We Are Baptized in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
What an enormous privilege and dignity we receive in becoming adopted sons and daughters of the “Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
As noted in the later Sundays of Easter, it’s sometimes difficult to find art that represents a particular day’s Gospel when the theme of the Gospel or the feast is abstract. That was the case in discussing Jesus as the “true vine,” and it’s a challenge on Trinity Sunday, too.
Today’s Gospel, however, comes to our aid. It’s the conclusion of Matthew (28:16-20). As we noted two weeks ago, Matthew does not have an explicit Ascension scene. Indeed, his account of Jesus’ Resurrected life is limited to three incidents: (1) Jesus and his angels appear to Mary Magdalene, “the other Mary,” and the guards posted to keep vigil at his Tomb (vv. 1-8); (2) the cover-up to suppress what the guards experienced on Easter morning (vv. 11-15); and (3) today’s Gospel, where Jesus meets the Apostles in Galilee and gives them the “Great Commission” (vv. 16-20).
This last episode was probably selected as the Gospel for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity because it explicitly names the three Divine Persons: “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Jesus declares that he has received “all authority in heaven and on earth,” i.e., he is truly the King of Kings. What this means is more thoroughly explained in 1 Corinthians 15, where St. Paul explicitly connects Jesus’ Resurrection on Easter with the resurrection of the body on the Last Day. As we have noted, Easter is not an isolated event. Easter set into motion an irreversible course to human history that will reach its terminus on the Last Day: what began at the Tomb in Jerusalem will end in our tombs, wherever they may be. Jesus is Victor, conquerer of sin and death! (vv. 20-28). Sin and death are not natural. They were not part of human history. They are not part of his Kingdom (although those who choose common cause with sin will be subject to, if not enjoying the benefits of, the order of that Kingdom). Jesus, whose work of salvation is carried forward by his Spirit, will restore under things to his Father (vv. 27-28).
St. Paul’s vision of the conquering Christ was already anticipated in the Old Testament. Daniel (7:13-14) foresees a judgment scene in which “one like a Son of Man” (v. 13) receives “dominion and glory” (v. 14) from the “Ancient of Days,” (i.e., the Father). His Kingdom is eternal, universal, and indestructible: all are subject to it (though, as the contemporary hymn puts it, “the greatest treasure remains for those who gladly choose you now”). The Messianic connection was clear: that’s why, when Caiaphas demands (Matthew 26:62-68) Jesus admit if he is the Messiah, Jesus invokes Daniel (“From now on, you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven”) and the High Priest rips his robes. Jesus’ Divine claim is clear; equally clear is Caiaphas’ rejection. (The same text will lead to Stephen’s martyrdom — see Acts 7:54-60).
Jesus today affirms that he has received “all authority in heaven and on earth.” Because of what that authority is for — offering all humanity the possibility of salvation — Jesus gives his Apostles the “Great Commission.” They are charged to go everywhere — not just in Israel but to “all nations” — to teach and to baptize. They are to share the Good News of Jesus Christ and engraft those they teach sacramentally into a personal unity with the three Persons par excellence: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (v. 19). That teaching appears to be primarily doctrinal (who these persons are) and primarily moral (to “observe all that I have commanded you” — v. 20 — given that Jesus has elsewhere made clear that “if you love me, you will keep my Commandments —John 14:15).
A few years ago, a certain silliness spread in certain theologically superficial circles. Some priests began bowdlerizing the form of Baptism, allegedly out of concern for its “sexist” and “patriarchal” character,” substituting their own made up “I baptize you in the name of the Creator and the Redeemer and the Sanctifier” for Jesus’ own formula. The Vatican has since declared this adulteration of Baptism invalid (meaning those who were “baptized” under this deficient formula need to be baptized).
I recall this incident because it tells us a number of things. One is the arrogance of certain priests or deacons who dare replace the words of the Gospel with their own predilections. But more importantly, it tells us about the Trinity. In Baptism, we enter into a relationship with Persons, not with functions. Jesus himself calls God “Our Father.” Jesus repeatedly speaks of himself as the “Son” or “Son of Man.” Jesus promises to send his “Spirit.” These are the names Jesus gives to the Persons of the Trinity and it is he who came to reveal them to us.
To speak of (much less “baptize” invoking) functions is wrong, for two reasons. First, it is depersonalizing, and the Triune God is the Ultimate Persons. When we marry, we say “I, John, take you Mary,” not “I, the butcher, take thee, the baker.”
Second, it is heretical. The Father does not go off for seven days to “create.” The Son does not “redeem” us and send a note to heaven, “Redemption finished.” The Holy Spirit does not gift us with grace and report back at night. While respecting the distinction of Persons, the entire Trinity is involved in creation, in redemption, and in sanctification.
So, through Baptism, we become adopted sons and daughters of the “Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” What an enormous privilege and dignity we receive, a privilege Jesus charged his Apostles with dispensing in the Name of (and not just work of) God.
While Matthew’s Gospel lacks an explicit Ascension, it does contain an implicit suggestion of his departure, for Jesus assures his Apostles he will be with them “until the end of the world” (v. 20). As there is no suggestion of Jesus retiring to a Galilee lakeside villa to which the Twelve occasionally reported, it’s clear from the overall context of the Christian tradition that Jesus was in fact going away and leaving the missionary ball in the Apostolic court.
Today’s moment is captured by the Polish Baroque artist, Szymon Czechowicz (1689-1775). His “Zmartywchstanie” (Resurrection) can be argued to embody this one Matthean moment when the Risen Christ appears to all his Apostles on a Galilean hilltop.
Christ appears with clearly resurrected attributes, e.g., the white garment in a transformed body with few, if any visible wounds (I cannot decide from my copy if the pierced side is there). The scene certainly aligns with the Gospel, i.e., the eleven are in a clearly mountainous environment where they see him. (Remember that Matthew recounts only one post-Resurrection appearance to the Apostles, in Galilee). In keeping with the Matthean text, “they worshipped him” (note three on their knees) “but some doubted” (the purpose of the “consultations” on the left and/or the one Apostle in white, standing somewhat in the rear? Contrast them to the three standing on the left, closest to Jesus, whose facial expressions seem more of surprise/amazement than doubt). Jesus’ pose serves to show his Risen Body, but also appears on the verge of saying something, which would again align with the Matthean text.
Czechowicz was born into a family of goldsmiths and studied painting at the St. Luke Academy in Rome. Upon his return to Poland, Czechowicz was responsible for multiple series of religious paintings in churches throughout the country, including major cities like Kraków, Warsaw, and Lublin. He also did a number of portrait paintings. This painting, from 1758, hangs in Kraków’s National Museum and was the subject of a 2009 Polish postage stamp. Czechowicz is considered a major representative of the Polish Baroque style, which blended Italian Baroque with Polish characteristics.
The Baroque had strong influence in Poland, especially in Czechowicz’s 17th and the 18th centuries. While not perhaps as grandiose as Italian Baroque (compare the size of Caravaggio’s versus Czechowicz’s characters) the dynamism the color balance, the tension — all those features are there. Part of it coincides with the Counterreformation, which explains the strong religious element in Polish Baroque art, but one should remember that, in contrast to the rest of Europe, 17th-century Poland was religiously peaceful: Polish historian Janusz Tazbir described Poland as “a state without stakes.”
Which, in the end, is what Jesus proclaims on that mountain on Galilee: a universal mission to all humanity, teaching and baptizing by the power of the Word and the Spirit, not (to borrow Sienkiewicz) “with fire and sword.” The former, after all, are much more persuasive and effective for “if God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31)