A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH
Second Advent Sermon of Father Cantalamessa 2018
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, omcap.
THE LIVING GOD AND THE LIVING TRINITY
When it comes to the knowledge of [the] living God, an experience is more valuable than many arguments, so I would like to begin this second meditation precisely with an experience. Once I received a letter from a person I was accompanying in her spiritual journey, a married woman who died some years ago. The authenticity of her experiences is confirmed by the fact that she carried them to her grave without ever speaking about them to anybody except her spiritual father. But all graces belong to the Church, and for that reason I want to share them with you now that she is with the Lord. Her story made me think of Moses’ experience before the burning bush. She said,
I was not quite four years old and I was at my grandmother’s countryside home. One morning while I was waiting in my room for someone to come dress me, I was looking at a large linden tree whose branches were spread out in front of the window. The rising sun was shining on the front of it. I was enthralled by its beauty when suddenly my attention was drawn by an unusual brilliance, an extraordinary whiteness. Every leaf, every branch, began to vibrate like flickering flames of a thousand candles. I was more amazed than when I saw the first snowfall of my life. And my amazement increased when—I don’t know if it was with my physical eyes or not—at the center of that glistening I saw something like a gaze and a smile of inexpressible beauty and benevolence. My heart was beating wildly; I felt the power of that love penetrate me, and I had the sensation of being loved in the most intimate part of my being. It lasted a minute, a minute and a half—I don’t know—but for me it seemed like an eternity. I was brought back to reality by a cold shiver that went through my body, and with great sadness I realized that the gaze and the smile had disappeared and that little by little the splendor of the tree was fading. The leaves returned to their ordinary appearance, and to my great disappointment the linden tree, despite being bathed in the radiant light of a summer sun, seemed, when compared to its previous splendor, dark to me as if it were under a rainy sky.
I did not speak to anyone of this event, but a short time later I heard the cook and another lady talking to each other about God. I was startled and asked, “God? Who is he?” intuiting that he was something mysterious. “Poor child,” said the cook to the other woman, “her grandmother is a pagan and is not teaching her these things!” Turning to me, she said, “God is the one who created heaven and earth, human beings, and animals. He is all-powerful and dwells in heaven.” I remained silent, but I said to myself, “He is the one I saw!”
Nevertheless I was very confused. In my eyes my grandmother was far superior to these housekeepers, and yet the cook had said she was a pagan because she did not know God, and I had sensed it was a derogatory term. Who was right?
One morning I was again waiting to be dressed. I was impatient and deplored the fact that my baby clothes buttoned in the back. I blamed all this on “the malice of grown-ups against children who were in their power.” Finally I could no longer wait and said, “God, if you exist and are truly all-powerful, button my clothes in back so that I can go down to the garden.” I had not finished saying those words when I found my clothes were buttoned. I stood there with my mouth open, terrified by the effect of my words. My legs were shaking, so I sat down in front of the closet mirror to see if it were really true and to catch my breath. I did not yet know what the phrase “to tempt God” meant, but I understood that I would be reduced to dust if I opposed his will.
A life of holiness lived after that shows that it was a real experience of God and not the imagination of a little girl.
God Is Love and Is Therefore Trinity
Let us continue our reflection on the Living God. Whom do we Christians address when we say the word “God” without any other specification? Who does the “you” refer to when, in the words of the psalm, we say, “O God, you are my God” (Ps 63:1)? Who responds to that at the other end of the line, so to speak? That “you” is not simply God the Father, the first divine person, as though he exists or can be thought of for one single instant without the other two. Neither is it an indeterminate divine essence, as though there exists a divine essence that is specified only later as God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The only God, the one who says in the Bible “I AM!” is the Father who generates the Son and who, with him, breathes the Spirit, communicating to both of them the whole of his divinity. It is the God who is a communion of love in whom unity and trinity come from the same source and from the same act, forming a Tri-unity in which neither of those two aspects—unity and plurality—precedes the other or exists without the other; neither of these two aspects is superior to the other or more “profound” than the other.
The “you” that we address in prayer, according to the circumstances and the grace of each of us, can be one of the three divine persons in particular—the Father, the Son Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit—without the loss of the others. In fact, in each divine person in the trinitarian communion the other two are present. The Trinity is like one of those musical triangles that vibrates and gives forth the same sound from whatever side it is struck.
