I can still remember the first time I saw the Milky Way. I was working at PIME’s parish in Los Angeles and a few of my friends and I wanted to go camping and hiking in Death Valley, a National Park I had wanted to visit since my youth.
Early in the morning we drove into the Mojave Desert and entered Death Valley at Furnace Creek where weary travelers can find a little settlement to buy supplies and where we campers could pay our camping fee for the night. From there we drove to a primitive camp site north of Furnace Creek and set up our tent and put out our gear for the night. We purposely opted for this primitive site because it had absolutely no outdoor lights at all. Once the sun fell behind the Panamint mountain range west of our camp site, absolute darkness embraced us and the entire world around us. I had never experienced darkness as deep and profound as I did that night. Then it happened, as if by magic. After our eyes adjusted to the inky, black darkness the night sky lit up with billions of stars. I had seen stars before but never on this scale. The entire sky was filled with them and they came in all sizes and brightness. I now understand why the ancients called this nighttime vision the Milky Way. It really looked as if someone tipped over a vessel and white milk rolled over the sky.
Back then I believed I was looking at everything that existed in the universe. Now, with recent discoveries and research I now know that I was looking at only 5% of what exists in the universe.
Our Milky Way galaxy contains billions of stars and the entire cosmos contains billions of galaxies that contain billions of stars each themselves. There are so many stars in the entire universe that they outnumber all the sand grains on planet earth. Now we know that we see only 5% or what exists; the vast majority, 95% of the universe, is unseen. It’s difficult to comprehend that the vast majority of what exists can’t be seen in spite of all that shines in our night sky. Astronomers now tell us that 24% of the unseen reality is call “dark matter” and the other 71% is called “dark energy.” It sounds like a scene from Star Wars.
The word “dark” is used to name this 95% of unseen reality not because it is something nefarious or malevolent but because it is mysterious. Science still doesn’t know what this stuff is or even how it works. All they can say with any certainty is that it is there and they can see the effects these two unseen, invisible realities have on the rest of the entire universe.
Today is the feast of the Holy Trinity. Now be honest with me. How do we explain to a visitor from some alien world what this means? Actually, how do you explain it to your son or daughter as they prepare for their First Communion? After all, we begin the Apostles’ Creed with this line: I believe in one God. Yet, we begin the Eucharist with a Trinitarian formula as we do all our prayers: In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. What are we talking about in this ‘God talk’?
Long before I was born great theological and philosophical minds thought, argued, fought, and even came to blows because of what we mean by one God, but who is also triune. The early Church was filled with groups and individuals who said this and others that as they sometimes violently debated what could capture the essence of what “One but Triune” meant. It took many centuries for the dust to settle before the Church came to a common understanding of “one but triune.” Perhaps St. Thomas Aquinas put it well when he said, “One can only know that God is, not what God is.”
A few years ago Joan Baez put out a CD entitled Day After Tomorrow. In her song entitled God is God she says this about God, “I believe in God and God ain’t us…God is God.” I can’t argue with that. Yet we do believe that our One God is also Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Using a personal and very inadequate language and weak explanation I would say this about God:
I see God in His generative aspect. God is a God of life and creation that is bold and wonderful and good. The Son is God’s presence among us as ground breaker, path creator and guide, helping us travel safely thorough a very brutal and immoral world that He came to redeem and elevate out of the mire. Finally, the Spirit is God’s wind that still blows and fills our spiritual sails as it pushes us safely away from the shoals of destruction in the world to the safe harbor of our Father where Jesus is preparing a room for us as He promised.
The Trinity is the divine “dark matter” and “dark energy” that is still active in our lives. We can’t see it but we can feel the effects it has on our lives, our relationships, our deeds and actions.
Enjoy and savor the mystery, folks!
The readings for Holy Trinity Sunday are:
Proverbs 8: 22-31
Romans 5: 1-5
John 16: 12-15