In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. One of the first things that parents teach their kids about their faith is how to do the Sign of the Cross. You see mom grab their hands and dip it in the holy water, and then trace the Sign of the Cross as the kid either whines and refuses to be coerced, or proudly shows what they learned. The funny thing is that over time, we get a little sloppy with it. For example, when I was in preschool, I did what my parents called the “Sign of the Circle” where I would simply trace the circle over my body. Even as adults, we can fly through the Sign of the Cross without thinking about it. We sometimes act like we’re trying to set a speed record if we’re praying in public over our food. Or the other good one is that we can make one big word out of it – “FatherSonHolySpert”.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. How many times do we say that without thinking about it? I think today, of all the days of the year, is the day where we should think about it. Sometimes it’s easy to think about God as some kind of weird blob of unity. When we hear the phrase “God is love,” we just think, “Oh, you know, like the idea of love.” It’s just some sort of huge unintelligible thing that has this Jesus guy to help it out and sends this weird Spirit thing to make sure we do things the right way. Maybe that’s where the Sign of the Circle comes in. It’s just…blah…
But today, we don’t celebrate a God that is an ambiguity; today we celebrate a God that is a Trinity – three divine Persons and one divine Godhead. Christians don’t worship three distinct Gods, but one single being that is threefold, yet remains one. Jesus teaches us that they are distinct, even as he prays in today’s Gospel. He speaks about his “Father in heaven,” but he prays that He would send us the “Spirit of truth,” who is the love of the Father and the Son. One of the most commonly used symbols for the Trinity is the triangle. For all you mathematically minded people out there, we’ll use an equilateral triangle. It’s one shape, one triangle, but it has three distinct sides – equal in length, equal in quality, but distinct. Without one, it’s just an angle, but when they are bound together, it forms a triangle. In the same way, God is one, but He is three distinct divine persons. One is not greater than the other, nor one more powerful than the other, but each is essential. So when we pray the Sign of the Cross, we are invited to think about each of those persons individually. Not as a circle, and not as one single word foreign to the English language – FatherSonHolySpert – but as three distinct persons in that sign of the Cross. We mark ourselves with that, mindful of the way that each, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, have brought us to this place and are with us.
Now I know what you’re thinking – who really cares? To our modern, practical, “1+1=2” mind, this all seems too theoretical. We don’t really care for the theological distinctions. We might think that nobody really cares what our Sign of the Cross looks like – the important thing is that God loves me. But it’s important to remember that we didn’t get here on our own. In ages past, the Church defended these truths with her blood. In the first part of Church history, our biggest enemy was the Roman Empire, which tried for three hundred years to extinguish the faith with wave after wave of persecution. But when the persecutions died down, eventually Catholicism became the Empire’s most dominant religion. And when that happened, our biggest enemy changed. Isntead of coming from outside the Church, it came from inside – it was called heresy. That’s a word that we probably don’t think about much today, but it’s something that is incredibly divisive. The Devil loves this stuff – it’s like his favorite pastime. We like baseball; he likes perverting our Trinitarian understandings with heresy. To each his own. But it was during this time that the first and most important councils of our Church took place. We had to defend and clarify the most basic tenets of our faith, which even now we profess in the Creed. The early Church instinctively recognized something that today we rarely even think about: if our idea of God is wrong, then our idea of how to follow God and bring God to others will also be wrong. And so a whole generation of saints battled heresy to keep the Catholic idea of God pure.
One of those saints was St. Athanasius, the 4th century bishop of Alexandria in Egypt. He fought against the Arian heresy, which denied Christ’s divinity, and threatened to tear the Son out of the Trinity. This heresy tore at the heart of the Church for more than 100 years, and at some points, the majority of the world bought into it. But St. Athanasius was the anchor that supported the Church and held the faith in place. He suffered for it. He was imprisoned, slandered, framed, and even exiled five times. I mean, how do you get exiled five times. He probably had a good relationship with U-Haul. But he had to hide in the desert to escape from being murdered. And he did all that so that the Sign of the Cross and the words that we profess with it would have the meaning to us that it does today. He endured all of it to keep intact these “subtle theological distinctions” that the Church reminds us of today.
So why am I telling you this? So you can all go read St. Athanasius’ sermons or St. Augustine’s treatise De Trinitate? So that we can understand the Trinity perfectly? So that we can all learn to do the dang Sign of the Cross right, and heal me of that wound of knowing that the Sign of the Circle was like a childhood heresy? No. Ok, maybe a little. The Trinity is a mystery. This is not a nice way of saying that we will never understand it. It’s not something that we are too stupid to comprehend. A mystery, above all, is an invitation – to participate, and to imitate. When we see something about it, whether the unity of a diverse parish around a family suffering loss or the defense of the truth, that mystery draws us closer and calls us deeper into itself, so that we can embrace that mystery of the Trinity more fully – and it embrace us. Thinking or talking about the Trinity isn’t just for theologians or priests. It is for all of us, so that we can see the ways that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit work in our lives. So let us pray together with the whole Church – those gathered here today, those in our parish, and all throughout the world as we pray, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”