Bruno Forte on "God the Trinity"

From a Videoconference of the Congregation for the Clergy

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VATICAN CITY, JAN. 31, 2002 ( The Vatican Congregation for the Clergy held another of its worldwide videoconferences on Tuesday, this time on the Trinity. Here is the address given by Father Bruno Forte, rector of the Pontifical School of Theology of Southern Italy and member of the International Theological Commission.

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“God the Trinity”
by Bruno Forte

The entire Christian existence can be considered the “Amen” pronounced with life to the dual confession of Trinitarian faith, the faith expressed in the sign of the Cross, a reminder of Baptism, and the faith transmitted by doxology, which summarizes the entire orientation of existence and history regarding the Trinity and hence the ultimate vocation of all those who are baptized: “Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto ….”

For this very reason the observation of a kind of “exile of the Trinity” from the general rule and the thoughts of Christians appears to be even more painful: Karl Rahner had already observed that “should the doctrine of the Trinity be abolished as false, even after this intervention most of religious literature would remain almost unchanged,” and, what is even worse, the life of believers would not change much! During the past decades Catholic theology has in truth undergone a real “return to the Trinitarian homeland,” also favored and expressed by the Teachings with a strong Trinitarian mark by John Paul II.

In theological texts the traditional schematic separation of the two treaties — “De Deo Uno” and “De Deo Trino,” the first dedicated to a God also available for philosophical speculation, the second specifically dedicated to the Christian revelation — has been surpassed in favor of a fruitful integration of the two perspectives. Starting from the Paschal event the Trinity has been contemplated in its communication through the “economy” of redemption, to then acknowledge that if the Crucifix of the Son is the “narration” of the Trinity, the Trinitarian confession is the “concept” of the Cross (Eberhard Jüngel).

Moreover, this is the message that the Western iconographic tradition has expressed, representing the Trinity through the image of the wood of the Cross where, abandoned in the infinite pain and supreme solitude of death, the Son hangs, held in the arms of the Father, while the dove of the Holy Ghost unites and separates He who Abandons and He who is Abandoned.

This scene, in which the Trinity by Masaccio in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence probably represents the highest testimony, allows one to observe how the Cross is not only an event in the history of this world. He who is Crucified dies in the arms of God. His death is not the atheist “death of God,” but rather “death in God”: the divine Trinity, meaning that it is deeply joined in its mystery of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost by the event that takes place in silence each Good Friday.

Christian faith does not profess an impassible God, the spectator of human suffering from high above in His infinite distance, but a “compassionate” God, as stated in 14th-century Italian, a God therefore who, having loved his creature while accepting the risk of freedom, loves him to the very end. It is this “never ending” love (John 13:1) that motivates the infinite pain of the Cross!

On the Crucifix the offering is first of all made by the Son of God, as the councils of the Ancient Church stated: “Unus de Trinitate passus est.” “Deus crucifixus,” said Augustine. What do these paradoxical formulae mean? What is the meaning of death afflicting the Son of God on the Crucifix?

It is Paul who explains this in the Letter to the Galatians: “but my real life is the faith I have in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me” (2:20). The Cross is the revelation of love, it was for love that the Son consigned himself to death for us. The Son of God did not simply “pass through” mankind: He became the companion of our pain, he shared our weariness in living, our exhaustion, he cried the tears of love. “See how He loved him” (John 11:36), they said of Him, watching Him cry when faced with the death of His friend Lazarus. He died on the Cross out of love for us. The Cross is the story of the eternal Son who by suffering revealed His infinite love to us: it was from the Cross that the Son pronounced the words repeated by the mystics: “I did not love you as jokingly” (Angela from Foligno). If mankind would really think about those words “He loved them to the very end,” how much resistance and fear would vanish when faced with that Love, which became humble, crucified, abandoned in the infinite pain of the Cross!

Of course the Cross is not only the story of the Son: the Son who is consigned to death by God, His Father. It is He who holds in His arms the wood of shame, the tree of abandonment. Once again it is Paul who states this in his Letter to the Romans: “He did not even spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all” (8:32). And John says: “God so loved the world, that He gave up His only-begotten Son for us” (3:16).

God is not unmoved: He suffers out of His love for us. He is the God who John Paul II in the Encyclical Dominum et vivificantem shows us as a Father capable of infinite love, for the very reason that He is capable of infinite suffering: “Should not the ´convincing of sin´ also mean the revealing of pain, inconceivable and inexpressible, that, because of sin, the Holy Book … seems to catch a glimpse of in the ´deepness of God´ and in a certain sense, in the heart itself of the ineffable Trinity?… It is in the ´deepness of God´ that there is the love of a Father who, when facing the sins of mankind, according to Biblical language, reacts to the point of saying: ´I regret creating mankind.´ … Hence there exists a paradoxical mystery of love: a God refused by His own creatures suffers in Christ … but, at the same time, from the depth of this suffering the Holy Spirit finds a new measure of the gift bestowed upon mankind and upon the creation from the beginning. Love works in the profoundness of the mystery of the Cross” (see Numbers 39 and 41).

