The new icon of the Trinity, shown as the Visitation of Abraham in the style of Andrei Rublev, in the chapel in the North Transept of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
Sunday, 30 May 2010: Trinity Sunday
11 a.m., Festal Eucharist, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin,
Proverbs 8: 1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Romans: 5: 1-5; John 16: 12-15.
May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
You’ve probably gathered this from the service sheets, the notice boards, the leaflets and a lot of other wordage around the place that this is not Christ Church Cathedral. No. We only call it that. The true name of this place is the Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity.
And so Trinity Sunday is a very special day here.
Now, it’s said there is never a rush of clergy to preach on the Trinity on Trinity Sunday.
I imagine it’s no problem to find canons of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral who can tell you good yarns about slaves and snakes and shamrocks. Or in a parish church named after Saint John the Baptist they might relish on sermon illustrations provided by wild locusts, honey and Salome, or baptisms and beheadings.
But, why are the clergy so reluctant to talk about the Trinity, or so turgid and tortured when they do so? I know that for some preaching can be a difficult task. But sometimes preachers make it difficult – not only for ourselves, but for those who must listen to us.
And I wonder why so many clergy who get into the pulpit to preach on Trinity Sunday either descend to the depths of heresy or rise to the heights of lunacy.
The novelist and Anglican spiritual writer, Dorothy Sayers, wrote a humorous essay, ‘The Dogma is the Drama’ (Dorothy L. Sayers, Creed or Chaos, London: Methuen, 1947), on the relevance of Christian doctrine to real life. In that essay, she drew up a kind of questionnaire with the sort of answers she felt ordinary people would give to questions like this. She wrote:
Question: What does the Church think of God the Father?
Answer: He is omnipotent and holy. He created the world and imposed on man conditions impossible of fulfilment. He is very angry if these are not carried out. He sometimes interferes by means of arbitrary judgment and miracles, distributed with a good sense of favouritism. He likes to be truckled to, and is always ready to pounce on anybody who trips up over a difficulty in the Law, or is having a bit of fun. He is rather like a dictator, only larger and more arbitrary.
Question: What does the Church think of God the Son?
Answer: He is in some way to be identified with Jesus of Nazareth. It was not his fault that the world was made like this and, unlike God the Father, he is friendly to man and did his best to reconcile man and God. He has a good deal of influence with God, and if you want anything done, it’s best to apply to him.
Question: What does the Church think of God the Holy Ghost?
Answer: I don’t know exactly. He was never seen or heard of till Whit Sunday. There is a sin against him which damns you for ever, but nobody knows what it is.
Question: What is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity?
Answer: “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Holy Ghost incomprehensible” – the whole thing incomprehensible. Something put in by theologians to make it more difficult. Nothing to do with daily life and reality.
Incomprehensible? Nothing to do with daily life and reality? Are these some of the difficulties you could imagine when it comes to thinking and talking about the Trinity?
In the grounds of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin ... officially known as the Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
Allow me to introduce us this morning to some ways of thinking of God as the Trinity.
If I were to introduce you to my world, to my story, I might invite you to visit the places that have shaped and made me.
I might invite you to imagine what it was like for a small boy to lay awake in his grandmother’s farmhouse in west Waterford, it was so bright outside on a balmy summer’s evening. Downstairs, I can hear the old clock chiming out the time: it’s ten, and a hush descends on the house as the adults settle down in their chairs to listen to the news on the wireless. I hear the old black kettle boiling over the open fire as someone prepares to make a pot of tea. Outside, a pigeon is still cooing in the thatch, I imagine I can hear the abbey bells ringing out the time across the fields, and I know I am safe and loved in this world.
Twenty or so years later, once again it’s late at night, in the top storey of a tall house in a narrow street in Wexford town.
It’s comforting to hear the clock of Rowe Street church count out the hours. Is that a late train I hear trundling along the quays? A lone voice in the Theatre Royal braving a late rehearsal for one of next week’s operas? And I am so looking forward to the Festival Service in Saint Iberius’s Church.
Let us move forward another two decades or so. I can’t sleep in this house in suburban Dublin. But I can hear my children snoring contentedly in their own rooms. Outside, the unseasonable rain is pelting down, the wind is rustling through the cherry tree outside, and I wonder whether all the cherry blossom will be shaken down and washed onto the grass below by the time morning dawns.
