Go back to the list
20 March 2020

Trinity communion and otherness

The Trinity1 is amongst the most mysterious of the articles of our faith to which we bear witness each Sunday in our recitation of the Creed. Indeed, for many of us, the Trinity is so much in the realm of mystery that we consider it to be beyond our understanding and thus we miss out on the gift of God that is revealed to us as we ponder something of the depths of our God. Each year that we celebrate the solemnity of the most holy Trinity it is an invitation for us all to commit ourselves to enriching our ordinary relationships of daily life by promoting communion, consolation and mercy. As Pope Francis stated early in his pontificate, in his Angelus Address: “Our being created in the image and likeness of God in communion calls us to understand ourselves as beings in relation and to live interpersonal relationships in solidarity and reciprocal love.”2 He continued stressing that the Trinity is not closed in on itself, but is open, communicates in creation and in history and has entered into the world of [human persons] to call everyone to take part.”3 Here we have a divine imperative of passionate love that calls human beings to share in this apostolate of love.

God within Godself

“With our eyes fixed on Jesus and his merciful gaze, we experience the love of the Most Holy Trinity.”4

In and through an encounter with Jesus we are able to glimpse something of the merciful love of the Trinity. God is a dynamic reality of relations, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the work of divine freedom unfolds as the Father’s personal freedom begets the eternal Son, the inseparable Other and together the Father and the Son breathe out the eternal Spirit. The Father `has’ nothing apart from what he `is’, so his gift to the Son is an act of total `self-expropriation’. The Son is the perfect image of the Father, who returns the Father’s self-gift in an act of thanksgiving that likewise involves his whole self. And the Spirit is the fruitfulness of this mutual gift that always exceeds and overflows. The mystery of our Triune God involves one God in three persons, but the persons are only distinct in their relating. Accordingly, from eternity there is a relationship of communion (one God) and otherness (three persons) within the Trinity. God is not first one and then three but simultaneously both – otherness is inconceivable apart from relationship – and therefore it is revealed that communion does not threaten otherness rather it generates it.5 This co-inherence of unity and otherness stands in sharp contradiction to our contemporary culture, where ‘otherness’ is often seen as at best suspicious and at worse a positive threat.

Fear of the Other

Within our world today there is an impetus to regard the other as our enemy until proven to be a friend. Christian tradition ascribes this attitude to the result of the ‘Fall’ and it does appear that there is – as it were – a form of pathology inherent in our genes that is the fear of the other. Clearly this is inculcated from an early age when we warn young children for their protection to be wary of strangers. Yet when the fear of the other expands to become fear of otherness then, if we are not careful, we begin to identify difference with division. In such a situation communion ends up being nothing but arrangements for peaceful co-existence. But as Christians we are called to something more. Made in the image of God we are called to enter into communion with our Triune God and to relate to one another in love. It is Jesus who exemplifies for us how we are to relate both to God and to others without fear.

Christ: the love of the Triune God made manifest

It is Jesus who reveals to us something of the inner workings of the Trinitarian mystery and calls us to participate in it. “No one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him,”6 we read in the gospel of Matthew. It is clear throughout the gospels that there is a constant relationship between the Father and the Son. It is the Son who speaks of the co-existence of the Holy Spirit with the Father, and who sends him to the Church to sanctify it by his loving mercy until the end of time. It is also Christ who reveals to us the perfect oneness of life of the three divine persons.7 The Father eternally engenders the Son, and the Father and the Son together eternally breathe forth the Holy Spirit.8

As Christians we believe that there is no fullness of life without relationship with God and corresponding relationships with others. What we glimpse in the life of the Trinity is that otherness is not a threat to communion amongst ourselves but the very condition for it. In addition, an appreciation of otherness lies at the heart of good human relationships, which can lead to real communion. Such communion generates further openness to otherness. Still there is a price to be paid. As Jesus willingly embraced the cost of giving his life for our redemption so sacrifice at times of our own will and interests is the expression of our commitment to communion and our willingness to embrace otherness. Here we cannot discriminate between those who are and those who are not worthy of our acceptance. Ultimately, it is the Spirit who leads us to profound communion, and in our everyday living it is the Eucharist which affirms and sanctifies both communion and otherness.

1 For a book-length elaboration of this theme, to which I am indebted, it is worth reading John D. Zizioulas, Communion and Otherness, ed. by Paul McPartlan, (London: T&T Clark, 2006).
2 Pope Francis, Angelus address, St. Peter’s Square, May 22, 2014.
3 Ibid.
4 Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, April 11, 2015, 8.
5 John Zizioulas gives an eloquent elaboration of this in the work already cited.
6 Matthew 11: 27.
7 John 16: 12-15.
8 Clearly the focus here is on the Western tradition based on the understanding of the filioque, whereby the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.

Gill Goulding, CJ

This text is taken from the Winter 2020 issue of the ad vitam webzine “A Communion that Generates Mission”.