THE TRINITY: LIVING IN THE FAMILY OF GOD
By Deacon Keith A Fournier
(c) Third Millennium, LLC
The Trinity is a deeper truth of the Christian faith, a "mystery" - in the theological sense. The word is derived from the Greek "mysterion". It is not meant to connote, as the western mind would think, a puzzle to be solved. Rather, the word speaks to a truth so profound in its implications that words alone can neither describe nor grasp what it means. Rather, it grasps us in its embrace and we change through the encounter.
The Trinity is so profound a mystery that even the great theologians, mystics and saints of Christianity have only touched its deepest meaning. They all readily acknowledge that its deepest implications will only be "grasped" in the "beatific vision", a term that in western Christian theology refers to the final moment when, in the words of John the beloved disciple: "...we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is" (1 John 3:3)
The heart of the Christian faith - and the real reason that those who have embraced its relational invitation should be motivated to share it with others - is not, in the first instance, to "save" them from hell (which literally means "separation" from God). Rather our missionary instinct and actions are to be motivated by love.
We believe that every man, woman and child on the face of the earth has been freely invited into an eternal communion of love with the God who is Love, for all eternity through His Son Jesus Christ. Because we believe that, we should want only the highest good for all men and women. We should want them to have all that God has for them, to be a part of His family.
The Christian faith reveals that this perfect Love who is God is more than a principle, a theory or a series of doctrinal statements -though mature reflection upon Him of necessity has led to all of these. He is a "family" - a community of persons whose perfect love for each other is itself a perfect unity.
The Christian tradition calls this the Trinity.
The Trinity, communion and dance
Coming to "understand" the Trinity is an eternal invitation, but beginning to comprehend the implications of this truth of revelation leads us on the road to coming to understand another vital theological truth, the meaning of the word "communion". This deep theological concept called Communion also lies at the heart of coming to grasp the mystery of the Church. In fact, it is the path to understanding the very meaning of human existence itself.
We are invited, through Jesus Christ, to live in the Trinity and the Trinity in us -this is the theology of communion.
It begins with the profound insight that within God there is a community, a "family" of Divine Persons whose perfect love is perfect unity! Understandably, such a concept is not easily expressed with the limitations of our language.
In reflecting on this "intra-Trinitarian" (within the Trinity) relationship of perfect love and perfect unity between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the great writers of Eastern Christianity referred to the dynamic nature of this relationship with a Greek word "perichoresis".
This word has no literal English translation. Perhaps the best colloquial or popular rendering would be "dance." (Peri - around; Chorea - dance; Perichorea - To dance around....) "Perichoresis" is the Divine Dance of perfect love occurring eternally between the Persons of the Trinity!
This concept is also hard for many Westerners to grasp. This is particularly true for those who have been influenced by what I call "dis-incarnated" views of the human person that all too often present living a life of faith as though it means having no "fun", celebration or enjoyment in life.
In this kind of narrow understanding of Christianity, dance or many other human joys that are experienced bodily, are considered "carnal" and therefore "evil". How sad. In fact, it is worse than sad. It misses another profound claim of Christian faith that the body is more than a carrying case. We are our bodies. The Christian faith proclaims boldly that we who believe in Jesus Christ and are baptized into new life in Him will be resurrected, bodily!
Nothing could be further from the revelation of relationship found in the great spiritual writers and mystics of the Christian tradition than a kind of "dis-incarnated" bodi-less Christianity. Dance is a dynamic way of expressing a relationship between persons. The spiritual life is like a dance! In fact, this "dance" of self giving love is already underway within the inner life of God. This is the Trinity. We are invited to the celebration!
One biblical insight into this beautiful understanding of both the life of God within (and our own lives) is found in the Gospel of John 14:10-11 where Jesus says:
"Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me;"
Jesus is claiming a unity with His Father that is beyond the categories we live in. Yet, it is to this very relationship that He later refers in His prayer to His Father before His death. In this mystical prayer, He prays that we actually enter into that relationship by entering into Him:
"My prayer is not for them alone, I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me." (John 17:20 and 21)
How then do we enter into or "live" in Him?
Coming into the family
We begin our life in this family through our Baptism, which is"incorporation", a sacramental entry into the Church, which is the Body of Christ on earth. This constitutes a "new birth" wherein we are inserted into this relationship with Jesus Christ - and through Him - with the Trinity- and in Him with one another. Our very participation in the life of God begins in the new womb of the holy mother Church, the Baptismal font.
That participation continues throughout our lives as we cooperate with grace. That life, the Christian life, is like a dance and leads finally to our eternal communion with the Trinitarian God.
This Greek term "perichoresis" is also associated in theological writings with another term, "circumincession." This theologically dense concept is equally as cryptic as it is revelatory.
