The Being of God, revealed in creation and redemption, reflects its image in the Human, male and female.
In Christian tradition the first Sunday after Pentecost is Trinity Sunday. With the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to generate and guide the church, the fullness of God has been revealed as containing three aspects – power, vulnerability, and sustaining presence; or, as some might prefer to express it, as the parental, brotherly, and mother-sisterly powers of being.
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
The reading from Proverbs presents an intimate companion of God the creator. In older wisdom rhetoric, wisdom is the acquired learning and insight that makes possible successful living. In some later parts of Proverbs (e.g., 1:20-33), and even more in books of the Hellenistic period, Ben Sira and Wisdom of Solomon, the qualities of wisdom, which shape the whole character and being of a wise person, are personified and represented as Woman Wisdom, offering humans the benefits of her divine knowledge and insight. (The noun “wisdom” is feminine in both Hebrew and Greek.) Even some language appropriate to goddesses in a polytheistic world is applied to Woman Wisdom to lift up her divine origin and powers. The reading in Proverbs 8:22-31 is the most striking presentation of Woman Wisdom in that book.
Wisdom is a divine quality pervading the created world. The creation reveals the masterly design, deep foresight, and intricate harmonies of a profound mind. Thus wisdom was the very first element in the process of world creation, and continues as a sovereign quality of the ongoing nature of the created world. These ideas are expressed in the poetry of Wisdom’s joyful declarations and celebrations in our passage. “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, / the first of his acts of long ago” (verse 22, NRSV).
At the successive events of world-structuring (verses 24-29), Wisdom was present, collaborating as it were. Woman Wisdom is a cheerful and exuberant companion, who sums up her companionship as follows:
I was with Him as a confidant,
A source of delight every day,
Rejoicing before Him at all times,
Rejoicing in His inhabited world,
Finding delight with mankind [literally, “sons of Adam”].
(8:30-31, New Jewish Publication Society Version)
In other words, God had a lot of fun in his creative exuberance!
It is not surprising that such language prompted later interpreters to see here anticipations of the Logos as God’s agent of creation. (“He [the Word] was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him…” John 1:2-3) Or that Christian hymns declared about the beloved Son, “He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17, NRSV). And though it is about sustaining creatures rather than creating them, the voice of Woman Wisdom may echo in Jesus’ words, “Come to me, all you that are weary …” (see Matthew 11:28-30)
The marvel of the created world is also the cause of praising God in the Psalm reading. It is not so much the intricate wisdom of the creation that is celebrated as the place of the human in the glory of the created world.
This hymn is ecstatic in its acclamation of the majesty of God’s work in all the universe. Its poetic skill directs the attention of the hearer over the dimensions of that universe. The attention moves in vertical and horizontal contrasts, closing in from outer extremes to the central motion, that of elevating the human being to rule.
God’s glory is set “above the heavens,” beyond the extremes of human perception. In contrast, “out of the mouths of babes and infants” – that is, at the lowest extreme of human but unintelligible life – has come “a bulwark” of praise. This presumably means that the babbling of infants is intelligible to God – and in fact is established by God as praise, because God saves and protects the tiny, helpless things. This saving of the babbling infants is equivalent to saving the fugitive by providing a fortified city, the city of refuge, from which the “enemy and the avenger” cannot drag off the refugee. (The image of the protected refugee uses the horizontal and encircling dimension.) God’s praise has been acclaimed in the highest and lowest places, both of which are mysteriously beyond human comprehension.
Next, the attention goes up again, but only to the visible heavens, not above them. “When I look at your heavens…” with the intricacy of their stars and moon cycles, what a contrast there is, looking downward again, with the modest humans down below. It makes one ask, “What are humans,” that you (God) take care of them in your way? Even within the visible intelligible world, God’s creation is awesomely vast in its vertical contrast.
Now there is a motion, a vertical motion. “Yet you have made the human a little lower than God [the Greek says “angels”], and crowned the human with glory and honor” (verse 5, NRSV modified). The human has been enthroned, elevated to a position of rule and authority. Literally, God “has caused the human to rule” (Hebrew māshal in hiphil form). To rule over what? Over the works of God’s hands, over everything now set under the human’s feet.
