Trinity Sunday: the most significant day in the liturgical calendar | Jeff Nowers | June 16, 2019
What is the most significant day of the liturgical year? Christmas? Good Friday? Easter? Pentecost? All of these days are significant. But they’re also situated in a narrative, in the larger story of the liturgical year, that has a certain logical climax, a culmination. I’d like to make an argument that the climax is today, Trinity Sunday. The trajectory of the entire liturgical year—from Advent to Christmas, from Lent to Easter to Pentecost—all of it points to today, Trinity Sunday.
What is the story of the liturgical year? It’s really the story of God—how God’s own life is revealed among us, so that we and all of creation might be transformed, reconciled and united with God. It’s a story that begins each year with Advent, the season of longing. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that all humans, regardless of where they might be on the religious or spiritual spectrum, long for Wisdom, for reconciliation, for peace. I’m not just referring to an existential longing, a search for metaphysical clarity and meaning. Some people are vexed to no end by questions like “Why am I here?” and “What’s the meaning of life?”, and I’m one who can relate to that. But many others are bewildered by more immediate concerns—such as how they can get through tomorrow, the challenges of exercising compassion, and whether a career change might be in order. All of us long for deeper clarity; we long to know how it is we ought to live. We long to be reconciled with the source of all life. And that source is what the Christian tradition has named as God the Father. This isn’t a sentimentalized daddy figure in the sky, or a projection of what ultimate fatherhood should be. (The irony of Trinity Sunday in 2019 is that it falls on Father’s Day, which can domesticate and obscure a proper understanding of the fatherhood of God.) Our ultimate longing, I think, is to be one with the source of all things—to begin to grasp the big picture of what the cosmos is, and to exist with confidence that we can live in peace and harmony with any and all things we encounter.
Christmas is God’s response to that longing. Christmas is the gift of Emmanuel—God with us. “Does not wisdom call?” asks our first reading from Proverbs. Yes. It calls to us through the words, and in the life, of Jesus. The Christian tradition has claimed for centuries that Jesus is the human face of God, the personification of divine Wisdom. That’s not to gloss over the intense debates Christians have waged about what that means. But in the final analysis, Christians believe that Jesus’ proclamation of Good News—indeed, his very life that ended in a tragic execution—is the basis of how we, and our world, might be transformed and renewed with the radiance of God. Jesus shows us who God is by inviting us into a way of life of simplicity, of sharing, of love.
The Way of Jesus isn’t easily embraced. That’s why as we begin to journey with Jesus after Christmas, we are brought to the 40-day season of Lent. This is when we reflect on our own mortality and complicity in our broken world. The challenge we’re faced with on Good Friday is how to make sense of God-with-us but now hanging on a cross. Is God with us after all? Holy Saturday is the lowest point in the story of God.
But Easter changes everything. Jesus conquers death by rising from the tomb to new life. And he appears to his confused followers hiding out in secluded places, transforming their doubts and sorrows into great joy. But the risen Jesus doesn’t continue to make such appearances. The new life that his resurrection inaugurates is not so much focused on his individual physical body. It is rather about his followers, like you and me, receiving power to do even greater works than he did—which, when we read through John’s Gospel, is exactly what Jesus says will happen.
That brings us to where we arrived last week: Pentecost. Pentecost is about the fire of God, God’s Holy Spirit, coming upon all those who desire to follow the Way of Jesus, just as it descended on Jesus himself at his baptism. It is the fire of God’s very being transforming our humanity so that our life might be united with God’s own life.
And so we arrive finally at today, the first Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday. This is when we reflect on the journey of the liturgical year, from our Advent longing all the way to the gift of the Holy Spirit. But it’s not so much our journey; it’s about God’s story: God the source of all being—the one the creed identifies as Father—embodied in the human person of Jesus, the one the creed calls Son of God. As we know, the political powers are threatened by everything Jesus represents, indeed by who he is, and they execute him. But God triumphs in the resurrection of Jesus. And then the power of God is poured out in the world through the Holy Spirit who, according to today’s Gospel, will guide us into all truth.
God the Father: source of all being; God the Son: God-with-us redeeming our humanity; God the Holy Spirit: life-giving power. The Holy Trinity. Why do we celebrate it? We can learn something, I think, from our Orthodox sisters and brothers of the Eastern churches. In their calendar, today is not called Trinity Sunday but All Saints Day. They celebrate the lives of all those in whom God’s Spirit has moved and done amazing things to show us what a new creation looks like, here and now. So today is a celebration of what God has done, is doing, and will do to illuminate all the saints, known and unknown, with a divine radiance so that we may be enveloped in that light and so overcome the darkness of fear and alienation in our world.
The story of God the Holy Trinity, as it is lived out repeatedly through the logic of the liturgical year, is the story that shapes and situates our own lives. Some of us, depending on our personal circumstances, might linger at different points in the story, whether the longing of Advent, the hope of Christmas, the challenge of Lent, the anguish of Good Friday, the joy of Easter, or the empowerment of Pentecost. That’s to be expected, which is why we need to go through the cycle of the liturgical year, again and again. We need it to push us along so we don’t get stuck in any one place and lose sight of the goal. The point of all of it, in the end, is to become immersed in the story of God and so live into the realization of Jesus’ own words: “All that the Father has is mine. For this reason the Spirit will take what is mine and declare it to you.”