Sermon: Trinity Sunday
Trinity Sunday (b)
Ex 3.1-6; Jn 3.1-16
3 June 2012
Fr. Patrick Allen
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Here we are this Trinity Sunday morning, set aside for us together to consider and celebrate the Divine Mystery of the Most Holy Trinity – that God has revealed himself as one God – the ancient creed of Israel still holds and is the creed of the Church: Sh'ma Yisra'el YHWH Eloheinu YHWH Eḥad ("Hear O Israel, the Lord thy God, the Lord is One").[i]
But, in the fullness of time, God revealed himself beyond his One-ness. So the Church has seen and bears witness to the revelation of God also in Jesus Christ. And the Church has seen and bears witness to revelation of God in the Holy Spirit. And so the Church has seen and bears witness to the One God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the One God who eternally subsists as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – not three gods, and not one God that is sometimes like this, and sometimes like that, and sometimes like the other, but one God in Trinity of persons.
The fifth century Athanasian Creed, which it used to be standard to recite on this day, states the mystery like this:
And the Catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the substance.
For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is all one, the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal.
Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible.
The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet they are not three eternals, but one Eternal.
As also there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated, but one Uncreated, and one Incomprehensible.
So likewise the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty, and the Holy Spirit Almighty. And yet they are not three almighties, but one Almighty.
So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. And yet they are not three gods, but one God.
And it goes on like that for a couple pages.
Dorothy Sayers, the British intellectual and theologian and – not incidentally – writer of mystery novels, once remarked that for the average churchgoer of her day, the mystery of the Trinity meant "The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the whole thing incomprehensible; something put in by theologians to make it more difficult – nothing to do with daily life or ethics."
Well, in fact the mystery of the Trinity has everything to do with daily life and ethics, though it is also, it must be said, "incomprehensible." Which is why in the Church we are accustomed, as we have been this morning, to talking about this revelation as a "mystery."
But, in this theological sense, when we talk about a mystery, we're not talking about a sort of intellectual puzzle, a Lord Peter Wimsey or Sherlock Holmes sort of thing, the pieces of which can at least in theory be pieced together by someone who is bright and diligent and/or lucky enough so that the question, the mystery, is resolved and all the evidence is accounted for without remainder – a problem that can be solved, fully understood, comprehended.
No, in the Church, when we talk about a mystery, and especially when we talk about this Mystery of Mysteries, the ultimate mystery which is the Most Holy Trinity, we are using the word in almost the opposite way. Instead of a logical puzzle, a question, we are talking about a truth, a revealed truth, which we may know to be true even though it is impossible to wrap our little heads all the way round it. Which is not to say that the particular theological truth under consideration is unreasonable or irrational. Not at all – but we call it a "mystery" because we know it by revelation, not deduction, and because when logic ends it keeps going – it goes beyond reason, and cannot be circumscribed by reason.
In those great mystery novels, when Lord Peter or Sherlock Holmes is presented with a case that defies the best investigative minds of Scotland Yard, he inevitably announces his intention to "get to the bottom of it." But in the Church we call the Holy Trinity a "mystery" because it is a truth we will never get to the bottom of – much like love. In fact, exactly like love, as we shall see.
So our task this Trinity Sunday morning is not to explain the mystery of the Trinity, as if we finite creatures could comprehend the infinite God. But rather our task is more deeply to enter into the mystery of the Trinity. And actually that is our task this Trinity Sunday morning and, indeed, every morning and afternoon and evening for all our days: to share in, to participate in, the very life of God. And properly understood, that is not our task so much as it is God's gift, as, again, we shall see.
And since we're talking about a mystery it may be that a picture, rather than a formula of words, will help. (And I realized we're not, God be praised, a video screen sort of church, so I can only describe the picture; but bear with me for just a moment.)
