Tag Archives: Trinity

The Trinitarian Coucils – Nicaea, Constantinople, and Ephesus

June 4, 2020


During the Fourth and Fifth Centuries, the Church was beset by conflict over different understandings of the God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, who they are and their relationship to each other. A series of three major ecumenical councils addressed these questions and progressively defined the Church’s doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity.

The Most Holy Trinity. The Father is above, the Creator of the World. The Holy Spirit is in the middle, the dove. The Son, Jesus Christ, is below. Photo from Mission Santa Barbara in Santa Barbara, California, Father Michael Van Sloun

The Council of Nicaea (325). Nicaea is a city in northwest Asia Minor or modern-day Turkey, the location of the first ecumenical council, selected because it was the emperor’s summer residence. The council was not called by the Pope, St. Sylvester I, but instead by the Emperor Constantine who wanted to restore unity to a polarized Church that was feuding bitterly. Over two hundred and fifty bishops attended, but not the Pope who was elderly and unable to travel. The debate centered around Arianism, a position put forth by Arius (d. 336), a priest from Alexandria, Egypt, who denied the divinity of Jesus. He claimed that only the Father is unbegotten, and that Jesus is creature, made by the Father at some later time, is not preexistent, and is less than God but greater than any human being. Arius was supported by a large contingent of the bishops. The council debate was so contentious that a fistfight broke out between Arius and St. Nicholas of Myra. Arianism was condemned by the Council as heresy.

The Council established the Nicene Creed and clarified that Jesus is divine. The creed states that there is one God and three Persons: the Father, the Creator, in Greek Pantokrator, the Almighty; Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God; and the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. Jesus is not a creature made by the Father. Rather the council used a Greek word, homoousios, today translated consubstantial, emanating from the Father’s substance, “begotten, not made.” The Father and the Son are “one in being,” coequal and coeternal.

The First Council of Constantinople (381). Constantinople is in northeastern Asia Minor, was the capital of the East or the Byzantine Empire, and the location of the second ecumenical council. The Council was called by the Emperors Theodosius of the East and Gratian of the West, not Pope St. Damasus I. All 186 bishops in attendance were from the East; 150 reaffirmed the doctrines promulgated at Nicaea, 36 did not and were branded heretics. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed developed after the Council; the same creed recited at Mass. The Council reaffirmed and defined the divinity of the Holy Spirit in response to the Macedonians who denied the divinity of the Spirit. The Council also condemned Apollinarianism, a heretical belief that Jesus is divine, not human, and that Jesus did not have a human soul.

The Council of Ephesus (431). Ephesus is a city located on the western edge of Asia Minor along the Aegean Sea, and it served as the site for the third ecumenical council. The Council was convened by Emperor Theodosius II, not Pope St. Celestine. It reinforced the Church’s doctrine that Jesus is “true God from true God.” Also, to refute Nestorius and to underscore the divinity of Jesus, it declared that Mary is not only the mother of Christ but also the Mother of God, Theotokos, a Greek term meaning God-carrier or God-bearer. The Council also condemned Nestorianism, the heretical belief that Jesus is two separate persons, one divine, one human, and that Mary is the mother of Jesus but not the mother of God. The Council stated that Jesus has two natures, divine and human, but is one person.

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Different portrayals of the Holy Spirit as a dove

June 7, 2019


A Dove and Holy Spirit. In religious art the Holy Spirit is most often depicted as a dove. The biblical basis for the dove symbolism is found in all four gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. Each evangelist describes the descent of the Holy Spirit as a dove coming down from heaven (Mt 3:16; Mk 1:10; Lk 3:22; Jn 1:32). The Holy Spirit that descended upon Jesus at his baptism and upon the apostles on the first Pentecost (Acts 2:4) is the same Holy Spirit that descends upon every believer at the time of their Baptism and Confirmation, as well as every time a person receives one of the other sacraments.

Holy Spirit DoveA Variety of Depictions. When the Holy Spirit is shown as a dove, it is depicted in a variety of ways. A common form is one dove alone. Sometimes the dove is shown with rays of light or flames emanating from its head or within its halo, and the number of rays or flames varies, typically three, seven, eleven, twelve, or thirteen, and the number is symbolic.

