One of the caricatures of God attacked by atheists is that of God being ‘up there’ or ‘out there somewhere’ at a remove from us as an independent being with an independent will (often at odds with ours). It is intriguing to note how this is not the image of God portrayed in the Bible. God is not at an infinite remove from us and his creation. Rather we partake in his life and are immersed in the life of the Trinity. Realising this impacts radically on how we pray and live as followers of Christ.
Despite the emphasis in the Old Testament on the gulf between divine holiness and human sinfulness (cf. Ex. 15:11; Is. 6:3-5ff; Ps. 86:8-10), the first seeds of a theology of participation in God are found with the creation accounts in the Book of Genesis. God creates man as independent and free but with a nature in common with Himself. Humanity bears the imago Dei and is sustained in existence by God’s life-giving Spirit (cf. Gen. 1:27; 2:7). In the New Testament, this commonality with God is deepened with the teaching of Jesus, particularly in the Gospel of John. There Jesus describes our share in the divine life in the language of mutual indwelling: ‘Remain in me as I remain in you…the one who abides in me and I in him bears much fruit’ (Jn. 15:4-5). At the last supper, Christ prayed that ‘they also may be in us’ (Jn. 17:21), that is, that we be inserted between the love shared by the Father and the Son. Similarly, in his first letter, St John taught that ‘anyone who acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God remains in him and he in God’ (1 Jn. 4:15). For Paul, faith in Christ carried the believer inside Christ or inside the mystery of his life, death and resurrection. On many occasions, Paul uses the term en Christo…in Christ, to describe the new life of the Christian (cf. Rom. 3:24; 6:1-14; 6:23; 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 3:14; 1 Thess. 2:14). Once immersed in Christ, the life of the believer takes on the form of Christ’s life. Paul prays that he might ‘partake of his sufferings by being moulded to the pattern of his death’ (Phil. 3:10-11). As we share in his death so we share in his glory and new life: ‘You were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him’ (Col. 2:12; cf. Rom. 6:5). Finally from Scripture, the Apostle Peter teaches that for Christians, the effect of being granted divine power through faith is that we ‘become partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Pet. 1:4).
This theme of participation in the life of the Trinity is also preserved in the writings of the Fathers of the Church. In the East, Origen of Alexandria (c. 184-253) described man’s union with God as a ‘commingling’ of humanity with divinity (Book of Prayer, 10, 2). For Athanasius (c. 295-373) in his defence of Christ’s divinity, the concept of participation in God was crucial. To partake in the divine is human but for Christ it is impossible for he is divine (cf. The Councils, 51). Similarly in the West, for Augustine, ‘He deifies who is God through Himself, not by the partaking of another’ (Commentary on the Psalms, 30, 2). In the later Tradition, St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) taught that all creation participates in God’s being which he defined as Being itself. For Thomas the sharing by humans in God’s Being is elevated by our share in the grace of Christ and priesthood of Christ. For Thomas, the sacraments are ‘nothing else than certain kinds of participation in Christ’s priesthood derived from Christ himself’ (Summa theologica, 3, a. 63, 3).
Many of the writings of the saints of the Church portray a relationship with God where the concept of participation is supplemented by one of immersion and enfoldment. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) often uses the image of water to communicate her understanding of being plunged into the mystery of the divine. For Catherine ‘God is closer to us than water is to fish’ (Dialogue 2) for God is ‘a Sea Pacific with whom the soul has made so a great union that she has no movement except in me’ (Dialogue 79).
In her classic Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich (c. 1342-1416) teaches that we exist within the Godhead where ‘we are enclosed in the Father, we are enclosed in the Son and we are enclosed in the Holy Spirit’ (Showings, 54). For John of the Cross (1542-1591), God absorbs us into Himself and there ‘in the heart of the Trinity, God loves the soul within himself’ (Spiritual Canticle, 32, 6). Similarly, Teresa of Avila described the Trinity as ‘the soul’s dwelling place’ (Interior Castle, 7).
