The Sunday Sermon: The Mystery of the Trinity

Trinity Sunday, June 12, 2022
Penelope Bridges

Every year on the Sunday after Pentecost we celebrate the Holy Trinity. Of course we celebrate our Trinitarian God every Sunday, as we typically end our prayers in the name of Jesus who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit. But today we are supposed to focus especially on this mysterious identity, three persons in one, an eternal relationship of divinity, the ground of our being, indivisible, uncreate, and incomprehensible, as the ancient Creed of St. Athanasius  puts it. In some churches they recite the Athanasian Creed on Trinity Sunday. We are not going to do that, and if you look it up on p.864 of the Book of Common Prayer you will see why.

We can try to explain the Trinity with metaphors such as the shamrock with its three-part leaf, or an orange with its peel, flesh, and seeds; but these are obviously inadequate and much too simplistic. Or we can look up Trinity explanations on the internet and become thoroughly confused, or even feel judged: the first item I clicked on in a quick Google search started out by telling me sternly that if I don’t believe in the Trinity I am not a Christian at all.  So I don’t recommend that approach.

The Bishop of Minnesota, Craig Loya, has written a refreshingly down-to-earth essay about the Trinity, and he writes that the doctrine of the Trinity “is intellectual nonsense on purpose. It is literally, by design, unintelligible. It stops us from being able to comprehend God and box God in with our rational categories. To confess God as Trinity reminds us that God is a mystery we encounter, not a concept we understand.” End quote. So I feel excused from any requirement to explain the Trinity today.

But we can still celebrate the mystery of this God whom we worship, who exists from eternity in a community of being, who creates all that is out of an over-abundance of the love that flows within and among the three persons, who cares so much about the created order that they voluntarily took on the humble and vulnerable flesh of a human being in order to suffer all that we can suffer and by doing so prove that love is stronger than death.

The Welsh poet and priest RS Thomas wrote this condensed and powerful poem about the incarnation, entitled The Coming.

And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
a scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.
            On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.

Poems of R. S. Thomas. University of Arkansas, 1986

Celebrating the Trinity reminds us that the essence of God is relationship. Our God is not a monolith but a diverse community, engaged eternally in a graceful dance. God the Creator, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are integral one to another, upholding each other as divine love is shared, given and received. A God who exists in community is to be fully experienced only in community, and humans are creatures made to live in community.

We commonly refer to the Trinity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, taking this language from the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus sends out the apostles to the ends of the earth, to “make disciples of all people, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” That has become the standard language to address the Trinity. But is that the only way for us to encounter God?

 Each name that we give to God carries with it all kinds of personal associations, and when we attach ourselves too firmly to a particular name, we may limit our ability to recognize God in the moment. If I have always heard God addressed as Father, I may have difficulty recognizing God’s agency in motherly acts. If I have always praised the Lord of Hosts, Host being an old word for army, will I ever know God as the peacemaker? If I think of the Holy Spirit as the Comforter, I might limit my experience of the Spirit to soft and fluffy encounters, whereas the 17th century creators of the King James Version who used that term for the Spirit actually envisioned something like a cattle prod, the Latin root for Comforter meaning something that strengthens and impels – and that, in my experience, is much more characteristic of the Holy Spirit!

In our first reading today, divine Wisdom is personified as a woman who cries out in the city gate, where all important community business took place in ancient Israel. Christians often identify her as the Holy Spirit, hence her appearance on Trinity Sunday when we look for references to all three persons of the Trinity in the readings. Wisdom is portrayed as God’s companion and co-creator, in words reminiscent of the beginning of John’s Gospel. Wisdom was in the beginning with God. If you look closely at Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting of God creating man, right arm stretched out, you’ll see that God’s other arm is around a woman. Could that be lady Wisdom?