A Dove with Three Rays or Flames. Three signifies the three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity. The Holy Spirit is one of the three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity, and it is the Spirit who unifies the three Persons of the triune Godhead, and also serves as the presence of the Father and his Son Jesus. Three also signifies the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity (1 Cor 13:13), virtues that increase and flourish when a person submits to the direction and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

A Dove with Seven Rays or Flames. According to the Prophet Isaiah, there are six gifts of the Holy Spirit, wisdom and understanding, counsel and strength, knowledge and fear of the Lord (Is 11:2), and to round the number up to the biblically complete number of seven, piety was added to the list. There is another version of the seven gifts of the Spirit in the Book of Revelation: “power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing” (Rv 5:12).

A Dove with Nine Rays or Flames. The prevalent explanation for the symbolic value of the number nine is the fruits of the Holy Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Gal 5:22-23); while an alternative explanation is the less-often mentioned list: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, mighty deeds, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, and the interpretation of tongues (1 Cor 12:8-10).

A Dove with Eleven Rays or Flames. Eleven represents the twelve apostles without Judas Iscariot (Mt 27:3-10; Acts 1:13). Each of them received the gift of the Holy Spirit on the first Pentecost (Acts 2:3).

A Dove with Twelve Rays or Flames. Twelve can be interpreted in two ways, either the eleven apostles with their new replacement, Matthias (Acts 1:26); or the eleven apostles with the Blessed Virgin Mary (Acts 1:14).

A Dove with Thirteen Rays or Flames. Thirteen represents the reconstituted Twelve, the Eleven plus Matthias (see Acts 1:26), as well as the Blessed Virgin Mary (see Acts 1:14). All thirteen miraculously received the gift of the Holy Spirit on the first Pentecost.

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Inclusion (Part 1 of 3)

June 4, 2012


I want to be noticed!

The Catholic understanding of the Trinity is all about inclusion.  The Father loves the Son.  The Holy Spirit is that love and through that love we all belong. I am not very good about the math part of the Trinity.  The whole 1+1+1=1 thing is confusing to me but I do like to focus on the idea that I get to be included!  I read once that when we make the sign of the cross – we are placing ourselves into that Holy Trinity – we are asking to be included.   Inclusion is part of our faith and should be how we strive to live the way Christ has taught us.

Inclusion is a frequent topic in the area of disability outreach.   Deacon Sean Curtain, director of outreach for people with disabilities in the Archdiocese, recently  relayed to me three very important wants that he sees in all people, not just those with disabilities. All of these “wants” have to do with inclusion. One definition of inclusion is a sense of belonging: feeling respected, valued for who you are; feeling a level of supportive energy and commitment from others.  In homilies on inclusion he says, “We all walk around carrying three signs.

I want to be noticed,

I want to be heard,

I want to be loved.”

It is sad to see how often these very basic needs are not met in our day to day actions of our work, in our parishes and even in our families.

This is the first of  a three part blog where I hope to expand on this lesson of inclusion.


I want to be noticed! 

Our young people, and not so young people, have found creative ways of getting noticed.  Sometimes it is by hair and clothing style, other times it is through social media like facebook and twitter. The sad thing about the “virtual” experience of getting notice through social media is that it lacks a true human interaction.   From our earliest beginnings we strive for ways to be noticed.  Babies cry to get noticed and the terrible twos are a perfect example of some of those not so perfect ways of getting attention.  As we grow,  we learn to be noticed for our achievements of knowledge or ability.  Hopefully we come to realize that God’s love for us isn’t dependent on our achievements. God sees us. He sees us even when we are not at our best.  He loves us anyway!

It is through Christ’s example that we need to learn the importance of acknowledging and affirming others – of seeing them. I don’t believe I have ever read in any of the gospels that when someone turned to Christ – he ignored them. Imagine Jesus turning to someone and saying, ” I am just too busy right now, why don’t you take that up with Andrew.”

I love the story of Zacchaeus.  He even climbs a tree to get Jesus’ attention.

Now a man there named Zacchaeus, who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man, was seeking to see who Jesus was; but he could not see him because of the crowd, for he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house. “And he came down quickly and received him with joy. (Luke 19: 2-6)

What I love even more than Zacchaeus’ persistence in getting noticed – is Christ’s reaction.  “He received him with joy!”

How many times have we found ourselves ignoring the child pulling on our pant leg, avoiding answering an e-mail or failing to “pick up” when someone calls.   Like Christ – when someone is persistent in getting our attention – it is because they have that same desire – I want to be noticed!

