Trinity Sunday 2016
Proverbs 8.1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8
Rev. Jack King
So it’s Trinity Sunday and I want it to be noted that I’m here, preparing to preach on the Trinity. If this sounds strange to you, let me acquaint you with an unofficial Anglican custom—the rector’s vacation usually coincides with Trinity Sunday. I preached several Trinity Sunday sermons when I was an assistant priest years ago, but not so much since I’ve been rector. So in fairness, I’m overdue to speak on this occasion. And vacation comes in June for me so here I am. I haven’t outsourced the difficult subject this year and I just wish for this to be noted.
Many years Trinity Sunday may give you the impression that suddenly you’ve stepped into a philosophy classroom where technical words like hypostasis and perichoresis may be uttered. But I don’t want to begin by stepping into abstract philosophy, I want us to step outside. In fact, I hope you’ll go outdoors today.
One of the most trinitarian activities you can do is to take a long walk either in solitude or with friends and family. Don’t simply look for some good exercise, look outward and see what is around you. Pause in front of an old oak tree and take in its shape, its color, its movement in the gentle breeze. Incline your ears to the songs that birds are singing. Lift your eyes even higher to the skies, watching the patient movement of the clouds. Look into the evening skies and gaze on the stars and the moon and the distant planets. Creation is filled with signs and symbols that a beautiful God—God in Three Persons—made this world and speaks to us through the world. Each morning and evening summons us to read the signs and symbols of the visible world to encounter the invisible God in whose image we are made.
The Book of Scripture, especially from Psalms and Proverbs, are pointing us to the Book of Creation this Trinity Sunday. We prayed the words of Psalm 8: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” Proverbs 8 takes us into the heights of the cosmos and the far reaches of eternity before the world existed. Divine Wisdom, whom we identify with the Son of God, speaks in Proverbs 8: “The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth….I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always.”
And so we inhabit a world created in wisdom by a master craftsman, the Son of God, in relationship with his Father and the Holy Spirit. The fingerprints of the triune God appear throughout the cosmos. All things were created through Christ and for Christ. And Christ is before all things, and in him all things hold together1.
The Book of Scripture tells us to get outdoors and look for the invisible, triune God in the visible world. St. Basil, a theologian of creation and the Trinity, said, “I want creation to fill you with so much admiration that everywhere, wherever you may be, the least plant may bring you to the clear remembrance of the Creator. If you see grass, think of human nature, and remember the comparison of the wise Isaiah, “All flesh is grass, and the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field.”2
Saints through the ages have encountered the invisible God through the beauty and mystery of the visible world. St. Julian of Norwich famously held a tiny hazelnut in her hand, the means by which God brought upon her a profound spiritual experience. Julian said of the hazelnut: ‘In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it. But what is this to me? Truly, the Creator, the Keeper, the Lover.’
To have that kind of vision—to look closely at created things so that we ascend into the joy of the uncreated God—that’s my prayer for us this Trinity Sunday. St. Basil said that creation is “a school, a training ground where we learn to know God”—God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Yet it does take training to see the triune God revealing his beauty and love through the created world. If you try to read the three-in-one everywhere you go, you may unknowingly move toward theological errors about the Trinity. The shamrock, the properties of water—ice, liquid, and steam—these analogies may seem helpful on the surface, but they actually diminish the eternal tri-unity of the three-Personed God.
The saints learned to read the physical world and its symbols as one way of encountering the Trinity. To be sure, the majesty and glory of creation can become an idol in itself, but saints learned to read the symbols of creation and find fulfillment is the invisible God, not in the visible world. We cannot read the Book of Creation without the Book of Scripture.3
So how do we seek the triune God in the symbols of the created world? Let’s first consider what a symbol is. The word symbol means ‘to join together.’ Stratford Caldecott says that symbols are bridges between two halves that make a whole. Whether you look at stars, a mountain, a river, or whatever, reading the symbol means passing from the visible to the invisible. We need symbols—physical, material things— to become channels of God’s grace in our lives.4 By seeking traces of the Trinity in the created world—to quote Caldecott—“the world is transformed into a radiant book to be read with eyes sensitive to spiritual light.”5
Many times when we look for traces of the Trinity in the created world, we look at things standing still. We look closely for things for the internal or external constitution of things, hoping to find a threefold shape. Looking for things in threes—triads—can be useful in one sense (there is something beautiful and mysterious about the number three), but looking for patterns of three alone can still suggest separateness, not unity.
