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God is three and God is one

Posted May 26, 2013

In Cardinal Newman’s work, The Dream of Gerontius, which Elgar set to music in his famous oratorio of the same name, Gerontius is an old man, a Christian, who dies and his soul journeys through the terrifying dissolution of death on its way to God: an extremely profound and imaginative meditation on the soul’s final destiny, full of pathos and foreboding, yet full of grace and wonder and hope of glory.  One of the things that strikes me most is Newman’s depiction of the nakedness and the helplessness of the first experience of death (‘this new feeling, never felt before, That I am going, that I am no more … this strange innermost abandonment’).  Yet on the very threshold of death Gerontius summons up the courage to make his final profession of faith: ‘Firmly I believe and truly, God is three and God is one.’

Now I ask myself: When I am faced with that collapse of everything that makes me myself, with that strange feeling, never felt before, that ‘I am going, that I am no more’: will it matter to me that God is three and God is one?   There will be things that matter to me, no doubt: the loved ones I am leaving, who have been my life; the terrible unknown; a life lived foolishly, perhaps; all that kind of thing.  Those things will matter to me: certainly they will.  But will it matter to me that God is three and God is one?  Did it really matter to Gerontius?  Or was he just repeating a formula, ticking the right doctrinal boxes, so to speak?   Or is it perhaps that Newman, the theologian, is reading his own preoccupations into Gerontius?  Doctrinal formulations of the Trinity did matter to Newman.  He had dedicated crucial years of his life researching into those early Christian centuries when fierce disputes about the Trinity divided the Church, years of research which would lead him eventually to the Catholic Church.  It did matter to Newman, even on his deathbed, that God is three and God is one.  But lots of things mattered to Newman that don’t really matter to us in our heart of hearts.  My question is: Will it matter to me and you that God is three and God is one?   There are words in the same piece that seem more relevant to the religious soul:  ‘And I trust and hope most fully in that manhood crucified’ … and ‘I love supremely, solely, him the holy, him the strong’ … and ‘I take with joy  whatever now besets me, pain or fear.’  Those things resonate in our emotions.  But that God is three and God is one: that might leave us cold.  In that final collapse of self, will the fact that God is three and God is one mean any more to us than the fact that in a right-angled triangle the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides?  It won’t,  if it’s just a formula.

I rather think, however, that if we can feel our way to the heart of the matter we shall find that it is precisely in that moment of collapse that we shall experience an overwhelming impulse to proclaim with all our being, with all our minds and emotions, that God is three and God is one.  And to feel our way to the heart of the matter, we need to go back to the time before the Trinity became a doctrinal formula, before theologians and philosophers were let loose on it.  I mean: we must return to St John’s Gospel, which in fact formed the seedbed of the doctrine of the Trinity.  And when we do this, we find not a doctrine, simply, but a whole new world.  We find ourselves drawn into a mysterious, intimate conversation, taking place in God’s innermost being. ‘The Father loves me’, we hear Jesus say; and ‘I love the Father.’   ‘Father, all that I have is yours: and all that you have is mine.’  ‘Father, glorify me with the glory that I had with you before the foundation of the world!’  ‘The Father is in me and I am in the Father’.  ‘The Father and I are one.’

The Holy Trinity is not about formulae, whether doctrinal or mathematical or geometrical.  It is about warmth and intimacy.  It is about loving and being loved.  And how profoundly human it all is!  The Son, St John tells us, is eternally in the ‘bosom’ of the Father.  This phrase recalls St John’s description of the last supper, where the Beloved Disciple reclined on the ‘bosom’ of Jesus.  St John is saying that there, in the deepest mystery of eternity, is a communion of persons united in mutual self-giving.  And on the basis of other New Testament texts the Church came to understand that the mutual self-giving of Father and Son is so completely expressive of their persons that it is itself a person, the person of the Holy Spirit, the very essence of the love that unites Father and Son eternally.

This is what I meant when I said that at the moment of death we shall surely feel an overwhelming impulse to proclaim with all our being, with all our minds and emotions, that God is three and God is one.  For it is this truth that assures us that death is not the end of warmth and fellowship; not the end of our relationship with our loved ones, who have been our life; not the end of our capacity to love and to be loved.  Death is not the collapse of everything that matters to us, of everything precious to us.  On the contrary, all these things find their natural habitat in God.  It is because God is in essence and eternally a communion of love that death, far from being dissolution and estrangement, is a most wonderful home-coming, for we were made for that communion. Our capacity for fellowship is part of our being made in God’s image and likeness.

Now all this has implications for us not only at the moment of death but throughout our lives.  We are social beings.   We live in families of one kind or another.   We are called to love and to be loved.  This experience of ours is a reflection of God’s inner being.  The family is part of God’s original purpose.  Marriage is not just the result of a biological instinct or an emotional need.  It is one of the ways in which God’s own being is mirrored in creation and in our human nature.  It is an echo of the dialogue which constitutes the Blessed Trinity:  ‘Father, all that is mine is yours and all that is yours is mine.’

This is a great inspiration for those of you whose primary vocation is to live out the sacrament of marriage and create around you a loving family.  In living out that vocation you are experiencing in your own flesh and blood what it means to confess that God is three and God is one.  You are anticipating your destiny as people called to be with Jesus eternally ‘in the bosom of the Father’.  Being generous and selfless at home is your way of proclaiming to one another and to the world what God is like and what our religion is all about.

We are about to celebrate the sacred liturgy.  In the liturgy our love for each other is merged with the love that Jesus has for his Father; we are taken up into the mystery of the Blessed Trinity.  Through the action of the Holy Spirit we become, in Pope Benedict’s phrase, a ‘parable of communion’:  that is, the reality of God’s communion with his Son is dramatically expressed in our own worship: in our prayers, in our music, in our gestures of reverence and service; in our consecration of bread and wine in the sacrifice of Jesus; in our wanting to forgive and to be forgiven; in the effort we put into helping and inspiring each other: even in the material contributions we make to the church and the worthy celebration of the liturgy.  Our liturgy is the Trinity of divine Persons present and active among us.  At the Offertory we truly enact Jesus’ words: ‘Father, all that is mine is yours’, and at Holy Communion we truly experience ‘All that is yours is mine.’

Firmly I believe, and truly: God is three and God is one.  For therein lies the only meaningful future that could possibly await us as people made in God’s image, and the guarantee that death is not the loss of all the good that we hold dear but its complete fulfilment.

Fr Tom Deidun

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