Why So Mysterious?


I was invited a few years ago to come and preach at another parish on Trinity Sunday. As he introduced me, the pastor mentioned that the Trinity was one of those subjects where the longer you talk the more likely you are to preach heresy. So here goes. 

The reason why it’s so difficult to talk about the Trinity is because the Trinity is one of the mysteries of our faith. When we talk about a mystery of the faith, we mean something that we know is true because God gave us that truth. There are many things that we know to be true by our natural powers of observation and our intellect. We can, using our brains, figure out a lot of the truths of our faith. But there are some that are just too magnificent, or too glorious, for us to understand by our own natural power. In believing mysteries, we confirm our belief in a god greater than ourselves.

The trinity is one of these mysteries. When we try to preach about the trinity we stumble over the apparent conflict between our claim that God is one and our faith is a monotheistic faith, and our claim that there are three persons in the one Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A rational person can ask a good question of how can three be one? You can see how it’s a bit difficult to evangelize when you start with a mystery like the trinity. Yet the doctrine of the trinity is central to the Catholic faith.

In a few minutes, Father is going to confect the Eucharist. This is another of the mysteries that are central to our faith. We as Catholics believe that when that man who was ordained to the priesthood says particular words over bread and wine, that bread and wine is no longer bread and wine but the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ. We acknowledge that it continues to look and taste like bread and wine, but we insist that its fundamental substance has changed. When we are challenged, we point to the 6th chapter in the Gospel of John for scriptural support.

Mysteries seem to end up in a declaration of faith. We declare mysteries are given to us by divine revelation, and that they are above our natural reason. Our natural reason works together with faith, and St. John Paul the Second wrote an entire encyclical devoted to explaining the relationship between faith and reason. But sometimes, we sound a bit like the bumper sticker that used to be popular among evangelical protestants: “He said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

Unfortunately, we are sometimes unsettled by these mysteries that are central to the faith. And I’d like us to consider today why God chooses to give us a faith that features mysteries as foundational teachings. Why does he make it so hard to preach and teach the central pillars of the Catholic faith?

I think perhaps God gives us mysterious doctrines like the Trinity in part to open our minds to thinking that is above and beyond our natural powers. When we stop approaching a mystery like it is a Sherlock Holmes mystery, then we are invited to open it as a revelation. The revelation behind the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life is that every human life is sacred to God. Every human, no matter how small and weak or how big and strong, is made by God and made in his image. That’s why we don’t take innocent human life even when we can make a practical case for doing so. The mysteries remind us our God is greater than practicality. He is God, and that settles it.

On Friday, we are going to have a procession to celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi. We are going to walk around the church property carrying a consecrated host to pay homage to the mystery of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. We are going to pray and ponder on the real presence of Jesus Christ in what continues to look like a wafer of bread.

This feast was proposed to the pope by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. Thomas was one of the greatest intellects in the history of the Church, and we still read from his writings today. Like all great intellects, St. Thomas knew there is a knowledge that is beyond and above our comprehension.

That supernatural knowledge is at the heart of the mystery of the Trinity and the mystery of the Eucharist. God gives us these mysteries to help us admit our limitations and to let him be God instead of trying to be God ourselves. We are constantly tempted by the Devil to think we have all the answers. God alone has the answers because God is the answer. When we struggle with a mystery, we should first recognize it is an invitation to spend some time in prayer on that mystery.

If we struggle with understanding the Trinity, perhaps we should spend some time in prayer asking ourselves why we think it’s so important that we completely understand the doctrine. I do not fully understand electricity, yet I am free to benefit from it every day of my life when I accept it as true. I don’t have an intellectual struggle over electrical polarity; I just plug my phone into the charger. But when it comes to matters of faith, for some reason I insist it all must make sense to me. Why is that, Lord?

I think the importance of mysteries in our teaching is to help us really approach God as his children. Children assume that if Dad says something, it is so. Children hear Dad’s voice as authoritative. Children see Dad as a protector. Then they hit adolescence, and suddenly Dad is the dumbest guy in the world. Mysteries help us get back to being spiritual children. We stop insisting that everything about the faith make perfect sense to us. We return to a sense of wonder about our heavenly father, just as when we were little kids Dad would surprise us in many wonderful ways.

When we approach God as his children, we let him be God and acknowledge that we are not God. When we acknowledge that he is God and that we are not God, then we are free to be obedient to our God and to serve our God. When we are obedient to God, and when we serve him according to his commandments, then we manifest him to a world that desperately needs to see him. When we approach God as his children, trusting in Him and obeying his commandments, then we are truly his servants. And in being truly his servants, we can share the good news of his love to those around us.

By not insisting that we fully understand the mystery of God, whether it is the mystery of the trinity or the mystery of the Eucharist, we find ourselves in a place where people can see God in how we live our lives. We discover that we are his evangelists, just living our lives according to how he wants us to live them. Our lives are the Christian witness. People will believe in him because they see that we believe in him, and they see how that faith informs and directs our lives. And they want what we have.

Our loving Heavenly Father loved us so much he sent his only Son into the world to save us by giving up his life for our sins. And the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, was sent to help us after Jesus ascended to his throne in Heaven. The trinity is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is Love, Love, and Love. In it we can trust, trust, trust – even if we cannot fully comprehend. In trusting in him, we will share him with others who want him and need him.

Receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Consume the body and blood of the Son. Pray to the Father. Dwell in the mystery of the Trinity.

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