Trinity Sunday, 2015. Readings: Isaiah 6: 1-8; Ps 2; Romans 8:12-17; John 3 1-17 Hymns: Holy Holy Holy; O Holy Spirit Lord of Grace; Thou whose almighty word; Sing for God’s glory that covers the dawn of creation
Trinity Sunday completes the first part of the church year and gives a sure foundation for the equally vital vibrant second half. Understanding of it, and images too, can be unhelpful, hence the two pictures above. The first recounts the visit of Abram and Sarai to the well at Mamre from Genesis 18, the 16th century Russian monk Rublev showing their vision of three angels, or two angels and God. Yet this same icon also recounts the Trinity, with God the Creator of Life on the left, God the Saviour of Life in the centre, and God the Empowerer for Life on the right, the Spirit painted green for growth as well as the celestial blue of the first two. The second image shows the one Great Light which is God, formed of three identical enduring Lights, each of which shines forth creatively from the darkness, illuminating and saving the world in a trillion nooks and crannies, and inspiring us to continue the revelation of God on earth through our lives.
Both images, especially the second, are crucial for establishing and insisting that our faith is monotheistic and does not worship three people, two men and a bird, a virtually solo Jesus made in our image, or a binary God Father and God Son with attendant Lady Spirit. One Light with three sources challenges our human tendency to create God in our image, the ever-present danger in figurative religious painting, which should rather represent Trinity as one humanity beyond gender, insistently reaffirming the oneness of God and the making of all people in God’s image. The centrality of the Trinity was the subject matter of a long poem by the priest and poet John Donne some 400 years ago: for him, it is the loadstar of faith, yet also a treasure trove for tendentious philosophising:
Oh blessed and glorious Trinity,
bones to philosophy, but milk to faith.
As Donne makes clear, philosophers and theologians have eaten out on the Trinity, often making a dog’s dinner of what should actually nurture our faith not confuse it. One problem is in seeing Creator, Redeemer and Comforter as three separate Gods (a potentiality in Rublev’s icon) yet somehow One, or seeing Spirit God as an afterthought rather than present at creation. Athanasius’s Creed is sometimes presented mockingly to exemplify Trinity’s conceptual complexity: ‘not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated, and one incomprehensible.’ Yet he continues clearly: ‘and in this Trinity none is afore or after another: none is greater or less than another,’ excluding rank-ordering or re-gendering of one part. That said, it is the case that God is envisioned as male, hence some fancy foot-work with Genesis 1 27 to validate the ecclesial side-lining of half of God’s creation. But there’s a passage in St Ephrem’s Hymns on Nativity, from around 200 AD, which upturns male and female attributes in the Trinity:
He is the Living breast of living breath;
By his life the dead were suckled and they revived…
He has given suck-life to the universe,
As again he dwelt in His mother’s womb
In His womb dwells all creation.
Confusion over that imagery is the case only if we insist God Creator has size 12 shoes and a beard, and milk is a fluid coming only from female mammals! Surely God Christ, God Creator, God Spirit, gestates us all.
A wise Christian understanding of God sees us as made in, and imitating through living in, the image of a nurturing, loving, comforting and above all interrelating One. Understanding the God of the Bible and other texts as a relating, interacting, interweaving God, rather than a static possession of churches, challenges us to live our lives after the fashion and the guidance of an interacting and therefore changing yet eternally solid God, imitating, as Donne puts it, the ‘sociableness and communicableness of God, with power love and knowledge undistinct.’ A static image of three God-figures at a safe controlled distance may be easier, rather like keeping ourselves at controlled distance from the risks of nurturing, loving and comforting other people and the earth. Today’s Collect talks of ‘our participating in the dance of the Trinity,’ and Rublev’s Christ looks at the Creator with his eyes yet turns his body to the Comforter, who in turn looks both at the chalice and the other two figures. The three aspects of God are thus relating, and must relate for life, just as blood, flesh and bone interact in a living nurtured body.
God in Trinity is indeed “milk to our faith.” But whether we accept in faith and on faith God as God, God as God, and God as God, or more manageably One God as Creator Redeemer and Helper, the question for the months after Trinity is: how do we intend, having received and accepted the three giftings of One God, to pass them out and on to others? Might our readings help us polish our little diamond of faith in the green months to come? Isaiah’s vision of the hem of God’s robe, replete with redeeming angels, has him responding to God’s question ‘whom shall I send,’ with ‘Here I am, send me,’ much as the child Samuel had responded, rather than ‘well, I guess I’m here but why not pick out someone else, please!’ The 7-fold reduplication in the Psalm of the phrase ‘the Voice of God’ indicates that God is sovereign. Surrounded as those verses are by verses of praise of God by both heavenly and earthly worshippers, the psalm makes clear we are to accept and give thanks to God. The Epistle speaks explicitly of God Abba, Christ Son, and God Spirit guiding us not backwards in fear, but forwards in confidence. And the Gospel makes clear that the Spirit gives us the capacity to understand if we wish to hear, a fact then lost on Nicodemus the teacher of Israel whom Jesus tried in vain to teach.
But let me come back to those two images with which we began. The simplest one for thinking about God is as One Light made up of three equal Lights. Yet for living under and in God, the interacting figures on the left are not just a pretty icon but, as Rowan Williams poetically summarises Rublev’s icon, can teach us how to live out the Trinity in life:
I shall…never let you forth
To the white desert, to the starving sand.
But we shall sit and speak around
One table, share one food, one earth
Losing none in deserts of rejection, may we all grow in the learning and the love of God.
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping
Trinity Sunday 2015 Heidelberg