I’ve heard sermons on Trinity Sunday in which the preacher always says that Trinity Sunday celebrates a doctrine and then complains about how hard it is to preach on a doctrine. Is Trinity Sunday really just about a doctrine?
Frank answers: yes and no. Mostly no. But let’s start with the “yes.”
Obviously, “Trinity” is a term that comes out of theology, not the Bible. Without the “doctrine” of the Trinity we would not have “Trinity Sunday.” The Gothic tribes that swept into Western Europe and settled down there had to be weened away from the Arianism they had been taught by missionaries from Constantinople. Out of this effort we have the great canticle of praise, Te Deum laudamus (We praise you, O God), and the so-called Athanasian Creed (Quicunque vult salus esse – Whoever wishes to be saved), that was not written by Athanasius of Alexandria. Both texts came from southern Gaul (modern France) in the 5th century.
In the effort to shore up Trinitarian orthodoxt, prayers that ended simply “through Jesus Christ our Lord” were expanded to say, “who lives and reigns with you [Father] and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end.” A special mass to the Holy Trinity was added to liturgical books that could be used on any occasion, not just on one Sunday of the year. But from the 9th century on some bishops in the Frankish kingdom ordered their own dioceses to celebrate a special mass to the Holy Trinity, usually on the Sunday after Pentecost, using propers prepared by Alcuin of York at the Court of Charlemagne in 804. The eucharistic preface for the Trinity in the Gregorian Sacramentary came to be used on all the Sundays that are counted in ordinary time, that is, Sundays “after Trinity” as they were designated.
But by the high middle ages we’re well beyond just shoring up a doctrine. What we really see is a growing devotion to the Holy Trinity in Western Europe. This was expressed in some dioceses and religious orders by having a day devoted to the Trinity. The so-called Athanasian Creed had come to be used in the monastic office of Prime on Trinity Sunday. This creed does not say “We believe” but “We worship one God in Trinity and the Trinity in unity.” Trinity was taking root in the culture of the people. Look at those three doors leading into the gothic cathedrals—three ways into the one divine mystery.
However, not until 1334 was the Festival of the Holy Trinity promulgated by Pope John XXII as a day to be included in the universal calendar of the Western Church. (It is not observed in the Eastern Orthodox Churches. They observe the Feast of All Martyrs on the Sunday after Pentecost.) This was the 14th century, a time of the “Black Death,” of the plagues that decimated the populations of Western Europe, of the Hundred Years’ War. It was a time of special devotion to the Trinity. There were penitential processions using the Great Litany that begins with an invocation of each person of the Trinity. Hundreds of new churches were built across Europe in the 14th century that were dedicated to the Trinity. Altar paintings (such as the one above this post by Jan Polack, ca. 1400) tried to portray the persons of the Trinity, but showed a suffering Son of God and a caring Father that the faithful could relate to out of their sufferings.
The Lutheran and Anglican Reformations continued the observance of Trinity Sunday with its proper Eucharistic preface and provided for the continuing recitation of the Athanasian Creed in Morning Prayer. Up until the revision of the calendar and lectionary after the Second Vatican Council, Lutherans and Anglicans used to count the Sundays of ordinary time as “after Trinity.” The time “after Trinity” was divided into three trimesters that dealt with creation (Trinity Sunday until Michaelmas), redemption (Michaelmas term), and consummation (from All Saints until Advent). The great Lutheran chorales of the 16th and 17th centuries were as Trinitarian as they were Christological. J. S. Bach loved the Trinity. Look at the great Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major (St. Anne)—3 flats, 3 sections of the prelude.
Trinity Sunday is not a doctrinal Sunday. It’s not the anniversary of the Council of Nicea, or something like that. No preacher has to stumble verbally trying to explain the doctrine of the Trinity from the pulpit. It is about the devotion of the Christian people to the God they have come to know by the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is about the mystery of the Godhead but also about the relationship of the church as a community of faith to the God who is a community of persons, as shown in the Andrei Rublev icon of the Trinity from 15th century Russia (see below). Preachers would do better in their sermons to avoid trying to explaining the doctrine and instead cultivate a love of the God who created, redeemed, and sanctifies us, and also evoke a worldview of new creation, redeemed humanity, and holiness of life that only a teaching as big as the doctrine of the Trinity can promote and protect. Above all, it is a day for all-stops-pulled worship of the Holy Trinity.
Pastor Frank Senn