Trinity Sunday, being the one day of the Church year set aside to address a point of doctrine, presents a bit of a challenge – and especially so this year because we already gave considerable air time to this concept during Lent when we took an in-depth look at the Apostle’s Creed, which as you recall, has a distinctly Trinitarian structure. So – we’re going to do something a little different today, for which you’ll need access to the picture on the front of the bulletin.
We use various euphemisms to describe the nature of God: the familiar Father, Son and Holy Spirit that was just expressed in Matthew’s gospel, of course – but other descriptive formulas exist for those of us who bristle at patriarchal language: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier being one of the most familiar, but there are many others: Source, Son and Spirit; or Maker, Lover, and Keeper – each adding some new element of insight or understanding to what is arguably a difficult theological concept. No matter how hard we try to make our language flex around this complex idea, the fact remains that one God in three persons, as the hymn says, challenges not only our mathematics but our understanding as well.
One thing that’s important to keep in mind, I think, is that when we describe God as Trinity, we’re attempting a description, not a definition. We aren’t trying to put God in a box, or set limits on what form God can take. The doctrine of the Trinity is simply our attempt to describe humankind’s experience of God: first, as the energy or force who created all that is; second, as the physical expression who assumed human form to liberate humankind; and third, the ongoing presence which sustains and is constantly re-creating the world. And probably most important, we call the motive at the heart of this boundless energy, love.
Probably one of the most famous artistic attempts to depict the Trinity is the icon shown here. It is said that icons are written, not painted – and this one was written in the mid-14th century by a Russian, Andrei Rublev. Icons, it must be said, are largely misunderstood pieces of religious art, and are not objects of veneration or worship in their own right. They are simply highly symbolic representations of a theological concept, and serve much the same function as stained glass windows: they tell the stories of faith, which was particularly important before the invention of the printing press and general literacy. So I thought you might like to take a tour through this icon and we’ll consider what it suggests to us about the Trinity. At the time it was written, artists were prohibited from depicting God in art – so to get around this, the artist portrayed the persons of the Trinity as angels, which explains why they have wings.
First, take a look at the faces….and what you notice about them is that the three faces are identical – suggesting something about the nature of the Trinity – the persons are unique and different, yet essentially the same.
Next is that despite the fact that the icon itself is rectangular, if you try to encapsulate the figures alone, you can see that they may be enclosed in a circle. The circle, as we know, is a symbol for eternity – so this suggests that the Trinity lives eternally, in its own timeless reality.
All of the figures wear a blue garment – the colour of the sky (“the heavens”), suggesting divinity – but each wears something that speaks to individual identity as well. So starting on the far left we see a figure comfortably at rest. The blue garment is almost hidden by a shimmering robe. This is a depiction of the Creator, who in mystery is cloaked from our sight. Both hands clasp a staff, which suggests authority…. but not an angry or vengeful authority. In fact, he looks rather placid and although attentive, quite peaceful. Look behind the figure, in the top left and you will see a house, which we might interpret as God’s dwelling place. This might stir some familiar words of Jesus from John’s gospel – “In my Father’s house are many rooms – I go to prepare a place for you.” So we might detect the promise of eternal life as we look beyond that figure.
The middle figure in the centre of the icon wears the blue of divinity, and also a brownish red garment speaking of the earth, of humanity: a visual representation of the dual nature of Christ, being both human and divine. A goldish stripe down his shoulder speaks of kingship – so here we have a depiction of the Christ. What we notice is that the type of kingship being suggested here is almost incidental to the figure – worldly kings might be pictured with a fancy crown and sceptre, but the Christ only has this one stripe and a thin staff – suggesting that kingship is almost secondary to who he is, and certainly not to be understood in worldly terms. He is extending two fingers – suggesting again his divine and human natures – and he seems to be pointing to a vessel which holds something that looks like bread, suggesting Eucharist. Look now in the background and you will see a tree. Trees are rich symbols – and this one might bring to mind the tree in the garden of Eden from the Creation story; but we also recall that St. Paul often referred to the cross as a tree – and we can see that this tree is flourishing – leading us to consider that the cross of Jesus became for us the tree of life.
The third figure, on the far right, is also clothed in divine blue, but is also cloaked in green – representing new life…. so this person is a representation of the Spirit. The Spirit touches the table, perhaps inviting us to consider how we are touched by the Spirit (or perhaps reminding us that it is through the action of the Spirit that the Eucharistic elements become for us the body and blood of Christ). Behind the figure is a mountain which is barely perceptible, but it is there – and in Old and New Testament lore, mountains are places where people encounter God’s Spirit – places where heaven and earth seem to touch. We recall that Moses encountered God on a mountain, and it was on a mountain that Jesus was transfigured. This draws us to consider times when we have had what we might call mountaintop experiences of God – times when we have felt the dynamic stillness of the Spirit within us. And finally, this figure, like Christ, is inclined toward the Creator – perhaps as nod to the Creator’s pre-eminence, even though the figures themselves are pretty much identical.
Just to draw this brief trip through this icon to a close, notice that although the figures are inclined toward one another, their faces are not, and the figures are not closed in around the table. Our side of the table is open, and their faces in fact are turned toward us – to the ones looking at the icon, drawing us into their open-ness, and into their relationship. It is a peaceful invitation to approach, and to be part of their intimate group.
Trinity Sunday, then, is our opportunity to imagine the three faces of God turned toward us, as we hear them say, “Welcome. Come and sit down where you belong” … and in turn to imagine ourselves joining their conversation, and making ourselves at home in their company: trusting the loving welcome of God, who has space within God’s self for all of us.
For the invitation to reflect on the Trinity’s relationship of love as seen through the work of an inspired artist we give thanks to God this day. Amen.
The Venerable Nancy Adams