Sermon for the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity
Father Richard G. Cipolla
I have always loved those diagrams of the Holy Trinity in the form of an equilateral triangle. When I taught geometry I was never much interested in the practical applications and problems that had a numerical answer. I always loved the proofs, their elegance, their almost supernatural quality that never depended on calculations but rather on clear thinking and use of axioms. In those wonderful diagrams of the Holy Trinity as an equilateral triangle, the Father is at the top of the triangle, the Son at the left bottom and the Holy Spirit at the right bottom. And the word God is in the center of the triangle.
And from the center radiate three angle bisectors with the word IS. The Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God. The three sides of the triangle have the words NON EST between the two apices. The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit is not the Father. EST and NON EST. two seemingly contradicting statements and yet contradiction is impossible in God. Est and non est point to the heart of the mystery of the Trinity, that understanding of God that is sui generis, that no other faith has, that God is one and God is community within himself, and that the relationships in this community are defined by words that are taken from a human understanding of basic relationships within a family.
The Christian understanding of God depends on relationships within God and these relationships define who God is. The very words “father” and “son” require an understanding of a relationship, a relationship that is not general but rather the special and specific relationship between a father and a son. And these are terms that come from a relationship within a human family. While one can define father and son in an objective way as he who begets and he who is begotten, the relationship between father and son is different from the relationship between a father and daughter, although the daughter is begotten of the father. And this is because, at least in the family, the son is a man and the daughter is a woman, and the quality of those relationships are different. They are both founded on love and its necessary element of obedience. But these relationships are essentially different because the persons in the relationship are essentially different, because maleness and femaleness, while complementary, are essentially different. While they share humanity itself and are grounded in this humanity, human sexuality has an ontological grounding that involves the deepest identity of the person.
Now when we use the terms Father and Son in naming the first two persons of the Trinity, we are in no way attributing to each of them maleness in the human sense. But the doctrine of the Trinity is an understanding of God that comes from human experience, the experience of the Jews from the patriarchs onward, and then the experience of Christ himself and those who had relationships with him on earth, and then the experience of the apostles and Mary at Pentecost. The Trinitarian invocations we see in the letters of St. Paul show us how very early the Trinitarian understanding of God really is, and once again, this is not from a statement of an Ecumenical Council, albeit the early Councils certainly hammered out the doctrine, but rather from how Christians experienced God in faith, hope and love.
But the meaning of the persons of the Trinity cannot be separated from what father and son have meant in human culture. Human cultures of every type through millennia have always understood human sexuality as a given element in the human person, that maleness and femaleness are ontological properties of the human being, ontological here meaning concerning their very being. And that those properties are properly complementary in the deepest possible ways including marriage and sexual relations. And every culture has always recognized that there were sexual aberrations and understood them precisely as that. But we are living in a time when there is an outright denial of the ontological nature of human sexuality and therefore of sexual relationships and most importantly, marriage. One can only wonder at the speed of this rejection of the objectivity of human sexuality and the acceptance of what most people would understand as aberration or perversion as normal in the sense that there is no normal in a world where sex becomes gender and gender is defined as something fluid that can be changed on the basis of how one feels at a particular time in one’s life. The fierceness with which the liberal media and the self-proclaimed intelligentsia of this country and in much of the Western world have forced this gender foolishness on everyone is truly breathtaking. And now we have the government forcing this agenda down everyone’s throats, using withholding federal funds as blackmail against the few states who refuse to succumb to this perversely subjective nonsense. And all of this in the name of freedom and justice as perversely understood by a profoundly selfish and self-absorbed generation.
Can one hope that those who lead the Church, the bishops, the successors to the Apostles, the chief teachers in the Church, are gathering to respond intelligently and faithfully to this crisis in human self-understanding and which is contrary to the basic Christian understanding of sex, human relations and marriage? So far the silence is deafening. They were asleep when Roe v. Wade was promulgated. Are they asleep now or do they fear that the Christian understanding of human sexuality and marriage is indeed outdated and must be updated in light of what the world is now telling us is true? Perhaps our teachers should again read what Jesus has to say about the chattering of the world in the Gospel of John.
Why am I preaching about this on Trinity Sunday when the sermon should be some harmless ferverino about the unfathomable mystery of the Trinity that is so unfathomable that there is really nothing to say about it? Because do you see that the doctrine of the Trinity, that is, the Christian understanding of God, is not compatible with a view of human identity and relationships that are entirely fluid and that in the end father and mother are in a real sense interchangeable and that son and daughter are interchangeable depending on the perception of the moment on the particular person involved? In this way of thinking it really is possible to talk about God as Mother, Daughter and Spirit. Or Father, Daughter and Spirit. Or any combination or permutation of the same.
When the second person of the Holy Trinity, the Logos, the Word, the Son begotten by the Father, became flesh, he was a man, with all that that means. But that is the problem we must face. With all that means. The Incarnation cannot mean anything if Christ’s maleness is not an ontological element of his humanity. If his maleness is an accident, that God flipped a coin to see whether the Word would be enfleshed as male or female, then the gender purveyors are right, at least in a sense. Maleness and femaleness have no ultimate meaning. And then there is no way to uphold the Christian understanding of marriage as between a man and a woman based on Jesus’ own words in the Gospels. It is interesting that those who consider themselves progressives in the Episcopal College and who are itching to get beyond the Christian understanding of marriage in the name of mercy never refer in any way to Jesus’ words that are the basis of Christian marriage.
But this does not concern only the doctrine of the Trinity and marriage. It concerns the understanding of the priesthood. If Christ’s maleness has no ultimate meaning and if human sexuality is reduced to gender that is fluid and subjective, then the understanding of the priesthood can be changed to fit this new way of looking at things. The priest who offers the Sacrifice of the Mass stands in persona Christi, in the person of Christ. If person has nothing to do with maleness and femaleness, if the latter are only accidentals, so to speak, then a woman can re-present a man, a woman can be the image, the icon of Christ, who just happened to be a man.
But we must return on this Trinity Sunday to what the Trinity is all about: it is about the God who is Love. The God we believe in is one God who is a community of love, a community of love that can never be reduced to functions, or roles, or anything based on mere human perceptions. The Father lets the Son be, the Son lets himself be-ed by the Father and this letting- be is bound by the bond of love that is the Holy Spirit.
Let me end this sermon by a poem that understands all of this much more than this torrent of words in a sermon that is too full of words.
Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.