Ars praedicandi: Trinity Sunday, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

There are many possible motivations
for joining in this live-stream liturgy from Old St. Pat’s today.

Some of you are taking this opportunity to reconnect
with a beloved faith community,
old friends,
even distant family members
who are sharing in this moment of digital communion
from various locations.

Others of you might be looking for a moment of reassurance,
of tranquility,
maybe even of reverence
in these tumultuous and decidedly irreverent times.

And, maybe more than usual, many might be looking for meaning
for a way of discerning a thoughtful path,
appropriate just action,
or even the very presence of God
in what could appear to be a godless moment
in our national narrative.

Whatever your personal or religious quest, however,
you might find the feast that the church presents us today
a little baffling, possibly mystifying
or maybe even disappointing.

Trinity Sunday is not a feast
that necessarily stirs the heart,
fires the imagination,
or inspires religious fervor
like an Easter, or Pentecost,
or even a St. Patrick’s day in certain quarters.

Maybe if this was “End Racism” Sunday,
or “Stop the violence” Sunday,
or “Eradicate Prejudice” Sunday,
or even “No More George Floyds” Sunday,
there might be a little more enthusiasm
for what otherwise sounds like a feast
right out of the pages of some stuffy catechism
or obscure theology book.

But maybe, just maybe, if we dig deeply enough
we might discover that this mystical liturgy,
this shapeshifter of a feast,
is actually “Stop the violence” Sunday,
is “Eradicate Prejudice” Sunday,
and yes, even is “No More George Floyds” Sunday
under the guise of the Trinitarian mystery.

One image that often comes to mind for me about this feast
is from a now defunct exam
formerly given at All Souls College in Oxford
as part of the application process for that college.

This particular exam was all focused on a “single word”
yes … a 3 hour essay on a single noun!

Offered annually since 1932 until it was discontinued in 2010,
the unveiling of the word was once such a noteworthy event
that non-applicants gathered outside the college each year
waiting for news of “the word” to waft out.

Applicants themselves discovered the word
by flipping over a single sheet of paper
and seeing it printed there, all alone
as one writer aptly described it:
like a tiny incendiary device.

While applicants endured 12 hours of written exams
over the previous two days,
it is the “one-word” essay that candidates remember best.
Historian Robin Briggs describes his 1964 essay innocence
as “an exercise in showmanship
to avoid answering the question.” [1]

Preaching on this Trinity Sunday also threatens to be
an exercise in homiletic showmanship,
the preacher dancing around
this almost impenetrable mystery
without broaching much less answering
a series of pointed, even blunt questions, such as:
who really cares about Trinity Sunday? Or,
what difference does today’s liturgy really make?
Or what on earth does this feast have to do
with racial injustice,
with the divide between law enforcement
and the citizens they are to protect and serve
or with the unquenched rage
that is erupting on our streets?

An easy way out is for the preacher
simply to parrot lines from today’s readings,
for example,
that all we need to do is to believe,
as the gospel directs,
that we should give each other a holy kiss,
as St. Paul instructs,
or that we must bow down in worship,
as does Moses in the first reading.
Then all will be right with God, and this sacred festival honored.

Such parroting, however, misses the theological imperative
sitting there like a mystical incendiary device
as we confront the explosive mystery of the Trinity.

Now you might be scratching your head
questioning how this charming dogma,
the happy community of Father, Son and Spirit,
could possibly be inflammatory, incendiary, or explosive.

We’ve seen the classic Trinitarian images
of Father and Son regally enthroned in heaven
while basking in the Spirit’s light, [2]
or the classic icon by the great Russian painter Andrei Rublev [3]
of three handsome angels
gathered around a table, blessing a cup.
Those seem anything but incendiary
and light years away from providing any credible response
to the current tumult.

Quite frankly, the last thing we need at this moment
is leadership in heaven or on earth
placidly gathered around a table
or sitting on a throne from afar
unengaged in this life and death struggle for justice.

There are other images of the Trinity, however,
that might more effectively disclose something
of the incendiary nature of this doctrine and feast
and nudge this liturgy of the church
into closer dialogue with the tormented liturgies
unfolding on our city streets.

There is, for example, the image of the Trinity
painted in the tradition of the Crow people by John Giuliani. [4]
In this depiction Christ wears a warrior shirt
of ermine skins,
indicating that he is an “old-time warrior
who has captured his enemy’s gun.”
How’s that for incendiary?
Jesus as a gun-capturing warrior …
shielded by a warrior wise father
and enfolded in the wings of a sacred eagle and Great Spirit.
Now there’s an image of the Trinity that fires my imagination
and prompts not only reflection,
but a distinctive call to action.