The living God of Christians, in conclusion, is none other than the living Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity is contained, in nuce, in a nutshell, in the revelation of God as love. To say, “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8), is to say God is trinity. Every love implies a lover, a beloved, and a love that unites them. Every love is a love for someone or something; there is no such thing as love “in a vacuum” that has no object. Who does God love so as to be defined as love? Humanity? But then that would be love that existed only for some millions of years. Does he love the universe? But then that would be love that existed for some billions of years. So who did God first love so that he could be defined as love?
Greek thinkers and in general religious philosophers of all times, conceiving of God above all as “thought,” could have responded, God thought of himself; he was “pure thought, “the thought of thought” or “self-contemplative thought.” But this is no longer possible as soon as we say that God is first and foremost love, because the “pure love of self” would be sheer egotism; it would not be the highest exaltation of love but its total negation. So here is the answer from revelation as explained by the Church. God has always been love, ab aeterno, because even before there existed an object outside of himself to love he had within himself the Word, the Son whom he loved with an infinite love, that is, “in the Holy Spirit.”
This does not explain “how” unity can simultaneously be trinity; that is an unknowable mystery for us because it only occurs in God. It can, however, help us to grasp “why” the unity in God must also be plurality: because “God is love!” A God who was pure knowledge or pure law or pure power would certainly have no need to be triune. This would actually complicate matters, and in fact there has been no “triumvirate” that ever lasted for long in history! This is not how it is with a God who is first and foremost love because “if there are less than two, there can be no love.” Henri de Lubac wrote, “It is necessary for the world to know it. The revelation of [God as] Love overturns all that the world had conceived of the Divinity.”1 We Christians believe in “in one God,” not in a solitary God!
Contemplating the Trinity “to Overcome the Hateful Divisions of This World”2
No treatise on the Trinity is as capable of having us enter into living contact with it than the contemplation of Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Trinity, which is reproduced in the mosaics we see before us at the top of the wall in front (in the Mater Redemptoris Chapel). Painted in 1425 for the Church of St. Sergius, this icon was declared in 1551 by the “Council of 100 Chapters” (the Stoglav Synod of Russian Bishops) to be the model for all representations of the Trinity.
One thing should be said immediately about this icon. It does not purport to represent the Trinity directly, which is, by definition, invisible and ineffable. That would be contrary to all the canons of Byzantine ecclesiastical iconography. What the icon actually depicts is the three angels who appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre (see Gen 18:1-15). This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that in other depictions of the same subject before and after Rublev, Abraham, Sarah, the calf, and an oak tree in the background also appear with the three figures. This scene, in light of the patristic tradition, is therefore read as a prefigurement of the Trinity. The icon is one of the forms that takes on a spiritual reading of the Bible, that is, it interprets an event in the Old Testament in light of the New Testament.
The dogma of the unity and trinity of God is expressed in Rublev’s icon by the fact that the three Persons represented are distinct but closely resemble each other. They are ideally positioned within a circle that highlights their unity, while their diverse motions, especially of the chief angel, speak of their differences. In the original, all three are wearing blue garments as a sign of the divine nature they have in common. But on top of or underneath the blue garments, each one is clothed in a color that distinguishes them. The Father (generally identified as the angel to the left toward whom the other two incline their heads) has a garment of indefinable color, almost of pure light, as a sign of his invisibility and inaccessibility. The Son, in the center, is wearing a dark tunic as a sign of the humanity with which he has clothed himself. The Holy Spirit, the angel to the right, wears a green mantle as a sign of life, since he is “the giver of life.”
One thing is especially striking as we contemplate Rublev’s icon: the profound peace and unity that emanate from the whole. A silent cry comes forth from the icon: “Be one as we are one.” St. Sergius of Radonezh, the saint for whose monastery the icon was painted, is known in Russian history for having brought unity among warring chieftains and for having thus made possible the liberation of Russia from the Tartars. His motto was “Through the contemplation of the most Holy Trinity we can overcome the hateful divisions of this world.”3 Rublev wanted to reflect the spiritual inheritance of this great saint who had made the Trinity the source of inspiration for his life and work.
