Trinity Sunday is the only Sunday in the Christian year devoted to a doctrine; and yet the great 20th century theologian Karl Rahner “claimed that if the Trinity were to quietly disappear out of Christian theology, never to be mentioned again, most of Christendom would not even notice its absence.” (Cynthia Bourgeault, The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three, p. 1) As one Lutheran preacher put it, “a) I don’t fully understand the Trinity, b) I don’t expect to this side of the eschaton, and c) I tend not to trust those who say they do.” (David Lose, WorkingPreacher. com, 6/9/14) Amen.
And yet, here we are on the Sunday after Pentecost, when we celebrated the gift of the Holy Spirit to the gathered and bewildered followers of Jesus after his death, adding to their experiences of the God whom Jesus taught about and the God whom they experienced, somehow, in him. When they tried to tell others about their experience of God, they soon found themselves defending their belief in one God. How is it, they were asked, that you say you believe in the God of Israel, creator of the universe, yet you also say that this Jesus is God and this Spirit that overwhelmed you and taught you to speak in tongues is also God? “God in three persons,” we sang in our opening hymn. Only three? What about God as mother bear, or source of living water, or judge, or lamb–all Biblical images for the Holy One? Or the 99 names of God that Islam knows (the 100th name of God is unknowable, they wisely teach)? God in 3 persons? “a) I don’t fully understand the Trinity, b) I don’t expect to this side of the eschaton, and c) I tend not to trust those who say they do.”
There does seem to be something about the number 3 that has a completeness and unity and dynamism to it, that other numbers do not have. Emily Dickinson invoked the Bee, the Butterfly, and the Breeze. The ancient Celts called on a trinity of birds: Wren, Raven, and Wild Goose, known for different qualities of compassion, courage, and character. (Nancy Rockwell, The Bite in the Apple, 6/7/14) They invoked the female trinity of virgin, bride, and crone, each with powers for regeneration and fertility and called upon in blessings of fields, hearths, and marriage beds.
A common object lesson in teaching children about the Trinity is the apple, with its seeds, flesh, and skin. Three in one. God in three persons–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–but it is this notion of “persons” that often distracts us from the original intent of this doctrine or teaching, which was less about who God is and more about how God is. The 4th c. church fathers who articulated this doctrine of the Trinity actually described these three personae–less “persons” and more states of being, like steam, water, and ice–as engaged in a perpetual dance–perikoresis was the Greek word they used. Constantly flowing in and around and through one another. God as community. This is who and how God is. “The universe is not a collection of objects, but a communion of subjects,” the late ecological theologian Thomas Berry wrote. The same could be said of God. Not a collection of persons but a communion of subjects.
St. Patrick, bringing the gospel to Ireland and into that ancient trinitarian Celtic culture, invoked the Trinity on his deathbed in the hymn written on his breastplate–
I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity, by invocation of the same, the Three in One, the One in Three.
I bind unto myself today, the virtues of the starlit heaven, the glorious sun’s life-giving ray, the whiteness of the moon at even, the flashing of the lightning free, the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks, the stable earth, the deep salt sea, around the old appointed rocks.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
It was a swirling, dancing, personal, earthy, moving portrait of God, capturing a sense of the how rather than the who of God. Our more traditional male trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (or Ghost, which is even scarier) has all too often become stagnant and familiar, instead of dynamic, mysterious, and strange.
But it is not just a matter of using different words, perhaps different genders, to retrieve and bring alive this description of God. In her book, The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three, Episcopal priest and wisdom teacher Cynthia Bourgeault writes that the Trinity “is primarily about process.” (P. 15) She describes an up to now relatively unknown but ancient “Law of Three,” perhaps with origins in the mystical traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Church, but also found in the Wisdom schools of Central Asia. I’ll conveniently spare you the wild and eccentric details of this metaphysical theory (convenient because I can barely follow the progression myself and only read this stuff when I want to burn away the cobwebs forming in my brain), but basically what the Law of Three says is that every new arising is the result of three forces–an affirming, a denying, and a reconciling force–coming together and acting upon one another. Another way of putting it is, “The interweaving of three produces a fourth in a new dimension.” (P. 131)An example would be a seed (an affirming force), moist soil (a “denying” or steady force), and sunlight, bringing about the arising of a sprout–something new and in turn creative.
The Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Bourgeault writes, is in a progression of trinities, beginning with the very first, primordial coming into existence of the universe, out of the heart of God. The new arising that is produced from the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Bourgeault posits, is the kingdom of heaven, which Jesus taught so consistently about. And the so-called kingdom of heaven is, of course, not a place, but a way of being; in fact, a way of awakening and being in the Body of Christ, not as the institutional church, but literally, mystically, in the body of Christ.
Nearly a thousand years ago, [Bourgeault writes], an Orthodox monk by the name of Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022) …came up with yet a third meaning for the Body of Christ [in addition to the Church and the Eucharist]. This strikingly bold and intimate poem sets us down firmly upon that inner ground of transfiguration:
We awaken in Christ’s body
as Christ awakens our bodies,
and my poor hand is Christ. He enters
my foot, and is infinitely me.
I move my hand, and wonderfully
my hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him
(for God is indivisibly
whole, seamless in his Godhood).
I move my foot, and at once
he appears like a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous?–Then
open your heart to Him.
And let yourself receive the one
who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,
we wake up inside Christ’s body
where all our body, all over
every most hidden part of it,
is realized in joy as Him,
and He makes us utterly real,
and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in Him transformed
And recognized as whole, as lovely,
and radiant in His light.
We awaken as the Beloved
in every part our body.
Talk about a “new arising”! And, just to make things more fun, this is not the final Trinity, Bourgeault suggests, although it has lasted some two thousand years. There is one more, with this awakened kingdom of heaven as one of the three forces, out of which the end point, the fullness of God, arises, and everything is folded into oneness.
Who needs drugs to venture into wild and mind-blowing territory?! Perhaps we have come full circle–“a) I don’t fully understand the Trinity, b) I don’t expect to this side of the eschaton, and c) I tend not to trust those who say they do.” This is still an accurate description of how I regard at the Trinity, though I’m beginning to see it less as a dead doctrine and more of a living, moving mystery. David Lose, who wrote this a, b, and c, suggests that it might be more helpful to look at what he calls “Trinitarian congregations.” “The short definition of a Trinitarian congregation [he writes] is one that sees itself as called and sent by the Holy Spirit to bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed for the sake of the world God created and loves so much.” (Op cit.) To intentionally work on becoming a Trinitarian congregation is probably more useful than trying to understand the inner workings of Trinity, though I have to say that there are more possibilities and potential in this ancient, wild-eyed doctrine than I had ever thought before.
The aliveness and relevance of this dancing, creative, unfolding description of how God is–and we are made in God’s image, remember– only makes sense if we are awake to its presence and possibilities. If we are “awake” in Christ’s body and Christ awakens in us, as Symeon the “New” Theologian of the 10th c. wrote about, we become part of bringing about the new arising, the kingdom of heaven, and the more of us who are so awake, the more others may experience that utterly amazing healing, hope, and wholeness which God intends for the whole world.
Through it all, wherever and whatever this Trinity or the future unfolds for us, may we remember Jesus’ promise to his followers: “And lo, I am with you always, even to the close of the age.” So may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark