Analogies and the Trinity

A minor dispute erupted on my FB page when I linked to an article criticizing the use of a fidget spinner as an analogy for the Trinity. That article says, “The truth is that the unfathomable and Most Holy Trinity cannot be explained with a mere analogy,” which is true, but which may give insufficient credit to what analogies can do for us in discussing the Trinity.

We know things either by experiencing them directly or by learning how they are like (or unlike) things we have experienced directly. For example, I know what chicken tastes like because I have eaten it many times, and I know what fish tastes like for the same reason. Frog legs, they tell me, taste like something midway between fish and chicken. (I’ve had them once and don’t remember.) So I know directly what chicken and fish taste, and I know what frog legs taste like mostly by comparison, which is to say by analogy.

When it comes to knowing the Trinity, we have an insurmountable difficulty. The Trinity is utterly unlike anything in the realm of our natural experience; those saints who have been favored with a mystical experience of the Trinity found themselves completely unable to describe it. Thus all analogies for the Trinity as a whole fail quickly. The Trinity is not like a shamrock, nor ice/steam/water, nor how you act differently around different people, nor a fidget spinner, nor a triangle.

“Aha!” you may think, “don’t we see a triangle used all the time in discussions of the Trinity?” Indeed we do, but the triangle is not itself meant as an analogy for the Trinity. Instead, it is meant to show the interior relationships of the Trinity–and these interior relationships do have analogies within our experience.

520px-shield-trinity-scutum-fidei-english-svg(From Wikimedia Commons)


First, we know what it means to say that “X is Y,” and we know what it means to say that “X is not Y.” So when we say that the Father is God, and the Son is God, and the Spirit is God, we have an understanding of each of those statements, even if we don’t see how they fit together. Similarly, when we say that the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, the Father is not the Spirit, the Spirit is not the Father, the Son is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Son, we have an understanding of what each of those statements means, even if we don’t grasp how to combine them with the statements that the Father is God etc.

Likewise, we can grasp the nature of at least some of their relationships. The Son is not the Father and the Father is not the Son precisely because of their relationship to each other. The Father is the Father because He has a Son, and the Son is the Son because He has a Father. This father/son relationship is how we distinguish between these two Persons, and it is the only way to distinguish between them.

The relationship of the Spirit to the other Persons is more complex. The technical term is that the Spirit proceeds by way of spiration, which basically means breathing (cf. the word respiration). Since the Father does not have a human body, and since the Son only has had one since the Incarnation while the Spirit proceeds eternally, this can’t refer to physical breath. But whatever it means, this relationship of spirating/being spirated is what distinguishes the Spirit from the Father and the Son.

St. Augustine provided a series of analogies for the individual Persons, based on the human psyche, such the mind, its knowledge, its love (De Trinitate, XIV), but he notes that they are “immeasurably inadequate” ideas (ibid., XV).

We can, therefore, grasp to some degree the individual concepts behind the doctrine of the Trinity, but we cannot comprehend the whole. All attempts to provide a metaphor for the whole either improperly split God into pieces or erase the distinctions between the Persons.

Returning at last to the fidget spinner: What in the true idea of the Trinity outlined above does it help us grasp? The number 3, and nothing more. It doesn’t help us gain any understanding of the mutual relationships which constitute the only real distinctions between the persons, and it is positively misleading in the way it encourages us to envision the Three as One God, and when it’s spun, blending the pieces into one circle, the distinction between the Persons disappears. Better no image at all than one which tells us nothing that we didn’t already know and suggests much that is wrong!

I want to be clear that I’m not attacking anyone who uses bad analogies; I’ve missed my share of comparisons too.

What color is “rose”?

What color is “rose” supposed to be?