From this vision of the Trinity we see above all a call to unity. Everyone wants unity. After the word “happiness” there is no other word that speaks as much to the compelling need of the human heart as the word “unity.” We are “finite beings, capable of infinity,” and this means we are limited creatures who aspire to go beyond our limitations, to be “in some way everything,” quodammodo omnia, as they say in philosophy. We do not resign ourselves to being only what we are. Who does not remember in youth a moment of poignant need for unity, when you wished that the whole universe could be enclosed in a single spot and to be with others in that very spot, because the sense of separation and loneliness in the world was felt with such suffering? St. Thomas Aquinas explains it all this way: “One [unum] is a principle, just as good [bonum] is. Hence everything naturally desires unity, just as it desires goodness: and therefore, just as love or desire for good is a cause of sorrow, so also is the love or craving for unity.”4
All human beings want unity and desire it from the bottom of their hearts. Then why is it so difficult to achieve if everyone desires it so much? It is because we want unity of course, but . . . unity around our point of view. Our view seems so obvious, so reasonable, that we are astounded that others do not agree and insist instead on their point of view. We even carefully lay out the path for others to come and join us where we are. The problem is that the person before me is doing exactly the same thing with me. No unity will ever be achieved if we go about it this way; unity requires the opposite path.
The Trinity shows us the true path to unity. The Eastern Fathers, proceeding from the divine Persons rather than from the concept of nature, found themselves needing to affirm divine unity in another way. They did that by developing the doctrine of perichoresis. Applied to the Trinity, perichoresis (literally, “mutual interpenetration”) expresses the unity of the three Persons in their one essence.5 Through it the three Persons are united but without being confused; each Person “identifies” with the other, gives himself to the other, and sustains the existence of the other. The concept is based on Christ’s words: “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father in me” (Jn 14:11).
Jesus has extended this principle to his relationship with us: “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (Jn 14:20); “I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one” (Jn 17:23). The path to true unity is to imitate the divine perichoresis among ourselves in the Church. St. Paul indicates its basis when he says that we are “individually members one of another” (Rom 12:5). The perichoresis in God is based on the unity of nature, and in us on the fact that we are “one body and one Spirit” (see 1 Cor 12:12-13).
The apostle helps us understand what it means for us in practice to live out the perichoresis, or mutual interdependence. “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor 12:26); “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). The “burdens” of others include sicknesses, limitations, worries, and even defects and sins. To live out the perichoresis means “to identify” ourselves with others, to walk in their shoes, as we say, to seek to understand before judging.
The three divine Persons are always engaged in glorifying each other. The Father glorifies the Son; the Son glorifies the Father (see Jn 17:4-5); the Paraclete will glorify the Son (see Jn 16:14). Each one devotes himself to making the others known. The Son teaches us to cry, “Abba!”; the Holy Spirit teaches us to cry, “Jesus is Lord!” and “Come, Lord,” Maranatha. Each of them teaches us to speak not his own name but the name of the other two Persons. There is only one “place” in the world where the rule of “love your neighbor as yourself” is perfectly put into practice, and it is in the Trinity! Every divine Person loves the others exactly as himself.
How different the atmosphere is when we try to live out these sublime ideals in any social setting! I am thinking of a family in which the husband defends and praises the wife before the children and strangers and in which the wife does the same for the husband. I am thinking of a community whose members try to put into practice the exhortation of St. James, “Do not speak evil against one another, brethren” (4:11), or the exhortation of St. Paul, “Outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom 12:10). Taking this approach, a person could even rejoice at someone’s nomination for a certain post of honor (for example, in being named a cardinal) as if he himself had been nominated.
But let us have the saints tell us these things; they alone have the right to do so since they put it into practice. In one of his admonitions St. Francis of Assisi says, “Blessed the religious who takes no more pride in the good that God says and does through him, than in that which he says and does through someone else.”6 St. Augustine said to the people,
If you love unity, whoever in it has anything has it also for you. Take away envy, and what I have is yours; let me take away envy, and what you have is mine. Jealousy separates, right reason joins. . . . In the body, only the hand works; but does it work only for itself? It also worked for the eye; for if some blow were coming and not going against the hand but only against the face, does the hand say, “I do not move myself because it is not aiming at me”?7
This means that if you try to put the good of the community above your own personal affirmation, then every charism and every honor present in the community will be yours, just as in a united family the success of one member makes all the others happy. This is why love is “a more excellent way” (1 Cor 12:31). It multiplies charisms and makes the charisms of one person the charisms of all. I am aware that these things are easy to say but hard to put into practice; it is nonetheless good to know that, with the grace of God, they are possible and that some souls have succeeded in practicing them and do so for us in the Church as well.
