Maybe he said it, maybe not, but President Kennedy gets credit for it on coffee cups sold at the JFK library:
“There are three things that are real, God, human folly, and laughter; the first two things are beyond our comprehension, so we must do what we can with the third.”It’s an above average thought for your morning coffee. It also works for Trinity Sunday.
God the incomprehensible.
Folly the impenetrable.
Laughter the consoler.
Trinity Sunday, this year observed on May 27, was devised by the church fathers (I use the patriarchal term advisedly) as a counterpoint to Pentecost Sunday, when the Holy Spirit gets top billing. It’s our liturgical opportunity to think of God in Three Persons:
God the Creator.
Jesus the Redeemer.
Holy Spirit the Advocate.
The doctrine of the Trinity is a basic component of Christianity. A church has to be “Trinitarian” to qualify for membership in the National and World Councils of Churches, and the notion goes back to the fourth century.
The Nicene Creed, which sprung up in the east around 325 A.D., put it like this:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, of things visible and invisible.And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the begotten of God the Father, the Only-begotten, that is of the essence of the Father. God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten and not made; of the very same nature of the Father, by Whom all things came into being, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible. Who for us humanity and for our salvation came down from heaven, was incarnate, was made human, was born perfectly of the holy virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit …. We believe in the Holy Spirit, in the uncreated and the perfect; Who spoke through the Law, prophets, and Gospels; Who came down upon the Jordan, preached through the apostles, and lived in the saints.The notion recurs in the Apostle’s Creed around 390 A.D.:
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit … I believe in the Holy Spirit.The creedal language is metrical and beautiful. It makes you feel good to repeat it.
But understand it? Please. When was the last time you had to explain the Trinity to someone?
We’ve heard the sermons. The Trinity is the way we describe the three basic components of our relationship to God: creator, redeemer, advocate.
For 17 centuries, preachers have been devising ways to explain the Trinity to simple-minded heathens. St. Patrick, with no snakes to drive out of Ireland in the fifth century, is said to have used the three-leafed shamrock to explain the Trinity to locals. If so, he didn’t write about it, nor did anyone else until about 1726, so the legend appears to be as false as the analogy is weak.
If shamrocks don’t work, there is the classic cliché about the various roles we play in life. For example, I am a father, I am a son, I am a spouse – three different roles that call for three distinct presentations. Yet these roles do not require a trifurcation into three distinct Persons. The analogy doesn’t really help us understand the nature of the Holy Trinity. God in three persons? Why not one God with three personalities? That might work if all three personalities were spirit, but one is flesh. That factor tempts one to haiku (which tend to be more fun too write than to read):
as one in the same?
That’s where the concept becomes a conundrum, and because there are no instruments with which to take God’s true measure, the enigma deepens.
I was blessed, growing up, with three excellent pastors who succeeded one another in the United Church of Morrisville, N.Y. None of them held me accountable for comprehending the Trinity.
That was fortunate because I’ve never been able to fully figure out God or even ask an intelligent question that might bring me closer to an understanding.
I must have been 11 or 12 when I first wrestled with the concept of infinity. I put the question to my mother: “When did God begin?”
I’m sure Mom narrowed her eyes and squinted at me. She always squinted, in part because she loved questions like that and because by 1957 she was legally blind.
“Why don‘t we ask Mr. Irwin?” she suggested, referring to our pastor, Jack Irwin, whose intellect Mom respected.
Jack was an extraordinary pastor in what I once regarded as an ordinary hamlet in Central New York. During his pastorate in Morrisville he was preparing for his doctorate in philosophy at Syracuse University, so he probably thought of God in Kantian or Kierkegaardian terms, seasoned with occasional Nietzschean aphorisms.
But all he said to me, when I was 11, was, “God always is. There has never been a time when God wasn’t, and there never will be.”
That is one of two full sentences I can remember from 1957 (the other being a headline from My Weekly Reader that was almost as un-packable as the concept of the Trinity: “Welcome to the International Geophysical Year!”) so it clearly had an impact on my youthful brain.
As I said, Mother thought Jack was an intellectual marvel, which he was, but Dad often said Jack’s sermons went over his head. From my point of view in junior high and early high school, Jack was a matchless communicator. The Youth Fellowship highlight of every year was Halloween when we’d prop desiccated corn shocks in the corners of the Grange Hall, turn out the lights, and sit on the floor in the dark to listen to Jack’s scary tales. In a quiet Philadelphia-accented voice, Jack would combine menacing elements of urban legends with his own chilling adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe themes and scare the bejeezus out of us. His stories, which I am sure he made up as he went along, were amplified with spine-tingling details that placed horrific images in our heads for the rest of our lives. The three-dimensional zombies of modern cinema do not compare with Jack’s terrifying stories – which, incidentally, were an effective though atypical evangelical tool. Youth Fellowship became an essential place to be for the cooler Morrisville teens.