Last weekend I was on a spiritual retreat in Virginia, focusing on the life and work of Hildegard of Bingen, a prominent religious figure of the 12th century. I recommend her story to you for further reading. In a nutshell, as the tenth child of the family she was literally “tithed” to the church for life, forced into a closed convent as a child. In her forties she finally embraced the visions she had long received. She founded two abbeys, published 3 books of spiritual visions and three other books; went on four preaching tours, was accused of being a witch but protected by the Pope, the Holy Roman Emperor and St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and excommunicated by the local bishop at the age of 80.

Hildegard comes across like a real-life medieval personification of Wisdom: she cried out prophetically, making utterances that she said came directly from God, breaking rules against the preaching of women, protesting the inhumane custom of walling up small girls for life in cloistered monastic orders, exposing the corruption of the institutional Church.

She was a creator of music, poetry, sermons, and instructional materials. She was skilled in science and medicine. Hildegard struggled for years but eventually accepted that her creativity came from God and was a gift of the Holy Spirit. But it took decades for this acceptance to come; and centuries for the church to recognize her fully: she was finally canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 2010.

When little Hildegard found herself thrust through a wall and bricked up with an older woman, did she recognize the work of the Holy Spirit? Did she welcome the holy life-giver, embrace the fire of love, offer a song of thanksgiving and praise to the fragrant Strength, the giver of light, as the daylight disappeared behind the stones and the smell of a one-room dwelling with no plumbing enveloped her? Or did she scream and weep and beg for release, refusing to believe that loving parents, a loving God, could do this to her? Did she think at first that it was a game and only later realize that nobody was going to take the stone away, that the Easter story of the empty tomb would not be her story?

The Spirit that moved Hildegard’s parents to offer her up, a living child sacrifice, was no gentle breeze but a derecho of power, driving towards a goal that nobody could have foreseen, the painful and decades-long refining of this terrified child into a woman of genius and courage, a prophet and preacher, protector of children, a reformer of the church, a scientist and healer, a leader whose words echo down the centuries and continue to inspire us.

I share Hildegard’s story with you today because, among many other extraordinary things, she was creative in the ways she named and encountered God. Her writings are in Latin, so it depends on which English translation you read, but she wrote songs addressing God as Holy Life-Giver, Doctor of the Desperate, Aroma of Virtues, Breastplate of life, Mighty Path, Penetrator of all things, Fire of Love, Sounding Joy. This language was unconventional, to say the least, and frowned upon by church authorities, just as Julian of Norwich’s language for Jesus as Mother was frowned upon 250 years later. But finding new ways to address God expands our concept of the divine and increases our appreciation of the expansive nature of our complex and mysterious God, who cannot be contained within one formula or name.

Changing the way we address God is an emotional issue. For most of us, Our Father is the first prayer we ever learn, and often the last one we forget. An image of God as father is deeply embedded in most Christians, for good or ill. Those who have named God in unorthodox ways have often faced opposition, sanction, and ridicule. We try to find new ways to approach God: Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier is one common substitution, but it falls short because it names the persons of the Trinity by function rather than identity, and God is not limited to being functional, just as none of us are limited by our functions. The new edition of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible recognizes this and attempts to broaden our sense of the diversity of humanity by rephrasing some traditional translations. Instead of calling someone “a paralytic” the new edition has “a paralyzed man”. And instead of calling people slaves, they are referred to as enslaved people. Small changes, but they remind us that each human being is more than their social status or level of ability. And if this is so for humanity, how much more true is it for God.

Our reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans is reflected in Hildegard’s story: she put her experience of suffering to good use, condemning the practice of walling up children and demanding better conditions in the monasteries. She studied to be a scientist and doctor, ministering to others who suffered. She is a model of the pattern Paul lays out: suffering to endurance to character to hope, ultimately finding the joy of living in the love of God through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

We don’t have to explain or understand the Trinity, but we can explore the complexity of our God through the riches of language, playing with our own names for God, turning the prism of divinity to catch new angles, new perspectives on this deepest of all mysteries. And by honoring the Trinity in this way, perhaps we will find new ways to experience our loving, life-giving, and liberating God. Amen.

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