A Sign of Something More
By: Greg Rupik
Since we’re not at Mass, I want you to glance around at a nearby picture you might have hanging on the wall, or even pull one up on your phone.
These pictures that we have are signs, that is, they remind us of, and point to, certain people, places, or events. The significance of some of the pictures you’ve found would probably be obvious to the rest of us: maybe they feature a wedding dress, a birthday cake, or a newborn baby. Other pictures might require a story to really be understood.
This picture is very important to me, but it’s not obvious why. No one’s graduating or being baptized in the image, it’s not a picture of me, or my mother, or my cat. You could make some guesses. But ultimately, I’d have to tell you the story behind the image, and introduce you to the reality the sign—this picture—is pointing to:
This is a picture from one of the first few mornings of my honeymoon in Greece. This one snapshot, this one sign, is so useful and so important because it awakens my memories of that time, and allows me to imagine being right back on that beach. It puts me back in touch with the concrete reality of that week, the story of how it happened: We would start every morning by swimming out to visit a little octopus we had found in the shallows, then take in this view—the exact panorama from this picture—as the sun dried us off in our chairs.
Each of you knows the story behind the photos you’ve found. That’s probably why you took that photo in the first place!
This is the marvelous thing about pictures, and why they are important and useful to us: with just a glance, they point us back to a real series of events—and it’s those full, rich stories, heavy with the drama of real life, that make those images meaningful. Like all signs, pictures point us to something else, and give us an opportunity to connect with those realities.
Pictures aren’t the only signs we use as human beings. Our body language points to how we feel and what we’re thinking, cultural celebrations point to and remind us where we come from, and—importantly—words are signs.
The sound I make when I say the word “coffee” points you to imagine a certain smell or taste, a mug, a cup, or coffee beans. A word is helpful because, in a language, a word often points all of us to the same thing. When I make the funny sound “KAWFEE” you all know what I’m talking about.
So, signs—like pictures, gestures, ceremonies, and words—point us to other realities. They help us to indicate, in a snapshot or in a word, a different or deeper reality.
So imagine being a disciple of Jesus and trying to summarize, to capture in a snapshot or a word, the incredible things that he was doing every day: Jesus befriended the poor, the sick, and the marginalized and accompanied them. He listened to them, he fed them, he forgave them, he healed them, and he empowered them. While the religious and political establishments of Jesus’ time actively ostracized these people, Jesus made it a point to demonstrate that the poor matter, the sick matter, women matter, Gentiles matter, children matter. Not only this, Jesus fought for them: he actively protested against and challenged the religious and political systems which oppressed those people. Indeed, he was killed by those same systems for doing just that.
The word many ascribed to him and his mission was “Messiah,” anointed one. Jesus himself called this new reality of justice and peace for all the “reign” or the “Kingdom” of God.
In time, it became clearer to the disciples that the teachings and actions of Jesus during his life were God’s own merciful actions in the world—and that Jesus’ words revealed important truths about God’s own nature.
For example: Jesus referred to God as his Father, and he told his disciples he was doing his Father’s work. At the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus quoted Isaiah saying that “the Spirit of the Lord” was upon him, and that God’s Spirit had commissioned him to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed (Lk 4:18-19).
Jesus’ life, his entire mission, made explicit reference to these three: to God the Father, to himself as God’s only son, and to another—God’s Spirit—who was also Divine. His disciples saw that it was Jesus’ relationship with his Father and the Holy Spirit which formed a single dynamic, a way of life, an intimate, patient, divine expression of care, of justice, and of love.
These three persons were so profoundly joined together into one divine dynamic in the minds of early believers that they were often mentioned together: you can almost hear St . Paul remembering to list all three in today’s second Mass reading when he says “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you” (2 Cor. 13:13).
Paul, the Apostles, and the Early Christians emphasize this threeness as pointing to the divine reality that Jesus’ life revealed: that God’s own eternal life, God’s fundamental dynamic, is a single act of self-emptying, radically transformative love, shared between three divine persons.
It wasn’t until the third century that a new word was used to point to this divine reality: the Trinity.
The word “Trinity,” is a sign. For Christians, it points us to a story that we all know and share, like a language. It awakens our memory and puts us back in touch with the fact that “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” But further, the word “Trinity” points us to the fact that while in essence God is one, God is not, in essence, solitary or alone. When Christians say “God is love” like in the first letter of John, we mean God has been—and always will be—a living act of love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The Trinity is not just its definition: “one God in three divine persons.” That’s almost like me saying the photo I shared earlier is just a photo of a beach. Signs don’t just indicate something else, they invite us to engage with something more, with the reality they point to. This is echoed in one of the mottos of Pope Francis’ papacy: Realities are greater than ideas (Evangelii Gaudium, §233). So when considering the Trinity, we are invited not to get caught up in the idea of it, but to engage with that historical reality of God’s mysterious action in the life of Christ. And we’re also called to realize that we have become a part of God’s dynamic life of love through our Baptism.
Recall that we have all been baptized “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” In being made part of the Body of Christ through baptism, we have been submerged into, and become part of, the trinitarian current of divine love. We are, truly, Christians: “little Christs.” Today, as in Jesus’ time, there is oppression that goes unaddressed. For example, we see signs of anti-black racism everywhere—and even literal, physical signs of it following the deaths of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. Following the example of Jesus, our first step in addressing these monstrous injustices is to engage with the reality of racism these signs point to, the stories of the people affected, not just the idea of racism. It is only by first accompanying, listening to, and serving those who have been oppressed that we can learn how best to help, and thus genuinely share in the radical trinitarian love modeled by Jesus.
Our actions can be a sign to the hopeless that God still loves the world, and acts tirelessly through us to empower the powerless and share his Eternal Life. For, to paraphrase St. Augustine, ‘If they see love, they see the Trinity’ (De Trinitate, VIII.8.12).