Here are the official Pantone colors with “rose” in their name: nerdy link

Crayola doesn’t have a similar page, but Wikipedia does on their behalf. Over the years, Crayola has made crayons with “Rose” in the name in 8 different colors (nine names, since “Rose” and “Smell the Roses” are the same color):

Brilliant Rose: #E667CE
Medium Rose: #D96CBE
Rose Pink (now known as Carnation Pink): #FFA6C9
Razzle-Dazzle Rose, a.k.a. Hot Magenta: #EE34D2
Rose Dust: #9E5E6F
Rose (also Smell the Roses): #ED0A3F 
Rose Quartz: #BD559C
Rose Pearl: #F03865
Fiery Rose: #FF5470

A thought for Lenten reading

Do you read a lot of apologetic works? Switch up for Lent and read devotional works. Suggestions:

  • Anything by Fr. Jacques Phillipe, but especially
    • Searching For and Maintaining Peace
    • Interior Freedom
    • In the School of the Holy Spirit
  • The Fulfillment of All Desire, Ralph Martin
  • The Fire Within, Fr. Thomas Dubay (very challenging)
  • The Soul of the Apostolate, Jean-Baptiste Chautard
  • Abandonment to Divine Providence, Jean Pierre de Caussade

Do you read a lot of devotional works? Switch up for Lent and brush up on your theology. Suggestions:

  • Theology for Beginners, Frank Sheed. If you’re not a beginner, try Theology and Sanity instead.
  • What Difference Does Jesus Make?, Frank Sheed
  • The Shape of Catholic Theology, Aidan Nichols (more challenging)

And any time is a great time to read lives of the saints!


The Name of God is not a punchline

I saw on Facebook this morning one of the worst things I’ve ever seen there. It had nothing to do with American politics; it wasn’t anger bait; it was a meme, intended to be funny, whose punchline was the Divine Name–not “Jesus,” but the Name of God revealed to Moses: YHWH.

In ancient times, the Divine Name was spoken exactly once a year, by the High Priest when he entered the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement.

In ancient times, Jews reading the Scriptures aloud would not say the Divine Name. They would substitute the word “Adonai” (my/our Lord) instead.

Christianity followed this lead. The Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint uses the Greek word Kyrios, meaning “Lord,” wherever the Name occurs. Latin translations, including the official Vulgate translation, followed suit, using the equivalent Latin word Dominus. In our English translations, the word LORD in all caps or small caps is a sign of a similar practice.

In 2008, the Congregation for Divine Worship, the group in charge of Catholic worship worldwide, issued a “Letter to Bishop’s Conferences on ‘The Name of God’ “. In that letter, the Congregation noted, “[I]n recent years the practice has crept in of pronouncing the God of Israel’s proper name….” It goes on to note:

Avoiding the pronunciation of the tetragrammaton [=four letters, from the fact that God’s Name is written with four Hebrew letters] of the name of God on the part of the Church has therefore its own grounds. Apart from motives of a purely philological order, there is also that of remaining faithful to the Church’s tradition, from the beginning, that the sacred tetragrammaton was never pronounced in the Christian context nor translated into any of the languages in which the Bible was translated.

So: The practice of Judaism was (and is, as far as I know), not to say the Divine Name. Christians never used the Divine Name, even in translating the Bible. The CDW forbade its use in worship, where it never should have crept in anyhow.

Yet somehow it’s acceptable to use the name as part of a joke in a meme? Please, if you liked that meme, or worse yet shared it, think about it.

Catholic Shrines of the United States and Canada

I’m not sure where or when I got my copy of Catholic Shrines in the United States and Canada, by Fr. Francis Beauchesne Thornton, with a 1954 copyright. Amazon doesn’t say that I got it through them, so I must have seen it at a used book sale somewhere, or my parents did and bought it for me.

It’s an interesting book, though the writing hasn’t always aged well, and the author’s fascination with the Spanish evangelization of the Southwest led him (IMHO) to put too many mission churches of the Southwest on the list while neglecting other parts of the country. (At least he got Dickeyville.) It’s also missing some newer shrines, and sad to say, a few of the ones it gives have since closed.

