At the baptism of Jesus Christ all the three persons of the Blessed Trinity manifested themselves; the Father by a voice from heaven, the Son through His baptism, and the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove (Matt. iii. 16).
1. The Blessed Trinity is one God in three persons.
The three persons are called Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
The number three is often found both in nature and in religion. There are three persons in the Holy Family; three parts in the sacraments (intention, matter, and form); Our Lord hung for three hours on the cross, and remained three days in the grave. He taught on earth for three years, and has the triple office of Prophet, Priest, and King. So in time there are past, present, and future; three kingdoms in creation, the material, the vegetable, and the animal worlds. The number four is also of frequent occurrence; there are four gospels, four cardinal virtues, four seasons of the year, four thousand years from the Fall to the Incarnation, etc. The number seven is also common; there are seven days of the week, seven sacraments, seven works of mercy, seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, seven sacred orders ending in the priesthood, etc. Three is sometimes called the number of God, four the number of the world, by reason of the four continents, and seven represents the combination of the two.
2. We cannot, with our feeble understanding, grasp the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity, and it is therefore called a mystery.
We are unable to comprehend that there are three persons in God, yet only one God. He who gazes at the sun is dazzled by it; if he continues to gaze at it he loses his sight. So is it with the Blessed Trinity; he who inquires into it is dazzled. He who refuses to believe in it because he does not understand it, is like a blind man, who will not believe in the existence of the sun because he cannot see it. How many things there are in nature that we cannot understand! We cannot understand the growth of plants, trees, and animals; we cannot understand the nature of electricity and magnetism. We cannot understand how the color red is formed by the vibration of the ether at the rate of one hundred and thirty millions of vibrations in a second, or violet by double that number. To count the vibrations of the ether that take place in one second in the forming of the color violet, we should have to go on counting for more than ten thousand years without ceasing either day or night. Much less can we understand what belongs to God. Jeremias says, “Great art Thou, O Lord, in counsel, and incomprehensible in thought” (Jer. xxxii. 19). “No one understands what Thou art, O God, except Thou Thyself.” We can, however, understand something of the nature of the Blessed Trinity by comparing it with certain facts of nature which in some way correspond to and illustrate it. The flames of three candles placed together form but one flame; the white light can be divided into red, yellow, and blue rays, which, however, together form but one light. The orb of the sun, its light, and its heat, are three different things, which are at the same time really one. The soul of man contains memory, understanding, and will, which are but different manifestations of the same spiritual substance. Yet all these are but imperfect analogies, and cannot carry us very far in attempting to understand something of the in comprehensible mystery of the Blessed Trinity. Unbelievers sometimes say: “How is it possible that three can be one, and one three?” They show that they do not know what the teaching of the Church really is. “They blaspheme those things that they know not” ( Jude 10) . The Church does not say there are three persons and one person, but there are three persons, and one nature or essence.
3. The nature, the attributes, and the works of the three persons of the Blessed Trinity are common to all of them.
There are therefore not three gods, but one God.
The Father is therefore different from the Son, because He is a different person; but He has not a different being, because He has the same nature.
For this reason each of the three persons is, in exactly the same sense, omniscient, omnipotent, eternal, and absolutely perfect, as are the other two.
When Our Lord spoke of His return to the Father, He said, “My Father is greater than I” (John xiv. 28). Here He was speaking of Himself as man; else He could not have spoken of His return to the Father.
Hence the creation of the world, the redemption and the sanctification of men is wrought by all the three divine persons together.
Yet we are accustomed to say: “The Father made the world, the Son redeemed it, and the Holy Ghost sanctifies it.”
4. The three divine persons are divided only in their origin.
In a tree the trunk comes forth from the root, and from both comes the fruit. Such is the relation between the three divine persons.
God the Father has no origin and proceeds from no other person; God the Son proceeds from the Father; God the Holy Ghost proceeds both from the Father and from the Son.