If this is true, nobody is simply a number in the presence of God the Father: He knows each one of us, and He loves us with an eternal, infinite love, and suffers for our sins with a pain so deep that we are unable to even imagine the sense of it. God is Love: This is how John introduces Him to us in his First Letter: “Beloved, let us love one and another, for charity is of God: and everyone that loves is born of God and knows God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is charity” (1 John 4:7-8).

Just as John said that God, the Father, is Love, as explained in the following verses: “By this hath the charity of God appeared towards us, because God has sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we may live by Him. In this is charity: not as though we had loved God, but because He has first loved us and sent His Son to be a propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:9-10). This is the revelation of infinite Love: God suffers because of His Love for us; God commits Himself to human suffering and does not abandon us in the darkness of pain. “The Father Himself is not without pain! … He suffers through love” (Origene).

The Holy Ghost is also present in the hour of the Cross in a mysterious and real manner. The fourth Gospel tells how Jesus “bowed His head, and yielded His Spirit” (19:30). The meaning of this yielding of the Spirit in the silence of Good Friday can be understood in the light of the old-testament background of the New Testament. In the texts concerning the awaiting there is a clear equation: when Israel is exiled, God withdraws his Spirit from the elected people; exile is the equivalent to the absence of the Holy Spirit. When Israel shall return to God´s promised land, which is its homeland, God will effuse His Spirit on all flesh and all will profit. It is the announcement of the prophecies of t
he Spirit, which are fulfilled on the day of the Pentecost.

If exile is the painful absence of the Holy Spirit, the Homeland is His new effusion, it is the joy of the life of He who Consoles entering the heart of our hearts and removing the heart of stone, endowing us with a heart of flesh. When Jesus yields the Spirit, He, the Son of God, enters the exile of the “Godless”, of the “damned by God”. Paul says: “God made him into sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21); “Christ has ransomed us, by Himself becoming, for our sakes, an accursed thing” (Galatians 3:13). The homeland has entered the exile: this is the good news from the Cross! Now there will no longer be a human situation of pain, of misery and of death in which a human being may feel abandoned by God. If the Father held in His arms He who was Abandoned on Good Friday, He will hold in His arms each of us, whatever the story of sin, pain or death that we come from may be.

For all those who feel the burden of pain and of death, the Gospel of the Cross, “folly” for the Greek and a “scandal” for the Jews, tells us that we are not alone. “I loved you with eternal love” (Jeremiah 31:3). “I took you in my arms” (Psalms 131:2). “I have graven thee in my hands” (Isaiah 49:16): and should a mother even forget her child, “I will not forget You” (Isaiah 49:15). The Cross therefore is the good news, the Gospel of God´s love: it is at the feet of the Cross that we discover that God is Love! This is the Gospel of Redemption: we have believed in love.

We do not only believe that God exists: so as to believe this it is sufficient to contemplate in depth the mystery of the world! We believe in a personal God, in a God who is love and who loves us with an ever-renewed and personalized love, with a kind of love that reaches the infinite pain of the Cross. This is the God of the Cross: the God of endless mercy. … It is however the resurrection that lights up the Cross with eternity so as to tell us that the history that took place is not enclosed in the past, but will continue to repeat itself in all the pain-filled stories of the world that will open to the gift of life, welcoming the Spirit yielded by Jesus in the hour of the Cross and returned to Him in the Paschal hour.

This Spirit has now been given to He who has risen (see Romans 1:4) and passed from Him to us as the Spirit of Resurrection and life. Therefore Easter is the good news for the world, the foundation of a hope that does not disappoint. In the gift of reconciliation that takes place at Easter when the Holy Spirit is obtained for us: and then we may enter the divine heart of the Trinity and the whole world is called upon to become the Homeland of God, when the Son shall yield all to the Father and God will be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28)! Three therefore are the figures of eternal love who act in the hour of the Cross and in the Paschal hour, three divine Persons — as they are indicated by theology, albeit stumbling.

They must be contemplated in their individual specific characteristics, always bearing in mind that the God of love is one and only, the Trinity one in the unique essence of divinity. This God, one and only, according to the testimony of the New Testament, is love: for a Christian believing in God means confessing with the lips and with the heart that God is Love. This means acknowledging that God is not solitude: so as to love one must be at least two, in a relationship that is so rich and deep also to all that is other in respect to the two. God of Love is the communion of the three, He who loves, He who is loved and Love received and given, The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

Believing in this eternal Love means believing that God is One in Three Persons, in a communion that is so perfect that the Three are really One within Love, and together following such a real relationship, existing in the unique divine essence, that they are really Three both in bestowing and receiving love, both when encountering and opening to love: “In truth you see the Trinity if you see love” (Augustine, De Trinitate, 8, 8, 12). “Look, they are three: He who Loves, He who is Loved and Love itself” (ib., 8, 10, 14).

The first of the Three, the Father is — as stated in the first letter by John — the God who is “Love” (1 John 4:8,16). It is He who started to love from the very beginning and consigned His Son to death out of love for us: “He did not even spare His own Son” (Roman 8:32).

