Opening the Word: Gospel of the Trinity

“The divine nature,” wrote St. Thomas Aquinas, “is really and entirely identical with each of the three persons, all of whom can therefore be called one: ‘I and the Father are one.’” The quote he references is from John 10:30, one of dozens of references made by the Son, Jesus Christ, to the Father in the fourth Gospel. The Gospel of John is, in so many ways, the Gospel of the Trinity; it is bursting with startling verses and wondrous passages about the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This is also the case with St. John’s epistles. The great French philosopher Rémi Brague, in his book, “On the God of the Christians” (St. Augustine’s Press, $26), states that the basis for the Christian confession of the Trinity “is contained in a single phrase of the New Testament: ‘God is love’ [1 John 4:16].” Brague further states that “the doctrine of the Trinity is nothing else than the stubborn effort to get to the bottom of this sentence of St. John.” That may seem, at first glance, an overstatement; yet there is great profundity in the observation. Pope Benedict XVI, in his first encyclical, “God is Love,” quoted the whole of 1 John 4:16, and then wrote, “These words ... express with remarkable clarity the heart of the Christian faith: the Christian image of God and the resulting image of mankind and its destiny.

Today’s Gospel reading is perhaps the best-known verse about the love of God, from the Gospel of John: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” God’s perfection is not the static, cold perfection of a mathematical algorithm, nor is his completeness located merely in his power and knowledge. His perfection and completion are most deeply revealed in relationship, in the giving of himself in ways we can only begin to comprehend.

God so loved that he gave. This essential theme is set at the start of John’s Gospel: “But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God ...” (Jn 1:12). The Triune God desires that we share in his divine life and be true children of God: “Beloved, we are God’s children now” (cf 1 Jn 3:1-3). How does that come about? Through a new birth, carried out by the power of the Third Person of the Trinity in the sacrament of baptism: “Jesus answered, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit’” (Jn 3:5). Sacraments are not mere symbols, of course, but “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us” (CCC 1131). By baptism — in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit — “we are called to share in the life of the Blessed Trinity, here on earth in the obscurity of faith, and after death in eternal light” (CCC, No. 265).

The Trinity, then, is not an abstract concept meant to overwhelm our finite intellect. Nor should the Trinity ever be the subject of dry academic exercise. Again, God is not static, or even stoic. In the words of the French poet Paul Claudel, “we worship a living God who acts, who breathes, who exhales his very Self.”

As Moses learned, God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love and fidelity ...” (Ex 34:6). He gave, and he gives, so that we can know him and love — so that, as Jesus prayed, “they may be one, even as we are ” (Jn 17:11).

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.