In order to mark the order of procession, we name the Father first, the Son second, and the Holy Ghost third. But there is no succession in time; the Son proceeds from the Father from all eternity, and so does the Holy Ghost from the Father and the Son. The Son is begotten of the Father before all creation. The Father produced, by an act of divine knowledge, the Son as an image like to Himself in all things, just as we, when we think, produce an intellectual image in our minds. We may illustrate this by the relation existing between fire and light. Light proceeds from fire, but is contemporaneous with it. If there were an eternal fire, there would also be an eternal light. The Son is the brightness of God’s glory (Heb. i. 3), the unspotted image of His majesty (Wisd. vii. 26). Just as one torch is kindled from another, without the first losing any of its light, so the Son is begotten of the Father, without taking anything away from Him. The Son is called the Word of the Father (John i. 1). Just as the word formed in our minds (the thought) is made manifest by the external or spoken word, so the Word of God, dwelling in the bosom of the Father, was made manifest to the world when the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us (John i. 14). As the Son has His origin in the knowledge of God, so the Holy Ghost has His origin in the love of God. The Holy Ghost is none other than the mutual love of the Father and the Son. He is the Spirit of love, who engenders in our hearts the love of God and of each other. The word spirit is well chosen, because by it we express the attractiveness and the force of love: The Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son, as warmth proceeds from the sun and its light.
On account of the difference in their origin we appropriate to the Father the works of omnipotence, to the Son the works of wisdom, and to the Holy Ghost the works of love.
These various works have a certain correspondence with the attributes of the persons, that are connected with their origin. The Father begets the Son; for this reason there is appropriated to Him the bringing of perishable things also, out of nothing, i.e., of creation. He is therefore called the almighty Father. He is also called the God of compassion, because He is ever ready to receive the sinner who comes back to Him in a true spirit of penance. The Son is the eternal wisdom of the Father. To Him therefore is appropriated the beautiful arrangement of the world. As the artist, through the working of his reflective mind designs the plan of his work, so the Father, through His Son, produced order in the world. To the Son, too, is ascribed the restoration of order, as for this end He took upon Himself the nature of man. To the Holy Ghost, as the mutual love of the Father and the Son, are ascribed all the benefits of God to man; especially the bestowal upon him of his natural life in creation (the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters), and of his spiritual life by his sanctification through grace. To Him, as the finger of God’s right hand, are ascribed all miracles, and above all the work of the Incarnation, as being of all miracles the greatest. The love of God has ever occupied itself with men, but the Incarnation of the Son of God by the operation of the Holy Ghost surpassed all other benefits wrought by Him. It brought mercy to sinners, truth to the erring, life to those who were dead, and hope and faith to the whole world.
5. We are taught the mystery of the Blessed Trinity by Christ Himself, but it was partly known in the time of the Old Testament.
We know, from the fact of creation, the infinite power, wisdom, and goodness of God, but it does not reveal to us the mystery of the Blessed Trinity. Nor is there any proof of this doctrine to be found in nature, though we may find certain analogies to it, some of which we have given. But the mystery itself can only be made known to us by revelation. “The Father no man knoweth but the Son, and he to whom the Son shall reveal Him” (Matt. xi. 27). Our Lord revealed this mystery to His Church when He said to His apostles before His ascension, “Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matt. xxviii. 19). In the time of the Old Testament the Jewish priests, when they blessed the people, had to repeat the name of God three times (Numb. vi. 23). Isaias tells us that the seraphim in heaven cry, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts” (Is. vi. 3). Before the creation, God said, “Let us make man” (Gen. i. 26). David says, “The Lord said to My Lord, sit on My right hand.” But before the Incarnation the mystery of the Blessed Trinity was veiled in a cloud which was only dispelled under the New Law. “The Church,” says St. Hilary, “knows this mystery. The Synagogue believed it not. Philosophy understood it not.”
6. The belief in the Blessed Trinity is expressed in the Apostles Creed, in Baptism, and in the other sacraments, in all consecrations and blessings, and in the feast of the Most Holy Trinity.
The mystery of the Blessed Trinity is the foundation of our religion. Without a knowledge of this truth we cannot understand our redemption by the Son of God. We ought frequently to make an act of faith in this mystery, especially by the repetition of the Gloria Patri We should repeat it whenever we receive any benefit from God, and also when He sends us any cross or trial.
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