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Fr. John Allison

Trinity B

Isaiah 6:1-8

Canticle 13

Romans 8:12-17

John 3:1-17

May 26, 2024

Christ Church, Hudson


The prayer I just offered, the Gloria Patri, is our most common expression for the doctrine we recognize and celebrate today—Trinity Sunday. Your "amen" is the affirmation of this Trinity, our experience of the triune God.  Even so, no matter how often we invoke it in prayer, this doctrine of the Holy Trinity is often misunderstood and, at the very least, under-appreciated. Indeed, it’s easy for us to forget that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the idea that God comprises three separate figures or persons as they are known—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—who are completely separate yet at the same time one, is not an easy concept to understand. In fact, in the early history of the Church, the Trinity was a hotly debated subject that divided people into various factions before the Council of Nicea, in 325 settled on the understanding of the Trinity that we express today every time we say the Creed together. That said, the language that we most commonly use to reference the Trinity, doesn’t easily capture our experience of the Divine. Theologian Herbert McCabe, in referencing the insufficiency of ordinary language to depict the mystical nature of the Triune God says, “we always have to speak of our God with borrowed words . . . He is always dressed verbally in second-hand clothes that don’t fit him very well. We always have to be on guard against taking these clothes as revealing who or what he is.” We must recognize that our language can, in the end, only point us to partial truths about God, that there is always more to God than what we apprehend in our finite experience. This is our God who is revealed not only in scripture but also in experience, in our lives, in our relationships—in Communion especially, in the Breaking of the Bread.

While it's certainly true that our doctrine of the Trinity wasn't fully developed until the fourth century it has its roots in the earliest days of the Christian movement. Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians written about 30 years after Jesus' crucifixion, makes reference to the "grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. We see that formulation carried a bit further in the Gospel of Matthew with the earliest expression of our baptismal rite. Jesus commands his disciples to go out and baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. A few decades later in the year 125 the Roman writer Pliny in a letter to the historian Tacitus describes the Christians as worshiping Jesus as one with God. 

There are of course, other scriptural renditions of the Trinity but, admittedly, none of the them go into the detail of our credal confession of the Trinity, which we will be saying together in just a few minutes.With that in mind it’s important to acknowledge that much of the language used by the bishops present at the Council of Nicea in 325 when this doctrine was formally articulated does not effectively reflect our experience today.  When we see references to the three persons of the Trinity it's helpful to understand that the word we read as "person" is translated from the Latin "persona" and its Greek equivalent "prosopon," which refer to the masks worn by actors in the theatre. The actors wore masks not for the sake of concealment but to play different roles. The root of the Latin "persona" means "to speak through" or "to sound through." Applied to the Trinity, then, this ancient meaning of "persona," what we translate as "person," suggests that for Christians the one God is known and speaks in three primary roles: as creator God of Israel; in Jesus, the redeemer, as the Incarnation of God; and through the Holy Spirit who sanctifies. Or, as a very old Celtic prayer addresses God: “O Father who sought me, O Son who bought me, O Holy Spirit who taught me.”

Now, all of this is well and good and in some ways it is fairly straightforward. It describes what is sometimes referred to as an external description of the Trinity. And for some purposes that’s sufficient. It offers some understanding of how three "persons" comprise one God in a technical sense, but it still leaves me wondering about the larger significance, of the Holy Trinity in my life as a Christian. How do these three persons in one God makes a difference in my life as a Christian? 

I think part of this feeling of lack is rooted in an observation I made at the start. Language can sometimes conceal larger truths. We get caught up in words, we live in our heads and scrutinize language to the point that we fail to engage the larger experience to which it points. To borrow an image from a Zen parable, the finger pointing to the moon is not the moon. To see the moon we must gaze beyond the finger. To see the Trinity we must gaze beyond the words used to describe it.

An image that is very special to me is the icon of the Holy Trinity by the 15th century Russian icon painter Andrei Rublev.  It’s actually on the front of your bulletin today.  It depicts the Old Testament story of the three angels who visited Abraham at the Oak of Mamre, what is sometimes referred to as the story of Abraham and Sarah's Hospitality. The three angels, who are not clearly male or female, are seated around a table on which rests a cup. As a viewer, one's eyes move around the circle of the three figures, as one is invited to wonder which "person" is which, a gesture toward the unity of the three in one. The highest figure in the circle is allocated to the Son, to Jesus, who gestures to the cup as his own particular point of reference. The inclination of the heads to the figure on the left, however, gently suggests the sense of the Father as source or cause of the other two persons even as the circular movement moderates any sense of hierarchy. What I find most striking, however, is the open space at the table, as if the viewer is being invited into inclusion within this divine circle. The implication for me is that the Eucharistic elements are our means of incorporation into this divine circle of what theologian Sarah Coakley calls “gentle movement and mutual submission” between the three figures of the Trinity; the Greek word used in early theological texts is “perichoresis” and it means to dance around something, to move in unison around a common point. In Communion, we become the fourth in this Holy Three. Our participation, through the Eucharist and in our love of one another, completes the circle and God lives through us, housed in our hearts. This is sacramental living. All things come from the God who creates us, whether we call God Father, Source or Ground of Being.  We respond by giving all back to God, by returning it to the Source. In turn, through the Spirit our hearts grow in gratitude and love. This is sacramental living and it’s modeled for us in our participation in the Holy Eucharist, in the Great Thanksgiving. 

It may be true that, as I quoted McCabe earlier, “we always have to speak of our God with borrowed words . . . He is always dressed verbally in second-hand clothes that don’t fit him very well” but, nevertheless, our experience of God continues to deepen through our lives and in the common call we share to step in to the circle of God’s love. May we all come to share in this divine circle, loving one another as God loves us. Amen.