Sermon 2: “God is Three and God is One”

“How often have we made the sign of the Cross and invoked the name of the triune God without thinking about what we were doing?” (second edition: p. 36 [first edition: p. 26])

The sign of the cross recalls each Christian’s own baptism, in which the most fundamental aspect of the Christian’s identity is established. For the one who is baptized, this truth is impressed upon them and becomes the ordering principle of their entire existence: I am because I have been given. It means that in order to live truthfully, the Christian must live in such a way that his or her life says that, “I am not myself by myself, not for a moment.[1] In God I live and move and have my being: the boundaries of whom I am expand towards the limitless dimensions of who God is, because who I am is who God has made me to be, or as St. Francis was fond of saying, ‘What a man is in God’s eyes, that he is and nothing more.’[2]” The sign of the cross is a subtle and profound affirmation of this gift, even when it has become routine, when the Christian does it unthinkingly. In fact, maybe it is even a more profound gesture then, because it is just true even without one’s rationalization or conscious knowledge. Well before any of that comes into play, the basis of the Christian’s identity was already fixed in who God the Father has created him to be, in who Christ has freed him to be, in who the Spirit claims him to be.

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“The first proposition of the Christian faith and the fundamental orientation of Christian conversion is: ‘God is’” (p. 37 [p. 27])

What a relief! I do not bear the weight of supporting myself; the Church does not bear the weight of supporting itself. The first truth is always “God is” and the first truth for the existence of anything else is “God creates”. This is present already in Genesis 1: God just begins creating, without explanation and without reason. It is simply and mysteriously God’s will. And how does God create? Solely through the Word. God says “Let there be” and what was not comes to be. And so, the first principle of all creation is not reducible to anything in creation. It is the “God who is” that is the foundation of all that is. And God is his own support: the unbegotten Father, the eternally begotten Son, the spirated Holy Spirit. For more on Ratzinger’s reading of the creation accounts of Genesis, see his In the Beginning, particularly the first homily in that work.[3]

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“Has idolatry really ceased in our day? … ‘What does it mean to have a god, or what is a god? Answer: A god means that from which…” (p. 37 [p. 27])

To understand what it means not simply to believe in a god but to treat something or someone as a god—that is to say, to commit yourself to something, to trust in something, and to ultimately depend on something most of all as Ratzinger’s appeal to Luther’s definition highlights—we can look into the form of the command given to Israel to practice professing its devotion to the Lord God daily. According to the 20th Century historical theologian Jaroslav Pelikan, “behind and beneath all the primitive creeds of the apostolic and sub-apostolic era” is the great prayer of Israel, the Shema.[4] In the twice daily recitation of this prayer, Israel practices both the memory of its belief in the Lord God and the prioritization of its commitment to Him. In the Book of Deuteronomy, the command to profess this belief is offered as follows:

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today. Drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. Bind them at your wrist as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates. (Deut 6:4–9, NAB)

To Luther’s point—and therefore to Ratzinger’s—we can see what we might actually treat as a god if we take out the word “Israel” above and insert our own names, then substitute whatever commands our greatest trust, attention, allegiance, and concern for “the Lord” (in fact, this is a useful exercise and an excellent teaching activity to help students recognize what Ratzinger is saying here about what a “god” is). Ratzinger offers a fairly common list of potential idols that might take the place of “the Lord”: “money, power, prestige, public opinion, and sex” (27), which would therefore mean something like: Hear, O [my name]! Prestige is your god, prestige alone! Therefore, you shall love prestige, your god, with all your heart…. This means that to perform something like an examination of conscience, one could ask: “Do I remember my reputation first of all, thinking of it in the morning and before I go to bed, seeing it whenever I look into the mirror, overcome with concern for it when I leave my home in the morning and return in the evening?” There may be addictive idols that stand in place of “the Lord” here, such as alcohol, narcotics, or, as is especially prevalent in our modern age, pornography. This is not to say that the addict cannot be—at the same time—a genuine believer, but it is to say that the object of that addiction can exert a god-like power over one’s life due to one’s own skewed dependence on it. Even a seemingly less severe addiction like an inordinate attachment to “comfort” may become such an idol, or a particular view of the world or of other people. The point at which Ratzinger is driving here is that idolatry is not a thing of the past, but is a real and persistent threat for every one of us because whatever we give our hearts to, ultimately, is not only what we actually worship but also that which will exert the greatest influence over our lives. These forms of idolatry are never only individual but also become the bases of cultural orientations or even national interests. To profess belief in “God”—who gives a name—means to practice committing oneself from beginning to end to this one. Does this mean that nothing else matters? No—it means that everything else will build meaning from this foundation and derive meaning from this ultimate end: what we teach our children, what we do when we leave the house, all the activities of each day will be conducted on this thing as the first thing: I place my trust in the Lord God. As Ratzinger writes in Introduction to Christianity: “I do not have God until I no longer have any god of my own but only trust the God who is just as much the next man’s God as mine, because we both belong to him.”[5]