So I have created a Google Sheet listing all the shrines in the book, with the closed ones listed separately at the bottom, and adding in major shrines I know about, and URLs for shrines where I could find one. My criteria for “major” are not firmly established; I don’t want the list to get unwieldy, so as a rough approximation a shrine needs at least its own page on a parish website. And the Fra Angelico Shrine at St. Mark’s in Peoria is a “major” shrine because I say so 🙂

If you have a suggestion, please let me know.

The Holy Name of Jesus

A post in two parts: In the first part, I will expound a little on the force of Jesus’s Holy Name, and in the second, I will explain that use of the words God and Jesus as profanity, while to be avoided, is often not a mortal sin.

Part the First:

I had known for as long as I can remember that one ought not to use the name of Jesus as profanity, but the wrongness of it only struck me outside of a movie theater in 2004. I’d just seen The Passion of the Christ with most of the rest of the seminary. We were leaving the theater in silence–what could we say?–and as I walked out into the parking lot, I heard someone shout Our Lord’s Name in anger. It wasn’t directed at us, but it still was like a slap in the face. That the Name of someone who suffered for me should be used like that!

The devil hates the very Name of Jesus. He does his best to get people to use it as a curse so that he can pervert it to his own uses. Don’t do that.

Part the Second:

I am not in the least intending to encourage anyone to take misuse of the Lord’s Name lightly.

The commandment not to take the name of the Lord in vain pertains most strictly to the taking of solemn oaths. When a person makes a solemn promise which he calls God to witness (e.g., “so help me God,” swearing on a Bible), he is strictly bound to keep it. Making such a promise without an intention to keep it is a mortal sin. (Casual use of “swear to God” is offensive and shouldn’t be done, but it’s not a solemn oath). If the oath was to do something wrong, the one who has sworn it is not bound to keep it, but he has seriously sinned in calling God to witness an oath to do wrong.

The second commandment also forbids blasphemy, which is “any speech or gesture that contains contempt for or insult to God” (Jone, 190).

Jone goes on to say:

Profanity, or the disrespectful use of the Holy Name in anger or thoughtlessly, is in itself only a venial sin.

Profanity may be seriously wrong if the anger that causes it is directed against God or if it appears, objectively, at least, that one intends thereby to vent his anger against most sacred objects. It may also be seriously sinful because of scandal or an erroneous conscience.

I believe that Jone (Moral Theology, 3rd ed., trans. Rev. Urban Adelman, The Newman Bookshop) is transmitting the common conclusion of moralists on the matter.

Again: Don’t misuse the Name of Jesus, nor the word God, nor other sacred words. If you have such a habit, work at breaking it. But the way most people misuse these words most of the time is not a mortal sin. That doesn’t make it acceptable. Don’t do it. But it is usually not a mortal sin.

Mary, Mother of God

A selection from Cardinal Gibbons’ classic Faith of the Fathers:

When we call the Blessed Virgin the Mother of God, we assert our belief in two things: First–That her Son, Jesus Christ, is true man, else she were not a mother. Second–That He is true God, else she were not the Mother of God. In other words, we affirm that the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Word of God, who in His divine nature is from all eternity begotten of the Father, consubstantial with Him, was in the fulness of time again begotten, by being born of the Virgin, thus taking to Himself, from her maternal womb, a human nature of the same substance with hers.

But it may be said the Blessed Virgin is not the Mother of the Divinity. She had not, and she could not have, any part in the generation of the Word of God, for that generation is eternal; her maternity is temporal. He is her Creator; she is His creature. Style her, if you will, the Mother of the man Jesus or even of the human nature of the Son of God, but not the Mother of God.

I shall answer this objection by putting a question. Did the mother who bore us have any part in the production of our soul? Was not this nobler part of our being the work of God alone? And yet who would for a moment dream of saying “the mother of my body,” and not “my mother?”

The comparison teaches us that the terms parent and child, mother and son, refer to the persons and not to the parts or elements of which the persons are composed. Hence no one says: “The mother of my body,” “the mother of my soul;” but in all propriety “my mother,” the mother of me who live and breathe, think and act, one in my personality, though uniting in it a soul directly created by God, and a material body directly derived from the maternal womb. In like manner, as far as the sublime mystery of the Incarnation can be reflected in the natural order, the Blessed Virgin, under the overshadowing of the Holy Ghost, by communicating to the Second Person of the Adorable Trinity, as mothers do, a true human nature of the same substance with her own, is thereby really and truly His Mother.