OK, so we are immersed in the life of the Trinity and share in its life. What difference does this make to how we relate to God and live as Christians? The implications are significant and can be divided into spiritual, pastoral and liturgical.
First the spiritual. If you are baptized, then know that you too are immersed into God’s life and remain there. In fact, the word baptism comes from the Greek baptizein meaning to plunge or immerse. We are immersed in the Trinity as a fish in water. It is there we ‘live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28) and are ‘alive to God in Christ Jesus, participating in the life of the Risen Lord’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1694). When we realise that we are within God, it changes and deepens how we pray. We don’t just pray to God but pray within God. In that space within the Trinity, the Holy Spirit moves us to join with the Son and enter into a harmonious stream of praise and adoration of the Father. And as we participate in this stream of praise, every aspect of our being becomes aligned to the person of Christ. As we participate in worship, we take on ‘the mind of Christ’ (cf. Phil. 2:5) and progressively conform to his nature of self-sacrificing love. When we call God ‘Our Father’ we do so not just in obedience to Jesus or imitation of him but with him as people who participate in his Sonship of the Father through love. And since ‘God is love’ (1 Jn. 4:8), every expression of human love then becomes a participation in God. Loving absorbs us into the God who is love and the source of love. Such is the nature of love that makes the possibility of participating in God, open to all.
Second the pastoral. If all creation is immersed in the Trinity then this is the basis for everything being interconnected (cf. Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 70). This raises creation to a new dignity which ought to effect the way we see all that God has made and treat it accordingly. Here is also the foundation of human fraternity and communion within the Church. We are immersed in the Trinity with our brothers and sisters who, like us, bear the imago Dei and so partake in the divine life. In the Church, this God-likeness has been intensified by the grace of Christ that draws us together into his Mystical Body where we are joined in communion by the Holy Spirit as brothers and sisters in Him.
Here is a spirituality that influences how we see the contribution we make in society and in the Church. It means that what we do and what God does in the world are intimately connected. Just as we participate in God’s life, so our work is a participation in God’s activity for we ‘share by our work in the activity of the creator’ (cf. John Paul II, Laborem exercens, 25). Therefore, the work of Christians and their participation in society contributes to the realization in history of God’s saving plan for the world. So too with our role in the Church. Because of our participation in the life of the Trinity, all Christians ‘are called to participate actively in the entire life of the Church’ (Gaudium et Spes, 43). When Christians witness, evangelise and serve, they extend in time and space the kingdom of God that Jesus came to establish on earth. In this light, fostering a culture of participation in the Church becomes vitally important. It calls all the baptised out of passivity to contribute their gifts towards the great missionary enterprise that is the New Evangelization.
In the liturgical sphere, the call of Vatican II for ‘full, conscious and active participation of the lay faithful in the Church’s life of prayer, especially at the Eucharist’ (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 14) is predicated upon our prior participation in the life of the Trinity and Christ’s priesthood. By participation, the Council did not only refer to external activity such as proclaiming the Word, bringing up the gifts or being an Extra-ordinary minister of the Eucharist. Rather the primary act of participating is in the prayer of the Church when we join with Christ, in the Spirit in adoring the Father.
At the Eucharist, we are not spectators looking on something taking place outside us but are immersed in the very mystery of God we worship. That is why the Eucharistic Prayer concludes with: ‘Through Him, with Him and in Him…all glory and honour is yours almighty Father forever and ever. Amen’. When we receive the Lord in Holy Communion, it truly is ‘the most perfect form of participation in the Mass’ (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 55) when the Body, Blood, soul and divinity of Christ penetrate and transform our body, blood, soul and humanity.
The Feast of the Most Holy Trinity is the ideal time to ponder again the awesome mystery of being immersed in God. The new atheism has challenged us again not to think of God as far removed and distant but as the very mystery of life that enfolds us. Together with all creation, we exist, breathe and love within God, not outside Him. May this truth transform how we think of God, pray, work, participate in the Church and celebrate the Eucharist. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit!