FR. AYODELE AYENI CsSP
February 20, 2012
One evening, an Irish Spiritan missionary was explaining the Trinity to his African congregation. He said to them, "God is our Father," and this God has a Son who is Jesus Christ.
He continues, and then, there is the Holy Spirit whom God sent into our hearts. Immediately, an old man asked the priest: "Is the Holy Spirit God's wife, since God has a Son?"
As soon as the priest said the "Holy Spirit is not God's wife," the adults in his congregation got up and left, saying, "This discussion is meant for children, for how could God have a Son, without having a wife?"
The question about the adequacy of human explanation of the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is a perennial problem with which each generation has to grapple.
Behind the English words "consubstantial" and "incarnate," in the new English translation of the Nicene Creed, are historical and theological problems.
It is pretty easy to read, and, perhaps, understand the first chapter of St. John's Gospel, especially where it says: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth" (John 1.1, 14).
However, a problem emerges when one tries to explain to a non-Christian or try to convince oneself of the meaning of the words: "the Word was God . . . the Word became flesh." How can God be both God and man at the same time?
Human beings can distinguish among a father, son, mother, siblings and relatives because they are all separate individuals with unique existences.
Yes, Jesus Christ, the human being who walked the streets of Palestine, was and is different from his Father. But what about the "Word (that) was God" from all eternity? The problem is that the "Word" never ceased to be God even when he took flesh.
The attempt at explaining that Jesus Christ was and is God necessitated the use of the philosophical term "substantia," now translated as "consubstantial" in our Creed. In other words, to say that Jesus Christ is "consubstantial with the Father" simply means that that thing (substantia) which makes God God.
God shares substantia with Jesus Christ, since Jesus Christ is God - "the Father and I are One (John 10.30). Even though every analogy limps, hence, imperfect, we will cite one example to explain "substantia."
If there is something in human beings that makes them human beings and not angels or pure spirits, that "humanness" which makes human beings human is their "substantia" or substance.
However, one needs to remember that though Jesus Christ is "con = same" "substantia = substance" with the Father, the "Word" alone (not the Father) took flesh or became human.
Furthermore, if we say that "substantia" makes the "Word" God, "flesh - caro, carnis" makes the "Word" human.
Thus, when the Creed qualifies Christ as being "incarnate of the Virgin Mary," it means that the "Word" became a human being as it is testified of him in John 1.14 (the Word became flesh). So, "incarnate" is a derivative from Latin: "in = in" "carnis - flesh" meaning "in the flesh or human."
The question is often asked: why bother about the Trinity or difficult dogmatic pronouncements?
Well, ours is the fullness of doctrine. In other words, all that God revealed in the Scriptures is for our benefit and knowledge. To be a Catholic is to know and accept the "whole truth and nothing but the truth" - this is the meaning of Catholicism.
In fact, our knowledge of "consubstantiation" (consubstantial with the Father) - that the Father and the Son are One - reveals the benefit of the Trinity to human beings from the expression "incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man."
That the Son of God became one of us - a human being - manifests that we too participate and share in the life of the Trinity. It is important for us to know that we too share analogously in the communion of the Trinity because it indicates to us how to live our lives in communion - "May they all be One" (John 17.21).
Indeed, to know about the Trinity is to know something about ourselves and our destiny as sons and daughters of God - our communion with God and one another.
Spiritan Father Ayodele Ayeni is a sessional lecturer at Newman Theological College and pastor of Mary Help of Christians (Chinese) Parish in Edmonton.