Sunday, May 18, 2008

Trinity Sunday

The Trinity by El Greco (1577)
Reading 1
Ex 34:4b-6, 8-9

Early in the morning Moses went up Mount Sinai
as the LORD had commanded him,
taking along the two stone tablets.

Having come down in a cloud, the LORD stood with Moses there
and proclaimed his name, "LORD."
Thus the LORD passed before him and cried out,
"The LORD, the LORD, a merciful and gracious God,
slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity."
Moses at once bowed down to the ground in worship.
Then he said, "If I find favor with you, O Lord,
do come along in our company.
This is indeed a stiff-necked people; yet pardon our wickedness and sins,
and receive us as your own."


Jn 3:16-18

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.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him.
Whoever believes in him will not be condemned,
but whoever does not believe has already been condemned,
because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.


Feast Day of God
Today is the feast day of God, in his name as “Holy Trinity”. The term, though limited, itself is the best that we have to express that mystery of one God yet there are three persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Fr. Ben Beltran, SVD, former Dogma professor of mine, long time parish priest of Risen Christ church in Smokey, Mountain (Balut, Tondo) telling in class of his survey on who is Santissima Trinidad. A number of his respondents from Smokey Mountain answered she was Aling Trining, the old seamstress on the block. Today, we use a more localized term, “Banal na Santatlo”.

Church Fathers and Trinity
Many preachers would be tempted to do apologetics on the how three divine persons are different yet the same nature of one God. Usually they use the analogy of three candles burning and when brought near to each other they would produce one flame. That is cute but crude and very simplistic explanation of a “mystery” that had preoccupied many great thinkers and writers of the early Church – the so-called Church Fathers. In the late fourth century A.D. the great Cappadocian Father, Gregory Nazanzien (329-389) wrote, “To speak of the Godhead, is I know, like crossing the ocean on a raft, or like flying to the stars with wings of narrow span. Even heavenly beings are unable to speak of God’s decrees or of his government of the world” (E. Bernecut, p. 74, italics mine).

In 1989, we were sailing on a small boat. It was storm signal no. 2 and we were in the sea between the islands of Ambulong and Iling (San Jose, Occidental Mindoro. The sea was extraordinarily rough, the waves gigantic. We wanted to go to a village in Iling island to celebrate mass. I was a seminarian then in regency, accompanying my parish priest, Fr. Ryu Ishikawa, an Japanese SVD missionary. After an hour of sailing, the boat sank. It was a blessing that some men from that village were fixing the roof a school saw us and rushed to bring us to the shore. That is the image that the Gregory Nazanzien wants us to remember when we speak of the Trinity – a dangerous sail on a small boat in a rough sea.

After this rhetorical warning, however, Gregory Nazanzien utters a prayer: “But enlighten my mind and loosen my tongue, Spirit of God, and I will sound aloud the trumpet of truth, so that we who are united to God may rejoice with their whole heart (p. 74).” Then he proceeds confidently to talk about God.
Theologians on God
Who is God? This is the question of the day. This is the preoccupation of theology (in Greek theos-logos = God-talk, hence “discourse about God” or “study of God”). Thanks to theologians who have helped us come to a better, broader, and reasonable understanding of who God is. I think here of St. Agustine and his book On the Trinity, St. Thomas’ five arguments for the existence of God in his Summa Theologica; modern theologians like Karl Rahner and his essay “The Trinity;” contemporary theologians like Hans Kung—Does God Exist?, Walter Kasper -- The God of Jesus Christ, and Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) -- God of Jesus Christ. For those not trained in theology, I recommend these two reader-friendly books on how monotheistic religions articulate the idea of God, Karen L. Amstrong, A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and Jack Miles, God: A Biography. I also recommend with a lot of caution to read the recent challenge of a respected scientist to belief in God, Richard Dawkins' God Delusion.

Gospel in a Nutshell: John 3:16
We do not even have to engage with theologians to come out with the best answer on the question of who God is. The liturgical readings for the Solemnity of the Holy Trinity suggest the most common yet the most profound answer to the question. The Gospel reading contains the most quoted verse from the Bible, John 3:16: 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” (NAB). This is “the Gospel in a nutshell”, as some commentaries put it. In fact, there is no need to interpret this verse – it is as “simple and gentle as 1+1=2.”

There are also many stories created about the inspiring John 3:16. One in particular relates a hardened criminal in prison and a persistent pastor determined to convert him. One cold evening, the prison’s fireplace ran out of wood. That prisoner told the pastor that he should give up his bible to help warm the place. The pastor agreed with one condition: the prisoner must read the pages first before burning them. The story ends with the hardened criminal’s repentance.

What happened? He testified later: “I read and burned Genesis, I read and burned Exodus, I read and burned Leviticus, etc. but when I came to John 3:16, I read and I was “burned”.

Thirteen Attributes of God: Exodus 34:6-7
There is no other more appropriate commentary on John 3:16 than in the first reading of today’s Liturgy particularly Exodus 34:6-7. For the Jews, these verses consist what they call the “Thirteen Attributes of God”. In these verses, we have too the Old Testament in a nutshell. From these verses we come to know fully who the God of Jesus is:
“The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation’” (NRSV)

Notice that “steadfast love” is mentioned twice. In Hebrew, it is only one word, hesed (sometimes spelled as chesed, pronounced as kesed) and it is at the center of these verses. Hesed is commonly translated in English as “steadfast love”, in most Tagalog translations, “wagas na pag-ibig” but best captured in the Ilocano word, "napudno." The Hebrew language has another word for “love”, “ahaba” which is commonly used to express affection especially love between husband and wife. Hesed is often used to describe the faithfulness of God to his covenant with Israel. We need then two English words to better capture the sense of this word, hence “steadfast love,” or better “faithful love” as the title of an old song goes (“My Faithful Love” sung by Ms. Pilita Corrales).

Why this solemn and touching affirmation of God as “merciful, forgiving, abounding in hesed?” In Exodus 32, we read the saddest and most shameful story of Israel – they make for themselves another god, a Golden Calf. They decide that YHWH is no longer their God; they even proclaim that YHWH is not the God who brought them out Egypt. Moses, in a kind of symbolic action, breaks the two tablets of the covenant. The covenant is broken, so too the relationship between YHWH and Israel. YHWH then decides to wipe them out but Moses intercedes for them. YHWH changes his mind. The question of the readers after Israel’s unfaithfulness would be: “Will God still be with his people? Or Will God still trust Israel as covenant partner? In the next chapter, Exodus 33, YHWH says he is no longer to be with the people in their journey to the Promised Land. God’s presence now is in danger. This is a critical moment of the story as well as critical moment of the life of Israel. Again, Moses makes an intercession for the people.

In this chapter (Exodus 34), YHWH, in kind of intimate conversation with God, tells Moses to cut two of tablets of stone so YHWH will write once again the words that were on the former tablets. And very early in the morning, on Mount Sinai, the LORD passes by Moses and proclaims what the Jews call the “Thirteen Attributes of God”. After this, the covenant is renewed. And from this time on, God will be known as the God of mercy and forgiveness.

When we think of the Holy Triune God, we remember that he is God who is abounding in hesed.

Meditation: Who is God for me? When was the last time I experienced God’s mercy in my life?

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