Back in the 14th/15th centuries there was a Russian painter names Andrei Rublev. He became known as one of the greats among all medieval icon painters. He’s most famous for this one icon which alternately goes by the title “The Hospitality of Abraham” or “The Trinity”. It’s three figures sitting around a table with a full chalice in the middle. The shape and the orientation of the angels creates this circle that holds the three figures together. The symbolism in the icon, along with its original title clearly tells the story of the three visitors who stopped to visit Abram in the book of Genesis, at the oaks of Mamre. Other elements of the symbolism though, including the colour of the garments worn by the three figures suggests that we’re also looking at this depiction of the Trinity, God, three in one.
A lot of people use this icon when they want to talk about the Trinity. On the one hand that’s because it’s this masterpiece of iconographic art with this rich and deep symbolism. On the other hand I think there’s a deeper reason people often choose to point to the icon. Specifically it’s the fact that the Trinity is so incredibly hard to talk about. It’s so much easier to show it, to point to it, to examine it in the context of a story or an image, and I think it’s worth keeping in mind that sometimes we don’t learn complex theology by arguing our way into it, we learn it by seeing it, by singing it, creating it. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, is reported to have once said that the greatest challenge to the Western church is the loss of beauty. We know how to talk our way into most things in a way that helps them to make sense, but we’ve forgotten how imagine those things we hold so dear, we’ve forgotten how to draw them, to sing about them, to love them.
The trinity is notorious for being virtually impossible to talk about in any sort of reasoned, structured kind of way, and in a sense, maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe what we need is to realize that one of the core doctrines of the church, the nature of God, is this thing that we can never fully understand from a rational point of view. Maybe what we need is to rediscover a way to pursue God in art, and in story, and in song.
BORN FROM ABOVE / BORN AGAIN
I think Jesus knew something about this and I think that’s why he so often resorted to metaphor and parable. In this morning’s reading he talks to the pharisee Nicodemus about being born again, or born from above, depending which translation you’re looking at. It’s a idea that’s become really popular recently, and one that lots of people seem to find incredibly meaningful but it’s also actually really hard to define. I think most of us would probably stand with Nicodemus when he asks “how can anyone be born after having grown old?”, but like Nicodemus that would be missing the point. Because I think the point of Jesus’ image isn’t to explain the mechanics of salvation it’s to describe the impact of salvation. Jesus isn’t telling Nicodemus how he has to be saved he’s telling him what it means for him to be saved. He’s telling him that through the Spirit we become a new creation, we change from who we were into who we were meant to be.
The point of Jesus’ teaching wasn’t just to fill the heads of the disciples with information about the structures of the universe, it was to give them a different way of imagining the universe, of loving Creation.
I think that approach might help us to reclaim the doctrine of the Trinity in the 21st century. We don’t need to think of the Trinity in terms of Aristotelian metaphysics from 2,300 years ago. Or at least that doesn’t need to be our entry point into the doctrine of the Trinity.
Some of the modern prayer books have gone searching for other ways of talking about the Trinity. Some have chosen to emphasize the function of the persons of the Trinity rather than their composition. So, instead of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, it becomes God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Instead of trying to describe the nature of God, what God is, this approach tries to describe the reason for God, why God is. God the father is the creator of the stars, the planets, of all creatures including humanity. Jesus, the second person of the Trinity is the one who came to earth to redeem that creation, to restore it to what it was intended to be rather than what it had become. And the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, is the one who sustains that renewed life and brings strength and energy to a world trying to live this resurrected life. And the three persons of the Trinity function together for the good of Creation, of heaven and earth.
I’m not saying we should always use this model because it certainly has its limits, but I think the benefit of this way of thinking about the Trinity is that it recognizes that God is in some sense personal, God isn’t just a force that does things to creation, God has a character, God is relational. Even more importantly though, it invites us into that dynamic too, it gives us, as part of creation, a place to stand in the movement of the Trinity, because it orients God towards us.
Going back to that icon, I mentioned before the way the circle between the characters is drawn, creating this Trinity. Well, if you spend enough time looking at it you start to realize that the way they’re angled, you, the viewer have become the fourth element of that circle. The circle reaches out and draws you in to the communal bonds of God’s love. If God is by nature always in relationship then it makes sense that God is calling us into that relationship too. God is making space within God’s own self for all of creation to enter in. God chooses to extend that relationship which is part of God’s nature to all of creation.
And so it is that the confusion of the doctrine of the Trinity says something really profound to us about God and about our salvation, about the direction that all life on earth is flowing, towards God. The trinity itself is constantly calling to us, beckoning us in.
Ultimately humanity’s ability to think about God is always going to be somewhat limited, which isn’t to say that we should stop trying. The pursuit of knowledge can be a beautiful thing in itself. But as Western Christians, and maybe especially as Anglicans in the 21st century I think we need to find a way to flex some of those creative muscles that we’ve let atrophy. We need to rediscover not just what it means to talk about God, but what it means to love God. And we rekindle that love of God by rediscovering the beauty of God, and we rediscover the beauty of God when we remember how to dream about God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.