From Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary:
- Main Entry: per·son
- Pronunciation: \ˈpər-sən\
- Function: noun
- Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French persone, from Latin persona actor’s mask, character in a play, person, probably from Etruscan phersu mask, from Greek prosōpa, plural of prosōpon face, mask
So, according to Merriam-Webster, the word person is derived from the Latin and Greek words for the masks that dramatic actors would hold before their faces in ancient theatrical plays. In a Greek play one actor might play many roles, each one signified by his persona, or mask, that he presented to the audience.
For me, this sheds some interesting light on the doctrine of the Trinity; the doctrine that says that there is only one God yet three persons. Rather than trying (yet again) to make sense of the various explanations for this doctrine, with all of its necessarily inadequate analogies (the three leafed clover, the three states of water, the three dimensions of material space etc) perhaps it would help to read the word ‘person’ in a way that is closer to its linguistic roots.
Instead of three divine “persons”, who are separate individuals yet in some way one deity, all sitting around in heaven (or a shack in the mountains) maybe each element of the trinity is more like a different mask God wears at different times in history or at different times in our lives.
Seen this way, perhaps the first mask God wears is the one that makes the most sense to our limited minds; the awesome and remote God of power, creation and destruction. The God we see throughout nature, in thunderstorms, earthquakes, mountains, sunsets and floods. A God who is mostly and deliberately remote, hiding behind the mask of Yahweh, knowing that a full revelation of his being would be too much for us.
Then Jesus comes and reveals a different face of God, a new persona. Through this revelation we are able to engage the previously unapproachable and remote God. When we consider this new persona, one that is a frail human like us, we find that he has become easier to relate to and understand; “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father”. Engaging this new persona, in a way that is intimate, personal and honest, enables us to better comprehend God’s love for us. Through the exemplary sacrificial actions of this persona we begin to understand the Way of life God has always intended for us.
Once we encounter God through the persona of Jesus, and begin to follow the example he set for us, we are able to encounter the third divine persona. This is a spiritual one that is not a true persona at all, in that it is not one that God ‘wears’ for us, it is one that we wear for him, and for each other.
With his first persona God was wholly (holy?) other, necessarily apart from us, only revealed in small doses. In his second persona, that of Jesus, we find a way to interact with God personally, to accept his love for us and in response, love him back. Through this loving interaction we are able to realize the Spirit of God who dwells within us. At this point God hands us the mask and we should, in some limited and human way, take on the persona of God; one who loves all others.
If looked at in this way; that each “person” of the Trinity is more like a humanly finite understandable mask that God shows us at the appropriate time of his choosing, then why limit him to only three? Perhaps this is how God reveals himself to people throughout the world, through personas that are specifically designed to accomodate the differences between our diverse human cultures and traditions. I believe that many people of the world, even though they may not be Christian, are wearing personas created by the spirit of God living within them.