More sobering, however, is the Trinitarian image
by the Italian Renaissance painter Taddeo Crivelli [5]
in which the entire Trinity seems suspended on the cross:
a virtually crucified Trinity on a blood red background
embracing the sacrifice of the only-begotten

This Trinitarian image recalls the execution of an innocent man
and places the Father and Spirit
as eternal witnesses to this inhumanity
sanctioned by legitimate local governmental authority of the time
and witnessed by a throng of enthusiastic bystanders.

As Crivelli theologizes in parchment and paint,
Jesus did not die alone on the cross,
for the Father and Spirit were nailed there with him.
The unity of Father, Son and Spirit
thus was not sundered by crucifixion,
but welded even more fiercely together in that brutal moment
captured in this cosmic family portrait.

And in that holy crucible,
as blood and water poured from the side of Christ,
a movement in baptism and eucharist was born,
a way to authentic life was inaugurated,
and a church was birthed
whose only redemptive road
for those who dare to make the baptismal journey
is through the messiness of humanity,
through the trials and challenges
that purify us in God’s scorching spirit.

We are a stiff necked people, as Moses proclaims,
a society marked by goodness and grace
but also by wickedness and sin,
arrogance and power mongering,
racism and injustice.

And like the Father and the Spirit,
no matter what the color of our skin
or our national origin,
by taking on the baptismal garment
we are all nailed to the cross of prejudice and inequality.
And when one Emmett Till dies,
or a Michael Brown,
or an Eric Garner,
or a Trayvon Martin,
or a Laquan McDonald,
or a George Floyd,
each created in the image of God,
when one dies, the whole body of Christ suffers.

And in that suffering
another movement must be born again,
Christianity need be renewed
and the promise of resurrected human dignity for all
must be restored.

Paul warns the followers of Jesus in his time
that they must mend their ways and learn to live in peace.
That admonition is greatly amplified today.

Our Catholic-Christian faith is not a shield against racism
nor is it a symbol to hide behind in these heart wrenching times.

Rather it is a mandate for action
a call to stand with Christ the spiritual warrior
replacing the guns with hospitality,
the violence with empathy,
the prejudice with respect,
and over all of these, embodying a spirit of selfless love.

Catherine LaCugna, in her now classic exploration of the Trinity
presents the three-in-one God as a God who is “for us.”
For LaCugna the doctrine of the Trinity is not some fancy theory
but has practical implications for Christian life,
an understanding of Trinity
that demands “living God’s life with one another.” [6]

This means mirroring the mutuality
the all-embracing personhood,
the eternal respect,
the divine care for every child of God,
that is the very definition of this three-in-one holiness.

And so I come to a final image of the Trinity:
a literary image from the Italian poet Dante
who in the final canto of his Divine Comedy
brings the reader into the presence of God.
Bathed in light in the ascent into paradise
everything in the universe is connected in love.
Then 3 circles of identical dimensions appear,
each with its own color,
a striking image of unity and diversity.
But maybe, most incendiary,
at the center of the 2nd circle, the Christ
is painted la nostra effige, [7]
the human image and likeness.
Humanity, itself, is taken up into divinity
and the face of each child of God,
the face of every George Floyd and Emmett Till,
is eternally embedded in the Trinity.

God has made a covenant with us in Christ
that this holy Three-in-Oneness
will be forever for us, and forever be with us.
That covenantal commitment, however,
makes a startling, incendiary demand of us creatures,
that we be not only faithful to God
but that we commit ourselves to be forever
faithful each other,
la nostra effige,
living an eternal one-ness
with each human being
and honoring them as God’s own continuing incarnation.

As we pray for peace and reconciliation in these troubling times,
we also commit ourselves, as the poet muses,
to be for and with each other,
to go wherever the other must travel,
to witness their dying and their rising,
and through it all never, never leave them alone, [8]
through Christ our Lord. Amen.


Featured Images courtesy of  The Associated Press 

[1]Sarah Lyall, “Oxford Tradition comes to this: ‘Death’ (Expound),”
[6]Catherine LaCugna, God For us: The Trinity and Christian Life (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 411.
[7] Dante,
Paradiso, Canto 33, line 131.
 Rory Cooney, “Covenant Hymn.” 

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