Three Persons to Know

The Baptism of the Lord

We are born into a mysterious universe. We enter this world, which we did not design or create, experiencing instincts and desires we do not understand. In the beginning it is not even obvious that the milk we nurse on has a source outside of us. But soon we realize that mother is an other, something separate from ourselves. Through our senses — by touching, seeing, hearing, tasting, and smelling — we realize that material things exist outside of us. Yet it takes still more lived experience for us to realize that these objects tend to have permanence, that they don’t stop existing when we cease seeing them. Until then, Peek-a-boo is an amazing magic trick. We go on to grasp that people are more than things, that they have thoughts and feelings of their own. As babies we begin as egocentric creatures but we grow to learn that we are meant to be in relationship with others. Just as humans grow in our understanding of the world and other people, humans have grown in our understanding of God.

Since Adam and Eve, the overwhelming majority of people throughout history have been theists: believers in realities beyond the material and worshippers of deity to whom praise and thanks is owed. But among the many peoples of the world, the one, true God chose a particular man (Abraham) and a particular people (Israel) to become personally known by anew. God showed them that divinity is not to be found in many gods; some good, some bad, all imperfect, and feuding over power. The one, true God is complete and perfect in being, and goodness, and knowledge, and power. When asked for a name by Moses at the Burning Bush to identify which god he is, the Lord answers, “I Am Who Am.”

In the Book of Deuteronomy, God inspires Moses to proclaim to his people: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one. Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength.” This teaching helped Israel resist the temptation to worship many false gods like the pagans, but this famous passage contains an interesting feature. When the text says “the Lord is one,” the word for “one” is not the Hebrew word for solitary oneness but the Hebrew word for unified oneness. God is unified in every perfection, so you should love God with the fullness of these three aspects of yourself: “with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength.” Looking back, we now can see that God was foreshadowing revelation still to come — a fuller understanding of God not previously known which would be revealed to us through Jesus Christ.

Jesus declares to Jews at the Temple, “Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I Am.” Jesus is invoking the divine name in reference to himself. The Jews realize this and pick up stones to throw at him for speaking blasphemy, but Jesus hides from them and escapes that day. On another occasion, Jesus proclaims, “The Father and I are one,” and the scandalized Jews again pick up rocks to stone him. After his Resurrection, when Jesus appears to Doubting Thomas, Thomas says to him, “My Lord and my God!” Thomas worships Jesus as God and Jesus does not correct him. If we were limited to these scripture passages alone, we might conclude that Jesus and the Father are identical; that God is one eternal person who reveals himself by wearing different masks in time. (This mistaken belief that God is just one person who expresses himself in different modes is a heresy called Modalism.) Thankfully, Jesus does show us more.

At the Jordan River with John the Baptist, “after all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’” It is not the Holy Spirit Dove who says, “You are my beloved Son.” God the Father does not say, “I have been washed this day.” The Father in heaven declares to Jesus Christ on earth, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” At Jesus’ baptism, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are seen as three, distinct, divine persons who know and act and love. The reality of God is revealed to be more mysterious and interesting than we would have first imagined.

What is a personal application for this knowledge? When I was a kid, I used to pray to God as if God were a hybrid-person of all three divine Persons smeared together. But there is no God apart from the three Persons, there is no God in addition to the three Persons, and there is no God who is more than the three Persons. When you pray, consider: “Who am I praying to? The Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit?” At Mass, the majority of the liturgical prayers are addressed to the Father and a few are said to the Son. Be intentional about to whom you are praying to help deepen your personal relationship with each.

As we grow spiritually we learn that we are meant to be in friendship with each person of the Trinity. You probably feel most familiar with Jesus, but what are God the Father and God the Holy Spirit like? Jesus tells us, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” The Father is like his Son. All three divine persons possess the same divine nature: eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, and all-loving. The Trinity eternally knows and loves one another, and it is their will for us to know and love each one of them personally and forever.

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