We live in difficult, perilous, tragic times. Covid 19 is one of the most terrible disasters of the past several hundred years, surpassed perhaps only by the evils of world wars, and the systemic evil of poverty and oppression. And now, we have a small scale horror before us, the murder of George Floyd in public, seemingly cold and calculating, by a police officer sworn to protect the citizens of Minneapolis. The protests following the murder remind us white people of what most of us forget, the wholescale and systemic oppression of African Americans in our society, over the past four hundred years. So let’s meditate on the Trinity, on this Trinity Sunday (June 7).
Really? It might seem off the topic, and a distraction, and a bit esoteric to turn to so complicated and arcane a topic. We might think that belief in God or trust in Jesus would be quite enough to inspire us to face up to reality and do the right thing. So who has time for the Trinity, right now? Yes, it is basic to our faith, from the sign of the cross to every blessing to each and every Eucharistic Prayer at Mass. So yes, we can affirm it, but why not then just move on?
But if we rush ahead without reflecting on this core truth of the faith, we miss the chance to think seriously about how God is present, and how God makes a difference. After all, we have so much work to do, but salvation, justice, protection of the sick and marginalized, the punishing of evil, are not things we do very well on our own. There are many resources in many religious traditions for thinking about God; as Christians, we can find the deepest source of energy for change right here, in the mystery of the Trinity.
I will focus, starting and ending just with today’s first reading today from Exodus 34, since I find it to be most illuminative of God’s presence in a very difficult world:
So Moses cut two tablets of stone like the former ones; and he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and took in his hand the two tablets of stone. The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name, “The Lord.” The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed,
“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth, and worshiped. (Exodus 34.4b-6, 8)
It is important not to miss how difficult the circumstances are at this point in Exodus. The liberation from Egypt has taken place, the crossing of the Red Sea, the first giving of the Law at Sinai. Now things have taken a turn for the worse. (To see all this, go back and read Exodus 32-33.) Moses tarries on the mountain, so Aaron makes a golden calf and the people worship it. Moses defends the people against God’s annihilating wrath, but when he comes down the mountain, he manifests his own anger:
As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it. (32.19-20)
And to us, rather bizarrely, Moses tells the sons of Levi to kill thousands of their brothers, friends, and neighbors:
"When Moses saw that the people were running wild (for Aaron had let them run wild, to the derision of their enemies), then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, 'Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me!' And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. He said to them, 'Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.’ The sons of Levi did as Moses commanded, and about three thousand of the people fell on that day." (32.25-28)
All of this has no romance to it. It is not uplifting. It is in fact an unvarnished meditation on the hard and unvarnished truth of salvation in a cruel world: God in God’s own mystery, distant and sometimes dangerous on the mountain, along with “God’s people,” a mass of humans beings, good and bad, saints and sinners, virtuous and tawdry, who’ve gotten themselves into a terrible mess yet again. This starts as God above and beyond us, and human beings who can always do worse. Hardly a soothing portrayal of “God and the children of God,” but at least a first stage in understanding who God can be.
Thankfully, there is more to the Exodus narrative. Here too we have to step back and think about the whole scene at the mountain. First of all there is Moses, running up and down the mountain, explaining the people to God, buying time, asking mercy, and endlessly explaining God to the people, their hope and salvation. Through Moses God chooses to remain with the people, despite the great chasm between the top and bottom of the mountain. And most importantly there is the gift of the Law, a concrete and particular guide to life. Written on stone, destroyed, then patiently given again, the Law offers a sure path to follow. It is a Word that mediates, that is to guide the people when Sinai is only a distant memory. God in unfailing outreach and connection with us: this is the role Jesus too plays for Christians, of course, the flesh and blood mediator between the mysterious perfection of God and the human race. There is the Father, and there is the Son, both ever in relation to God’s own people.
But there is more. The people have to move on. Staying at Sinai is not feasible, whatever good or bad may follow:
But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; see, my angel shall go in front of you. Nevertheless, when the day comes for punishment, I will punish them for their sin. (32.34)
The people have to travel further out into the desert, finding their way in a strange unhospitable place and, perhaps in the end, finding a promised land (itself to be accompanied by a host of new problems through the ages). But Moses wants God to come with them:
Moses said, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.” (34.9)
God had offered, in Exodus 33, a kind of accompaniment -— “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (33.14) — but Moses is afraid to settle for “ presence” that is less than God. We need you, Lord, you yourself to be with us! And so it is that God relents, and agrees. God’s own Self will accompany his people wherever they go, into whatever uncharted space, uncertain future, troubles to come, new home to be sought and found. Is this not, for us Christians, the gift of the Spirit? Not simply a God of mystery and unfathomable ways, nor a God who teaches and instructs us, but yet too God-always-with-God’s-people.
Thus a Trinitarian understanding of the first reading at today’s Mass. As long as we do not erase the Jewish understanding of the text, and as long as we respect other ways of seeing God and Moses and the people, we find in this reading insights into the mystery of God above us, with us, in us.
Back to where we started. The world is now in a time of monumental crisis. Covid 19 spreads and wreaks havoc globally (the decrease of cases here more than matched by increases elsewhere); Mr. Floyd’s funeral is still to come, and sadly it is too easy to add more and more names to the list: Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and on and on. The environment is still in a perilous and worsening state. We have miles to go in terms of cross-cultural and especially interreligious respect, learning and collaboration. We Catholics need to fix our Church, that we practice what we preach.
We will travel this arduous journey imperfectly: we will dally, worship golden calves, kill one another, deny what we’ve done, hide our omissions. We need again and again to enter the desert and meet God, always holy, sometimes terrifying, a God whose ways are not our ways; we need books and proven wisdom, we need the guidance of women and men who are mediators between God and ourselves, who walk in the footsteps of Moses and Jesus; and we need God with us in every new crisis, every uncharted wilderness. We need a God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a God who acts through and in and despite us, in a world in dire need.
(This is a version of the homily I’ve already given for this Sunday, during the Mass posted at the parish website.)