First reading: Exodus 34:4-6, 8-9
Psalm: Daniel 3
Second reading: 2 Corinthians 13: 11-13
Gospel: John 3:16-18
Link to readings.
The Church closes the long Lent-Paschaltide liturgical season with a feast that invites us to sit back and reflect upon the nature of God as revealed in the Paschal mystery: the feast of the Holy Trinity. It is, of course, through the experience of that mystery and subsequent theological reflection upon it that the early Christians were led to know God as three Persons in the one divine essence. The doctrine of the Trinity is not, then, an arid theological puzzle but a necessary conclusion from a sense of being grasped by and held within a divine communion of love. For all the terrors it might inspire in the hearts of preachers on its yearly round it is a feast about the nearness rather than the remoteness of God.
Of course, the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity in its classic shape did not occur until well after the New Testament era. Nonetheless, the rather brief offerings we have for Year A, capture very well this sense of God as an out-reaching communion of love.
The First Reading, Exod 34:4-6, 8-9, comes from a context where Moses is dealing with God following Israel’s apostasy and idolatry in the episode of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32). The issue is whether Israel will ever regain its unique and privileged status as the Lord’s special people. On discovering the apostasy Moses had broken the original two tablets on which the Ten Commandments had been written. Now, in the hope of renewing the covenant, he takes two fresh ones with him as he ascends the mountain (Sinai) to commune with the Lord. What is interesting, I think, is that before gets around to pleading with God for forgiveness and forbearance in regard to his ‘headstrong’ people, he hears from the Godhead itself a proclamation of the divine nature: ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’ (v. 6). It is with such a God that the covenant is renewed (though, curiously, the Lectionary does not extend the reading down to v. 10 where this is stated). So often one finds even in quite well instructed people the firm conviction that, whereas the God of the New Testament is a God of love and compassion, the God of the Old is one of wrath and judgement. Texts such as this should show the absolute continuity between the God revealed in the Old Testament and the God revealed by Jesus Christ.
The very brief Second Reading consists of the concluding grace from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians (13:11-13) prefaced by an exhortation to unity and peace in the community. The sense is that the community should reflect in its communal life and interaction the sense of communal love that it experiences from God. It is indeed remarkable that such an early Christian text as this should contain so complete a formulation of belief in the Trinitarian ‘shape’ of the Godhead. The word ‘grace’ (Greek charis) most basically refers to the quality in a person that renders her or him attractive. To pray that the ‘grace of the Lord Jesus Christ’ be with the community is, then, to ask that each and every believer be captured by this sense of Christ. Secondly, and in continuity with this, there is the hope that each would come to know God (the Father) primarily as a God of love. The Greek word koinonia used, in the final phrase of the grace with respect to the Holy Spirit, is not easily rendered in English. ‘Fellowship’ sounds too ‘churchy’, ‘communion’ too ‘theological’—though it is probably to be preferred. Koinonia refers to the bond created between the members of a through their common participation in some third thing. Here the third ‘thing’ is the experience of the Spirit. It is this experience, common to all believers, that is the foundation of unity.
There could be no clearer expression of the absolute continuity between the loving act of Christ and the attitude towards human beings of the Father than that expressed in the Gospel for today, taken from the concluding part of Jesus’ response to Nicodemus (John 3:16-18). God’s whole approach to the world is that of rescuing it from its bondage to sin and death in order to draw all human beings into the communion of life and love that is the Godhead. This is the work of the Son. The task of judgment, which more conventional religious expectation might see as belonging to God, is in fact brought ‘down to earth’. Each one determines for himself or herself what their judgment will be precisely as they decide to accept or not accept the revelation of God as a God of love, that comes to us through Jesus.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media.