La Santissima Trinita (The Most Holy Trinity) is among the last of Alessandro Scarlatti’s numerous oratorios. Originally performed in May of 1715, it dramatizes a theological debate in which Faith, Theology, Unbelief, Time, and Charity contend for the final word on the nature of the Almighty.
Contemporary critics cannot deny the masterful beauty of the music, and I urge Dear Reader to take some time to soak it in. Scarlatti’s genius is subtle, but insinuating, and the sensual feats of this particular work are of the highest order.
As for the text, many of Scarlatti’s present-day fans seem convinced that it is categorically unworthy of the brilliance bestowed upon it here. They regard the disputation over three Persons in one God as a trite rehearsal of dogma, lacking in illumination or conviction.
On this point I suspect the log to be in the eye of the beholder. Though we are not dealing with Dante, to be sure, attention to the details of this quarrel shows it to be worth pondering as we enjoy the magnificent medium in which it is conveyed.
Sadly, the libretto is not available online, but allow me to summarize.
Faith denies that it possible for the human mind to comprehend the mystery of God. Theology is confident that, with the help of Faith, she “will one day understand the inscrutable enigma.” Meanwhile, Unbelief takes the stage to proclaim both Faith and Theology arrogant for affirming a notion he dismisses as arrant nonsense.
Faced with this new challenge, Theology appeals to Time, hoping that matters now obscure will become clearer with its passage. Time dutifully enters, but has to admit that, powerful as he is, he cannot enable man to comprehend an unreachable mystery. Unbelief triumphs in what he believes to be his easy victory.
Faith remains unshaken, and Time goes on the counterattack, pointing out that man cannot understand the mystery of Time, but no one can for that reason doubt that Time exists. Unbelief admits this is true, but rejoins that if the Father begot the Son, and the Holy Ghost proceeds from both, it is contrary to the laws of Time to believe them of equal age.
Charity now graces the stage, making the theological point that, since the Persons of the Trinity share an eternal nature, one need not precede the others. To this she adds a more piercing proposition: without the love of the Father for the Son, “the whole world would collapse.”
Theology is now the one to celebrate a false triumph. Charity must remind her that, despite this refutation of Unbelief, the sacred truths remain obscure to the human mind.
In Part Two, Unbelief makes several further attempts to expose contradictions in the dogma of the Trinity, to no avail. Led by Charity, Faith and Theology are able to hold their own.
Though Unbelief insists that he will never cease waging his war against Faith, Time points out that, when the Almighty appears in the end, the truth will be made “plain and visible” to “every soul.”
Here below, we are given sufficient light to know that God’s revelation of himself as Three Persons, One God, and Love itself, is as irrefutable and life-giving as it is enigmatic. If we refuse their guidance, we are setting ourselves up for a very unpleasant shock. If instead we embrace the blessings we have been given, we may hope to receive yet greater blessings in the vision that is to come.
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