At Pembroke College Oxford, Sunday 27th May, 2018: Trinity Sunday
Exploring the glorious nature of God who is Three-in-One is not limited to Trinity Sunday but there a particular opportunity today to reflect on what that exploration might involve. Surprisingly perhaps, it was a holiday in Rhodes last month that helped me reflect on the encounter with holy God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
My husband, James, and I stayed in Rhodes Town and every day we visited the Old Town which had captured our hearts and imagination. As the guide book says, ‘It is UNESCO’s number one world heritage site [which] catapults you back 2500 years into history … Buildings erected by the Byzantines, Crusaders, Jews, Ottoman Turks and Greeks are embedded in the ancient fortifications.’ It is beautiful, especially in the warm sunshine. We felt that a good place to start our serious exploration would be the Museum of Archaeology, which was highly recommended and we thought we’d learn a lot.
With high expectations of excellent curation and guidance through the complex history of an important ancient town it was extremely disappointing when we looked at the first interesting artefact in the open courtyard: a beautifully preserved ancient stone lion, that there was no sign to explain just what it was and from what era. As we wandered about the lower courtyard there was nothing to teach us more about what was displayed.
As I was grumbling that no one provides information boards like the English National Trust, we clambered up steep stone steps, and James suggested, ‘Let’s just allow the atmosphere to wash over us.’
On the next level in the sunshine, without pointers to guide us through any of it, we discovered numerous intriguing components to the space before us. As we wandered the winding pathways there were small lush gardens, heavily laden orange trees with falling fruit below, fragrant flowers, exquisite cool ponds, ancient stone staircases, eerie tunnels, gateways and doors, the constant sound of trickling water from hidden fountains, huge stone buildings with mysterious-looking Ottoman screens at the windows, tombstones inscribed in Hebrew, trees whose giant roots clasped huge cannon balls. The contrast of bright light and dark shade contributed to a truly amazing experience. It was full of surprises. And of course there were no information boards to explain any of it – thank goodness.
Inside what had been a medieval hospital there was a carefully curated museum of ancient Greek sculpture and next to it an enormous, imposing church used by Crusaders with tiny dark chapels and stone memorials remembering the Knights of St John.
Being outside had been most memorable. This lovely museum made perfect sense to us as somewhere we’d inhabited for just an hour or so, and although we hadn’t explored every square cm, touched every object or read a plaque for each artefact, it was sufficient to capture the sense of it. Far from being chaotic, the apparently unplanned nature of this place allowed for constant surprise and delight. The diverse nooks and crannies revealed beauty and mystery which made more sense and offered a taste of peace rarely, if ever, known in the best designed visitor experience.
Of course the museum was not unfathomable. I imagine those who work there or visit regularly do know every corner well, and especially as a workplace there’ll be little mystery or enigma, but the gift of surprise and delight for this first time visitor was something to treasure. Such an experience of beauty and unexpected loveliness may nudge us towards appreciating the pure beauty and boundless loveliness of God.
Ezekiel’s vision of the Glory of the Lord with its strange and beautiful creatures set beneath a crystal dome uncovers the reality that God transcends human dimensions and cannot be reduced to physical descriptions. Ezekiel doesn’t presume to describe his vision but suggests ‘something like;’ so ‘something looked like fire’, ‘something like a throne’ ‘like a bow in a cloud on a rainy day,’ ‘like gleaming amber,’ ‘like sapphire.’ He concludes, ‘This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of God.’ Ezekiel had a life-changing vision of the glory of God and concludes ‘When I saw it I fell on my face.’ Getting close to apprehending the Almighty is completely humbling.
Resting entirely on our own understanding inevitably puts limits on what is to be known about God. More than that it is too burdensome. Having faith in the mystery of an omni-present God, which we glimpse when we encounter beauty or experience love, encourages us to trust our sense of apprehension. Whilst we might constantly seek to know more of God, this side of heaven, our understanding will always be partial. That is enough, more would be more than we could bear by ourselves.
Just as salvation is not something we gain or receive on our own but comes to us through our relationship both to God the Holy Trinity and to other members of the human family, our understanding of the nature of God is discovered in community. Individual experiences of beauty, purity and love do contribute to the Church’s understanding of God’s nature but there is more.
The Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman says, ‘Firmly I believe and truly God is three and God is one.’ For him, there is sufficiency in the faith of the Church. The Church’s celebration of God as Trinity speaks to us about our fundamental identity as community. For Newman, life in Christ draws us into that community where collectively we find the search for truth about God’s nature, which gives us dynamic life and our true identity.
Too often the cares and demands of life prevent us from realising that a relationship with God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit is neither elusive, nor something we can grasp. Trinity Sunday encourages us to keep open mind and senses to explore and appreciate the signs of God who reaches out to us in the world. Amen.