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Archive for June, 2012

Holy Trinity

Isaiah 6:1-8                   Canticle 13                    Romans 8:12-17                        John 3:1-17

The world in which we live is full of images. In recent years, many of us have acquired a new way to record images—with digital cameras. Digital images have clear, crisp details and vivid colors. We take pictures of people and the world around us in order to capture important moments in our lives, then share those pictures with others. These pictures represent both the personal and global worlds in which we share community—now able to be shared through social media.

Contrast digital images with those painted by Impressionist artists. Impressionist painting, developed in the 1870’s, is a unique style of art. It is “characterized by concentration on the immediate visual impression produced by a scene and by the use of unmixed primary colors and small strokes to simulate actual reflected light.”[1]  If you have ever visited the National Gallery of Art, you probably have enjoyed impressionist art by Van Gogh, Mary Cassatt or Claude Monet. Some years ago, I noticed something. When you stand across the room from an Impressionist painting, the scenes and people on canvas seem relatively clear. Yet as you approach the painting, it becomes more difficult to see the big picture. Then, when you stand very close to the painting, what you see is a hodgepodge of dots and splotches in bright, primary colors and an assortment of small strokes of a paintbrush. From a distance, you see a picture. Up close, you see smudges of paint in which a person or tree or blade of grass becomes indistinguishable from the whole.

If we were to use a metaphor for the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, it would not be that of a clear, digital image. Instead, the Trinity might look more like an impressionistic painting. From a distance, we can hope to get a better understanding of the trinity, through words and music. We sing “Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty, God in three Persons, blessed Trinity.”[2]  In the Nicene Creed, we say, “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty. .        .We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God. . .We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life. . .” Yet we cannot really explain or describe God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit—either in words or music. The closer we get to the mystery of Holy Trinity, the fuzzier it all gets—much like that impressionistic painting. No symbol, no word, no piece of music is clear enough or has enough colors or enough dimensions to capture its Truth. So we ordinary people decide we’ll just leave this Trinity business to theologians and scholars, because it has no relevance in our daily lives.

However, this doctrine did not begin with ivory tower theologians and scholars. It began with ordinary people. As Bishop Frederick Borsch puts it, “Practicing believers and worshipers were driven by their experiences of God’s activity to the awareness that God related in several different ways to the creation. . . what these believers came to insist upon was that God had to be recognized as being in different forms of relationship with the creation,   in ways at least like different persons, and that all these ways were divine, that is, were of God. Yet there could not be three gods. God, to be the biblical God and the only God of all, had to be one God. This complex and profound faith was then handed over for the theologians to try and make more intelligible. They have been trying ever since.”[3]

Complicating this matter is the fact that scripture itself never really explains the trinity. For example, this morning, the prophet Isaiah records a vision he had of the holiness of God—with poetic words that we now hear every Sunday in the eucharistic liturgy. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” In Canticle 13, instead of rational explanations, the poet simply worships this beautiful, majestic mystery. Paul writes to the Romans about the Spirit of God that bears witness with our spirit, which makes us heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. And in John’s gospel, Nicodemus’ night-time encounter with Jesus yields mysterious references to being born of the Spirit—something that Nicodemus obviously has difficulty understanding.

We, too, struggle to understand how the entire canon of Holy Scripture yields the mystery of Trinitarian doctrine. The larger question, of course, is why bother trying to understand. Why should we care that our Christian tradition believes that there are three persons yet one God?  Maybe it matters because we are always searching for Truth and we are always yearning for a deeper experience of community. Those two are connected. Truth comes to us in a myriad of symbols, words, music, art and relationships. In fact, one writer has argued that “truth is relational. . .What people hunger for today is the kind of truth that flows out of relationships and helps to develop and cement relationships.”[4]  Jesus teaches Truth out of relationship and community which he knows most intimately with the Father and Holy Spirit. He teaches his disciples that they—and the whole world—can enter fully into this gift of community through belief in him. In, and out of, community and relationship, God’s wisdom and Truth will be revealed in new and unexpected ways.

No one person holds truth. No one image or piece of music or work of art or poem or prose or experience can reveal all of Truth to you and me. We do not experience the Holy One in any one particular way. We may see God in a Monet painting, or in a digital image. God is in the sleepy faces at our breakfast table and in the faces of good friends. God’s majesty and beauty is in a Bach chorale or in a night sky full of stars or in a sunset over a harbor.  God is in the laughter of children and babies freshly bathed. God is in the smell of salt air and sound of crashing waves on the beach. God is in the taste of fresh strawberries, in homemade bread, in a good aged wine. God is in a community of people every time we gather—whether it is for Eucharist or a potluck supper.

God does not reveal Godself to us in toto, or in sharp, clear images or in words on a page. Instead, God reveals God’s truth and holiness to us in a variety of ways, at different—and sometimes difficult—times in our lives. In one sense, God is revealed in millions of tiny strokes with vivid, intense primary colors. In reflections of light. In thousands of impressions. Neither you nor I will ever understand all Truth—and be wary of those who say they do. Our task is not to understand. Our task is to worship God who lives in perfect, divine community, then to live out of our own sense of community. Jesus, who brought God to us in human flesh, showed us the way to live and act: with unselfish, unconditional love. In community and relationship. And Jesus promised that through the power of the Holy Spirit, new truths from God would always be revealed to us.

Someday, we will see a clear image. For now, we build community in the midst of mystery. For now we pray and hope that God’s truth will be revealed to us—even in small impressions or brush strokes. As we live and pray and hope together, we will worship the Triune God who has created us, redeems us, and sustains us all the days of our life:  “Holy, holy, holy!. . .only thou art holy; there is none beside thee, perfect in power, in love, and purity.”[5] Amen.

© The Rev. Sheila N. McJilton
All pictures accessed through Google images except picture of Bass Harbor at sunset, taken by McJilton


[1] The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition, (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996), 908.

[2] “Holy, holy, holy,” in Hymnal 1982 (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation), 362.

[3] The Rt. Rev. Frederick Houk Borsch, as quoted by Brian Stoffregen in Exegetical Notes at Crossmarks Christian Resources. Accessed at http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/john16x12.htm through www.textweek.com.

[4] Bruce E. Shields in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol, 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, 47.

[5] From Stanza #3 of “Holy, holy, holy,” in Hymnal 1982, 362.

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