It is in this sense that the title of Mother of God, denied by Nestorius, was vindicated to her by the General Council of Ephesus, in 431; in this sense, and in no other, has the Church called her by that title.

And on earth … ?

I did this research (or most of it) for my Christmas homily and ended up not using it, so I’m posting it here so it won’t go to waste entirely.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:13-14, ESV)

Or: and on earth peace, good will toward men (KJV and others in that line)

Or: and on earth peace to men of good will. (Douay/Rheims-Challoner; cf. the current translation of the Gloria).

You can compare more translations here, if you like. Here it is in Greek:

δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις θεῷ καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκίας.

Glory in highest to God and upon earth peace to men eudokias.

What should we do with eudokias? Which translation is right? They seem to fall into three groups. There’s the King James group, which has good will functioning in the same grammatical role as peace and glory. There’s the Vulgate-following group (more on that later), which has men of good will. And there’s the those on whom his favor rests group.

What does eudokias mean?

Derivation is always a chancy way to determine meaning (look up the derivation of the word nice sometime), but it’s a reasonable place to start, and in the case of this particular verse, it has definitely influenced translations.

The root (nominative) form of the word is eudokia. It’s a compound word, built from the prefix eu- and the word dokia. The prefix eu- means good or well. We see it in English in words like eulogyeuphemism, euphonium, and euphoria. Sometimes the letter u becomes a v, as in evangelism. The noun dokia comes from the verb dokeō. It means to seem, to appear, to think.

My Greek lexicons suggest good willdesire, purpose, choice.

It’s a word not found in secular Greek works, but I can look to see where it appears elsewhere in the Bible (all translations ESV):

Matt. 11:26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.

Luke 10:21   In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.

Rom. 10:1   Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.

Eph. 1:5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will,

Eph. 1:9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ

Phil. 1:15   Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from [good will].

Phil. 2:13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

2Th. 1:11 To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power,

Clues from grammar

The word eudokias is in the genitive case in this verse. The genitive often (though not always) indicates ownership or possession, like an English of or an apostrophe-s. In a few manuscripts of this verse, however, the trailing s is omitted from this word, placing it in the nominative case.

The King James line of translations (“and on earth peace, goodwill to men”) seems to be based on manuscripts in which eudokia is in the nominative. (There is no record of what source text the KJV translators used.) In the Greek text, the words for glory and peace are both in the nominative, subjects of an implied be verb (“Glory be to God in the highest, and peace be on earth”). The KJV translators, looking at eudokia in the nominative, had little choice but to make peace and good will a double subject. The word order in Greek is awkward for that, but not impossible.

All other translations use the genitive reading: “of goodwill.”

Whose goodwill?

Does “of goodwill” mean “having goodwill of their own” or “having God’s good will”? The “those with whom He is pleased” translations appear to think it’s the second. I think they’re going out on a bit of a limb in understanding eudokia as “having God’s favor/goodwill” when it really doesn’t seem to mean that anywhere else it’s used. My preference in translating would be to retain the ambiguity, say “of goodwill,” and let the reader/hearer contemplate both meanings.


When is Christmas over?

  1. The solemnity of Christmas ends at midnight on Christmas, like every other liturgical day.
  2. The observation of Christmas continues throughout the Octave of Christmas, concluding on the 8th day, which is January 1.
  3. The “Twelve Days of Christmas” end the day before Epiphany (at least when it’s celebrated on Jan. 6); Epiphany itself marks another end of the Christmas Season.
  4. The liturgical season of Christmas concludes on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which is usually on a Sunday but is on Monday this year because Christmas was on a Sunday and that’s how the framers of the liturgical calendar set it up.
  5. The old liturgical calendar had Christmas running all the way through the Feast of the Presentation on Feb. 2, and some places still leave their decorations up until then. Some of us still close Night Prayer with the Alma Redemptoris Mater until then.


