“Not Too Great Toil"
Whether by Fate or the finger of God or just plain bad luck, it’s fallen to me to write the Trinity Sunday Lectio for this page three times in the last eleven years, including just last year. You’d think that by now I‘d be an expert on the subject, but in fact, the mystery of the Trinity remains safe. And unlike Job, speaking to God who has spoken to him from the whirlwind, I don’t want to have to say: “I have uttered what I did not understand/ things too wonderful for me, which I did not know (Job 42:3).”He also says that he will put his hand over his mouth and say no more, but my editor might not be too happy with such a stance, so I won’t go that far.
Because, in fact, there are things that can be said – not by me, but by far deeper hearts and minds whose love of the Trinity can help us to love the Trinity ourselves. I think of St. Patrick right away, who invoked the Trinity in his famous Breastplate (Lorica). Patrick, famous for explaining the Trinity to the Irish by means of the three-leaved shamrock, prayed:
I bind unto myself today
the strong name of the Trinity
by invocation of the same,
the Three in One and One in Three.
Like the people of Ancient Israel, instructed by God to bind his word literally around their arms and heads (Dt 6:8), Patrick binds himself with the Trinity’s “strong name” as the day begins. He meditates on the Incarnation and Creation, calls on the name of Christ in the part of the prayer that is probably best known –
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger
-- and concludes as he began:
I bind unto myself the name,
the strong name of the Trinity
by invocation of the same,
the Three in One and One in Three,
of whom all nature has creation,
eternal Father, Spirit, Word.
Praise to the Lord of my salvation;
salvation is of Christ the Lord!
Patrick’s prayer does not explain the how of the Trinity; rather, it celebrates the fact that the Trinity is. It reminds us that the Trinity is not a problem to be solved, but an invitation to enter more deeply into the mystery and love of God.
“Entering into the mystery and the love of God” could sound a little warm and fuzzy, but in fact, such entering is for neither the faint-hearted nor the fuzzy-headed. In Patrick’s beautiful prayer we can see outlines of the Nicene Creed, defined by the Council of Nicaea in 325, about 100 years before Patrick’s mission in Ireland began. That Council had not been an easy one – why? Because the Council Fathers were discussing the nature of the Trinity, which includes the question of the divinity of Jesus. A surprising story about that meeting illustrates what was at stake in that debate. It involves a saint better known today for sliding down chimneys at Christmas, but who in his time was a passionate defender of the divinity of Jesus. Here’s the story as I’ve adapted it from the website of the St. Nicholas Center:
Arius, from Egypt, was teaching that Jesus the Son was not equal to God the Father. He forcefully argued his position at length. The bishops listened respectfully, but Nicholas became more and more agitated. Finally, he could no longer bear the attack on what he believed essential. He got up, crossed the room, and slapped Arius across the face! The bishops were shocked that a fellow bishop would lose control and be so hotheaded in such a solemn assembly. The Emperor Constantine, who had convoked the meeting, told the bishops that they themselves must determine the punishment.
They thus stripped Nicholas of his bishop’s garments, chained him, and threw him into jail to await the end of the Council, when the final decision would be made about his future.
Nicholas was ashamed and prayed for forgiveness, though he did not waver in his belief. During the night, Jesus and Mary his Mother, appeared, asking, “Why are you in jail?” “Because of my love for you,” Nicholas replied. Jesus then gave the Book of the Gospels to Nicholas. Mary gave him an omophorion, so Nicholas would again be dressed as a bishop. Now at peace, Nicholas studied the Scriptures for the rest of the night. When the jailer came in the morning, he found the chains loose on the floor and Nicholas dressed in bishop’s robes, quietly reading the Scriptures. When Constantine was told of this, the emperor asked that Nicholas be freed.
What happened after that, you ask? The bishops played hardball: Arius saw his books burned and himself exiled to Illyria (present day Albania). Nicholas was fully reinstated as the Bishop of Myra. And the Nicene Creed came into the world.
But back to this Trinity Sunday, celebrated today by Christians all over this world. In the words of the Rev. Rich Simpson, an Episcopal priest and good friend, it is “a world that God has created and is still creating; a world that God has already redeemed through Jesus Christ, and is still redeeming; a world that from the beginning has been sustained, and is still being sustained, by God’s Holy Spirit. We don't need to be in church buildings for God the Undivided Trinity to be doing that work in the world. Rather, as we go out into the world to do the work that God gives us to do, we discover that God is already there. When we go out into the world to do mission, our job is to discern what God is up to, and then go from our buildings to help out in the neighborhood.”
A last word from the ancient Celtic world offers us the confidence we’ll need for that mission:
He who made the wonder of the world
Will save us, has saved us.
It is not too great toil to praise the Trinity.
Not too great toil at all. Amen!
-- Sr. Nuala Cotter, R.A.
PS: If you’d like to hear St. Patrick’s Breastplate in hymn form, there are many videos on YouTube. Here’s one that I like: https://youtu.be/DF-xkRkrdeI