Feast of the Holy Trinity
Holy Wisdom Monastery
May 30, 2021
Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17
Roberta M. Felker
“What do we pray for but the equation that helps us make sense
of what happens in our daily lives?
What do we believe in if not that which tells us we’re alive? “
~ A. Van Jordan
These two lines from the American poet, A. Van Jordan’s splendid collection bookend today’s reflection. What do we pray for but the equation that helps us make sense of what happens in our daily lives? What do we believe in if not that which tells us we’re alive? “ In this morning’s story from John, we meet Nicodemus. A successful member of the Sanhedrin, full of what Einstein called, “the passion for comprehension.” Nicodemus leaves the comfort of his home in the ink-black night, hoping the itinerant rabbi will have answers to the nagging questions that lured him from his bed, long after his neighbors had fallen sleep. Barbara Brown Taylor describes him as someone “whose compass is spinning,” someone who is “desperately learning to walk in the dark.” Someone looking for the equation that will help him make sense of what is happening in his life.
Don’t we know how it is? We live in a world that places a premium on answers, on certainty, on making sense. Nicodemus is alive and well in all of us who hold fast to ideas about what is true and what can’t be true. “How can these things be?” Nicodemus lives in all of us who cling to the illusion of control and certainty – and struggle with befriending the truth of uncertainty.
We are going to befriend the uncertainty of the Trinity this morning by acknowledging that, like Nicodemus, we are (to put it plainly) in the dark, out of our depth. In the words of Martin Luther, “To try to deny the Trinity endangers one’s salvation; to try to comprehend the Trinity endangers one’s sanity!” Episcopal priest Robert Capon puts it more whimsically, suggesting that trying to describe the Trinity is “like a bunch of oysters trying to describe a ballerina.” Today, let’s leave behind the formulation of Trinitarian doctrine with which many of us were raised. Move beyond the patriarchal language and hierarchical images of the Trinity in a male-dominated church and culture. Reimagine the Trinity as more than “two men and a bird.” Let’s celebrate that although some of the greatest minds of Christendom have applied reason, philosophical rigor, depth and breadth to understanding and interpreting the church’s experience of the Trinity, it’s still a grand muddle. “Dead metaphors make strong idols,” as the poet Marcia Falk observed. Perhaps it is the ultimate paradox of the Trinity: that the embrace of uncertainty, of unknowing, is a way to help us make sense of what happens in our daily lives.
Let’s start with Richard Rohr’s reimaging of the evangelist John’s first words: “In the beginning was the relationship.” The Irish poet, John O’Donohue, describes this relationship as a ‘’sublime articulation of otherness and intimacy, an eternal interflow of friendship… “ The Trinity’s interflow of relationship offers us a model of a wider embrace, a special energy; it enchants our imaginations; it invites us to take one another and the world into our open arms. Like all friendships, there is a strange and beautiful mystery inherent in the Trinity: it defies definition yet is deeply felt. Like all love, its presence is, paradoxically, often recognized most acutely through its absence.
At the heart of the Trinity’s friendship is the truth that, in the image and likeness of our God, we are designed for relationship. Our senses are rivers of connection in an exchange with our God and the world around us. Our well-being is entangled in a tender equilibrium with all members of the great web of belonging. Isn’t the wild, interdependent interplay, the undulating majesty of this divine friendship what we long for? It unites us, calls us to participate in a more reciprocal relationship with all of creation. Our relational Trinity urges us to fortify our ability to stand and protect the world, to offer our imagination, affection, and devotion to sustaining the lives of all creatures around us. The closer our friendship with this kindred Trinity, the closer we come to a sense of belonging with the cries of families separated at the border, with the melting glaciers. The closer we come to being God’s voice rising on behalf of the commons.
While the Trinity is all about relationship, it also is too rambunctious to be contained in one simple story, one biographical narrative. As Richard Rohr puts it, the Trinity affirms that there is an intrinsic plurality to goodness. “Goodness isn’t sameness,” he writes in The Divine Dance. “Goodness, to be goodness, needs contrast and tension, not perfect uniformity.” I think this is why, there are so many wild variations of the creation and redemption stories: God requires panoply of ways to express God’s full and complex nature. The array of images in the wisdom tales and myths and in the sacred texts remind us that the ground of our Trinitarian God – and of our own being – is wide and deep. Theologian Rosemary Ruether’s matrix surrounding and sustaining all life; Paul Tillich’s ground of being; Karl Rahner’s holy mystery. A mother hen gathering her chicks. The Trinity is a divine shapeshifter, part wind, part track of moonlight on water, part dreaming coyote. A composite of contradictions: fierce and forgiving, joyful and melancholy, intense and spacious, solitary and communal. Blowing where it chooses. Always on the move, always spilling over. To attend to these diverse images of our triune God binds us with the breadth of the dreaming earth, the soul of the cosmos. The closer our friendship with this rambunctious Trinity, the more we are able to embody a vivid, varied, and animated life. The more we are able to be at peace with the ways in which goodness manifests in contrast and tension, in light and in darkness.
In the 15th century, Russian monk and iconographer Andrei Rublev painted one of the most beloved and evocative icons in Christendom titled, “The Hospitality of Abraham,” also known as “The Trinity.” Or, as one casual theologian described it, “God’s Selfie.” In this icon, the Trinity is imaged as the three angels who appeared to Abraham. Picture them all, sitting around a table, sharing food and drink. The faces of the angels are nearly identical – there’s a family resemblance, you might say – but they are dressed in different colors. They gaze at one another, gesturing and opening the circle to make room for others to join the sacred meal. The icon exudes both intimacy and openness. There is space at the table for the viewer of the icon, for every one of us. The spirit of the Trinity is one of radical hospitality: it’s all about the open door, all about another chair, all about making the holy table more generous and more welcoming. The closer our friendship with this gracious Trinity , the kinder our attention and the wider our invitations, the more open our hearts to the fierce and challenging practice of hospitality toward ourselves and toward the world.
And so we return to Nicodemus, to his midnight encounter beyond the familiar guideposts and fixed stars of his training and position. There is a saying in the Zen tradition: “Not knowing is most intimate.” Nicodemus had the courage to put himself right in front of Jesus, on a collision path with not knowing. A circuitous path that ultimately led him back to assist Joseph of Arimathea at Jesus’ tomb – to take his nocturnal faith into broad daylight. Did he find in Jesus the equation that helped him make sense of his life?
If the Trinity really is more than a bit of dusty doctrine, then we dare not take lightly its life-changing power. Living in friendship with our Triune God develops our capacity to walk in the darkness – and to find there something surprising, something holy, something eternal. Intimacy with the Trinity celebrates the intimacy of deep unknowing, a bow honoring the dynamic reciprocity of relationship.
What do we pray for but the equation that helps us make sense
of what happens in our daily lives?
What do we believe in if not that which tells us we’re alive?