Circumincession, (also a word found primarily within the Eastern Christian mystical tradition), refers to the belief that each of the Divine Persons of the Blessed Trinity are so deeply in love with each other that they have perfect unity with one another. They give themselves to one another in love.
They interpenetrate the other - each of them "in-dwell" within each other. All of this without losing their own uniqueness! It is here within this context that we begin to grasp the claim that Jesus made to his followers that to have seen Him they had already seen the Father. (John 14:9)
So, "perichoresis" refers to an infinite, intimate, loving flow of gift between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each fully receiving and giving to and from the other. It is a dynamic, not static, reality. And, "Circumincession", reveals the uniquely Christian claim that that all three members of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, inhere or exist within each other in a perfect unity that maintains their perfect distinction!
Well, how does that all affect us? How can all of this relate to our own daily lives? How can we participate in the dance?
The Path of Prayer
Only through prayer can we begin to even grasp the implications of this insight for our own lives. Prayer is the conversation, the path of relationship and intimacy. It is particularly difficult for the western mind to grasp this all because we cannot grasp God. In fact, we are grasped by Him through grace!
This is a key to the very meaning of the inner dynamic life of God and how we are invited into communion with Him. The Trinitarian persons of the One God are in perfect "communion" with one another! They love each other so fully and completely that they are one.
As members of the family of God we are actually invited into that love. The spiritual life is about an invitation to a song, a dance, an intimate, dynamic, growing, living, breathing, transforming relationship of love that has existed for all eternity in God. We are transformed by grace so that we become "sons (and daughters) in the Son."
Many of the greatest of the early Church Fathers, such as Irenaeus and Athanasius, wrote eloquently of this "participation" in the life of the Trinity through Jesus Christ. This participation of human beings in the very life of the Trinity through incorporation into Christ is often expressed in the famous patristic adage "God became man that man may become God."
In the Eastern Christian tradition this exchange is referred to by the term "deification" or "theosis". Understandably, without solid theological and spiritual grounding, it could be misunderstood. Perhaps, that is a part of the reason the terminology fell out of use in Western Christianity after the unfortunate "divorce" that occurred within in the One Church in 1054 A.D.
Unfortunately, the Orthodox still generally claim that western Christians split from the unity of the One Church and western Christians still generally claim the Orthodox did. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we put as much energy into recovering our communion as we have in justifying our division?
Perhaps then we would see the fulfillment of the High Priestly prayer of the One Christ whom we follow "Father, may they be One in us....so that the world may believe... ." (St. John 17)
A worldview and a mission
Flowing from this patristic understanding of the Christian life as a dynamic process of transformation in Christ and incorporation in the life of God flowed a worldview, a way of viewing how Christians were to participate in the created order.
Far from the mistaken escapisms that still abound in many segments of Christianity, this worldview called for Christians to continue the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ in the real world and the created order. Christians were to see themselves as co-responsible for the recapitulation of the whole creation for union with God in and through their participation in the very life of God and life in His world.
This is part of what is meant by a "communion" view of Christian mission. It is a "eucharistic" view of the role of humanity in the wonder of creation.
In the actual text of the oldest Liturgy of Christianity, at the Eucharistic offering, the priest proclaims that the offering of Jesus is "for the life of the world" (liturgy of John Chrysostom; cf. John 6:51). That sense of offering oneself for the life of the world, in Jesus, lies at the heart of understanding the Christian mission and the meaning of life itself.
We are all invited into that communion through baptism into Jesus Christ! The "dance" of our relationship with Him and in Him and for Him continues through our participation in life in the Church, which is His Body. The Church now extends its circle of invitation through our participation in the world which will one day become His "kingdom". (See, Revelations 11:15).
We are invited into the complete union of love with God and in Him, with one another! This experience begins now in our daily 'ordinary" lives and will only reach its consummation in the life to come where we will be fully given over to God in this "dance", this dynamic life of love.
The invitation to this dance is the meaning and goal of the spiritual life. Our response to God's invitation to the dance opens us up to the very core of the meaning of our human existence!
Conclusion: Joining the dance
The theological concepts discussed in this article are what theologians often call "dense" propositions. Yet, when we begin to grasp them through faith they can become a roadmap and a tremendous gift. The only way that can occur is through living lives of dynamic faith rooted in real prayer.
Only if we pray we can begin to make them our own by faith and begin even now to live in the family of God.
Deacon Keith A Fournier is the Editor in Chief for Catholic Online and a founder, along with Mike and Sandy Galloway, of the Your Catholic Voice movement. He serves as the President of the Your Catholic Voice Foundation.
Your Catholic Voice is a movement to promote faithful citizenship based on the fundamental truths of the Catholic Church relating to Life, Family, Freedom and Solidarity. For information go to Your Catholic Voice
Catholic Online Publications
http://www.catholic.org CA, US
Deacon Keith Fournier - Editor in Chief, 661 869-1000
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