May 30, 2010
Breathe on me, Breath of God, and fill me with thy Spirit that I may serve only to glorify thee. Amen.
Most of you know that I am one of that increasingly rare breed, a “cradle” Episcopalian. I like to say that the prayer book is in my bones, the words of the Eucharist in my DNA. So it might surprise you to know that much of my pondering about today’s theme, the Trinity, was triggered not by what I learned in Sunday School, or by sermons I heard, but rather by conversations I have had with my Jewish seminarian friends. I met these friends, four women studying to become rabbis at the time I was studying for the priesthood, in the crucible we know as “CPE”—clinical pastoral education—interning as hospital chaplains not only to learn the ins and outs of working with the sick and the recovering and the dying, but also to manage group dynamics, figure out healthy boundaries, practice taking on pastoral authority, and grapple with real-life theological issues. It was an intense experience.
Given that intensity, perhaps it is no wonder that it led to some deep theological discussions, as our own faith, our own understanding of how God worked in the world was tested on a daily basis by the tragic realities of life. And so we probed our views of prayer and our beliefs about evil in the world and why bad things happen, and who this God we believed in was anyway.
It was in one of these discussions that I really began to grapple with the whole notion of the Trinity. It wasn’t something new to me—how many times must I have recited the Nicene Creed at that point, declaring my belief in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit? How many times had I crossed myself at those words, or prayed to God in the name of the Son through the power of the Spirit? But when pushed by my Jewish colleagues to talk about the Trinity, I realized how ill equipped I was to do so.
We often argued, you see, about whether we shared the same God; on one level it seemed that we did: the creator, the holy one who covenanted with a people, led them out of Egypt, delivered them at the Red Sea, and took them to the promised land where their fortunes ebbed and flowed. But then would come the questions. “If you believe in one God,” my friends would ask, “then how can you say Jesus was God?” And even if Jesus is God, what about this whole “Holy Spirit” thing? How can SHE be God, too? How can you have three Gods if you believe in the One God?
At this point, what I always wanted to do was to throw up my hands and declare, “It’s a mystery!” which is, of course true and at the same time, as my formerly Catholic friends who grew up attending parochial school where the nuns regularly used that line remind me, is a cop-out.
My Jewish friends, however, asked a very good question—how can God—the One and Eternal Living God—be both one and three? How can we speak of Jesus as being God’s son if God and Jesus are one being? And how can we understand the Holy Spirit to be sent by Jesus when Jesus and the Holy Spirit are GOD?
Noted preacher Barbara Brown Taylor likens this dilemma to a Buddhist koan. A koan, for those of you unfamiliar with Buddhism, is a paradoxical riddle or anecdote used to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning, and to provoke intuition and enlightenment. One famous Zen koan asks, "Two hands clap and there is a sound; what is the sound of one hand?" Another queries, “What was the appearance of your face before your parents were born?”
Koans, truth be told, aren’t exclusive to Buddhism. We Christians have our own—right in the gospels. When Jesus says things like, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” (Matthew 10:39) or when he teaches with a parable, he is employing the same logic-busting, mind stretching language.
And maybe it is a matter of language. Maybe our language is inadequate for us to really express the meaning of the Trinity. Oh, we’ve tried. Ever since the fourth century when the Council of Nicea was called to settle disputes about the nature of Jesus, church fathers and theologians have argued about how to define, delineate, articulate this notion of one God in three, three unified in one. And they’ve been quick to label definitions or words that don’t suit them as “heresies.” I’m quite sure that whenever I try to wax eloquent about the Trinity I commit at least one of those heresies!
To get around this problem we resort to analogies: The Trinity is like a shamrock: three leaves making up one whole; the Trinity is like H2O, which we experience as water, ice and steam; the Trinity is like a Three Musketeers Bar: three for one and one for three.
20th century theologian and priest Robert Farrar Capon once described human attempts to explain the Trinity as like an oyster trying to describe a ballerina; we just don’t have the words, the concepts, the mental capacity to describe something so beautiful, to grasp the meaning of something as wondrous as the nature of God—and that is what the Trinity is about, isn’t it? The nature of God, the way God manifests Godself in the world, the ways God comes to us and acts in our lives? The way God relates to us, God’s human children?
And therein is the missing piece of all our analogies: relationship. For just as much as the Trinity is about how God relates to us it is even more about how God relates to Godself. We acknowledge this in the Nicene Creed when we say that Jesus was begotten by the Father and that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. But even that falls short for 21st century Christians, these notions of “begot” and proceed.
It is here that I think we can profitably borrow from a notion found in the Orthodox Church. They use the word perichoresis, which literally means “dancing around,” to describe the Trinity as God in relationship. The Holy Spirit, the Father and the Son are united in an exquisite divine dance.
I’m not sure that imagining the Trinity as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit moving gracefully in a Viennese waltz helps me to UNDERSTAND the Trinity any better, but it sure does help me appreciate it. God in a divine dance amongst the heavens, circling the stars, swooping amongst the galaxies all the while enfolding us, God’s children into that Trinitarian embrace. Creator, redeemer and sanctifier moving in and through us bringing us into step. God, Word, and Wisdom filling us and calling us into relationship with the Almighty. It takes my breath away.
In the end, I still can’t explain the Trinity, how One God is Three and Three are One; it will remain a koan, a paradox, a mystery flirting with comprehension. Nonetheless I know we can be drawn into that wonderful dance, that relationship in and with God, and we can be moved by that power of the One who made us, redeemed and calls us to holiness. AMEN
Inspiration and images drawn from “Three Hands Clapping,” in Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way, Cowley, 1999.