The Father is the eternal Source of Love, the Father is He who starts to Love from the very beginning, the beginning without beginning of eternal charity, the gratuitousness of never ending love: “God does not love us because we are good and handsome; God makes us good and handsome because He loves us” (Luther). God the Father is never ending love, the eternal gratuitousness of Love. It is He who initiates in us all that we would be unable to initiate alone. In this manner God has made us capable of love: He was the first to love us and will never tire of loving us. When we are loved we begin to love: “New men sing the new canticle” (Augustine).

The Father is He who Loves eternally, who started to love from the very beginning and who provokes in us the history of love, contaminating us with His gratuitousness. If the Father is He who Loves eternally, the son is He who is Loved eternally, He who has always allowed himself to be loved. The Son makes us understand that not only love is divine: allowing oneself to be loved is also divine, as is receiving love. It is not only gratuitousness that is divine, gratitude is also divine. God knows how to say thank you! The Son, He who is Loved, represents eternal reception, He is He who has always answered yes to Love, the living obedience of Love. The Holy Spirit renders the Son present in us every time we are capable of saying thank you, meaning when we are capable of welcoming the love of others. It is not enough to begin to love, one must allow oneself to be loved, one must be humble when faced with the love of others, leave space for life, welcome the other.

This is how we become an icon of the Son in welcoming love. There where the other is not welcomed, especially those who are different, God is not welcomed, one is not the image of the eternal Son. Finally, in the relationship between He who Loves and He who is Loved there is also The Holy Ghost. In the contemplation of the mystery of the Third Divine Persons there are two great theological traditions, The Eastern one and the Western one. In the Western tradition — from Augustine onward — the Holy Spirit is contemplated as the bond of eternal Love, that unites He who Loves and He who is Loved.

The Holy Spirit is peace, unity, the communion of divine Love. Therefore when the Holy Spirit enter us it unites us within ourselves, reconciling us and uniting us with God and with all others. The Holy Spirit bestows the language of communion, allows peace treaties to be established, makes us capable of unity, because there is their personal love between He who Loves and He who is Loved, the bond of eternal charity, bestowed by One and received by the Other. Alongside this tradition there is the Eastern one, in which the Paraclete is called the “ecstasy of God”: according to this concept the Holy Ghost is He who breaks the circle of Love, and creates in God the truth that “love does not mean gazing into each other´s eyes, but looking together towards the same goal” (A. de Saint-Exupéry).

This is the way the Spirit works in God: Not only does He unite He who Loves and He who is Loved, but he enables God to “exit” from him, because this gift is a divine one, the “ecstasy”, the “existing outside” God, Love´s exodus with no return. Each time God leaves Himself, He does it in the Holy Spirit: it is so in the creation (“The Spirit of God moved over the waters …” — Genesis 1:2); it is so in the prophecies; it is so in the Incarnation (“the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee”: Luke 1:35); it is so in the Church, upon which the Holy Spirit is effuse
d at Pentecost (see the Acts 2:1-13).

The Spirit is therefore the freedom of divine Love, the exodus and the gift of Love. When we will have allowed the Holy Ghost to reach out and transform us, we shall be unable to remain gazing into each other´s eyes, we will need to go out and take to others the gift of that love with which we have been loved. It is only there where there is this urgency to love that the fire of the Holy Ghost burns: a believer or a community that has welcomed the gift of the Holy Ghost, but that does not live this ecstasy of love, this uncontrollable need to bestow on others the gift of God in the testimony of words and the service of charity, would not have reached the fullness of love, the Church would not be an “icon of the Trinity”…

The unity of the living God is not a given death, but the total reciprocal inhabiting of the three Persons in charity. It is the unity of the eternal event that is love, in which we participate in the gift of the revelation. It is their eternal reciprocal giving of themselves, resulting in each finding Himself once again by the “losing of oneself” in the Other. A unity, that is “pericoresi,” using the language of the Greek Fathers, the reciprocal existing of one in the other, the reciprocal movement from oneself towards the other, and from the other returned to oneself. This is such a profound level that the “essence” of the Trinity, what they are at the deepest level, is nothing but the unique divine being. The meaning of this contemplation of Trinitarian love in our lives is understood at the feet of the Cross in the Paschal light.

If charity is born of God, if it is He who loved us first, it is necessary to know that one learns to love only by allowing ourselves to be loved, allowing space for life, listening deeply to the gift of God, living in the praise of the Other. The contemplative dimension of life is the one that above all corresponds to the gift of the Trinity, and therefore the real school of charity. This is the way that shines in the exemplary believer, the Virgin Mary, who has become silent, where the Word of God resounded over time, and was the womb in which the Light became flesh, the light that illuminates each human being: enveloped by God the Trinity, it was the ground for the coming of the Trinity in history.

Love comes from God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. Those who love with this love are offered in advance the eternity of time. And the horizon of the ultimate Mystery which will welcome us at the end is revealed for what it shall fully be: the embrace of the “Deus Trinitas,” the silent and meditative guardianship of the God who is Love…

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