On the Love of the Three Divine Persons for Man*
Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity
Sermon XXIX of St Alphonsus Liguori
“Going, therefore, teach ye all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”
St. Leo has said, that the nature of God is, by its essence, goodness itself. “Deus cujus natura bonitas.” Now, goodness naturally diffuses itself. “Bonum est sui diffusivum.” And by experience we know that men of a good heart are full of love for all, and desire to share with all the goods which they enjoy. God being infinite goodness, is all love towards us his creatures. Hence St. John calls him pure love—pure charity. “God is charity” (1 John 4:8). And therefore he ardently desires to make us partakers of his own happiness. Faith teaches us how much the Three Divine Persons have done through love to man, and to enrich him with heavenly gifts. In saying to his apostles, “Teach ye all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,” [cf Matthew 28:19]. Jesus Christ wished that they should not only instruct the Gentiles in the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity, but that they should also teach them the love which the adorable Trinity bears to man. I intend to propose this day for your consideration [first] the love shown to us by the Father in our creation; secondly, the love of the Son, in our redemption; and thirdly, the love of the Holy Ghost, in our sanctification.
First Point. The love shown to us by the Father in our creation.
1. “I have loved thee with an everlasting love, therefore have I drawn thee, taking pity on thee” (Jeremiah 31:3). My son, says the Lord, I have loved you for eternity, and, through love for you, I have shown mercy to you by drawing you out of nothing. Hence, beloved Christians, of all those who love you, God has been your first lover. Your parents have been the first to love you on this earth; but they have loved you only after they had known you. But, before you had a being, God loved you. Before your father or mother was born, God loved you; yes, even before the creation of the world, he loved you. And how long before creation has God loved you? Perhaps for a thousand years, or for a thousand ages. It is needless to count years or ages; God loved you from eternity. “I have loved thee with an everlasting love.” As long as he has been God, he has loved you: as long as he has loved himself, he has loved you. The thought of this love made St. Agnes the Virgin exclaim: “I am prevented by another lover.” When creatures asked her heart, she answered: No: I cannot prefer you to my God. He has been the first to love me; it is then but just that he should hold the first place in my affections.
2. Thus, brethren, God has loved you from eternity, and through pure love, he has selected you from among so many men whom he could have created in place of you; but he has left them in their nothingness, and has brought you into existence, and placed you in the world. For the love of you, he has made so many other beautiful creatures, that they might serve you, and that they might remind you of the love which he has borne to you, and of the gratitude which you owe to him. “Heaven and Earth,” says St. Augustine, “and all things tell me to love thee.” When the saint beheld the sun, the stars, the mountains, the sea, the rains, they all appeared to him to speak, and to say: Augustine, love God; for he has created us that you might love him. When the Abbé de Raneé, the founder of La Trappe, looked at the hills, the fountains, or flowers, he said that all these creatures reminded him of the love which God had borne him. St. Teresa used to say, that these creatures reproached her with her ingratitude to God. Whilst she held a flower or fruit in her hand, St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi used to feel her heart wounded with divine love, and would say within herself: Then, my God has thought from eternity of creating this flower and this fruit that I might love him.
3. Moreover, seeing us condemned to hell, in punishment of our sins, the Eternal Father, through love for us, has sent his Son on the earth to die on the cross, in order to redeem us from hell, and to bring us with himself into Paradise. “God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son” (John 3:16), love, which the apostle calls an excess of love. “For his exceeding charity wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sin, has quickened us together in Christ” (cf Ephesians 2:4, 5).
4. See also the special love which God has shown you in bringing you into life in a Christian country, and in the bosom of the Catholic or true Church. How many are born among the pagans, among the Jews, among the Mahometans and heretics … Consider that, compared with these, only a few—not even the tenth part of the human race—have the happiness of being born in a country where the true faith reigns; and, among that small number, he has chosen you. Oh! what an invaluable benefit is the gift of faith! How many millions of souls, among infidels and heretics, are deprived of the sacraments, of sermons, of good example, and of the other helps to salvation which we possess in the true Church. And the Lord resolved to bestow on us all these great graces, without any merit on our part, and even with the foreknowledge of our demerits. For when he thought of creating us and of conferring these favours upon us, he foresaw our sins, and the injuries we would commit against him.
Second Point. The love which the Son of God has shown to us in our redemption.