We can use words not only to tell our stories, but to paint pictures, to invite others into our communities, into our families, and into our lives. Now that you have heard and seen what has shaped me, where I have been formed, what made me feel loved and secure, now that you have been invited into my story, my family and know me, we are ready to sing the same songs, to sit together at the same table. Why, we might even dance.
The Trinity is an image of God, a perfect community, a community of God that invites us to share God’s story, to sit at table with God, to sing songs with God, … all the things we’re doing at this Festal Eucharist. Why, as Karen Baker-Fletcher says in her recent book, the Trinity could be God’s invitation for us to dance with God. [Karen Baker-Fletcher, Dancing With God: A Womanist Perspective on the Trinity (St Louis: Chalice Press, 2006; 2007)]
Two of the great Early Fathers of the Church, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus and Saint John of Damascus, use the term perichoresis, an image of going around, enveloping, to describe the mysterious union of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Clark Pinnock writes: “The metaphor suggests moving around, making room, relating to one another without losing identity.” [Clark Pinnock, Flame of Love, A theology of the Holy Spirit (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996)].
There is a play on words – a pun on the Greek origins of the word – that allows us to think of creative choreography, to imagine a dance of reciprocal love. This divine unity is expressed in the relationship of the three as one, for relationship is at the heart of the unity of the three-in-one. It is a relationship that is mutual and reciprocal. The Trinity tells us that shared life is basic to the nature of God: God is perfect social relationship, perfect mutuality, perfect reciprocity, perfect peace, perfect love.
“As a circle of loving relationships, God is dynamically alive.” The three persons of the Trinity are caught up in an eternal dance of reciprocity, so intertwined that at times it may appear difficult to tell who is who. They move with choreographed harmony. The love emanating from within cannot help but create, for it is the nature of love not to harbour and to hoard but to expand and to create.
God has, from the beginning, been wooing creation to dance. The community of God desires community with us. You and I are being courted, God wants to dance with you, and with me. The love that created us and our world is the same love that longs to be in fellowship with us.
When we worship in spirit and in truth, do others, does the world see us united as one, bound by love, dancing in harmony and flinging out new creation from within our midst? And do we call others to dance with us?
The Russian icon writer Andrei Rublev tried to create the same picture in a different way. In his famous icon of “The Visitation of Abraham” – a modern interpretation of which you can see in this cathedral – he depicts three visitors who arrive at Abraham’s door. The guests become the hosts, the host becomes the guest, and Abraham is invited to a meal that is past, present and future. It is every domestic meal, it is a foretaste of the Eucharist, it is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. In welcoming strangers, he is entertaining angels; but in entertaining angels, he is invited into communion with God as Trinity.
It is a moment in the past, a moment in the present and a moment in the future, when we shall all be restored to being in the image and likeness of God our Creator. God, in creating us, creates out of love, making our destiny eternal life with him. We are created to experience life within the Trinitarian communion of persons.
For there are three things we all encounter in our lives: we all need to be cared for; we all encounter suffering; we all need company. God the Father creates us and cares for us; God in Christ identifies with our suffering, takes on and takes away our suffering; God the Holy Spirit enlivens our communities, gives us that divine measure. God has, in a very real way, entered into the mystery of our humanity, so that we may enter into the mystery that is his communio personarum.
“This deifying union has, nevertheless, to be fulfilled ever more and more even in this present life, through the transformation of our human nature and by its adaptation to eternal life.” [Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Press, 2002), p. 196.]
God invites us in creation, in Christ, in the Church, in the Word, and in the Sacrament, to be in union with God, to share God’s story, to sit down and dine with God, to sing and dance with God, to find our inner dwelling with God, and to be at one with God. And that is the purpose and the fulfilment of Christian life.
And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and gory of God, + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Almighty and everlasting God,
you have given us your servants grace,
by the confession of a true faith,
to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity
and in the power of the divine majesty to worship the Unity:
Keep us steadfast in this faith,
that we may evermore be defended from all adversities;
for you live and reign, one God, for ever and ever.
may we who have received this holy communion,
worship you with lips and lives
proclaiming your majesty
and finally see you in your eternal glory:
Holy and Eternal Trinity,
one God, now and for ever.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Festal Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral on Trinity Sunday, 30 May 2010.