Consubstantial yet a Different Person

Wednesday of the Fourth Week of Lent: Isaiah 49:8-15, John 5:17-30.

There’s a lot going on at my house today as we prepare to replace our flooring, so I apologize for the short reflection. I’d just like to think about the moment in the gospel reading when Jesus speaks of the mystery of the Trinity, specifically the Father and Son who are separate yet at the same time One God. In the early history of the Church, this was one of the great jumping off points for heretics who wanted to contain and understand this mystery and arrived at incorrect conclusions. It often manifested as a demotion of the Son as less than the Father (e.g., Arianism  or Adoptionism) or an elevation of the Son as being a divine spirit and not a man at all (e.g., Monophysitism or Docetism). There’s also the problem of people claiming we worship three gods, not one God!

There are many errant beliefs that rage unnoticed and unexamined today, in fact, among otherwise pious Catholics and Christians of other denominations. A true understanding is important — to the best of our abilities, since this is, after all, the greatest mystery of our faith.

We have to start with the version of the Nicene Creed we say at Mass. It lays out for us the essential relationship between the Father and Son. As the USCCB website states:

The bishops at the Council of Nicea (AD 325), in order to ensure that Jesus was professed as the eternal Son of God, equal to the Father, stated that he is “the Son of God, begotten from the Father, the only-begotten, that is from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, the same substance ( homoousion) with the Father…” The Creed of the Council of Constantinople (381), which is professed at all Sunday Masses and Solemnities within the Catholic Church, similarly stated: “We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of the same substance ( homoousion) with the Father.”

We now say “consubstantial,” not “of the same substance.” I think this concept of consubstantiality is very important for us to always keep in mind. The divine person of the Father is the Creator, the great mover who initiates all things. His Son is, as St. Paul writes, “the firstborn of all Creation” (c.f. Colossians 1), yet is not of a different substance than the Father. At this point, we have to dispense of biology class. This is not a mammalian relationship, but a divine one. We have no idea how this divine substance exists, leads to creation, has intelligence, etc. It is only through God revealing Himself to us through prophets and His Son, and secondarily through all of His Creation, which has the fingerprint of the Father throughout, that we start to learn about Him. 

So, when we hear Jesus say, “the Son cannot do anything on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for what he does, the Son will do also,” we must be careful not to imagine that the Father operates independently of the Son and in a greater way. Jesus uses these terms to help us start to grasp the ultimate glory and priority of the Father — it is the Way of humility and fear of God that He gives to us as a gift to help us towards salvation.

I don’t think that we should just shrug and accept it as a mystery, although that is certainly an option. But for those who want to delve deeper into this mystery, there are great saints smarter and more graced than the rest of us who have shared their meditations. There are so many great sources: Chrysostom, Augustine, Aquinas, and many more. For the sake of brevity given an impossibly deep subject, one small image from St. Augustine jumps out at me. Reflecting on the line the Son cannot do anything on his own, St. Augustine presents us with a way to think of the unity of the Father and Son without thinking of the Son as less than the Father (instead, maintaining that they are equal). He compares them to a flame: “The generating flame is coeval with the light which it generates: the generating flame does not precede in time the generated light; but from the moment the flame begins, from that moment the light begins. Show me flame without light, and I show you God the Father without Son” (Tractates on the Gospel of John 20.8).

What a great thought! He bumps up the analogy later: “If, indeed, you can separate the brightness from the sun, then separate the Word from the Father” (20.13). And he notes that he’s not just talking about the sun, but the divine essence. “See God, see His Word inhering to the Word speaking, that the speaker speaks not by syllables, but this his speaking is a shining out in the brightness of wisdom. What is said of the Wisdom itself? It is the radiance of eternal light. (Wisdom 7:26).

St. Augustine (1645-1650), Philippe de Champaigne | Wikimedia Commons.

It is only through God’s grace that He reveals Himself to us. The prophets, the Apostles, and the saints are outstanding examples of those who have been graced with understanding. It is from them that we must continually refresh our understanding. On that note, I can think of nothing better to end with than St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians. There is a reason it is used so much in the Divine Office: it is an intense meditation on the relationship between the Father and the Son.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Col 1:15-20).

 

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