Old Testament Trinity by Dana Manly, for Trinity Sunday, after Rublev

Trinity Sunday: A Rookie Anglican Guide

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Trinity Sunday commemorates the Christian doctrine of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—three persons in one substance, an eternal community of love. Observed on the first Sunday after Pentecost, Trinity Sunday marks the beginning of the Trinity Season (or Trinitytide), also called the Season after Pentecost or Ordinary Time. Trinity is a fitting name for this season because the focus shifts from the great feasts of sacred history—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Ascension, Easter, and Pentecost—to the ongoing life of Christian growth in the love of our Trinitarian God.

The Anglican Roots of Trinity Sunday

Now celebrated by Christians of all denominations, Trinity Sunday has a robust Anglican heritage. Anglo-Saxons celebrated a feast dedicated to the Trinity as early as the 9th century, although the date’s standardization occurred much later. It has long held a connection with St. Thomas Becket, the 12th-century Archbishop of Canterbury and martyr. Becket was consecrated as a bishop on the first Sunday after Pentecost. Following his assassination in 1170 and his canonization shortly thereafter, the day gained powerful significance in the English tradition. In 1334, Trinity Sunday became an official observance for the first Sunday after Pentecost across the Western Church.

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The Collect for Trinity Sunday

Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity: Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

The collect emphasizes the glory of the Trinity and the importance of holding this doctrine in keeping the faith. Notice that the collect emphasizes both the three and the one; in other words, Trinity Sunday is also a celebration of Monotheism, of the one Almighty God who exists in three persons. As the first of the 39 Articles puts it:

In the unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

The collection’s reference to glory recalls Isaiah 6, in which the prophet sees God’s glory filling the Temple and hears the angels crying out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3). Joining the angels, we laud our thrice-holy God every Sunday in our communion prayers.

The Trinity and the Creeds

Together with the collect and the communion prayers, Trinity Sunday most fittingly features the recitation of the Creed. The Trinity provides both form and content to each of our ancient creeds: Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian.

Notice the Apostles’ Creed’s three-part structure:

  • I believe in God the Father Almighty
  • I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord
  • I believe in the Holy Spirit

The Nicene Creed retains and expands on this three-part structure, adding especially detailed language concerning the Son, who is homo-ousios (Greek for “of one being”) with the Father. First written at the Council of Nicaea in 325, the Nicene Creed opposed the Arian heresy, which taught that the Son is not eternal but only homoi-ousios (“of similar being”) to the Father. That’s a big iota of a difference!

The Athanasian Creed provides the most detailed explanation of the Trinity. It describes how the three persons of the Trinity are united in substance and distinguished by relation of origin. Athanasius did not write the creed, but it was named after him because of his defense against the Arians. Many churches say the Athanasian Creed on Trinity Sunday, sometimes in a responsive form because of its length.

The Trinity in the Bible

One way to think of the Trinity is through the different sections of scripture. The Father features prominently in the Old Testament, the Son in the Gospels, and the Spirit in the Acts and the Epistles.

Yet these three persons are equally God and work together in all portions of Sacred History. So Trinity Sunday often features Bible passages in which we can identify each person of the Trinity. For example, we can identify all the persons of the Trinity in the first three verses of the Bible:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

Genesis 1:1-3

Here, we see God, the eternal Father, the Son as the eternal Word he speaks, and the Spirit’s presence bringing life over the waters. The same Trinitarian dynamic is at work in the baptism of Jesus:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.”

Mark 1:9-11

Notice the Father speaking over his Son, with the Spirit present over the waters. The baptism of Christ is a new creation, a new creation in the love of God.

An Eternal Community of Love

The Father’s words of love at Jesus’ baptism give us an essential clue to the deeper meaning of the Trinity. When St. John writes that “God is love,” he means not only that God is loving but also that God in his essence is love (1 John 4:8). Even before creation, God is a community of love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God did not create out of loneliness. He did so from an overflow of love, rejoicing to share his eternal love with his creation.

Reflecting on this mystery, Saint Augustine of Hippo described the Trinity as the Father who loves, the Son who is beloved, and the Spirit who is the love between them.

Most remarkable, God sent his Son Jesus to become a man, die, and rise again to bring us into this circle of love. His blood paid the price of our adoption into the family of God. And we now receive the Holy Spirit, by which we, too, can speak to God as “Our Father.” Saint Paul gloried in this trinitarian truth:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’

Galatians 4:4-6

The Trinity in Mission

The Trinity is central to authentic Christian mission. When Jesus sent his disciples to share the gospel with the nations, he commanded them to spread the faith through baptism in the Trinity:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.

Matthew 28:18-19

Moreover, a personal experience of Trinitarian love is a powerful motivator for missionary work. How do missionaries find the strength to leave their own culture and preach the gospel to a foreign people? By participating in the love of Father, Son, and Spirit, an experiential knowledge that their true home is in God.

Saint Patrick is an excellent example of this dynamic, combining devotion to the Trinity with missionary zeal. Patrick probably never actually used a shamrock to illustrate the Trinity, despite popular lore. However, he did draw strength from the Trinity and share his devotion with the Irish people he evangelized:

Since I believe in the Trinity, I must make known the gift of God and his eternal peace without fear of danger. I must faithfully spread the name of God everywhere, so that after I die I will leave an inheritance for my brothers and children, thousands of people, the ones I baptized in the Lord.

Confessio, 14

The Trinity in Music and Art

There are many wonderful hymns on the Trinity. These include those that name the Trinity explicitly, such as Saint Patrick’s Breastplate and Holy Holy Holy. They also include those with a Trinitarian structure, often devoting one verse each to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, such as Come Thou Almighty King and the great Navy hymn Eternal Father Strong to Save.

The most famous depiction of the Trinity in Christian art is the Old Testament Trinity icon by Andrei Rublev. This image is based upon “the hospitality of Abraham,” the story of the three angels Abraham entertains in Genesis 18. Rublev painted the icon in the 15th century. It has been copied worldwide ever since, first in Eastern Orthodox churches but now increasingly across all denominations.


Image: Old Testament Trinity icon by Dana Manly, after Andrei Rublev’s The Hospitality of Abraham, from the collection of Trinity Lafayette. Photo and digital editing by Peter Johnston.

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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