Is 6: 1-8; Cant 13; Ro 8: 12-17; JOHN 3: 1-17
Glory to you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; we will praise you and highly exalt you forever. AMEN.
We don’t say we’ll understand you now or soon. Kathryn Piccard suggested that I show this lovely Andrej Rublev ikon and preach with or about it, because it’s often referred to as his Holy Trinity ikon. It’s a particularly good place for me to have started my thinking, since it wasn’t named “The Trinity,” but the “Hospitality of Abraham,” who’s not present in today’s readings, the ikon, the Trinity, or in Christianity— so a clarifyingly confusing place to start.
Where to start on Trinity Sunday? With Scripture. The commentaries I read weekly say this, “The Prophet Isaiah’s vision unites heaven and earth…where the Lord is enthroned in a vast temple attended by six-winged seraphs singing the familiar threefold hymn ‘Holy, holy, holy…’ that anticipates praise of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.’” Really? Not a human propensity to repetition in 3’s, partly for emphasis, partly for acoustical clarity, and partly for simple euphony. Anticipation of the Trinity? Maybe, but proved theology? Collin Hansen writes, “The Trinity is no mere abstraction. It is God’s plan of salvation in action,” Yes, but proved there? Maybe then Rublev, as a beginning, isn’t worse, although written as an image of the Hospitality of Abraham. Do you recall that story? “The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.” I’m reading from Genesis 18. “He looked up and saw 3 men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, ‘My Lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant.’ Then he offers hospitality, tells Sarah to start baking, and gets meat and milk to add to her cakes, “and stood by them under the tree while they ate. They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There in the tent.’ Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’”
Sarah overhearing this, and being old, laughs to herself. The guest continued, “’Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’”
That’s Abraham’s hospitality that this ikon was written to illustrate, and has also been used as THE visualization of The Trinity. Why? The guests are seated and comfortable, gathered around the middle and strongest presence there. Knowing the story, we see Abraham’s offstage role, directing the action, and Sarah’s offstage obeying him, cooking (in line with her role) listening, and participating. The hospitality was so instantaneous, without question or hesitation, and so extravagantly offered and produced, that the guests felt part of Abraham’s community and wanted to reward him, on as great a reciprocal scale of fulfilling an urgent need, amazingly producing freely an extravagant life-giving gift in return. They must have known or could deduce what Abraham and Sarah needed— they had after all been promised that their offspring would be more numerous than stars in the sky, and Sarah was both without children and no longer of child-bearing age. I’d guess that Abraham and Sarah had had many conversations about the Holy One’s promises versus a metaphorical interpretation. “Your God promised that our children would be more numerous than stars in the sky.” “Yes, but as head of our community, all those to follow from our community could be seen as our children” “Nonsense, that’s not what we were told, and my offspring is my child, my baby, my body— don’t give me that metaphor nonsense.” “But the Holy One’s promises are true; we believe that.” “Then where’s my baby?” Abraham, wanting the last word, says, “Well you know what the Holy One means…if you’re a true believer.” Fie.
Back to the ikon. There is circular movement around that table, and interacting between the figures. Find a copy of this and stare at it a while. The figure understood to be the Father, in the blue tunic—and I quote from an analysis—“is a color that is light and almost transparent, yet opaque as well, symbolizing the ineffable, hidden nature of the Creator and Lord of all. In one hand He holds the rod, and with the other He blesses, as if to show that He is pleased with the Son’s acceptance of His mission. His gaze is turned toward the other two, but His head is not inclined—rather, Son and Spirit incline their heads toward Him, acknowledging the One who is Their Origin and Source…The positioning of each figure, with Son and Spirit inclining their heads toward the Father, and He directing his gaze back to them, indicates a circular motion, a motion into which the beholder of the ikon is mysteriously drawn…toward the small rectangle at the base of the table: We must give all our attention to that open space because it is the place to which the Spirit points and where we become included in the divine circle…this rectangular space speaks about the narrow road leading to the house of God.” Somehow the community of the 3 guests and the 2 off stage figures is understood as a visualization of the Trinity, because of the continuous motion between the figures and between the figures and us, and the offered gift, received.
Other images, pictures, symbols, metaphors, similes and more work at these same two complex thoughts, “God is three persons in One Nature. The three persons of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and are all equally God, and They cannot be divided.” Many images are drawn from the physical realm and they are too often tritheistic—even the BCP makes this particularly easy to get wrong, by having a period/full stop after “I believe in God.” And then another after each person of the Trinity, so it’s 3, if not 4 gods listed as equal. Sometimes such attempts are modalistic, God as Creator, Redeemer, and Giver of life. That doesn’t suggest three versus one Person— many persons do three, live in three modes of doing—my friend Katrina: cellist, sponsor of young artists, and care-taking wife and mother. There might be overlap, there might also be three different people, not one responsible for those different activities of actions.
The Hospitality of Abraham catches instead the continuing life-giving interaction between guest and host, provider, preparer, and receiver; or needing person, working provider, and bearer of that returned hospitality, to offer again fresh supplies to the guests, and to receive new blessings.
What the ikon wants to engage us in, as viewers, is the relational nature of interactions with the Holy One, whether shown in an individual “real” situation or expanded to the universal/all time/all people/all generous hospitality/all needing/guesting/all working and receiving that to return it to enliven a continuous circle of needing/feeding/renewing.
One of my favorite concepts to test out for understanding is that of Time. We say that the Father precedes the Son, and the Son precedes the coming of the Spirit in a kind of literal historic way, and yet Judaism does not find a Son is an inevitable follow up on the Father, and we can’t imagine how the dynamism between Father and Son can be positive rather than bullying or punitive without the living energy of the Spirit insuring the Father loves and trusts the Son, and the Son trusts and longs for the Father. Since much of the interaction narrated about their relationship is around “God gave his Son to be crucified,” and that has less action of a cyclical and positive nature, than negatively vertical, it must be another lively person of God inhabiting the promises made to all people that God’s fundamental relationship is of love and wanting what is best for all people. Rumer Godden’s Take Three Tenses or in English A Fugue in Time, writes the narrative in three tenses, with much of the past appearing as present and the future as present—time like an ever-rolling stream—moves the tenses around so that they are each present in all times, and no tense is exclusive to one time. As a novel it’s a bold experiment, but as theology it’s just true. At a gym, one repeats actions on a given muscle group long before it’s possible to feel them or know even what the exercise is doing, feeling, or strengthening. Then the exercise gets to be possible and there’s some sense of having the form right. If you don’t do it for 10 days, and do it again, suddenly you can feel its existence by discomfort that follows, so the relationship of work, feeling, and being, don’t go in tidy sequence, but play back and forth in time, strength, reality, living presence, and hoped for promise.
Ultimately we care about the Trinity, because this is the way God has shown God’s presence to us in the Bible, in stories imaging each person, as well as God’s constant presence. Even if we have a struggle of experience, study, feeling, testing, remembering, or putting together small clues to take in this mystery bigger than we can encompass, we yearn to be included at Rublev’s table with them, 3 in 1 and 1 in 3, all living realities, coequal, inseparable: Holy, holy, holy: Good News.
© Katharine C. Black 3 June 2012