Psalm 29, Isaiah 6: 1-8, Romans 8: 12-17, John 3: 1-17
In years gone by I used sometimes to stay for a retreat at an enclosed Franciscan convent at Freeland, a village about ten miles outside Oxford. The convent has a beautiful garden in which the Sisters used to keep hens and also three geese called Ling, Dong and Yum Yum. Ling and Dong were a pair and Yum Yum was their baby, and when I was staying Yum Yum was almost as big as his parents. What was very noticeable about those three geese was that they did everything together. They slept together, ate together, walked all around the garden together, preened their feathers together – they simply did everything together. In fact, Ling, Dong and Yum Yum were no less than a living icon of the Trinity. They were three distinct beings yet they had a unity of will and purpose that we associate with the one true God; for if we can remember anything about the Trinity, it must surely be that while there are three distinct persons yet they are one in substance and in will and purpose. Just like Ling, Dong and Yum Yum, God has a unity of will – one will.
The concept of the Trinity that we celebrate today – one in three and three in one, and simultaneously at that – may be difficult to grasp. There is a story about the great theologian Augustine that while he was in the middle of writing his important treatise on the Trinity he dreamed one night that he went out in the evening to stroll along the beach and mull over the theological conundrum of Three Persons, yet One God. Suddenly, he saw a small child playing by the edge of the water, repeatedly pouring water from a shell and trying to fill a hole in the sand. Each time the water seeped away into the sand. Augustine said to the child, “You will never be able to fill that hole in the sand even if you poured into it the whole ocean”. The child replied, “No more than you will ever be able to fathom the mystery of the Trinity however hard you try”. The artist Boticelli painted a beautiful picture of this scene of enlightening exchange between the small child and the great theologian Augustine.
So too our efforts to understand the Trinity may seem like trying to fill a hole in the sand with water. We will never really get there. It is as though our minds are not designed to comprehend it all. But provided we do not get too bogged down and analytical, theologians like Augustine can help us. Often it is the imagery that those like Augustine use that can be the most helpful. He writes of water filling three glasses. There are three distinct glasses but we do not speak of three separate waters but simply of water – in the singular – filling the glasses. Similarly, he writes of the wood of a tree. There are roots, trunk and branches, but we do not speak of three types of wood. Instead we refer to it as one tree.
Augustine further highlights that God is love and that the Trinity points to the reality that God is love in relationship. There is the Lover and the Beloved ( the Father and the Son) and the Love that bonds them together, the Holy Spirit. It is a living, dynamic relationship between the three Persons and it is all there in the Godhead. To help emphasise the unity or oneness of God, Augustine also uses the image of the human mind which has three faculties of memory, understanding and will. We remember God, we know God and we love God. These are three different ways of perceiving God – or of perceiving anyone or anything else – but it is the one mind that is doing the work.
All these images can be helpful, and some people find visual images particularly helpful, such as the famous Russian icon of the Trinity by Rublev which depicts the three angels who visit Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as told in the book of Genesis chapter 18. The icon is known as the hospitality of Abraham. The Genesis account describes how God visits Abraham in the form of three men. Abraham offers them a meal. Then the men tell him that his wife Sarah will bear a son, despite the fact that she is so old. The mysterious angelic trio who bear such a message of good news are depicted in Rublev’s icon as three angels seated round a table. On the table is an object that looks very much like a filled chalice, lending a distinctly eucharistic tone to the scene. The three angels look at one another, forming a circular movement in terms of artistic lines, united in their bond of love. It is a very beautiful and highly skilled depiction of the Trinity.
An emphasis on the Trinity seems to have come into its own in recent times at a popular level with the renewed interest in Celtic spirituality, which is essentially Trinitarian. Some of the prayers from this tradition are about everyday household chores being carried out while asking for the Trinity’s blessing on the task, such as lighting a fire in the hearth, or milking a cow. The Irish hymn St Patrick’s breastplate is a famous example from the Celtic poetic and liturgical tradition in which the Trinity is invoked for protection as well as blessing:
“I bind unto myself today
The strong name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The three in One, and One in Three”.
Liturgically and seasonally Trinity Sunday is well placed, coming as it does immediately after Pentecost. In worship, the Church enacts the great drama of our salvation from Advent and Christmas, Lent, Holy Week and Eastertide, through to Pentecost – Christ’s birth, life and ministry, death, resurrection, and then at last the outpouring of the Spirit. Trinity Sunday is the culmination of all this, tying all these important events in Christ’s redeeming work together. God in Christ has both suffered and acted to redeem us. In response we worship and give thanks to and acknowledge the whole Godhead in the unfolding of the story of our salvation.
We may prefer to think of God most traditionally as Father, Son and Spirit, or we may want to take an image from nature such as water or at tree, or the faculties of the human mind, or meditate upon an icon. It does not really matter, provided we find an image that is helpful for us; helpful, that is, in aiding us to worship and reach beyond the imagery to encounter the living God. It is our love expressed in worship that God seeks from us. We do not have to strive too hard to understand God for we cannot understand God fully in this earthly life. But we can love and worship God. God has redeemed us in Christ and forgiveness is lavished upon us and this faith means that we can worship the divine as God’s beloved children, as St Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans that we have heard read today. Furthermore, as Jesus expresses it in his conversation by night with Nicodemus, that we have had for our gospel reading from John, “what is born of the Spirit is spirit”. He continues:
“You must be born from above”.
Our true citizenship, our ultimate destiny, is in heaven, to live eternally with God.
So on this Trinity Sunday let us thank God, Three in One and One in Three; and in the words of the collect for Trinity Sunday let us acknowledge the Trinity and “worship the Unity”, all to the glory of the One God.
Amen Rev Sister Margaret Anne ASSP
Cover image by Philip Barrington from Pixabay