounds from the cross and all, to lift all of us out of the world’s overwhelming violence to overwhelm us with his love.

See Part 2