From Masks to the Trinity and Back Again

Last Updated on September 6, 2022 by GMC

Ancient Greek theatrical mask of Zeus, replica. Licensed by Carole Raddato under CC BY-SA 2.0.

21st Week in Ordinary Time, Tuesday (Year II)

Matthew 23:23-26

Jesus said: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You pay tithes of mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity. But these you should have done, without neglecting the others. Blind guides, who strain out the gnat and swallow the camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24)

What if hypocrisy was an impossibility, like squaring the circle? 

For starters, what are the conditions that make hypocrisy possible?

The word hypocrisy comes from the ancient Greek hypo- (“under”) + krinō (“I separate, judge, decide”). The PIE (Proto-Indo-European) root of krinō is krei- (to “sieve,” thus “discriminate, distinguish”). The overall sense of krei- is a splitting, dividing, or separating.

The original word did not have a negative meaning, but referred to a stage actor (hypokrites) in ancient Greece. A hypokrites was an interpreter of a character from underneath a mask. In modern usage, a hypocrite is a pretender who wears a mask to conceal what is underneath.

The substructure of hypocrisy is thus a split between appearance and reality. Individuals have the capacity to create personas (a word that originated in the Roman theater, meaning “mask”). 

Authentic encounter between persons is often conceived as “face to face.” Inauthentic encounter is “mask to mask.” Without spiritual X-ray vision, the “insides” (thoughts, feelings and intentions) of other persons are unknowable. Face and mask are difficult to disentangle in our four-dimensional world.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You cleanse the outside of cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may be clean” (Matthew 23:25-26).

An image from Edwin A. Abbott’s novella, Flatland, may serve to illustrate the conditions of hypocrisy. A two-dimensional square with only length and width has no thickness. Height (up-down) is not a category in his world. Since he cannot rise “above” Flatland, other polygons appear to him as a line (like the edge of a piece of paper). In effect, he is unable to see any figure, including himself, as it really is.

If the square acquired consciousness of height, he could “see” the insides (area) within the lines of other squares and polygons. 

Hidden subjectivities (the “inside of the cup”) are invisible to others who see only the “outside of cup and dish.” Hypocrisy deceives not only outsiders but the self. Posturing can lead to a false identification with a public persona or image.

But what if the interior of persons was as completely visible as the exterior? The disciples were amazed at Jesus’ discernment of hearts (Matthew 9:4; Luke 6:9). St. Philip Neri, St. John Vianney, St. Padre Pio and other saints of Christian East and West received the gift of reading hearts in order to guide people to holiness. This rare gift of the Holy Spirit is evidence of a higher, deified consciousness.

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature… for the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (I Samuel 16:7).

Nothing is hidden to the divine sight. Allowing the divine light to shine within, grace can form us into whole and integrated persons. Hypocrisy is not possible when inside and outside are illuminated perpetually by the divine and transfiguring light. 

The opacity of matter supplies the conditions for the possibility of masks and personas. The weakness of the inner, spiritual eye obstructs penetration through that opacity. What does integrated personhood look like?

Clues from the Trinity

The Trinity is the primordial source of personhood. Do the divine persons have hidden subjectivities unknown to the others? What is the difference in the Trinity between personal consciousness and the unified consciousness of the divine nature? Is there any difference?

The mysteries of theology so far exceed our language and philosophical categories that one is silenced in the face of them. Yet the conversation of the centuries invites dialogue with our forebears.

For example, the notions of intellect and will were located by the Church Councils not in persons but in natures. They did not use the modern word “consciousness.”

Each of the two natures in Christ possesses its own natural will and its own natural mode of operation. (De fide.)

That statement rules out a personal intellect and will. In other words, Father, Son and Holy Spirit have one intellect and one will, but the persons do not possess distinct intellects and wills.

The man Jesus Christ, however, has a will. That will is located in the individual substance of Christ. Jesus is not a human person (the heresy of Nestorianism). The assumption is that every human individual possesses a separate will. Yet, to be consistent with the dogma, that will is not personal but belongs rather to the individual substance of human nature/essence each person incarnates during their earthly sojourn. 