5. Adam, our first father, sins by eating the forbidden apple, and is condemned to eternal death, along with all his posterity. Seeing the whole human race doomed to perdition, God resolved to send a redeemer to save mankind. Who shall come to accomplish their redemption? Perhaps an angel or a seraph. No; the Son of God, the supreme and true God, equal to the Father, offers himself to come on earth, and there to take human flesh, and to die for the salvation of men. O prodigy of Divine love! Man, says St. Fulgentius, despises God, and separates himself from God, and through love for him, God comes on earth to seek after rebellious man. “Homo Deum contemnens, a Deo discessit: Deus hominem diligens, ad homines venit” (Sermo in Nativitas Christi). Since, says St. Augustine, we could not go to the Redeemer, he has deigned to come to us. “Quia ad mediatorem venire non poteramus, ipse ad nos venire dignatus est.” And why has Jesus Christ resolved to come to us? According to the same holy doctor, it is to convince us of his great love for us. “Christ came, that man might know how much God loves him.”
6. Hence the Apostle writes: “The goodness and kindness of God our Saviour appeared” (Titus 3:4). In the Greek text, the words are: “Singularis Deierga homines apparuit amor:” “The singular love of God towards men appeared.” In explaining this passage, St. Bernard says, that before God appeared on earth in human flesh, men could not arrive at a knowledge of the divine goodness; therefore the Eternal Word took human nature, that, appearing in the form of man, men might know the goodness of God. “Priusquam apparet humanitas, latebat benignitas, sed undetanta agnosci poterat? Venit in carne ut, apparante humanitate, cognosceretur benignitas” (Sermo i., in Eph). And what greater love and goodness could the Son of God show to us, than to become man and to become a worm [cf Psalm 22:7] like us, in order to save us from perdition? What astonishment would we not feel, if we saw a prince become a worm to save the worms of his kingdom! And what shall we say at the sight of a God made man like us, to deliver us from eternal death? “The word was made flesh” (John 1:14). A God made flesh! If faith did not assure us of it, who could ever believe it? Behold then, as St. Paul says, a God as it were annihilated. “He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant … and in habit found as a man” (Philippians 2:7). By these words the Apostle gives us to understand, that the Son of God, who was filled with the divine majesty and power, humbled himself so as to assume the lowly and impotent condition of human nature, taking the form or nature of a servant, and becoming like men in his external appearance, although, as St. Chrysostom observes, he was not a mere man, but man and God. Hearing a deacon singing the words of St. John, “and the Word was made flesh,” St. Peter of Alcántara fell into ecstasy, and flew through the air to the altar of the most Holy Sacrament.
7. But this God of love, the Incarnate Word, was not content with becoming flesh for the love of man; but, according to Isaiah, he wished to live among us, as the last and lowest, and most afflicted of men. “There is no beauty in him, nor comeliness: and we have seen him … despised, and the most abject of men, a man of sorrows” (Isaiah 53:2, 3). He was a man of sorrows. Yes; for the life of Jesus Christ was full of sorrows. Virum dolorum. He was a man made on purpose to be tormented with sorrows. From his birth till his death, the life of our Redeemer was all full of sorrows.
8. And because he came on earth to gain our love, as he declared when he said, “I am come to cast fire on the earth; and what will I but that it be kindled?” (Luke 12:49), he wished at the close of his life to give us the strongest marks and proofs of the love which he bears to us. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them unto the end” (John 13:1). Hence he not only humbled himself to death for us, but he also chose to die the most painful and opprobrious of all deaths. “He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even unto the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8). They who were crucified among the Jews, were objects of malediction and reproach to all. “He is accursed of God that hangeth on a tree” (Deuteronomy 21:23). Our Redeemer wished to die the shameful death of the cross, in the midst of a tempest of ignominies and sorrows. “I am come into the depths of the sea, and a tempest hath overwhelmed me” (cf Psalm 69:3).
9. “In this,” says St. John, “we have known the charity of God, because he hath laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). And how could God give us a greater proof of his love than by laying down his life for us? Or, how is it possible for us to behold a God dead on the cross for our sake, and not love him? “For the charity of Christ presseth us” (cf 2 Corinthians 5:14). By these words St. Paul tells us, that it is not so much what Jesus Christ has done and suffered for our salvation, as the love which he has shown in suffering and dying for us, that obliges and compels us to love him. He has, as the same Apostle adds, died for all, that each of us may live no longer for himself, but only for that God who has given his life for the love of us. “Christ died for all, that they also who live, may not live to themselves, but unto him who died for them, and rose again” (2 Corinthians 5:15). And, to captivate our love, he has, after having given his life for us, left himself for the food of our souls. “Take ye and eat: this is my body” (Matthew 26:26). Had not faith taught that he left himself for our food, who could ever believe it? … Let us pass to a brief consideration of the third point.
Third Point. On the love shown to us by the Holy Ghost in our sanctification.
10. The Eternal Father was not content with giving us his Son Jesus Christ, that he might save us by his death; he has also given us the Holy Ghost, that he may dwell in our souls, and that he may keep them always inflamed with holy love. In spite of all the injuries which he received on earth from men, Jesus Christ, forgetful of their ingratitude, after having ascended into heaven, sent us the Holy Ghost, that, by his holy flames, this divine spirit might kindle in our hearts the fire of divine charity, and sanctify our souls. Hence, when he descended on the apostles, he appeared in the form of tongues of fire. “And there appeared to them parted tongues, as it were of fire” (Acts 2:3).
Hence the Church prescribes the following prayer: “We beseech thee, O Lord, that the Spirit may inflame us with that fire which the Lord Jesus Christ sent on the earth, and vehemently wished to be enkindled.”
This is the holy fire which inflamed the saints with the desire of doing great things for God, which enabled them to love their most cruel enemies, to seek after contempt, to renounce all the riches and honours of the world, and even to embrace with joy torments and death.
11. The Holy Ghost is that divine bond which unites the Father with the Son; it is he that unites our souls, through love, with God. For, as St. Augustine says, a union with God is the effect of love. “Charity is a virtue which unites us with God.” The chains of the world are chains of death, but the bonds of the Holy Ghost are bonds of eternal life, because they bind us to God, who is our true and only life.
12. Let us also remember that all the lights, inspirations, divine calls, all the good acts which we have performed during our life, all our acts of contrition, of confidence in the divine mercy, of love, of resignation, have been the gifts of the Holy Ghost. “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmity; for we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit himself asketh for us with unspeakable groanings” (Romans 8:26). Thus, it is the Holy Ghost that prays for us; for we know not what we ought to ask, but the Holy Spirit teaches us what we should pray for.
13. In a word, the Three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity have endeavoured to show the love which God has borne us, that we may love him through gratitude. “When,” says St. Bernard, “God loves, he wishes only to be loved.” It is, then, [not] just that we love that God who has been the first to love us, and to put us under so many obligations by so many proofs of tender love. “Let us, therefore, love God, because God first hath loved us” (1 John 4:19). Oh! what a treasure is charity! it is an infinite treasure, because it makes us partakers of the friendship of God. “She is an infinite treasure to men, which they that use become the friends of God” (Wisdom 7:14). But, to acquire this treasure, it is necessary to detach the heart from earthly things. “Detach the heart from creatures,” says St. Teresa, “and you shall find God.” In a heart filled with earthly affections, there is no room for divine love. Let us therefore continually implore the Lord in our prayers, communions, and visits to the Blessed Sacrament, to give us his holy love; for this love will expel from our souls all affections for the things of this earth. “When,” says St. Francis de Sales, “a house is on fire, all that is within is thrown out through the windows.” By these words the saint meant, that when a soul is inflamed with divine love, she easily detaches herself from creatures: and Father Paul Segneri, the younger, used to say, that divine love is a thief that robs us of all earthly affections, and makes us exclaim: “What, O my Lord, but thee alone, do I desire?”
14. “Love is strong as death” (Canticle of Canticles/Song of Songs 8:6). As no creature can resist death when the hour of dissolution arrives, so there is no difficulty which love, in a soul that loves God, does not overcome. When there is question of pleasing her beloved, love conquers all things: it conquers pains, losses, ignominies. “Nihil tam durum quod non amoris igne vincatur.” This love made the martyrs, in the midst of torments, racks, and burning gridirons, rejoice, and thank God for enabling them to suffer for him: it made the other saints, when there was no tyrant to torment them, become, as it were, their own executioners, by fasts, disciplines, and penitential austerities. St. Augustine says, that in doing what one loves there is no labour, and if there be, the labour itself is loved. “In co quod amatur aut non laboratur, aut ipse labor amatur.”
*De Liguori, A. (1882). Trinity Sunday: On the Love of the Three Divine Persons for Man. In N. Callan (Trans.), Sermons for All the Sundays in the Year (Eighth Edition, pp. 211–218). Dublin; London: James Duffy & Sons.
Art for this post on the love of the three Divine Persons for mankind The Holy Trinity, miniature from the Grandes Heures [Great Hours] of Anne of Brittany, Queen consort of France (1477-1514). f. 155v. God the Father on left, Jesus on right, holding book with seven seals open to Alpha and Omega passage, dove of Holy Spirit in center, “animal” symbols of Four Evangelists in corners, Jean Bourdichon, 1503-1508, PD-US, Wikimedia Commons.