Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20
As you may know, for many preachers, Trinity Sunday is an occasion for anxiety. It is the day when we are asked to speak clearly and intelligently about one of the most mysterious tenets of our theology: That our God is of three persons but one substance.
It is a challenge for even the most accomplished theologian to explain this puzzling concept; so what is the ordinary jack-of-all-trades priest supposed to do with it? My Facebook feed is filled with the voices of colleagues struggling to put together salient thoughts about this most enigmatic topic.
We can at least take comfort that we are not alone in this struggle. Dorothy Sayers, the novelist and Anglican spiritual writer was asked, “What is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity?” She replied, “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Holy Ghost incomprehensible – the whole thing incomprehensible. [It is] Something put in by theologians to make it more difficult. Nothing to do with daily life and reality.”[i]
Well, while I have at times wanted to echo this sentiment, I have enough confidence in the early church fathers and mothers to believe there must be something to this doctrine—some revelations about the nature of God that they felt were best expressed through this concept of God as three in one and one in three.
Last year I preached about the image of the Trinity in a famous Russian icon by Andrey Rublev. It was first drawn, or “written” as one properly says when referring to icons, in the early part of the 15th century. It shows God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit – three characters that look remarkably similar, all sitting around a table, each equidistant from the other. It goes a long way to depict the nature of our triune God: three distinct person, all of one substance.
A few years back, when I was living in Manhattan, I made a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to look for other images of the Trinity. A rather quick survey of the European painting galleries revealed very few images of the trio. There were a couple of depictions of the coronation of the Virgin Mary, where she is crowned by all three persons of God: The father, a gray-bearded old man; The son, younger with brown hair and a distinct wound in his side; and the spirit, a descending dove hovering over Mary’s head. But that seemed to be it. Don’t get me wrong: There were many, many depictions of one or the other of the persons of God, but almost none of the three. Apparently most of the great painters did not seem to have any better understanding of this idea than we do.
So I started to think about where else I could go for a good image, or an apt metaphor of the Trinity. My next stop was academia – I dived into some of those books that line my study.
I was reminded of a key Greek term in the theology of the Trinity (probably my favorite theological word): Perichoresis. Breaking down the word, Peri means “concerning” and chorea means “to make space for.” So perichoresis is about how the three persons of God make space for each other. But that second part—chorea.
Now, there is a cognate –that is, a word that sounds the same—in Greek for chorea that is the root of our words chorus and choreography.[ii] Because of that similarity, perichoresis is often (and mistakenly, I think) defined as a theology of the way that the three persons of God dance together. While I am not sure that is the literal definition of the theological term, I do think it’s great way to understand the mutual indwelling and intersecting of the three persons of the Godhead.[iii] They dance together.
Now, I certainly don’t consider myself a dancer, but I have danced a bit in my life. I’ve been in lots of musicals—dancing in the chorus, doing all sorts of things I never would have thought I could. I have even done the Russian bottle dance (you know, where you balance a bottle on your head as you do knee crawls?) in two different productions of “Fiddler on the Roof”; I took country-western dancing in college; I went to a few discos in my day. (Don’t forget, I grew up in the 70s.)
But my most stirring memory of dancing was in 1982. My college held a big symposium titled, “Gustav Mahler and his Vienna.” As part of the big three-day event, we were to have a proper Viennese Ball. In preparation, waltzing lessons were provided.
I remember struggling to get the steps right—and to not crush my partner’s feet. But we kept at it, and there came a moment when we suddenly were in sync – when we were hearing the same beat, when we were both trusting the other enough to stop focusing on our own feet and instead to look into each other’s eyes and twirl across the floor—we began to dance as a single, synchronized unit. It was an amazing moment; we became one with each other. I can think of very few other moments when I have ever felt that.
And I think it is because of that aspect of dance – that way that separate entities can become one – that the image of dance is a helpful metaphor to describe the relationship between the three godheads of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
So today as we celebrate Trinity Sunday, I would like to focus particularly on the perichoresis: The relationship between the persons of God. The relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can point us to desirable aspects of human relationship.
One attribute of perichoresis that I would like to emulate in my relationships is the clear understanding of distinction between the persons of God. As we grow and mature, one of the most important lessons we can learn about relationship is individuation—that while we love another, we are not our beloved. In popular therapeutic terms, the opposite of this healthy distinction is called co-dependency.
In relationships it can be easy to get caught up in another, and lose sight of where we begin and the other ends. In my pastoral work I have sometimes seen married couples or parents and children, or siblings, or even close friends who have blended together so much that they have lost their own individuality. They have lost the boundaries between one another.
The three persons of God are distinct. Often we use names for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that help us understand their distinct roles: Terms like Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, or Lover, Beloved, and Love, or Creator, Liberator, and Inspirator. In these names for God, we see that the three persons of God are differentiated from each other. One of my priest friends who was struggling with the Trinity said this: perhaps “The Father is the one God we, in our limited ability to comprehend God, most readily perceive in the whole of creation; the Son is the one God we meet in one another; the Spirit is the one God we discover within ourselves.”[iv]
And yet, theologians through the ages remind us that it is a heresy to think of the persons of the Trinity as acting separately. They explain that we must understand the concept of an immanent Trinity – that is, that, “everything the Trinity does is done by Father, Son, and Spirit working in unity with one will. The three persons of the Trinity always work inseparably, for their work is always the work of the one God.”[v]
In that famous icon of the Trinity I mentioned earlier the persons of God all look to one another. They are focused on the other, and it is this focus that denotes their unselfishness. Perhaps we can take from this aspect of the Trinity an awareness of the richness that comes in human relationship when we focus on the other. That’s another important idea I hope to bring to all of my relationships.
A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor noted that the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, the Bishop of London said this in his final blessing: “The spiritual life grows as love finds its centre beyond ourselves…. [T]he more we give of self, the richer we become in soul; the more we go beyond ourselves in love, the more we become our true selves and our spiritual beauty is more fully revealed.”[vi] The writer went on to say, “most of us know the agony of self-absorption – the pathos of constantly worrying about whether we will have what we need or get what we want. It is a hypnotism that does little to cultivate character or spiritual growth…. For all the attempt to attribute to men and women an inherent self-interest and animal instinct to gain for oneself, what if we as children of God are actually designed to be unselfish?”[vii]
That’s an intriguing idea, isn’t it? That we are meant to be unselfish, and that doing so is simply living into our true selves. But then, it makes sense: if we are created in the image of God, then we must be our truest nature to look to others in self-giving love.
So, the takeaway for me this Trinity Sunday is to surrender myself to the example of God’s Trinitarian dance and unselfishly focus on others even as I am assured of my own individuality and worth. To understand that the mutuality that God models in the Trinity is the key to fruitful relationship. To dare to twirl in a joyful dance with God and with those I love, assured that God holds me safe, and will be all that I need God to be. And to pray that God in three persons will continue to reveal Godself to all of us through the mysteries of the faith. Amen.
[ii] http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=choreography, accessed 6/10/2017.
[iv] K. Jeanne Person on Facebook, accessed 5/25/2013.
[vi] Carlson, Lois. “Marriage 101: the royal wedding’s lesson in unselfishness.” http://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/Articles-on-Christian-Science/2011/0430/Marriage-101-the-royal-wedding-s-lesson-in-unselfishness, accessed 5/26/2013.