Friends, it is Trinity Sunday, and you know what that means – your preacher has sweated bullets over what can be one of the most worrisome sermons of the year. Now, there are other texts that cause us to fear and tremble. Preaching on divorce,as we do when Mark’s Gospel is central to our summer readings in Year B. The problem of Jesus asking the disciples to bring him a donkey and a colt to ride into Jerusalem for Palm Sunday in Year A- does he ride on both of them? Does he ride into town with one foot on each like a circus performer? All those problem passages are nothing compared with the challenge of preaching on Trinity Sunday. That’s why it is often assigned to seminarians, who love to share what they learned in systematic theology class, or to deacons – you dodged the bullet today, Joe! – or to priest associates like me when the rector is away.
Thanks, Hilary. Have a nice retreat, pal!
Here’s why: no one knows how to explain the Trinity. Even St Augustine, a great Father of the Church and brilliant theologian, couldn’t get it done in his 800 page long book on the Trinity. The only tools we seem to have at our disposal are metaphor and simile. The Trinity is like words that can be verbs, adverbs, nouns and adjectives. The Trinity is like a three-leaf clover – thanks, St Patrick! The Trinity is like a dance – my boss says he’s got a sermon that says the Trinity is like the Hokey Pokey. Haven’t heard it yet, and the concept scares me a little. What IF the Hokey Pokey is what it’s all about?
And yet this is one of those essential doctrines of Christianity that we are expected to believe. That’s why the words of the Nicene Creed which we will recite in a few minutes, references the persons of the Trinity. Now, I will stipulate that the words do describe a little bit of the relationship of the persons of the trinity – that key phrase about the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son is actually such a description, and it’s one that the participants at the Council of Nicaea argued about for about 50 years – but the creed really doesn’t explain it all to you in a way you can understand…
….or at least in a way that I can understand.
It’s true confessions time. I do not understand how the Trinity works.
Who else is willing to say they don’t understand it either?
Good. I’m not alone.
But here’s the thing: I have no problem at all standing up and reaffirming my faith by saying the Nicene Creed, because I don’t have to understand how it works to sense in my heart and soul that the Holy Trinity's presence is real and alive. I don’t have to understand it to know that God reaches out to me through creation, through the salvation I received through Christ and through the relentless nudge of the Holy Spirit to keep me doing what God wants me to do rather than what I’d prefer to do.
Does that sound contradictory?
Maybe a little bit, but work with me here…
Some of you may know that I write icons, those pictures of Christ, his mother, and the saints from the Orthodox tradition. We call it writing rather than painting, because painting sounds like a creative endeavor. This is anything but creative. When we write icons, we generally copy other icons, following the rules of color, shape, facial and physical structure, and symbols of the ancient iconographers. It is, in a way, paint by numbers for the spiritual. We copy these images much as the monks of the Middle Ages in the Western world copied the Word of God in scriptoria, carefully doing precisely what their predecessor did, not changing words, just copying so that some others might be able to have access to a copy of those words.
Each time I go to my work-desk to write an icon, I begin with a prayer to St. Luke, the patron saint of iconographers. And then I begin. I start with a blank white board covered with layers of gesso to give a smooth receptive surface for the paints, be they egg tempera or acrylics.
|Cartoon copied onto gessoed board|
I copy the drawing of the key lines of the icon I am writing from a black and white image called a cartoon. I start coloring the image by laying down a dark and dense base coat, the deepest colors in our palette. I build the image by adding additional layers of color, each a little lighter, a little smaller, a little more translucent than the one before. I attend to the direction of where the light seems to be coming from in terms of the brighter features…more layers of lighter color there, until I have constructed an image from the darkest most incomprehensible shape to something with dimension, with light, with movement. And at each step of the way, I think to myself, “This looks awful. This looks nothing like what I am trying to copy. This is ugly.” And it’s the truth. But I keep praying, and I keep working.
|Lines colored black, base layer of skin (senkir) added.|
|Other base colors added|
|Adding layers of color to face and hands|
|Gold leaf for halo applied, many more layers of color on the chiton (undertunic), skin and hair.|
|Scripture started, layers on outer garment, more layers everywhere else. Identifying name (Hagios Pavel in Cyrillic) in red.|
At various steps along the way, it DOES look amateurish and ratty and full of mistakes, some of which cannot be corrected. I may do a piece of it and think, “well, I really like those hands,” and then I turn to the folds in a garment and think “well, that’s not right.” But I keep praying and I keep writing.
Eventually, after layer upon layer of color – sometimes the face will have as many as 20 layers – I hit the point where there is nothing more I can do. It is done. All I can see at that point are the thousands of small mistakes, a line that wiggled, a color that is not quite right, lettering that looks clumsy, an expression on an angel’s face that looks like she has indigestion.
I can’t fix my past mistakes, so I pray for forgiveness for the imperfection of my work, and for grace to do it better the next time.
And then I coat it to protect the image. Polyurethane if it was rendered in acrylics, olibas – aged linseed oil – if it was rendered in egg tempera. I can no longer go back and try to tweak things I don’t like, it just has to be what it is.
And invariably, once it is dried, it looks different. The whole, the finished icon, is greater than the sum of its parts, even with all those mistakes, with all those imperfections. God – the Holy Trinity - has inhabited the work, and made it more than my human hands and eyes can do. And if anyone asked me what happened to cause that icon to be something more than I could have done, I would have no words for it beyond that thought: God has inhabited it.
And I thank God for God’s patience with my humble work, not understanding the “how” or “why” of it all, but being grateful for that inhabiting.
And that’s the way, I guess, that I feel about the Trinity. I will readily admit that I do not understand the how and why of the Trinity, but I sense that I – that WE – are inhabited by the Trinity, and it makes us more than we are capable of being without it. And I am immensely grateful when I realize that.
So if this gave you any ideas that you now understand the theology of the Holy Trinity, my apologies: none of what I have said should be construed as a systematic theology of the Trinity. It is just the reminder that sometimes we feel God inhabiting us in strange and wondrous ways – in hearing a beautiful piece of music, in the look in a person’s eyes as they lift their hands to receive Communion, in the wrinkled and delicate skin on the back of the hands of a dying great-grandmother, in the cry of a newborn, in the whisper of the wind, in the fact that my peonies cannot open unless little ants chew away the nectar that keeps the buds locked up tight. We cannot put words to it. We don’t understand it. But it is there, and that is enough.
The explanation awaits us on a further shore, and there is time enough for that. For now, know that God loves us enough to make Godself known to us in a thousand thousand ways, and be grateful. The Trinity doesn't need us to understand, the Trinity just wants us to rejoice in it.