But our great conviction about the triune God is that the Three Persons are not separate; the Trinity is a dynamic community of love, always indwelling one another in relationship. The theological word we use here is perichoresis, which means mutual indwelling. The root word of perichoresis is the same root word for choreography. So because our Trinity is a choreography of love in relationship, we expect to find traces of Trinity in the choreography and movement of creation. Learning to read the symbols of creation means watching the movements in creation. And it seems we’re made for this.
Recent scientific studies on the human eye and our perception of movement affirm that we are made in the image of a dynamic Trinity. Studies of our eyes and brains show that we are naturally attracted by motion. There’s an involuntary reflex that when something moves in our field of vision, our eyes search for that movement. In one sense, it’s a survival instinct; we’re scanning for a dangerous threat to our life. But I think that instinct has another dimension—our longing for connection; our desire to experience love and relationship. Think how your eyes scan a room in the midst of a crowd. Even when you’re not aware you’re doing it, your eyes search for people you love—friends, family, your spouse.
But it’s not only the human person that is made for movement and encounter. Our triune Creator made our entire cosmos for movement. To speak of the planet Earth as terra firma is a bit of a misnomer, scientifically speaking. The Earth is always moving, making its circuit around the sun. But we know, of course, that Earth is only one planet in our solar system.
Here’s the glory of God in the movement of the heavens. If you chart the dual orbits of Earth and Venus around the sun for 8 years, you will see the image of a five-petaled flower appear as Earth and Venus dance around the sun.
For thousands of years, even before the time of Jesus, philosophers and scientists studied the movements of the heavens, the stars, and planetary bodies. The arrangement of the stars, the movements of planetary bodies in their shape, their number, their ratios—these patterns have astounded philosophers at the order and beauty they discover therein. It must be some kind of celestial music—the music of the spheres—as it has been called. Ought we to be surprised that the planets seem to dance and sing when we confess the three-Personed God who is a choreography of love?
It’s movement in creation that creates beauty because movement connects two or more things that belong together. You can’t have harmony without movement. As Jeremy Begbie has said, the structure of music itself opens us to encounter the Trinity. When you hear a C Major chord, you hear a harmonious unity—the chord—but its composition derives from three notes: C, E, and G. When each note rings, the vibrations move across sound waves and dance together, as it were, creating this beautiful, full sound we call a chord.
What about the music of God in a simple stream? Why do I find a sense of peace and calm in the gentle movement of water? There’s an echo of the Trinity somewhere in that continuous, easy cascade. Am I looking for a triad in the properties of water? Nope, that way leads error. Am I looking for its function? What does it accomplish? Again, wrong question. It simply is and because it is, it is beautiful its gentle movement. It’s movement is love and praise. For I long for my soul to be that effortless and gentle, to simply be and allow being to become my hymn of praise to God. And thus a simple movement of a stream can begin my ascension into worship of the triune God.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God, as Gerard Manley Hopkins penned. But it is not any god of our making, it is the three-personed God. To behold the inner structures, the order, the movement, the harmony of created things is to seek traces of the Trinity.
But the highest purpose of created things is not simply to reveal traces of the Trinity. The created things of this world are given so you and I can participate within the life of God himself. The things of this world will never fully ‘decode’ the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Whatever we say and know about our God, there is infinitely more that we cannot say and cannot know about the mystery of God in Three Persons.
Yet here—on this ever-moving terra firma is where our movement, our ascension into the infinite Trinity begins. Water, wheat, wood, and soil weren’t made to stand still. They made for change and movement—to become sacraments so that you and I can feast on the Trinity. No one has captured this vision better than Paul Evdokimov, and I will close with his words:
The final destiny of water is to participate in the mystery of [Baptism]; of wood, to become a cross; of the earth, to receive the body of the Lord during his rest on [Holy Saturday]; of rock to become the ‘sealed Tomb’ and the stone rolled away from in front of the myrrh-bearing women. Olive oil and water attain their fullness as conductor elements for grace on regenerated man. Wheat and wine achieve their ultimate [reason for existence] in the eucharistic chalice… Everything finds it destiny in the Lord. The liturgy integrates the most elementary actions of life: drinking, eating, washing, speaking, acting, and communing..It restores to them their meaning and true destiny—to be [building] blocks in the cosmic temple of God’s glory.
So let us take the things of this world which our our triune God has made, let us offer them back to him, so that he make take ordinary things and convert them to their fullest intention. Look closely, watch for the movement, the triune God moves toward you in love to welcome you at the Table of his divine family. In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
1 Colossians 1.16-17
2 Basil of Caesarea, Hexaemeron, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 8:52.
3 Diogenes Allen, Spiritual Theology, 110.
4 Stratford Caldecott, Beauty for Truth’s Sake, 47.
5 Ibid., 48.
Image by Bureau of Land Managment (used by permission via Creative Commons).