Contemplating the Trinity truly helps us to overcome “the hateful divisions of the world.” The first miracle the Spirit performed at Pentecost was to make the disciples of “one accord” (Acts 1:14), “of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32). He is always ready to repeat this miracle, to transform dis-cord into con-cord every time. We can be divided on our thinking—on doctrinal or pastoral questions that are still legitimately debated in the Church—but we should never be divided in heart: In dubiislibertas, in omnibus vero caritas (“liberty in doubtful things, charity in all things”). This specifically means imitating the unity in the Trinity, which is, in fact, “unity in diversity.”
Entering into the Trinity
There is something that is more blessed that we can do with regard to the Trinity than contemplate and imitate it, and that is to enter into it! We cannot wrap our arms around the ocean, but we can enter into it; we cannot encompass the mystery of the Trinity with our minds, but we can enter into it! Christ has left us a concrete way to do that: the Eucharist. In Rublev’s icon, the three angels are positioned around a table; there is a cup on the table and, inside the cup, we see a lamb. There is no simpler or more effective way to tell us that the Trinity meets us every day in the Eucharist. The banquet of Abraham at the oaks of Mamre is a figure of that banquet. The visitation to Abraham by the Three is renewed for us each time we receive Communion.
The doctrine of the Trinitarian perichoresis is enlightening in regard to the Eucharist as well. It tells us that wherever one person of the Trinity is, the other two are also present, inseparably united. The moment of Communion actualizes the words of Christ in a strict sense: “I in them and you in me” (Jn 17:23); “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9). He who receives me receives the Father. We can never fully appreciate the grace that is offered to us in the Eucharist. Table guests of the Trinity!
St. Cyril of Alexandria, with his usual theological clarity, has formulated this truth that inextricably links the Trinity to the Eucharist. He says, “We have . . . been made perfect in unity with God the Father, through the mediation of Christ. For by receiving in ourselves, both in a corporeal and spiritual sense, . . . Him that is the Son by Nature, . . . we have been glorified and become partakers in the Nature of the Most High.”8
The same person whose testimony I quoted at the beginning confided to me an experience of the Trinity she had later in life. I want to share this too because it makes us understand that the Church is not just what people see or say about it. She said,
The other night the Spirit introduced me to the mystery of trinitarian love. The ecstatic exchange of giving and receiving was taking place within me: from Christ, to whom I was united, toward the Father and the Father toward the Son. How can I express the inexpressible? I was not seeing anything, but what I experienced was far more than seeing, and my words were wholly inadequate to describe this reciprocal exchange of joy that was going forth, receiving and giving. And an intense life flowed from One to Another in that exchange, like warm milk that flows from a mother’s breast to the baby’s mouth attached to that comfort. And I was that baby, and all of creation was participating in the life, the reign, and the glory that was being regenerated by Christ. O holy and living Trinity! I felt as though I were outside of myself for two or three days, and still today this experience remains strongly impressed upon me.
The Trinity is not only a mystery and an article of our faith, but also a living and vibrant reality. As I said at the beginning, the living God of the Bible whom we are seeking is none other than the living Trinity. May the Spirit lead us into it as well and make us taste their sweet companionship.
English Translation by Marsha Daigle-Williamson
1 Henri de Lubac, History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture According to Origen (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), p. 277.
2 The following reproduces in part what I wrote in Contemplating the Trinity: The Path to the Abundant Christian Life (Ijamsville, MD: Word Among Us Press, 2007), p. 11ff.
3 See Nicholas Zernov, The Russians and Their Church, 3rd ed. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1994), p. 41.4 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I-IIae, q. 26, a. 3, vol. 2, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1981), p. 749.
5 St. Cyril of Alexandria, De Trinitate, 23 (PG 77, 1164 B); St. John of Damascus, The Orthodox Faith, 3, 7, trans. Frederic H. Chase Jr., vol. 37, The Fathers of the Church (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1958), pp. 281-284.
6 St. Francis of Assisi, Admonitions, XVII, in St. Francis of Assisi: Writings and Early Biographies, ed. Marion A. Habig (Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press, 1991), p. 84.
7 St. Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John, 32, 8, trans. John W. Rettig, vol. 88, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University Press of America, 1993), p. 48.
8 St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel According to S. John, XI, 12, vol. 3, trans. Thomas Randell (London: Walter Smith, 1885), p. 555 (PG 74, p. 564).
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