What is Trinity Sunday?
In terms of the development of the Church Year, the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity is one of the youngest days in the Church Year, not becoming a universal celebration until 1334 when Pope John XXII directed that this Feast be observed on the Sunday after Pentecost. Although it was not universal until 1334, it had been observed by churches in Germany and England since the early 10th century, when it was introduced by Bishop Stephen of Liège (bishop from 903-920). It eventually caught on in France, Spain, and Italy.
The Propers for the day—the Introit, Collect, and Readings—are an amalgam of Propers for the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity and the Propers for the Sunday in the Octave of Pentecost, which celebration was eliminated to make way for Trinity Sunday. The Introit and Collect are unique to Trinity, while the Readings (except the Old Testament Reading) are those appointed for the Sunday in the Octave of Pentecost. The Trinity Propers can be traced to a devotional book for priests compiled by Alcuin (740-804), an ancient scholar and priest.
The Feast of the Most Holy Trinity stands as a hinge between the two halves of the Church Year. On one side of Trinity is the Semester Domini, the seasons of Advent through the day of Pentecost, in which we focus on events in the life of Christ. The other side of Trinity Sunday is the Semester Ecclesiæ, a focus on the life of the Church and what shape our Christian life takes.
Why do we confess the Athanasian Creed on Trinity Sunday?
Though it is named the Athanasian Creed, suggesting St. Athanasius (296-373) as the author, research has shown that he was not the author of this Creed. Though we cannot say for sure when this Creed was written and formally adopted by the Church, scholars have suggested two possible datings. The first is between 381-428 because the Creed refutes the Apollinarian heresy, which denied that Christ was a true Man because those who held it said Christ could not have a soul. The second dating, which places this Creed in the mid to late fifth century, is advanced because it also combats Nestorianism, a heresy which said there were two Christs, one Divine, one Human. In the end, it is only appropriate that this Creed bears Athanasius’s name, since he was a staunch defender of the Trinity in his day.
The Athanasian Creed can be divided into two halves, which confess the Trinity and Christ, respectively. The first half confesses the full and equal divinity, eternity, and majesty of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The second confesses Christ’s Incarnation and important events in His redeeming work, in the same manner as the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. The Athanasian Creed is bookended by a statement that unless one confesses the Trinity and Jesus Christ correctly, as summarized by the Creeds, they cannot be saved. This catholic (universal) truth has been confessed by the Church of all times and places and is drawn from the only source of doctrine: the holy Scriptures.
There are some phrases in the Athanasian Creed which we may find difficult, or seemingly incompatible with the central doctrine, the forgiveness of our sins by God’s grace through faith in Christ. The first is in the “bookend” statement: “This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved.” This is best explained by the Collect of the Day. We prayed that Christ would “keep us steadfast in the faith.” This faith is not something we do, or something we can even hold onto by ourselves. This faith is created by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God (Romans 10:17). On our own we cannot “believe faithfully and firmly.” Left to ourselves we would not be saved. It is only by the Holy Spirit that we can keep the faith in any way.
The second puzzling phrase is the second-to-last where we say, “And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire.” We all know the evil we have done, and that the good we have done cannot outweigh the evil. Are we all destined to everlasting fire? If it were up to our works, yes. However, as James reminds us, faith produces good works (James 2:20). In this case, good works is synonymous with faith. Without even realizing that we do it, or intending to do it, faith does good works that serve our neighbor. When the Athanasian Creed says “they that have done good shall go into life everlasting,” it is another way of saying, “those that have faith created by the Holy Spirit will receive everlasting life.”
Additionally, a word we are unused to in our Creeds appears here: catholic. It may seem odd to us to have this word, which means universal, appear only in this Creed. In reality, all three Creeds use the word catholic to describe the Church, not Christian as we are used to saying. The reason for this uniqueness is historic. Though catholic is the best translation of the Latin word catholicam, older forms of German did not have a word for that, so they simply translated it as Christliche, Christian. Because our liturgical sources are derive from German sources, we have maintained the use of Christian instead of catholic. Historically there was no German translation of the Athanasian Creed, so when English hymnals were prepared, we borrowed translations already in place in other traditions, and they used the word catholic. When The Lutheran Hymnal was being prepared it was proposed that the word catholic be used in all three Creeds, but it was eventually changed to what we know today.
As we celebrate the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity, we conclude the observances of God’s revelation of Himself and His good and gracious will of salvation through Jesus Christ with a celebration and confession of God’s ultimate revelation of Himself, as three Persons in one God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Redeemed and kept in the true faith by this Triune God, we now learn what shape our Christian life takes until the Last Day when He draws us to Himself.
This is the question we all ask when we see something different, especially in church. Why are we using white instead of red? Why does this day have a name? Why did the Pastor do what he just did?