Transcendent and Immanent


Transcendent and immanent — these are not words of everyday speech. They are theological words that express a tension found in language about God. Transcendence expresses the sense that God is above, apart, divine. God is almighty, all knowing and eternal. By contrast, to say that God is immanent is to claim that God is closely united to creation, that God may be found and related to within creation. When we speak of God in personal terms as just, kind or loving, we are asserting the immanence of God. At first glance, these concepts may seem to conflict — how can God be both near and distant, personal and divine? In the Christian faith however, these very different truths are no longer contradictory.
This weekend, we will celebrate an unusual feast, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity.
Many of the feasts of our liturgical year remember moments in salvation history like the birth of Christ or the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. On other occasions, we celebrate the lives of Saints or the Mother of God. This feast of the Most Holy Trinity differs in that it appears to celebrate a theological concept rather than a concrete event or person. The fact that this feast follows the Easter Season and the Solemnity of Pentecost points us to the truth that this is no mere intellectual exercise. The formulations of the theological doctrine of the Trinity arose from the early Councils of the Church when our Christian forebears struggled to explain what they had experienced in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Trinity was not a concept, but a reflection on the way in which these men and women experienced God.
The readings for the feast raise the transcendent and the immanent. In Deuteronomy, Moses addressed the liberated people of Israel. He summoned them to hear and live by the commands of the Lord by recalling for them the mighty deeds of the Lord. On the one hand, Moses spoke of the transcendent greatness of God. And yet, this God acted for the sake of the people. The almighty deity chose a people for Himself. In this passage, we have an extraordinary truth — the Creator and Lord of All chose to enter into a relationship with His creatures.
In the passage from Romans, Paul spoke of the new relationship with God made possible through Christ. In Paul’s understanding, before Christ there existed an unbridgeable gap between God and creation. In Christ, however, God chose to draw near; so near that He sent His only Son. The Son has bridged the gap and made possible a new intimacy in our relationship with God. With Jesus, we too may address God as “Abba.” Transcendent though the Almighty may be, we have been drawn close to the heart of God.
The passage from Matthew recalls the Trinitarian baptismal formula that Jesus used in the commission of the Apostles. But notice the promise of the Lord to remain with them always. Here again, we have a remarkable assertion of closeness, of personal relationship. Reason may tell us that by definition God must be almighty, all knowing, and eternal. Logic demands that the Creator be utterly superior to, and different from, creation. But the Scriptures prepared us to understand another, revealed truth, that we might not come to on our own — that God chooses to draw near to us. This understanding is confirmed and proclaimed to the world in the person of Jesus who embodies a new way of relating to God.
Like Moses and the gathered people of Israel, we enjoy a shared history. Jesus’ abiding presence among us transforms that shared memory into an ongoing experience of God. When we gather to celebrate the Trinity, we do more than proclaim an idea. We cry out in wonder with St. Paul at the experience of God. God has called and shaped a people over the ages. As we recall the events of our shared history, we welcome God’s presence in our lives and in the lives of those to come after us. We belong to something so much larger than ourselves — to the holy people of God, called by the Father, redeemed by the Son, sanctified by the Spirit.