HOMILY at the 9h MASS for the FEAST of the MOST HOLY TRINITY (A) 2017
As a theological student, I was warned by my College Principal that I should never preach about the Collect for the Day. I believe that the reason for this was a good one – that the homily should seek to explore and engage with the readings for the particular Sunday.
And generally I have obeyed this guidance – so much so that I feel a sense of guilt about even mentioning the Collect for the Day in a homily. Which is probably really over the top!
Anyway, guilt or not, I am going to mention the Collect today. Not least because it has always slightly puzzled me. It is quite an ancient collect – Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, qui dedisti famulis tuis in confessione verae fidei aeternae Trinitatis gloriam agnoscere, et in potentia majestatis adorare Unitatem: quaesumus ut ejusdem fidei firmitate ab omnibus semper muniamur adversis.. It was in the year 1334 that Rome finally allowed a general observance of the feast of the Most Holy Trinity which owes much to the popularity of Blessed Alcuin of York’s (c 735-804) liturgical texts for this Feast, which includes that Collect and also the Preface Dignum et iustum est, eterne omnipotens Deus, nos te semper laudare, tibique quantas possumus indesinenter gratias agere: qui cum unigenito Filio tuo Domino nostro et Spiritu sancto unus es Deus in personarum Trinitate et unus est Dominus in trinitate. Quod enim de tua gloria revelante credimus, hoc etiam de Spiritu Sancto, sine ulla discretione sentimus: ut in confessione vere sempiterneque Deitatis, et in personis proprietas, et in majestate unitas, et in Deitate adoretur equalitas. . . . which in greater part we have today in our Eucharists.
In fact some of Alcuin’s work from the late 8th century was based on earlier texts from the Visigothic service books (4th century) which had been used by his opponents (in particular the Adoptionist heresiarchs Bishops Felix of Urgel and Elpiandus of Toledo). Alcuin had been engaged for some time in combatting the version of the Adoptionist heresy (the idea that Christ was not truly Son of God, but merely ‘adopted’ by God either at his baptism, or resurrection or ascension).
And so we come, eventually, to my puzzlement with this collect. It starts off well enough – ascribing thanks to God for the gift of faith, and more particularly, the gift of faith in God as Unity in Trinity, One in Three. It goes on to ask that God keep us in that faith. But then it takes a sudden (in my view) odd turn to ask that such faith will defend us from all adversities. This seemed to me to be a strange departure.
But now I see how it found its way into the Eucharist for Trinity Sunday – Alcuin’s Votive Mass of the Holy Trinity being particularly popular in England, helped by the fact that S. Thomas of Canterbury (Thomas à Becket) was consecrated on what was to become Trinity Sunday and insisted on this Mass being used each anniversary of his consecration. And for Alcuin, and others from an earlier date still, the true belief in God as Trinity was indeed something that defended them from all adversities. Especially spiritual adversaries, in the shape of the heresiarchs whom Alcuin spent much time and energy combatting.
Is, however, it still justified to ask – as we do today – that the possession of a right faith in God as Three in One may continue to defend us from all adversities? What kind of adversities might we be asking to be defended from? After all, though perhaps the Collect can be traced back 1600 years and the Preface of today’s Mass at least to the 8th century, surely we live in very different times to then? What business might we have to be asking for such favours for true faith?
Well, actually, rather a lot as it happens.
We live in a world where to many people religious faith is a matter of grave suspicion. Frequently they see the competitive and what appear to be mutually exclusive claims of religions to be at the root of many of the problems which face us today. And on the face of it, such a prayer as is our Collect today might well confirm these fears. The idea of profession of the true faith giving protection against all adversities! A kind of Trinitarian shield, or worse, a Trinitarian nuclear deterrent!
Yet in reality things should be quite different. Of course, Christians have been and sometimes still are known for their competitive and exclusivist claims – based often enough on superficial readings of Holy Scripture. Often enough, faith has been turned into superstition. And then to fear. And fear inevitably seeks protection and security by putting up barriers.
It is easy to see how fear rather than faith is much more active in our world today. But faith in the kind of God whom we worship as Trinity of Persons in Unity of Substance – faith in such a God in whom we see perfection of community, in whom we see Being in Communion, then faith in such a God is not an exclusive kind of faith that fences people off in fear.
So back to that Collect. We could pray those words in an exclusivist way. Keep our faith true, Lord. Keep the heretics out of the church and build a wall of security for us Christians. Maybe when Alcuin of York lifted those words from the Visigoth service books of the 4th century he thought like that, I don’t know. Certainly those words have been prayed like that.
But what about in 21st century Geneva? How do we pray those words?
May I share with you how I have come to use them now? Not in an exclusive way but rather in an inclusive way. A way that sees true security for our world when all people, contemplating the mysterious being of God, the God who reveals Godself to Christian people as a perfect community of respectful love, when all people may live out their calling to be in God’s image.
God’s unity is expressed in loving relationship. God’s one covenant with creation is that we may find salvation from those ills that divide and separate us from one another and from God. Sadly, even those who have religious faith are capable of using faith to alienate and separate. We have seen much of this throughout the history of faith. Contemplating God as Being in Communion we learn not only a better way of dealing with differences within the household of faith, but also between the households of faiths too.
And yes – in the face of terror, much of it supported by evil abuse of religious faith, such contemplation of God’s being as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, will indeed protect us from such adversities.
Today is our Feast of Title – a special time for us to consider our life as members of this community set here in Geneva. One dedicated in honour of the Holy Trinity. It is our special responsibility to keep alight a saving vision of this God here in this place. Not always easy. But ultimately what really matters and counts. And what has the potential to bring the most enormous blessing.