And now our attention follows these things that are under the feet: “…all sheep and oxen [the domestic animals], and also the beasts of the field [wild animals, as we move out in concentric circles from the center], the birds of the air and the fish of the sea [the creatures above and the creatures below], whatever passes along the paths of the sea,” that is, the mysterious horizontal movements around the lower places. God’s “majesty” is great in all the earth – as exercised through the crowned human being.
Given this utterly lofty status and role of the human, is it any wonder that later interpreters saw in this Human, not just generic people, but an exceptional being of God’s own sending? In the New Testament, this rule over God’s creation can be exercised only by the Anointed One of God, elevated to heavenly status (I Corinthians 15:27; Ephesians 1:22; Hebrews 2:5-9, all quoting this psalm).
The Epistle reading is a transition passage in Paul’s epistle to the Romans. It sums up the preceding argument about justification by faith as exemplified in Abraham (chapter 4), points toward the view of Jesus Christ as the New Human (chapters 5-7), and knows the Holy Spirit as the giver of the New Life (chapter 8).
This transitional passage is itself trinitarian.
- Justification establishes “peace with God” and leads to the “hope of sharing the glory of God” (verses 1-2).
- The justification was brought about by the Lord Jesus Christ who leads the justified ones into suffering, endurance, (new) character, and hope, all of which imitates the self-sacrificing obedience of the Son (verses 3-4).
- And finally the hope that is the culmination of the new life is caused by the gift of the Holy Spirit, which empowers the new life of the justified ones (verse 5).
The Gospel reading is the final selection in this post-Easter season from the farewell discourses of Jesus in John’s Gospel. Like the Epistle reading, this is a short text that is marked by its trinitarian balance, though the three aspects of divine being are intermingled throughout the passage. (See the Special Note below on the Spirit in this Gospel.)
The speaker is the Son. What is emphasized at first is the promised gift of the Spirit of truth, but it is the work of the Spirit to “glorify” the Son and to transmit to the disciples what is the Father’s and the Son’s.
The discourses emphasize throughout that there is more to come. Continuity between Jesus’ teaching when present and what the disciples will need later is provided by the Spirit. The disciples cannot comprehend it yet, but as they go on more will be unfolded by the Spirit of truth. Nevertheless, there is equal emphasis that what the Spirit will later unfold is only what the Son has already made available, which was in turn what the Son received from the Father.
“All that the Father has is mine” (verse 15). The kind of personal intimacy that Wisdom shared with the Lord at the dayspring of creation is shared between these personas of God, as this passage presents them. Much later, Christian bishops and theologians would attempt to give abstract expression to these insights in the doctrine of the Trinity.
Special Note on the Spirit in John
The topic of the (Holy) Spirit in John and its relation to God and Jesus may not be as complicated as some discussions suggest – unless one is seeking subtleties and doctrinal issues belonging to later ages. To give you your own review, all the sayings of the Gospel that contain the word pneuma (Spirit/spirit, or sometimes “wind” or “breath”) will simply be listed and quoted here, to show the flow of pronouncements about the Spirit. (All quotes are from the NRSV.)
1:32-33. [John the Baptist speaking.] And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’”
3:5-8. [In the night-time discussion with Nicodemus.] Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above [or born again].’ The wind [spirit] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound if it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
4:23-24. [Jesus is speaking to the Samaritan woman about the correct place of sacrificial worship, a sectarian controversy between the Jews and Samaritans.] “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
6:60-63. [At the climax of the long discourse about Jesus as the Bread of Life.] When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus … said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”
7:37-39. [Jesus’ statement during a controversy at a festival in Jerusalem is interpreted by the Gospel narrator.] On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” [No such quote is found in our scriptures, but the narrator explains…] Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
11:33. [A reference simply to Jesus’ human spirit at the mourning of Lazarus’ death.] When Jesus saw her [Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus] weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.
13:21. [Also a reference to Jesus’ human spirit, at the final dinner and foot washing.] After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.”
14:16-17. [In the farewell discourses on the last night.] “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you and he will be in [or among] you.” [Later text traditions read the references to the Spirit as neuter – “it” – instead of as masculine.]
14:25-26. [Continuing the preceding.] “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”
15:26-27. [More of the same.] “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.”
16:12-13. [The beginning of this Sunday’s Gospel reading, the last occurrence of “spirit” in the farewell addresses.] “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”
19:30. [When the end had come.] When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
20:22. [The Holy Spirit passes to the disciples from the Risen Jesus in the upper room.] When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”