Naughty and Nice Lists for Preaching on Trinity Sunday

(In case you’re wondering, the image with this post is really, really, really bad art that is trying to be about the Trinity, I guess)

The most dangerous day of preaching in the liturgical year is upon us: Trinity Sunday. The perennial danger is, of course, that the homily on this day becomes an occasion for trivializing or else utterly mystifying the faith into which we have all been baptized, the creed we profess each week, and the sign of the cross with which we mark ourselves over and over again. Karl Rahner memorably quipped that should we drop the doctrine of the Trinity, most Christians would not notice the difference. The typically bizarre to banal nature of preaching on “Trinity Sunday” tends to prove the point: the Trinity is reduced to something that must be mentioned once a year, but as if extraneous rather than absolutely central to the Christian faith.

I teach a course on “The Trinity and Christian Salvation” to masters students at Notre Dame. My students include lay ministers, seminarians, deacons, teachers, and inquiring adult and young adult Catholics of all kinds. After we have progressed through our studies a bit, I bring up the issue of preaching on “Trinity Sunday”. The immediately get it––they have all experienced mostly bad homilies on this day above all days. I give them a chance then to come up with a “Naughty List” (things to avoid on Trinity Sunday) and a “Nice List” (what to include or focus on when preaching on Trinity Sunday). Here are some of the most common responses:

The Naughty List (and why not make these into commandments?)

  1. Thou shall not make the Trinity into an abstract idea or model

  2. Thou shall not say the Trinity is not scriptural

  3. Thou shall not make the Trinity into an academic puzzle

  4. Thou shall not rely on tired and cliché analogies

  5. Thou shall not “break the ice” with statements or bad jokes about how complex the Trinity is

  6. Thou shall not separate Trinity Sunday from the rest of the liturgical year

  7. THOU SHALL NOT SAY IT IS “JUST A MYSTERY” (Seriously: we preach the Resurrection, we preach the Incarnation, we preach the Annunciation, we preach the Assumption… do we really understand any of these mysteries well enough to claim mastery over them? Of course not. We proclaim them and for those called upon to preach, there is the duty to speak about what we have received not what we have mastered.)

One of my adult students put the matter this way: “Please don't start a homily on the Trinity by saying something like: ‘No one understands the Trinity, but here goes.’ This actually happened at my home parish, which is ironically Most Holy Trinity Parish.” In this case, not only does the intro to the homily establish that “we do not understand God” but also, in this particular parish, that we “do not understand ourselves”!

Look, I don’t “understand” my wife in terms of having complete and total knowledge about every facet of her existence, but if you asked me about my wife I would praise her to you.

The Nice List (with some of my own commentary)

  1. Preach Scripture, don’t ignore it. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:16–20), the Baptism of the Lord, the Transfiguration, Genesis 1, John 1, John 17, Hebrews, 1 Cor 12, and Romans 8 are all especially rich for trinitarian reflection, but of course God is not imprisoned in these texts.

  2. Preach salvation, such as with this decisive claim in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The ultimate end of the whole divine economy is the entry of God’s creatures into the perfect unity of the Blessed Trinity. But even now we are called to be a dwelling for the Most Holy Trinity (§260).” If our hope for salvation is to enter into perfect unity with the Trinity and the meaning of our life now is become a dwelling for the Trinity, how on earth (or in heaven) can the Trinity possibly be extraneous to Christian life?!!!

  3. Preach the liturgy and the liturgical year. You know how to show that we are being both ordered to life in God and already being practiced in this life? Pay attention to the liturgy.

    In any liturgy, the prayers themselves instruct us in Christian life and work us over by the love of God already gathering us up. We pray to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. Christian prayer—especially liturgical prayer—is irreducibly Trinitarian. The very way we offer prayers points us to how God works for us as three Persons.
    When we glorify God, then, we give glory to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (or to the Father with the Son together with the Holy Spirit. The very way we give glory to God––by our very speech patterns––points us to the unity of God.

    As for the liturgical year, it may feel like Trinity Sunday just happens to come after the most holy season of Easter and since have to get this solemnity in somewhere, we might as well do it now that we’ve entered back into Ordinary Time. But have you ever considered how the sequence of the mysteries of Christ lead to the celebration of the Most Holy Trinity? From Advent through Christmas through Lent and through Easter, we mark time by waiting for the Lord, the birth of the Savior, his Baptism, his trials and suffering, his Passion, his death, his Resurrection, his Ascension, the sending of the Holy Spirit, and then the Most Holy Trinity. By the path the Savior has blazed, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, the whole Church through its liturgical year is now drawn up into the contemplation of the Most Holy Trinity. This is precisely what the Catechism teaches: the whole point of the Christian life is to be brought into union with the Most Holy Trinity. The very order of the liturgical feasts practices us in that.

  4. Preach Baptism. In Baptism, we Christians are immersed into God’s life: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is not foreign to us; the Trinity shapes who we are.

  5. Preach the Name. In the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16–20), Jesus commands his disciples to baptize all nations in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, not in the names of… There is but one God and one life: God’s life. This one name is the name of God. In this name there are three Persons. As Christians, we live and move and have our being in the name of God. Consider, therefore, how the prologue to absolution speaks of the operations of the three Persons but the gift given to us––the gift of life, of new life in the forgiveness of sins––is the gift of one name:
    God the Father of mercies through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

  6. Preach the Sign of the Cross. Is there anything more common to everyday Catholic life than making the sign of the cross? Is this not, therefore, a prime action for further reflection to show how our very lives––everything we do in the faith––is done with the imprint of the Most Holy Trinity?

  7. Preach that God is Love. This is the only true statement about love; all other statements about love are only true in accordance with this one claim. It is not true that ‘Love is God’ and certainly not that ‘Love is Love’. God is Love, so to preach on who God is and what God does is to preach about love, in love.

  8. Preach the Trinity outside of Trinity Sunday. This is among the most important of all because I think one of the major problems with Trinity Sunday is that it feels like some alien concept has drifted into our parishes on this one day––”The Trinity”––while the rest of the year we focus on “God”. Preaching should be trinitarian all-year-round. I might even go so far as to say that if one cannot preach on the Trinity, one should not preach at all.

Without the Trinity, there are no Christians. To be Christian is to become a sharer in God’s life and to be ordered to the perfection of that life in the Most Holy Trinity. What Karl Rahner once said is, I fear, still as true today as it was when he said it: “Christians are, in their practical life, almost mere ‘monotheists.’” May those entrusted with the ministry of preaching put that claim out-of-date, and may the rest of us practice and teach the Christian faith in our homes, schools, and parishes to the glory of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Check out my reading guide on Pope Benedict XVI’s The God of Jesus Christ: Meditations on the Triune God