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“Do we trust him?” (p. 38 [p. 28])

This short question cuts right to the heart of Ratzinger’s sermon. To look back on the preceding sermon, we recall that God is the one who gives His name and gives us names, never reducing us to number or function. “His Being is salvation” (34) and so, in the continuity of these sermons, this short, incisive question is asking us if we will trust ourselves to the one who has shown himself to be our source healing and our final health. In the everyday conduct of our lives—in our planning and activities, our decisions both big and small—do we trust that God is really present, actually who he says he is, and therefore the real standard by whom we can judge what is right and what is just, what is true and what is beautiful, what is good and what is loving? The gift of Solomon’s wisdom comes to mind here, since his wisdom was based on ultimate trust in the Lord and was oriented to ultimate fidelity to God as the ultimate criterion for all judgment (see 1 Kings 3:1–15).

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“He calls himself Father…” (pp. 39–40 [pp. 29–30])

With these words, Ratzinger begins a profound though still simple and accessible meditation on the decisiveness of fatherhood for human flourishing. He is not entering into this focus on fatherhood at the expense of motherhood (to which he points more briefly in the following paragraph), but rather he is calling to mind a significant pastoral issue in the modern world, especially in fully industrialized countries: the absence of fathers from the lives of their children and the missing element of genuine fatherly care. If we conceive of God the Father on the basis of what we have learned about fathers in the modern world—especially those who have suffered their father’s absence, or abuse, or domination, or distance—then we are doomed to misconceive of the Father of Jesus Christ. Our language has become too impoverished, too warped to assent to the understanding of God as Father. It is our experience of the collapse of fatherhood in the modern world that has led to this poverty of language. When Ratzinger writes that “The crisis of fatherhood that we are experiencing today is a basic aspect of the crisis that threatens mankind as a whole,” we might point to the staggering statistics that accompany the absence of fathers from the lives of their children. A simple Google search will yield a bevy of articles and studies that all relay the same basic information: children who live in a home without their father are more likely to be poor, at greater risk for drug and alcohol abuse, more likely to commit suicide, more likely to dropout of high school, more likely to commit crimes (including violent crimes), and more likely to be sexually active during teenage years and therefore more likely to contribute to teenage pregnancy.[6] As a pastor, Ratzinger is recognizing the tragedy of the seeming collapse of fatherhood (without going so far as to say that all is woe, for he is well aware that there are many excellent models of true parenthood in the modern world [see 41]), where too many suffer at the hands of their fathers whether directly or by their absence. Fatherhood itself, he is saying, is never reducible to mere biology, nor is it a mere function or role that may be fulfilled however one sees fit. Genuine fatherhood is not pursued through the misuse of power or the underuse of responsibility. We happen to be in the position of not being able to learn who God the Father is from the current state of fatherhood in our modern world, and so Ratzinger proclaims here that we must relearn what fatherhood is from who Jesus reveals his Father in Heaven to be (and though this is not addressed in the homily here, we see a just and true reflection of his heavenly Father in his earthly father, Joseph). It is the “fatherhood that our faith discloses” that reveals that to be a father means to have “a responsibility for one’s child that does not dominate him but permits him to become his own self” (40). This is a disciplined responsibility where the genuine father must resist the temptation to exert his own will absolutely so as to control his child while also resisting the sort of unquestioning permissiveness where the child may do and become whatever he or she pleases. When God is revealed as Father in his Son, Jesus Christ, the meaning of fatherhood in the world is also revealed. In the conclusion of this packed and important paragraph, Ratzinger preaches that the way to become a genuine father is first of all to learn how to be a child of God the Father, as Jesus himself is. He will complete this reflection later when he preaches on the meaning of Jesus’ sonship, with a special emphasis on his obedience.