This is more or less what I gave for a homily this weekend.

Isaiah prophesies the birth of a child who will be named “Emmanuel.” Writing in Hebrew for a Hebrew-speaking audience, there was no need to translate. St. Matthew, though, who was writing in Greek for a Greek-speaking audience,* found it necessary to provide a translation: “God [is] with us.” (More about that “[is]” below.)

I took Hebrew in my very last semester in seminary, when I was suffering severely from deaconitis. Deaconitis is like the worst case of senioritis you have ever seen, only worse. Most deacons are ready to be done and gone and on their way to priestly ordination. I vowed that I wouldn’t be like that, but …. Anyhow, I’m not bragging about my very sketchy knowledge of Hebrew—the generous teacher gave me a B that I’m not sure I deserved—but I do remember the day that I suddenly understood why “Emmanuel” means “God with us.”

Piece by piece, starting at the end of the word, with -el. Jews use three groups of words to refer to God. The most solemn one is the Name that God revealed to Moses at the burning bush: I AM WHO AM. This name was so sacred that only the high priest was allowed to say it, and he could only do so one time a year, on the Day of Atonement. Since the Name is a form of the verb “to be,” Jews nearly stopped using any form of the verb lest they say the Name by accident (yes, you can get by, mostly, without “be”).  The Church does not use the Name in her liturgy (as emphasized by a letter from the Roman Congregation for Divine Worship a few years ago), but the consonants are YHWH.**

Part of the Name did get used, the “Ya” part, which becomes “ia” or “ja” or “je” in Greek and Latin and English. When we say, “Alleluia,” we mean, “Praise the LORD,” and the -ia at the end is part of the divine Name. And the name “Jesus” means “the LORD saves.”

I wrote “LORD” above because the Jewish convention is to say the word “Adonai” every time the divine Name appears, and “Adonai” means “my Lord.” English translations of the Bible usually do the same, but use “LORD” instead of “Lord” to indicate that the substitution has been made. And “Adonai” is the second word used for “God” in the Old Testament.

The last words for “God” are “El” and “Elohim,” the latter being the plural form of the former, but used as a singular noun, a so-called “plural of majesty.” (The word “Adonai” is plural too.) Almost always, an -el at the end of a Hebrew name is a reference to God: “Israel” is “triumphant with God,” “Samuel” is “word of God,” “Michael” is “Who is like God?” And so it is in the word “Emmanuel.” The “God” of “God with us” is the -el.

The rest of the word doesn’t take as long to explain. “Anu” is the pronoun for “we,” with some letters left out (this sort of thing is why I was lucky to get a B).

And, finally, the Hebrew pronoun for “with” is “im,” as it’s more properly transliterated into English. We get “em” instead of “im” in “Emmanuel” because the Greek transliteration in St. Matthew’s Gospel uses “e” instead of “i,”  as does the Greek version of the Old Testament.

So: with-us-God, and since, as mentioned above, Hebrew often omits “to be,” “with us is God” or “God is with us.” Interestingly (to me at least), Greek can also omit forms of “to be” (as can Latin), and this is one place it happens.

Why go through all this? To dazzle with you with my next-to-nonexistent knowledge of Hebrew? It’s because I encourage you to think about what it means for Jesus to be “God with us.” Not what it means theologically, not what it means for the world in general. What does it mean for you that the God who created all things and holds them in existence, the God who is utterly different from us and thereby utterly separated from us, that this God chose to become one of us, “pleased as man with Man to dwell,” as the Christmas Carol put it before it was sanitized for modern ears.

God is with us.

*Early Church historians suggest that it started out in Hebrew or Aramaic before being translated into Greek. It is, at any rate, Greek in its canonical form.

**This is actually how it gets written in Hebrew, since strict Hebrew functions without vowels. Did I mention that I was lucky to get a B in my Hebrew course?