FEAST OF THE HOLY TRINITY
May 27, 2018
Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17
As humans, we live in a symbolic world. The culture that we carry within us and transmit across the generations is composed of many things, but most importantly, it is composed of symbols, encapsulated in language, visual images, music, dance, recipes, TV shows, computer games…the list is very long. The social world we create and inhabit, and that creates and inhabits each of us through our encounters and interactions with one another, is for the most part symbolic. It is a world mostly composed of the meanings that we derive from and give to our experience, and that we represent with symbols. Nowhere is this more true than in our religious lives. Our worship spaces, sacred texts, and liturgies are filled with powerful symbols: water, fire, bread, wine, body, blood, crosses…the list is very long. All our actions in liturgy are infused with symbolic significance. In the religious sphere, the symbols become very rich, complex, and, finally, mysterious. After all, these symbols represent experiences whose meanings are inexhaustible and impossible to describe in straightforward, discursive ways.
Alas, despite the symbolic richness of the Judeo-Christian tradition, many of the faithful are quite uneasy with talk about symbols. There is the fear that a symbol is somehow less than the real thing, that it is “just” a symbol. As the Benedictine writer, Kathleen Norris, has noted, a powerful theme running through the history of Western Christianity is what she calls the “war on metaphor.” This war has been waged with particular vehemence in the wake of the successes of the scientific revolution. The result has been various forms of scriptural literalism, extreme rationalism in theology, and a kind of functional agnosticism for many. You probably have already figured out the hand I am playing with here, but I am, nonetheless, going to turn over my cards and proclaim explicitly that I believe in symbols. To say that something is “just” a symbol is to show a lack of understanding of what symbols, and particularly religious and mythic symbols, are really about. I agree with the great 20th century theologian, Paul Tillich, that our religious symbols are too important to be taken literally. A powerful symbol opens us to the divine mystery that surrounds and supports the limited world that we think we know, understand, and control. A powerful symbol creates what Marcus Borg calls a “thin place” between our finite selves and The Holy; a place where the weave of the veil of ignorance that separates the worlds is loosened and we can experience the divine energy that is continually flowing through us; the energy that is our life.
On this feast day, we celebrate one of the most powerful and central symbols of our Christian tradition: the Holy Trinity. In the minds of some people, I’m probably going out on a very thin limb here by calling the Trinity a symbol. After all, it is traditionally a fundamental Christian doctrine on the nature of God: the God who is one-God-in-three-persons that for most of our lives we have proclaimed, usually without giving it much careful thought. I don’t know about you, but I have found over the years that definitive statements about what God is are in fact, the really thin limb. As my faith (and doubt) and prayer life has deepened, I seem to know more and more that God is, and know less and less what God is. Instead, I take refuge in symbols and their revivifying power. And I will tell you what the symbol of the Trinity means to me–at least what it means to me today, since, like any really good symbol, its meaning is inexhaustible. But first a brief digression into ancient history…literally.
There is no specific mention of the concept of the Trinity anywhere in the scriptures. Today’s readings are no exception. We have separate references to what are called the different “persons” of the Trinity. We are told about “The Most High, God of Hosts,” the “Abba” whose name we cry. We are told about the “Son of Man,” the Christ, with whom we are “joint heirs” of our Abba God, through whom we have eternal life. And, we are told of the Spirit who bears witness and through whom we are born into a new life. So, we are given the cast of characters who make up the drama of our triune God, but the familiar “three-in-one” formula is nowhere to be found. From my sophomore’s knowledge of church history, I have learned that the Trinity as a theological doctrine emerged in the second and third centuries of the common era in the writings of Tertullian, who has been called the “Father of Western theology.” It was explored by a few other early theologians and then solidified into an official church doctrine at the Council of Nicaea in 325, from which also came the Nicene Creed, with its familiar, elaborated recitation of the trinitarian formula. So, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity started out being fashioned by theologians and has, for the most part, stayed in their hands ever since. The great modern theologian, Karl Rahner, while he wrote a whole book on the subject, he admitted that, as a theological doctrine, the Trinity is, at best, of only passing interest to the vast majority of Christians. It has little bearing on the understanding and practice of their faith. In my own pre-Vatican II religious education, the doctrine of the Trinity was one of those “six impossible things to believe before breakfast.” Then I would eat my cornflakes and put it out of my mind.
And yet….AND YET…the symbol of the Trinity is everywhere in our worship–from the sign of the cross with which we begin and end our Sunday liturgy, to the doxology which marks key beginnings and endings in our monastery’s daily praying of the liturgy of the hours. Although we do not use the traditional “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” in our worship, we continue to image the divine mystery as one God with three aspects. It is a powerful symbol that points to some things about our life in God and in one another that are beautiful and, perhaps, unsettling. For me, this time around, the most significant of these pointings is that the symbol of the Trinity helps to free us from our tendency to image God as a noun…God as a thing among other things, or as a being among other beings…as a very special being perhaps, but as a being nonetheless. Seen in this way, God ceases to be an ineffable mystery and is enclosed inside the finite box of what we think we know. The Trinity gives us an image of the divine as a relationship, as a continual flowing. This is being, not as a being, but being as a verb, as a dynamic movement. The persons of the Trinity are being-into one another…and the One, the simple, indivisible Divine Mystery is being-into each of us and all that is…being-into and being-with and being-through everything. Trinity is an image of what the Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, calls interbeing. The persons have no separate existence in themselves. Each is constituted by the others and, in turn, constitutes the others. They inter-are. Each is infinitely and simultaneously emptying and filling, infinitely and simultaneously receiving and giving. There is no-thing to grasp, there is no-thing that can be kept in a box or in, dare I say, a tomb, or in any other container that our finite knowledge can construct. There is only the ceaseless flow that penetrates, that undermines, that breaks through all the barriers that our rational, reasonable selves try to erect.
Now, I hope, this seemingly abstract, metaphysical language should begin to sound quite familiar. It is the language we use to talk about love. The Holy Trinity is, in short, a symbol of perfect love…infinite love, boundless love. We don’t have to hole up in the stacks of a divinity school library to have an understanding of the Trinity as some abstruse theological doctrine. We have only to abide deeply in the love that flows within, between, and among us this morning. For, as we heard in John’s first letter during the Easter season: God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.