Back then it didn’t occur to me to wonder where Jack got all those frightening Halloween images. Then in 2002, he published a memoir about his World War II experiences (Another River, Another Town, a Teen Age Tank Gunner Comes of Age in Combat – 1945) that included sobering tales of combat and his eyewitness accounts of the liberation of the Nordhausen Concentration Camp. No doubt his accounts of horror in the old Grange hall paled in comparison to the horror in his head.
One of Jack Irwin’s hobbies was astronomy and Morrisville, with its northern exposure and dark winter nights, was ideal for telescopic stargazing.
One Sunday night, Jack showed the Youth Fellowship slides of planets, galaxies and nebulae he watched through his lenses. We watched transfixed as he showed us Saturn, 794 million miles from earth … the sun, 93 million miles from earth … Alpha Centauri, the closest star, 4.365 light years from earth … and galaxies so far away it would take a beam of earth light millions of years to reach it.
When the show was over and the lights were turned on, Jack leaned back in his chair and looked into our blinking eyes, one by one.
“How many of you,” he asked without drama, “have a concept of God that is as big as outer space?”
We answered with silence. Thanks to Jack, God the Creator suddenly seemed bigger to us than the white-bearded patriarch in the Michelangelo painting. In fact, God the Creator was suddenly beyond our intellectual grasp.
And that’s only one Person of the Trinity! What about the Second Person?
He was in the beginning with God,” writes John. “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. (John 1:2-3).
Here we are talking about Jesus. And the fact that Jesus was human just like us makes John’s observation as inexplicable as the God of unfathomable light years.
A lot of us find it hard to focus on the humdrum humanity of Jesus because it seems disrespectful. It’s like when Pope Paul VI had prostate surgery in 1967. The surgeons were loath to discuss the details, which might have included references to pontifical testicles and anuses, and – God and Onan forbid – might have led to hints that male masturbation could be a useful prophylactic against prostrate problems. That is far too human for comfort.
And if it’s hard to think of the pope as human, how much more forbidding is the humanity of Jesus? Imagine one sweltering Palestinian day you walk from Jericho to Jerusalem with Jesus. The sweat trickles down your cheeks. You and Jesus drink deeply at each waterhole on the journey, belching loudly as the cooling liquid soothes your gullets. And soon you and Jesus are stepping behind cedar trees to hoist your skirts and relieve yourselves. When you sit in the shade of an olive tree to rest, your robe sticks wetly to your back. Pungent underarm odor is rife, and it’s not only you; it’s radiating from Jesus, too.
If this seems a little sacrilegious, keep in mind that these are inescapable essentials of the human condition – and human is the modus operandi of the Incarnation.
Even so it’s not easy to sit next to stinky Jesus and think of him as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.
John F. Kennedy was correct when he said God – like human folly – is beyond our comprehension. When you try to figure it all out, perhaps the best analgesic is to simply laugh. It is simply beyond the capacity of our human brains to grasp the nature of the creator of universes, or to comprehend the infinite love with which God assumed mere human flesh as a device for human atonement. Thinking God’s thoughts is simply beyond us.
Thank God, then (so to speak), for the Third Person of the Trinity – the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that relieves us of the burden of trying to figure it all out.
“The Spirit of God is like our breath,” said Henri Nouwen. “God’s spirit is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. We might not often be aware of it, but without it we cannot live a ‘spiritual life.’”
The Holy Spirit does not vest us with answers or give us special insights into the mind of God. Yet it is the Person of the Trinity that dwells within us so intimately that it connects us intimately with God the Creator and God the Redeemer.
“It is the Holy Spirit of God who prays in us,” Nouwen writes, “who offers us the gifts of love, forgiveness, kindness, goodness, gentleness, peace and joy. It is the Holy Spirit who offers us the life that death cannot destroy.”
Just how the Creator God did it is not for us to know. And just how our brother Jesus, who shares all our glands and bunions, was present at Creation is not for us to understand.
But the Holy Spirit who dwells within each of us is the perfect connector that binds our hearts and souls (and occasionally our minds) with the Triune God.
And perceiving that, as Brother Thomas Merton said, does not require intensive brain power.
It simply requires us to be silent until, in the intimacy of our solitude, the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit will write its wonders on our hearts.