The problem arises: If the divine nature has a single intellect and will, does the human nature also have a single intellect and will (now or in eternity)? Current presuppositions rule out the idea that human nature has a single intellect and will in its present condition. It follows that human nature in its atomized state does not image the divine nature in this respect. It is splintered. 

When the splinters are unified in the Body of Christ, will there be unity of intellect and will? The logic of current dogma seems to require the Incarnate Christ to retain a separate, individual (not personal) will in perpetuity. If that is so, deified human nature would retain the character of atomization. “One mind and one will” in Christ, under this logic, means conformity of separate, individual (not personal) wills with the divine will. 

An alternative possibility is that the person of Christ, in his post-resurrection state, “waits” for the completion of his Body when separate human wills will be transformed into a single will. St. Paul seems to suggest that individual members complete what is still “lacking” in the Body of Christ:

“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).

Distinguishing the notions of person, individual, and nature in the light of the Trinity is a thorny conundrum.  Since Christ is a divine, not human, person, it follows that personal identity transcends human nature. Because the saving work of Christ necessitated the assumption of human nature in its entirety, by implication Christology reveals that to be a person (divine or human) is to embody nature in its entirety. That would seem to rule out an eternal atomization of the human essence.

What then is the status of individual substances? If the person of Christ does not have an intellect and will of its own (either divine or human), what is the status of intellect and will in personal communion? Theology must account for Christ, in whom person cannot be equated with the individual human substance. 

The crux of the problem: The De fide statement about the two wills of Christ does not make a distinction between Christ’s individual human nature (substance = Jesus the man) and the universal human nature (essence). 

The following statements bear unraveling:

“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39).

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

Jesus prayed to the Father, and according to dogma the “Father’s will” is not personal but the natural will of the divinity. The divine will is the single will of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. “My will,” on the other hand, refers to the natural will of the man Jesus who is not a human person. Accordingly, Jesus was bringing into conformity with the divine will his will as man. 

Some modern theologians speak of “personal centers of consciousness” in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Each divine “I” beholds the others in a “circular” movement (perichoresis). Whether we speak of “centers of consciousness” or a personal “I,” the vocabulary has shifted from the strictly dogmatic “intellect” and “will.” Creedal vocabulary has not incorporated the language of personal consciousness. 

The historical, creedal development of divine and human consciousness (intellect and will) terminated in the divine and human essences but did not reach personal consciousness. Further, as regards human consciousness, intellect and will were delimited within individual substances of the essence. Yet the person of Christ transcends both individual human substance and universal human essence. 

The patristic language of mutual indwelling (perichoresis and circumincession) came closest to approximating personal consciousness. By affirming distinct personal identities and the unmixed nature of their coinherence, it is possible to contemplate absolute diversity and absolute identity in simultaneity: The Father is wholly in the Son and wholly in the Holy Spirit, the Son is wholly in the Father and wholly in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit is wholly in the Father and wholly in the Son. However, the formula leaves unexpressed the content of diversity. It does not answer the question: Are diversities distinctly conscious? 

The Council Fathers did not use modern vocabulary to discuss personal consciousness. The field of the personal in theology was largely unexplored and undeveloped. From Israel to the Church, divine unity has dominated theological thought. Primordial distinction and diversity remain opaque mysteries in both theology and philosophy. 


The questions posed above led to an unforeseen meandering that only unearthed more impenetrable enigmas. 

Back to the original question: What if hypocrisy was an impossibility, like squaring the circle? 

The theological notion of person (persona or prosopon) came from ancient mask theater but was purified for application to the divine identities. Father, Son and Holy Spirit have no interior or exterior, and therefore exist beyond the possibility of dissimulation.

Persons in the image of the Trinity, in a transfigured humanity, are also one beyond the distinctions of face and mask, inside and outside, hidden and manifest. Each person shines with a unique splendor and glory. What that unique distinction is remains to be discovered.

2 Replies to “From Masks to the Trinity and Back Again”

  1. Thank you for this wonderful post, although a bit difficult for me to understand. But, in my ignorance, I find Bliss and come closer to a God beyond my understanding but whom I love.

    1. “No one has ever seen God. The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him” (John 1:18). Knowing that we do not know is wisdom.

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