God revealed as Father, Son and Spirit
(Readings: Deuteronomy 4:32-34, 39-40; Romans 8:14-17; Matthew 28:16-20)
Introduction to Mass
Today's feast of the Holy Trinity focuses our attention on the reality of God's nature, which we've come to talk about in terms of the three "persons" of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. These are the terms we use to try to get hold of the mystery of God, the way he's communicated himself to us, down through thousands of years of human history.
As we prepare to celebrate this Mass, we pause to acknowledge God's goodness towards us, our own failures and weaknesses, and we ask God for his guidance and mercy.
One of the main things that makes our modern western society different from earlier periods of our own history - and different from other parts of the world even today - is that we're very heavily influenced by our grasp of scientific and technical knowledge.
We take a technical or practical mentality for granted much more than, say, our fellow Christians from a few hundred years ago, and when we're confronted with something that we don't understand we look for a scientific explanation much more automatically than they did.
A lot of people say they can't take Christianity seriously now because they don't see how you can give a proper scientific explanation for dogmas like Jesus being both God and man, or Jesus' Resurrection, or the existence of heaven - or even Jesus' miracles. It's all just man-made myth, like every religion.
And so of course belief in the Trinity - the idea that God is somehow three persons in one God - falls into the same category: so much so that some of the Churches and Christian communities that formed themselves more recently in history have dropped the belief in the Trinity altogether. They don't see it as a necessary or an important part of Christian faith.
Confronting these different ideas and currents the first thing we would want to say is that scientific knowledge and the technical way of thinking doesn't have to be opposed to religious knowledge or belief in spiritual realities.
It's only when people think that the material world is all there is, and scientific knowledge is the only kind of knowledge there is, that they obviously draw the conclusion that God is just a figment of our imagination - or maybe a relic of a more primitive, less rational mentality - because God isn't accessible to scientific investigation.
He can't be seen and heard and touched like a material object. He can only be known indirectly, through an intangible awareness of his working in our lives; through prayer and contemplation and a way of thinking which is open to mystery. These are attitudes and activities which our rather narrow and pragmatic culture are not very good at.
The people who wrote the books of the Bible had a totally different outlook from that, and they brought a completely different attitude to their reflections and their thinking about God.
They were convinced of two things that we might think are contradictory: one was that God, as I just said, is ultimately a mystery, someone who is outside or beyond the ordinary categories of our thinking.
But the other conviction that the people who wrote the Bible had was that God isn't an inaccessible mystery. God wills that we should know who he is and what he's like. And so that we can know him, he's revealed himself to us.
Over the course of several centuries, the authors of the Bible built up a clearer and a more accurate picture of what God was like, based on the events of their history. When the Old Testament writers looked back over their experiences as the Chosen People, they traced the path of God's involvement with them, and their knowledge of God grew and deepened. They got to know that God was their Creator and related to them as a Father.
In the period covered by the New Testament, it's the experiences of the disciples and the first groups of Christians that are crucial.
After Jesus' resurrection, his first followers very quickly came to the conclusion that the God they had always known and prayed to - the God they had known up till then as their creator and Father - had now, somehow, been made present in the person of Jesus. "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father," Jesus said.
This was the conclusion the disciples came to after seeing Jesus alive again after the crucifixion. Nothing short of identifying Jesus with God himself seemed to be adequate as a way of describing their encounter with him.
And then later on, after the experience of Pentecost, they reached the conclusion that God had made himself present in another way as well: as the Spirit they received in a unique way on that occasion. That Spirit was also the God that they had always believed in and worshipped.
The New Testament doesn't give any explanations, in scientific terms, of how God is present in these three persons, Father Son and Spirit. What it does is, it describes the experiences the disciples had: Jesus rising from death, taking his leave from them, the coming of the Spirit.
And it relates the conclusions they drew from their experiences. Now they encountered God not only as Father, as in the Old Testament, but also in the person of Christ - God's Word made flesh - and also as the Spirit who came to them in a unique way at Pentecost.
So it's pointless to think of God as if he's like some sort of complicated mechanical device which we can take apart so as to understand fully how it works. That's not the mentality that leads to closer knowledge of God.
Getting to know God more closely is much more a case of entering more deeply into a mystery, and that only comes with an attitude of prayer and reflection and pondering and searching - very different from the technical sort of thinking, where we're in charge and directing things.
It's always possible to grow and make progress in our acquaintance with God but the more we go into the mystery, the more we realise that there's more than we'll ever be able to fully grasp.
What guides us and gives us reliable pointers to God is the experience of those who came before us, the people who took part in the all the events of Bible, from the beginning up to the coming of the Spirit, and the testimonies they left of what they experienced.
Ultimately itís those testimonies of the gradual stages in which God revealed himself that we've come to commemorate in the Feast we're celebrating today.