Some people can be annoying – I imagine that short, pushy, greedy Zacchaeus was no exception. We all know a pushy “church lady”or a needy relative. But Christ didn’t ignore Zacchaeus. Instead He received him with joy and because of Christ’s acknowledgment – of seeing Zacchaeus – his life was changed forever.

Christ also noticed those who didn’t stand out or work to get noticed.

Sometimes this very simple phrase gets missed as we read of the story of the man born blind.

As he passed by he saw a man blind from birth. (John 9:1)

The man did nothing to get his attention, but Jesus noticed him.  He didn’t just pass by, he noticed that someone needed help.  Almost every day, I drive by someone situated near the freeway exit with a sign that says they are homeless.  My first reaction is to avert my eyes.  I don’t want to see them – it reminds me of the debt I owe.  The debt I owe to God and all His people for the wonderful gifts I have received.  If I don’t see people in need – I won’t feel that guilt.  Even short of seeing someone who is homeless – I avert my eyes or avoid others who may be needy.  At various times, friends and family (and myself) have gone through a crisis and need more attention.  Have I taken the time to see their need  or is helping them just not on my agenda?

Sometimes that debt we owe is more personal.  I remember a time when I let down a friend who needed my help, when I would see her it reminded me of my own failings and I found I would avoid her to avoid feeling my own inadequacies.  I am learning to be more straightforward now and deal directly when I fail others by asking for forgiveness. This repairs the discord in my relationships and I start “seeing” them once again.

Jesus even saw people most of us would like to avoid.  On hearing about Jesus – Nathaniel insulted him by saying “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” If I someone was that hostile to me, I think I would tend to avoid them, but instead Jesus complements Nathaniel.

“Jesus saw Nathaniel coming toward him and said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, there is no duplicity on him.”  John 1:47.

How much better would our interactions be if, when we are insulted by someone, we truly see them (see their pain and their need) and throw them a complement?  The result is that hearts would be softened toward us and turned toward Christ.

Ultimately, we know that our inclusion is with God, but it is our job to be Christ for each other.

Here is a challenge for this week:  Take the time to really see a friend, a coworker, child,  or elderly person.   Reflect on inclusion and if you are responding in a Christ -like manner.  Are your work, church, and family structures set up to be inclusive to all?

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Saint Patrick, The Shamrock, and The Trinity

March 16, 2011


St. Patrick at St. Nicholas in Belle River

The shamrock is a symbol both for the Holy Trinity and St. Patrick (389-461). The shamrock is a clover plant with a yellow flower and leaflets made up of a stem with three small green leaves. The plant is very common and widely distributed throughout Ireland.

St. Patrick was a zealous missionary to the Irish, a people who upon his arrival in 432 had heard little or nothing of Jesus and his gospel. St. Patrick was an energetic traveler, a determined evangelizer, and a courageous preacher, and as he canvassed the countryside he was assailed by bitter opponents who threatened his life and undermined his message, but undeterred, he made hundreds and thousands of converts.

Whether St. Patrick was speaking to local pagans who knew nothing of the Christian faith, or to neophytes, newly-baptized disciples who were not well-grounded in the truths of the faith, he was faced with the daunting task of explaining profound mysteries such as the Trinity which are so difficult to understand.

There are several popular legends about how St. Patrick used the shamrock to explain the mystery of the Trinity. According to one story, St. Patrick went to Connaught where he met two of King Laoghaire’s daughters, Ethne and Fedelm. St. Patrick had been unable to persuade the king to convert, but he convinced the king’s daughters. During their time of instruction St. Patrick used a shamrock to visualize the mystery of the Trinity, how a single plant with three leaves is analogous to the one Triune God with three separate and distinct Persons (Thurston, H. J., ed., Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Vol. 1, 615).

According to another legend, St. Patrick used a shamrock to help explain the Trinity in a sermon he preached directly to King Laoghaire.

According to a third legend, St. Patrick was traveling and happened upon a number of Irish chieftains along a meadow. The tribal leaders were curious about the Trinity and asked St. Patrick for an explanation. So he bent down, picked a shamrock, and showed it to them, and explained how the three leaves are part of the one plant, and how similarly the three Persons, Father, Son, and Spirit, are part of one Supreme Being.

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