By FATHER DONALD DILGER
The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, Year A
First Reading: Exodus 34:4b-6, 8-9; Response: Daniel (Psalm) 3:52, 53, 54, 55; Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Gospel: John 3:16-18
The difficulty of instructing about the doctrine of the Holy Trinity may be reflected in selections of readings for the celebration of the Solemnity of the Holy Trinity. The first reading cannot be stretched in any way to tell us something about the Trinity. The same can be said of the responsorial psalm. The gospel reading mentions God, and the mention of Son implies the Father. There is nothing about the Holy Spirit. The second reading does qualify as a reading for this Solemnity, as we shall see. First, it must be noted that the Holy Trinity is not revealed in the Old Testament. There are, however, some footprints pointing in that direction. For example – when the Old Testament speaks of God as the Father of Israel as a nation and Israel as God’s son (Exodus 4:22-23). Or when we read of God as the Father of the King of Israel and the king as God’s son (2 Samuel 7:14). The Spirit of God is also mentioned, for example, when the Spirit of God is said to hover over the waters in the first creation story (See Genesis 1:2). But even that text depends on whether it is translated as spirit or wind. Some cite Genesis 1:26: “Let us make man in our image….” However, in the Old Testament, God is sometimes depicted as being in conference with heavenly beings – resulting in committee decisions given in the plural.
On to Exodus and the first reading. The background is the encampment of the Israelites at Mt. Sinai. We are at the conclusion of God giving the Torah (revelation, laws) to Moses. God gives Moses two tablets of stone, “inscribed by the finger of God.” Moses had been hanging out with God on top of Mt. Sinai too long. The Israelites were restless, not knowing what had happened to their leader. They approached Moses’ brother Aaron to make them a god to lead them. Aaron melted down their gold and silver, and formed a calf of gold – their new leader. He built an altar for the calf. Even though Moses did not see what was going on down below the mountain, God did see. He warned Moses about their idolatry, and he suggested destroying all of them – but forming a great nation out of Moses. Moses counselled the Lord out of his anger. He then descended Mt. Sinai with the two tablets. When he came upon the orgy of celebrating their golden calf, he smashed in anger the two tablets written by God. As has been said, “Moses was the first to break the 10 commandments.” A massacre at the direction of Moses now followed the idolatry.
As our first reading begins, God instructed Moses to hew two new tablets of stone, bring them up to the top of the mountain, and God would make a copy of the now-broken tablets. God loves clouds, so he naturally comes down upon the mountain in a cloud. He reminds Moses that his name is Lord, and says of himself, “The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity.” One must admit this sounds a bit strange after God had threatened to wipe out the Israelites – and Moses had commanded the massacre of the idolaters. Moses worshipped the Lord and invited him to accompany him and the Israelites on their journey. He does get in a dig at the Israelites, as he adds, “This is indeed a stiff-necked people,” but closes with a plea to the Lord for pardon, and that the Lord accept them as his own.
The responsorial psalm is a psalm or hymn of praise taken from the Book of Daniel. The psalm praises God in terms used only of absolute rulers or kings. One verse speaks of God seated on his throne, on the cherubim, on top of the ark of the covenant. There were two winged figures on top of the ark. They stretched their wings forward toward each other to form a kind of seat. There, the Israelites claimed God sat to dispense mercy and justice. It was called the Mercy Seat.
The second reading was appropriately selected for the Solemnity of the Holy Trinity because it contains words that have become familiar to us as an option for the initial greeting at the beginning of Mass. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” The Alleluia verse also honors the Holy Trinity and its eternity.
The gospel is a surprise for the Solemnity of the Trinity. The opening line is popularly known, and shortened on signs, as John 3:16. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” Mention of the Son implies the Father. As is the case with much of the New Testament, here there is also Old Testament influence. That God “gave his only Son” echoes the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham in Genesis 22:1-14. In 22:2 we read God’s command to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love, and offer him … as a sacrifice….” In Genesis 22:12, we read, “… you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” Another background: in the fourth of four Songs (poems) of the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah, we read this in Isaiah 53:6: “The Lord has given him over (the Servant) to the iniquity of us all.” Also Isaiah 53:10: “… it was the will of the Lord to bruise him. He has put him to grief, when he makes himself an offering for sin ….” In New Testament perspective, the Lord is interpreted as the Father giving his Son, and the Son willingly making himself an offering for sin. With this background in mind, the words that “God … gave his only Son,” can be understood as the language of Old Testament sacrifices.
About the development of a Feast of the Holy Trinity
The first known liturgical celebration of such a feast was at the monastery of Cluny, in France, in 1091. At the end of that century, Pope Alexander II refused to establish such a feast for the universal Church because he said that every Sunday pays sufficient honor to the Trinity and no special feast is needed. In 1162, St. Thomas Becket introduced a liturgical feast of the Trinity at Canterbury, England. Under pressure from religious orders, Pope John XXII in 1334 established the feast in honor of the Trinity for the universal Church. In the liturgical reforms following Vatican II (1962-1965), the Feast of the Holy Trinity was raised to the dignity of a Solemnity.