The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity in Scripture and Art | National Catholic Registry


The Church reflects on the mystery of God himself – one God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit – on the first Sunday after concluding the joyous Easter season with Pentecost. (For Catholics in the United States, today is also the last day to fulfill the Paschal precept, that is, to receive communion worthily, as required by the Church, during the Easter season. For much of the rest of the world, this “Easter duty” was due last week but, by adaptation of the Council of Baltimore in the 19th century, American Catholics have until Trinity Sunday).

Discussing the Trinity is challenging because it is a mystery and because, while the Trinity is revealed in Holy Scripture, the mature theological articulation of what it means to speak of “one God in three persons” n took place only later, mainly during the great Trinitarian and Christological disputes of the 4th and 5th centuries. It was the time of the great ecumenical councils, such as Nicaea and Constantinople. The Profession of Faith that we declare at Mass is also known as the Nicene-Constantinople Creed, because these councils began to structure it.

Pay attention: the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, like the previous Apostles’ Creed, are both built around the Trinity:

I believe in God, the Almighty Father…
and in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son…
I believe in the Holy Spirit.

The other great creed of antiquity—the Athanasian Creed—is explicitly built around Trinitarian dogmas. It is worth reading today.

Today’s readings speak of the work of the Trinity in creation and redemption. The first reading (Proverbs 8:22-31) speaks of the work of the Trinity in creation, even before all that happened. “And I have found delight in the human race” (Proverbs 8:31), reminding us that God created mankind – male and female, he created them – in his own image and likeness.

I mention this link because sometimes we are inclined to think of the Trinity as a summary whose relevance to my life is probably not clear. It was the Jesuit Karl Rahner, I think, who once wrote that if the Trinity disappeared many Christians might not even miss it because it is a mystery that has been made so mysterious to them (that is- ie not explained) that it is practically irrelevant.

But God created us in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-28). God is Trinity, therefore his image cannot not to be affected by this Trinitarian reality, even if he does not realize it.

God is not an isolated individual, a closed monad. God is a life-giving communion of persons (personal fellowship). It is the God whose image we are, in whom he “delighted”, “the only creature that God wanted for him” (as Saint John Paul II liked to repeat, after Vatican II ).

If man does not enter into a life-giving fellowship of persons, he defiles and distorts the image of God in which he is made. This is what Saint John Paul II meant when he insisted, in his first encyclical Hominis of the Redeemer, that “man cannot live without love. He remains a being incomprehensible to himself, his life has no meaning, if love does not reveal itself to him, if he does not meet love, if he does not live it and do not make it his own, if there is no not intimately participate…” Those are powerful words, and not just hyperbole. Man cannot understand himself outside of love because he is made in the image of a God who is Personal Love — and so, without love, man is an existential contradiction. Modern television and video games are full of zombies, but the only real zombies are those humans who try to live as if the image of the loving God imprinted within them doesn’t matter.

If the first reading is about creation—who we were made to be—the gospel is about salvation—who we can be in light of our God-given possibilities. The Gospel (John 16:12-15) is taken from Jesus’ long farewell speech at the Last Supper. This particular passage speaks of the imminent departure of Jesus, which opens the door for the coming of the Holy Spirit (whose advent we marked in final form last week at Pentecost). The Holy Spirit completes the work of Jesus and enables it to be carried out in his disciples. But Jesus’ work—his “food”—is his Father’s will (John 4:34). Thus, in today’s Gospel, Jesus makes it clear that in the work of salvation the Holy Spirit gives what is Jesus’s, what is his for it is that of the Father. The whole Trinity created us, and the whole Trinity saves us. (That is why, in addition to being sacrilegious because they invalidated the sacrament, those priests who tampered with the form of Baptism to speak of baptizing “in the name of the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier” also demonstrated their ignorance fundamental theology).

If the theology of the Trinity from today’s readings alone is a challenge, finding its artistic expression is even more so. As I have noted, sometimes there are Sunday readings that are so abstract that few artists have attempted to express them on canvas.

The Trinity is certainly one of them, and it’s no surprise. As I have noted over the past two weeks, as John (1:18) reminds us, “No one has ever seen God. It was his only begotten Son who revealed it. We have seen this in the Ascension as described in Drogo’s Sacramentary, where the Father is shown only as an outstretched hand to Jesus, and in El Greco’s Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit appears under the shape of a dove and tongues of fire. Elsewhere (1 John 4:12, 20) John reminds us that although no one has seen God, God dwells in those who love the brother they see. This is perfectly in line with our First Reading which, alluding to the image of who we are made, makes it clear that our fulfillment as persons as well as our salvation (which are basically the same thing) depend on the love.

To illustrate today’s Gospel, let us return to our faithful assistant, the late 19th century French artist, James Tissot. Tissot’s detailed paintings of the life of Christ (many of which are in the Brooklyn Museum) include a number of works centered on the Last Supper, including this Last Sermon of Our Lord. (Most Last Supper artwork naturally focuses on the Eucharist or, to a lesser extent, the mandate, the washing of the feet of the apostles. Johannine’s extended farewell speech receives relatively little artistic attention).

In Tissot’s painting, Jesus is right in the center, in his usual Tissot white, flanked by Peter on his right and young John on his left. There are 11 apostles, because Judas is gone. Tissot’s travels to the Holy Land frame his color palette and suits. The centrality of Jesus is appropriate for today’s feast since, as we have noted, Jesus is the one who reveals God to us.

That said, this painting shocks me, probably because it doesn’t match my own imagined image of the Last Supper. Given the practice of eating in the ancient world and mentioned in Scripture (John 13:23; Matthew 26:20; cf. Matthew 9:10), I am surprised to see Jesus and the Apostles upright during what purports to be his last speech (which in the Gospel of John has four relatively long chapters (14-17). Are we capturing the last moment before the imminent departure for Gethsemane (18:1)?

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