June 16 is Trinity Sunday.
Since December, the Christian liturgical calendar has taken us through a succession of images:
- the baby in the manger (Jesus is both God and Man);
- the shepherds and the magi (the witness to the Incarnation by Jesus’ own people and those from outside his culture);
- the parables and signs of the gospels (illustrating who Jesus is and spelling out his teaching);
- Palm Sunday (showing how much Jesus divided his contemporaries into those who were for and against him);
- the Last Supper (instituting the Eucharist, by which we are related to Jesus’ life and death and resurrection);
- the Garden of Gethsemane (Jesus’ choice to obey the Father’s will);
- the Cross (which appears to mark Jesus’ defeat by death and evil but which brings salvation);
- the Resurrection (which vindicates Jesus’ submission to God’s will);
- the Ascension (which expresses the way in which Jesus withdraws from the world); and
- Pentecost (which shows how he gives the gift of the Spirit to inspire his followers and continue his work).
Each of these pictures has been repeatedly depicted in art and in the decoration of churches.
On Trinity Sunday, we come to another image, God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the Holy Trinity. Artists have depicted this in diverse ways. Durer has God the Father seated on a throne with Christ his Son seated on his lap, with the Holy Spirit (shown as a dove) hovering above.
The ideas which gave rise to this image didn’t come to Christians thinkers immediately. Initially, they had puzzled over how the Creator God (the God of the Old Testament) was related to Jesus Christ. How could Jesus Christ be both God and a human being. Only later did Christian thinkers wonder about how these two persons – God the Father and God the Son – relate to the Third Person, the Holy Spirit.
And even then, we need to be mindful that God makes allowances for our limitations. As Origen, an early Christian theologian wrote, “God condescends and comes down to us, accommodating to our weakness, like a schoolmaster talking a ‘little language’ to his children, or like a father caring for his children and adopting his ways.”
This means that we should keep constantly in mind the fact that all the language we use about the Trinity is adapted to our limitations. We must use metaphors and pictures to describe the Trinity. We resemble physicists trying to understand the workings of atoms. Just as physicists describe matter at the smallest level as being both waves and particles, theologians talk about being both one God and three Persons.
This enterprise is not without its pitfalls. It is very easy to slip into what Christian history has treated as heresy. For a very brief and humorous account of the theological pitfalls of talking about the Holy Trinity you might watch this amusing short film, St Patrick’s Bad Analogies.