In the alcove by the parish offices, right by Scarlett Crawford's office door, hangs a copy of a very famous icon, an icon written by the Russian master Rublev in the fifteenth century, and usually called "the Hospitality of Abraham." It is a depiction of an event recorded in the Old Testament book of Genesis in which Abraham was visited by the Lord Himself, under the guise of three angels, three messengers of God, beneath the oak of Mamre, a visit which later Christian reflection came to see as a prefiguring of the full revelation of the Trinitarian mystery.[ii]
And so in Rublev's icon the three angels sit around a square table. And behind each angel, Rublev has placed an image, a symbol, which identifies the figure as a representation of the Godhead. So behind the figure on the left, we see the house of the Father, where the Son and Heir goes to prepare a place for us[iii]; in the center a tree, which is the cross, no longer a death curse but transformed into a new tree of life[iv]; and on the right, a rock from which water is gushing out, reminding us of the gift of the Spirit, the living water Jesus promised.[v] [See Fr. Thomas Rosica]
Now there's a curious thing about the copy of the Icon hanging in our offices I noticed for the first time just this week: in our copy (actually I guess it's lithograph of a copy), the Son's gaze is towards the Father, but the Father is gazing at a dish on the table – a dish, by the way, which Rublev has designed to remind us of the Eucharistic chalice, and so leads us to think of the table as an altar. But Rublev's original is different. In the original, the Father is gazing with love, not at the dish on the table, but at the Son. And the Son is returning, with love, the father's gaze. And the Holy Spirit is indeed looking at the dish-slash-chalice on the table-slash-altar, as himself that infinite and eternal breadth of love shared between the Father and the Son, and communicated to us in the Sacraments of the New Covenant.
All of this Rublev intends to lead us into the contemplation the Trinity's truth: that God is not a solitude, but a complete community of love; that love is not an a feeling or activity in which God sometimes indulges, but is at the essence of God's being; that God is, in fact, an infinite abyss of love.
God is an infinite abyss of love. Love is of God's essence, as primary as his existence. Those are nice sounding phrases, and true, true, true, and I was proud of myself when I wrote them. But how can they be anything but nice sounding, anything but platitudes, for us human beings in this world of time and space and limits, in this veil of tears, where, as St. Paul says, the entire creation groans, the entire creation is subjected to futility this world where, at least so it seems, love is a scarce resource, we must husband carefully and parcel out sparingly?[vi]
Well, we have heard the answer to that this morning in St. John's Gospel: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.
God is love[vii], and for us and for our salvation, God in Christ has given himself for us, and so has given himself to us, entered in to our condition without reservation and made himself available to us to share his divine life with us – that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. The cross of Christ reveals the Triune Heart of God.
God's love. God is love. God is a Trinity, an eternal community of love. It is a great mystery – not to be solved, but to enter in to.
Well, how do we do that? Again, He gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should have eternal life. "Whoever believes in him." It is a matter of faith, of trust – which is to say, and I'm sorry to keep talking in circles, that it is a matter of love – because faith and love can never be separated. "All that matters," St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, "is faith, working itself out through love."[viii]
So, you see, contrary to what we might suppose, the divine mystery of the Most Holy Trinity has everything to do with daily life and ethics, because it has everything to do with love.
God has showed us what love means, what it looks like: God so loved the world that he gave. To enter into the mystery of the Most Blessed Trinity, to find a share in that life, is to receive, to trust in, to believe in that love, and so to be transformed into lovers ourselves: to give ourselves, our own hearts, our souls and bodies; to love. But the paradox – we might say, "the mystery" –to be plumbed is that by giving ourselves, emptying ourselves, by loving, we regain our real selves, we become our true selves: man, male and female, made in the image and likeness of God, the eternal community of love, who is the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
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[i] Dt 6.4
[ii] Gn 18
[iii] Jn 14.1-4
[iv] Gal 3.13,14; Rv 22.1-7
[v] Jn 4.9-14; Jn 7.38,39
[vi] Rm 8.19-23
[vii] I Jn 4.8,16
[viii] Gal 5.6