Anthony de Mello tells the story of a Chinese boy who wanted to become a carver of jade. He was apprenticed to a master craftsman and could hardly sleep the night before his first day with the master.
When he arrived for work he greeted the master and sat down in front of him. The master continued to work but gave the boy a piece of jade to hold. All day the boy sat there before the master, watching him work, and all the time holding in his hand the precious piece of jade.
The next day and the next passed in the same way and when his parents asked him how it was going he said it was not like he expected because all he did was sit there with a lump of jade in his hands while the master worked.
After more than a week of this the boy decided to end his apprenticeship if the master did not give him some work to do and again asked him just to sit with a piece of jade in his hands.
Sure enough, he had hardly sat down when the master gave him another piece of jade to hold. He was just about to make his complaint when his attention was drawn to the stone in his hands. ‘But master’ said the boy ‘this is not jade!’
The master smiled and said ‘Well done, young man, you have learned your first lesson well.’
The old man was very wise because he knew there was something about jade that could be learned only by first hand ‘lived’ experience. That’s why he put the jade into the boy’s hands. He brought him into relationship with it over a number of days and so the boy learned to recognize by experience what the qualities of jade were. And the mystery of the Trinity is just like that. We can only understand or penetrate the mystery to the extent that it penetrates us. Perhaps we can explore this a little more deeply by asking ‘How do we know God is Trinity?’
The Jews knew only that God is One – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – one God. Jesus certainly never taught the doctrine of the Trinity to his disciples though we can say that the doctrine came from him. What is more, it is difficult to find in the Scriptures, or in any texts from the very early Church, anything explicit about the Blessed Trinity. The Sacred Scripture certainly never used the word “Trinity” anywhere in its pages even though it is saturated with its presence. So where does this teaching come from?
The answer, you already know, is Jesus – Trinity was the way Jesus experienced God. He experienced God as his Father and himself as co-equal Son. He told us that he and the Father were one yet he made it clear that he was not the Father.
Similarly he experienced the Holy Spirit, through whom he was conceived, as the Spirit and power and love of God, and yet, at the same time, he recognized that the Spirit was not the Father, nor was he the Son.
The Holy Spirit was the ‘Advocate’ who would teach the Apostles everything. The Father (and the Son) would send him when the Son had departed this earth at the Ascension.
How then did the Church come by the knowledge of the Blessed Trinity? How did Jesus pass this reality on to the Church?
Essentially the Church arrived at the doctrine of the Trinity after careful reflection and prayer on its experience of Jesus and of God. This reflection was painstakingly and, often, controversially thrashed out.
Trinity is how Jesus experienced God and how the Church experiences God. As the Church, through Sacred Scripture and Tradition, shapes our understanding of God it also instructs our experience of him. Like the boy with the jade we must be in touch with God in the experience of our own prayer and day-to-day life. It is here we will learn to say with Jesus – God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Three is a magic number. There are three aspects to time: the past, present and future. The human person is comprised of three parts; the heart the brain and the body. There are three theological virtues; faith, hope and charity. And the nuclear family is comprised of at least three individuals; mother, father and a child.
There is something solid about the number three. The Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel wrote that Judaism revolves around three sacred entities; God, Torah and Israel. God becomes manifest in living out the Torah. This living out of Torah takes place in the community of Israel. These three aspects of their faith are interdependent on each other.
We Christians hold the number three in reverence. Not because it is a magic number but we stand in awe of what cannot be grasped fully by humans and we call it mystery. The number three is held in reverence because God has revealed himself to be three in one. A Mystical Trinity where three distinct persons exist as a single being ‘consubstantially’ as we say in the new translation in the Nicene Creed.
Also for Christians the number three is not about us and our relationship with divine. Our center of focus is God. After all God is fully complete and does not need our approval. We exist simply because God is love. Within the Godhead are a Father and Son intently in love with each other. From this intense relationship comes forth love itself the Holy Spirit. This out flowing of love cannot help but create. As we read from the beginning of the book of Genesis begin the process of creation. After the son’s resurrection the Spirit came again in tongues of fire to perfect creation by burning away what is flawed and leaving what is fit for the kingdom of God. The Holy Spirit is still at work wherever the church is bringing God’s love to renew all things working through us as members of Christ’s mystical body.
Standing in awe of the triune God’s great gift of love and creation we can only respond in praise and thanksgiving. This is why we gather here every week to praise God, to celebrate the Eucharist. Our lives as Christians are centered on this great mystery. A mystery that is gifted to us from the God who is Love itself.
So three is indeed a special number it is not magical but mystical.
We stand in awe of our God and hold dear all things that point to the Trinity especially the family. For in the family we can approximate what God is, a relationship of love that creates a new life. Let us keep this in mind as we turn to giving our triune God thanks by celebrating the Eucharist in reverence and love.