The Inviting Mystery that is the Trinity

A sermon for Trinity Sunday at Fairacres Convent, 2018. Preacher: Andrew Teal.

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In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our preacher tonight at Pembroke College, it is a former curate colleague of mine from Yorkshire. When she realized that she was preaching at an Oxford College on Trinity Sunday, she expressed a sense of exasperation. ‘Why have you asked me to do this on this day? You’ll be teaching the Trinity to the students!’ And indeed, over the next three weeks there will be many scripts to mark, on the development of Christian doctrine, and the Trinity in Christian thought. So, if I look a bit ragged you’ll understand why! Sue was actually saying something similar to what Jesus says to Nicodemus in today’s gospel. ‘Are you a teacher… , and yet you do not understand these things?’

I’m glad to say that I don’t understand these things. I’m glad to say that although I relish the beauty and intrinsic interconnection of the doctrine of the Trinity, I cannot understand God. St Gregory of Nyssa admitted that he doesn’t even know what human person is, and he is one – so he can’t possibly begin to explain God in Himself in all his mystery, or what a divine person is. God graciously makes himself known to others in his divine energies, but we can never understand these things. And how beautiful that is – to know that we are loved by, and in love with, another whom we cannot control, nor utterly predict: anything that we can say about God is not God. Any doctrine we may have has the purpose of casting us onto God, not giving us the low-down about him.

And yet, as the doctrine makes clear, this mysterious Love, beyond all Being, beyond our understanding, has made himself authentically known. We may not be able to know him in his Mystery, and yet we shall see him as he is, in Christ.

The Spirit unites us to the one who has united us to himself, our life is taken up into the divine dance. So all our words and actions are invited into the presence and persons of the Trinity.

How can we speak of this in a world that wants soundbite tweets of 140 characters or less? Where do we begin to invite our world into the timeless light and brightness, the loving embrace of the Father in the Son through the Holy Spirit?

Let’s leave aside the fact that every other Christian community throughout Christendom is singing ‘Holy holy holy’ to the tune Nicaea at this moment today, to be followed by a sermon trying to find imagery worthy of the subject of the Trinity, with images of triangles, cloverleaves, or pictures of an old man behind the crucified Jesus and a dove. Let us instead look at the image which is on our altar – St Andrei Rublev’s Hospitality of Abraham. The image is of God manifesting himself to the patriarch. St Ambrose of Milan (like many others) spoke of the story in a trinitarian manner:

Abraham, ready to receive strangers, faithful towards God, devoted in ministering, Quick in his service, saw the Trinity in a type; he added religious duty to hospitality, when beholding three, he worshipped one; and preserving the distinction of the persons, yet he addressed one Lord; he offered to three the honour of his gift, while acknowledging but one power. It was not learning but Grace which spoken him, and he believed a better what he had not learnt than we who have learnt. No one had falsified the representation of the truth and so he sees three, but worships the unity.[1]

St Andrei Rublev embodies this blending of hospitality, gift, revelation and grace. He uses geometry to form our perception – the circle is there in the outline of the three, the triangle from the head of the central angel downwards, the Cross – the central axis (tree, central angel, small chalice) with the heads of the other two angels. Other observations abound – an octagonal shape enfolds them all… whatever their meaning, Rublev uses them subtly. One effect I find is that the eye doesn’t easily land in one place, the look from one angel to another creates movement, and the rods they hold point us upward, and the figures themselves seem to form a chalice, a transport of delight depicting, or, rather, suggesting the Mystery without explaining or containing it. The painting seems less about colours than light – the icon doesn’t seem to have light from any side, but from the centre – no hint of an external source of life and light that would create shadows, but there is a luminosity pulsating from the centre.

Few preachers can get where this image would have us travel – mystery, unity, diversity, hospitality, reciprocity, gracious revelation, love to offer the world as true food.

Today we can and must be grateful for those who have and who continue to articulate this life-giving Light of the Holy Trinity in words as well as images. Like a mathematician or physicist amazed by the beauty of an equation, or a biologist at the complex beauty of the world, we can relish the wonder of the Trinitarian accomplishment by people of faith and humility. But like a beautiful feat of engineering or atomic research, we can use this wonder as a dangerous weapon with which to beat others. That’s not what true doctrine is for – to expose and attack the faults of others, No: the Trinity, as we can glimpse in Rublev’s work, is an open invitation, a revelation of God in human terms and images, the depiction of a God far more mysterious and wonderful than any expression of him, but who allows himself to be accommodated to our small minds and wounded souls – who visits us unexpectedly, receives our hospitality, and weaves our lives into the dance of the three persons in one God by uniting us to Christ for ever by the All-Holy Spirit.

To this generous, kind and welcoming God, who is awesome mystery and immense might and wonder, be all glory and honour, and our love and faithfulness, now and to the ages of ages.

Amen.

[1] Ambrose, On the Death of his Brother Satyrus. Book II, para 96.

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[Revd Dr] Andrew Teal Chaplain, Fellow, Lecturer in Patristic & Modern Theology, Pembroke College, Oxford. Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of Oxford Warden, Community of the Sisters of the Love of God. ADVANCE NOTICE: Inspiring Service. November 23rd 2018 The Pichette Auditorium, Pembroke College Oxford. A panel of speakers to inspire adventurous and fulfilling service. Speakers: Lord David Alton of Liverpool, a leading lay British Catholic; Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, one of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints; Revd Prof Frances Young, leading British Methodist; and The Most Revd & Rt Hon Prof Rowan Williams (Baron Williams of Oystermouth), formerly Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of the world-wide Anglican Church.

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