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“The dissolution of fatherhood and motherhood, which some would prefer to relocate in a laboratory or at least reduce to a biological moment that does not concern man qua man, is linked to the dissolution of childhood, which must give way to a total equality from the very beginning” (p. 41 [p. 31])

The reduction of parenthood for both father and mother to either a biological fact or to an ill-defined function drains out the truly essential aspect of the vocation of parenting: responsibility. The image of childhood that Ratzinger is painting here is the image of the child as a sacred trust: this creature who comes from the two parents biologically is not just produced but also and crucially given. For adoptive parents, this truth is perhaps all the more clear and obvious. To the parents, the child is and ought to be an image of their responsibility, not just proof of a deed already accomplished. This responsibility has an end, a telos: to lead this child to “his own innermost truth, which lies in his Creator” (40). To move towards the child’s own good is to move in a way like unto how God himself moves in response to the need of his creatures; therefore, if the child’s first and predominate experience in the world is the experience of parents moving for the child’s own good, then the child has already glimpsed the movement of God. The invitation to trust has been tendered and the image of God has been offered in the love of the parents.

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“…sing the enthusiastic praise of ‘brotherhood’” (p. 42 [p. 32])

No doubt the French Revolution is in mind here (as he discloses later in the paragraph), and the subsequent attempts all throughout the modern period to construct a society in which equality is based on an assumption of “fraternity” that does not derive its meaning from any common dependency on or giftedness from something—someone—that makes us one as brothers and sisters. In sum, any attempt to create “brotherhood” on our own terms is doomed to failure, because we are always subject to the whims of the powerful, to our own preferences, and to the temptations of violence to force our imagined or idealized form of equality on others.

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“God establishes his own criterion” (p. 43 [p. 33])

Again and in continuity with the previous homily, God is who God shows himself to be in and through his deeds. Then in continuity with what has already come in this homily, God reveals what true fatherhood is—and what true sonship or childhood is—in and through Jesus Christ. In him, the criterion of God is made manifest.

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“…it is just as essential to the Father to say ‘Son’ as it is essential to the Son to say ‘Father’. Without this address, the Father, too, would not be the same” (p. 44 [p.34])

What is revealed in Jesus Christ who calls God “Father” is not simply the revelation of his identity as Son as if it were some kind of private or individualized fact, but also the truly decisive thing about who God is from all eternity. As he lives in unbroken communion with the Father, Jesus the Son reveals in the terms of creaturely life what is eternally true of God, an eternal truth that “precedes” both in time and priority all that happens in creation. God the Father always addresses the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity as “Son”, and in response the Son always addresses the First Person of the Blessed Trinity as “Father”. The mystery of divine life abides in this communication, and all that occurs in creaturely life arises from within this dialogue—a dialogue that is itself thoroughly personal and never the mere passing along of information or wishes: it is a dialogue that is the Holy Spirit (as the final homilies of this volume will show). But for now, as Ratzinger expresses in the next paragraph, if there are only two—Father and Son—they would always remain fundamentally separate and, from that position of separateness, happen to speak to one another. The mystery of the Trinity, however, is deeper than this, for in the mingling of the Father’s unbegotten giving and the Son’s unbroken reception and response to this gift, they are truly one in communion and never alone in isolation. This communion is the Holy Spirit. Again, this will be the focus of the final section of this collection of homilies. It will be helpful for the reader, then, to return to this section of this particular homily in the light of the final homilies to further grasp the meaning of what Ratzinger is preaching here.

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“…when a person is born, not only his biological existence is determined in advance, but also his language, the age in which he lives, its way of thinking, its evaluations. A life without ‘advance gifts’ of this kind does not exist; the question is what these advance gifts are. If baptism establishes the ‘advance gift’ of being loved by eternal Love, could any gift be more precious and pure than this?” (p. 46 [p.36])

A common critique of infant baptism is that the child does not choose what is being given—or, in more forceful terms, “imposed on” him or her—and therefore this Christian identity is a violation of freedom and must either be ratified by a personal decision later on or else be nullified by a decision to the contrary. A true baptism, it is assumed, is one that is chosen by the individual herself. Ratzinger does not accept these terms. What he presents instead is a fundamental fact of human existence: we receive much that we do not choose and there is no such thing as a human being (or any creature for that matter) whose life and existence is rooted in his own choice. Not only do we not choose that we are born, we also do not choose when, in what historical circumstances, into which cultures and surrounded by what language or languages, with what abilities or limitations, with what initial proclivities or disinclinations, etc. To be a human being (a creature) means receiving much before anything is chosen. On this basis, Ratzinger concedes the point that baptism—especially for an infant but also, in the final analysis, for the “consenting adult”—is an “advance gift”. It is not first of all chosen; it is first of all given. What Ratzinger wants us to ponder is the quality of the advance gifts we receive and then ask ourselves what could possibly be better, more precious, more dear than receiving the “advance gift” of a life that abides within the brackets of the divine dialogue of love, where Father always speaks love into the Son, and the Son always receives and responds to that love back to the Father. To receive baptism, Ratzinger preaches, is to receive a life that is fundamentally contained within this sphere of love, where we are never in danger of being reduced to number or function but always personally known. That “sphere of love” is the life of the Spirit, who guarantees personalism in the fact of any and all looming degradations. Moreover, since this life within love is given and not constructed by us, this life does not depend on our own choice or power to sustain it. This life is secured in the eternal power of the Triune God who exceeds creation and yet upholds creation without fail.[7]

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“This means that we must learn anew to take God as our starting point when we seek to understand the Christian existence” (p. 47 [p. 37])

In sum, this issue of love precedes the issue of knowledge. Ratzinger is stressing that the proper starting point and basic assumption or first principle for all true knowledge in the Christian life is the assent to the truth that life only comes from God, that creaturely life depends on the life of love that abides eternally in the triune Persons, and that therefore true life is never less than fully personal, fully contained within the movements of love between Father and Son in the Holy Spirit. To seek to know anything in some way that does not fundamentally assume this truth is to be doomed to ignorance from the start. To try to conceive of the world in some other way, whether according to the myth of domination by power, or the myth of an economy of lack where each one must fight for his own existence at the expense of others because there is not enough “life” to go around, or the myth of the superiority of some human beings and the inferiority of others, or the myth of individual value according to ability or achievement—all of these and more are dead-ended in ignorance. These are pathological untruths that hide the true nature of the world, of God, and of human beings. What Jesus Christ reveals is that all of life exists within and is founded upon the eternal love of God as the unending exercise of love between Father and Son in the communion of the Spirit. To look to Jesus as he is, the Church learns to see that first of all and can never cease to gaze with humility upon this truth. To attempt to construct a vision of the world or of human meaning in another other way is a vain endeavor, for we neglect what has been made clear in the revelation of the Son. “Vain and truly miserable are those who do not choose to see what is manifest and clear, but shun the light of truth,”[8] as St. Irenaeus writes in response to the gnostic heretics of his day. To look upon Jesus as he is will reveal what is true, and on the basis of that truth, understanding of all things becomes possible, in his light. As Ratzinger states in the next homily: “…the Christian faith concerns the whole of reality” (48).


EndNotes to Commentary on Sermon 2

[1] See especially the section on “Purgatory” in Ratzinger, Eschatology, 218–33.

[2] Bonaventure, “The Life of Saint Francis (Legenda Maior),” in Bonaventure, trans. Ewert Cousins, The Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist, 1978), 229.

[3] Joseph Ratzinger, In the Beginning...”: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, trans. Boniface Ramsey (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1995).

[4] Jaroslav Pelikan, Credo: Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2005), 374; see also Jaroslav Pelikan and Valerie Hotchkiss, eds., Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition, vol. I (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2003), 7–9; and DeLorenzo, Work of Love, 9–15.

[5] Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 136.

[6] One helpful summary of these findings with references to relevant studies is National Center for Fathering, “The Consequences of Fatherlessness,” accessed October 13, 2017, http://www.fathers.com/statistics-and-research/the-consequences-of-fatherlessness/. The pertinent scholarly articles and monographs, not to mention the sociological studies that examine the effects of fatherlessness, are too numerous to cite.

[7] For more on the priority of receiving to making (or choosing and constructing), see Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 69–74.

[8] Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and Arthur Cleveland Coxe (Ex Fontibus Company, 2012), V.XIII.2.539/586.

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