The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, Year A

By Father Donald Dilger

Sunday Scripture

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, Year A

Exodus 34:4b-6, 8-9; Psalm (Daniel) 3:52, 53, 54, 55; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; John 3:16-18

It is difficult to understand why this reading from Exodus was chosen as the first reading for the celebration of the Holy Trinity. Nevertheless, it is what it is, and something should be said about it — even if there is no shadow of the Holy Trinity in it. The context: Moses and the Israelites in the Sinai wilderness. Earlier in chapters 19 — 24 the Sinai Covenant had been promulgated and ratified. After this foundational event, the authors/editors of Exodus add much legislation from chapter 25 almost to the end of chapter 31. In chapter 31:18 we read, “. . . the Lord gave to Moses, when he had ended speaking with him on Mt. Sinai, two tablets of the Testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.” What is meant by “Testimony?” One thinks quickly of the Ten Commandments as artists have depicted them on two tablets of stone, but that is not certain. Various translations: “the Covenant, the Torah, the Law, the commandments.” Because there are at least four sources combined by editors assembling the Book of Exodus, the meaning is not always clear. Since 31:18 is the final verse of its chapter, and does not smoothly fit into the context, we can assume that an editor stuck it in there to prepare for what follows, the apostasy of God’s people the Israelites, and Moses’ furious reaction — smashing the tablets of stone.

As chapter 34 begins, the Lord orders Moses to cut two new tablets of stone “like the first ones and come up to me on the mountain. I will inscribe on them the words that were on the first tablets which you broke.” As our first reading begins, we see Moses in compliance with God’s instructions. We know the Lord loves clouds, and so we read, “Having come down in a cloud, the Lord stood with Moses there and proclaimed his name, ‘Lord.’” The translation “Lord” is used in English as a substitute for the name of God called the “Sacred Tetragrammaton,” that is, the sacred four-letter word, which Christians for ages dared to pronounce as Yahweh. When Jews read the Hebrew text they dare not pronounce that sacred name, but substitute the Hebrew word Adonai, the plural of Adon, meaning “Lord.” Twice more the text proclaims, “Adonai, Adonai,” then attaches a brief creed, “a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity.” Moses falls to the ground in adoration. We may recall the gospel story of Jesus’ encounter with the two Emmaus disciples after his resurrection. They invited him to spend the night at their lodging. Moses was way ahead of them. As our reading ends, an invitation: “If I find favor with you, Adonai, do come along in our company.” But Moses or the editors could not restrain themselves from a final insult to this troublesome people, “This is indeed a stiff-necked people.” But a gracious and forgiving Moses begs forgiveness for their stiff necks, “. . . yet pardon our wickedness and our sins, and receive us as your own.”

The Responsorial Psalm is a hymn or psalm of praise not from our Book of Psalms but from the Old Testament Book of Daniel. The setting is in the middle of a fire so hot that the flames leaped up 49 cubits. (Can’t get more perfect than that, the biblical number for perfection, not only seven but seven times seven!) The three young Hebrew men had been thrown into the furnace, but an angel was with them and fanned the flames outwards, so that the center was cool as a dewy morning. (Wings can be useful!) Each verse of the psalm is a blessing on God, “who sits on his throne upon the cherubim,” a reference to the two winged lions on the top of the Ark of the Covenant, where God was thought to sit to dispense mercy. It was called “the Mercy Seat.” The second reading was selected for these words echoing the Holy Trinity, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”

The selection of John 3:16-18 is something of a surprise as a celebration of the Holy Trinity. The choice of the gospel reading for the Solemnity of the Ascension, Year A, robbed us of the most obvious choice for a first reading on this occasion. That was the gospel of the Great Commission, commanding the disciples to baptize in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. As noted in comments on the first reading above, we have to deal with what is given us — John 3:16-18 — short enough for those in a hurry to escape Sunday Mass. There is no mention of the Three Persons. The reading begins with mention of two Persons. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” Even though the Father is not explicitly named, he is certainly implied when the text speaks of God sending his Son. A son implies a father. One might stretch things a bit and see the Holy Spirit implied in the word “loved,” since we speak of the Holy Spirit as the love between Father and Son. The opening sentence of this gospel reading is well known, often depicted on placards and on signs or crosses along the road as “John 3:16.”

As is the case in much of the New Testament, so here too we find Old Testament foundations. “God gave his only Son” has a sacrificial tonality. Think Genesis 22:1-14, the near-sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham. He too gave his only son in his perception of God’s will. Gen.22:2, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love, and offer him. . . as a sacrifice . . . .” After the event, we read in Genesis 22:12, “. . . you have not withheld your son, your only son from me.”

There is still more Old Testament background to the famous John 3:16. In the fourth of the four Songs (poems) of the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah, we read in Isaiah 53:6, “The Lord has placed on him the iniquity of us all.” Then in 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, one would see the Lord as the Father giving his Son, followed by the Son, even as the willing Isaac of Genesis 22, “making himself an offering for sin.” What was God’s purpose in giving his Son, “so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life.” Calling once more on the Blessed Trinity from today’s second reading, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”