June 19, 2022
The Dance of the Trinity
1O LORD, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
2Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
3When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
4what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
5Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
6You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
7all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
8the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
9O LORD, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
9 Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up the other, but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Genesis 18: 1-15
18 The LORD appeared to Abraham[a] by the oaks[b] of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them and bowed down to the ground. 3 He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5 Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6 And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah and said, “Make ready quickly three measures[c] of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” 7 Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8 Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared and set it before them, and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
9 They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” 10 Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I be fruitful?” 13 The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” 15 But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. He said, “Yes, you did laugh.”
Mack: “Which one of you is God?”
Papa, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit (in unison): I am
Mack: There’s that whole Trinity thing, which is where I kind of get lost.
Papa: (Papa lets out a warm laugh) To begin with, that you can’t grasp the wonder of my nature is rather a good thing. Who wants to worship a God who can be fully comprehended, eh? Not much mystery in that.
Papa: Never mind that. What is important is this: if I were simply one God and only one person, then you would find yourself in this creation without something wonderful, without something essential even. And I would be utterly other than I am.
Mack: And we would be without…?
Jesus: Love and relationship.
Holy Spirit: All love and relationship is possible for you only because it already exists within…
Papa, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit (in unison): …me. Within God myself. I am love.
Mack: I love the way you treat each other. It’s certainly not how I expected God to be.
Holy Spirit: How do you mean?
Mack: Well, I know that you are all one and all, and that there are three of you. But you respond with such graciousness to each other. Isn’t one of you more the boss than the other two?
(All three look at each other as if they had never thought of such a question)
Mack: I mean, I have already thought of God the Father as sort of being the boss and Jesus as the one following orders, you know being obedient. I’m not sure how the Holy Spirit fits in exactly. He…I mean, she…uh. Whatever… the Sprit always seemed kind of a…
Papa: A free spirit?
Mack: Exactly, a free spirit, but still under the direction of the Father. Does that make sense?
Jesus: (to Papa): Does that make sense to you, Abba? Frankly, I haven’t a clue what this man is talking about.
Papa: Nope, I have been trying to make head or tails out of it, but sorry, he’s got me lost.
Mack: You know what I am talking about. I am talking about who’s in charge. Don’t you have a chain of command?
Jesus: A chain of command? That sounds ghastly!
Papa: At least binding.
Holy Spirit: Now don’t concern yourself with those two, they’re just playing with you. This is actually a subject of interest among us. Mackenzie, we have no concept of final authority among us, only unity. We are in a circle of relationship, not a chain of command or ‘great chain of being,’ as your ancestors termed it. What you’re seeing here is relationship without any overlay of power. We don’t need power over the other because we are always looking out for the best. Hierarchy would make no sense among us. Actually, this is your problem, not ours.
Mack: Really? How so?
Holy Spirit: Humans are so lost and damaged that to you it is almost incomprehensible that people could work or live together without someone being in charge.
Mack: But every human institution that I can think of, from political to business is governed by this kind of authority.
Papa: Such a waste.
Jesus: It’s one reason why experiencing true relationship is so difficult for you. You rarely see or experience relationship apart from power. Hierarchy imposes laws and rules and you end up missing the wonder of relationship that we intended for you.
Holy Spirit: Creation has been taken down a very different path than we desired. In your world the value of the individual is constantly weighed against the survival of the system.
Jesus: As the crowning glory of creation, you were made in our image, unencumbered by structure and free to simply be in relationship with me and one another. If you had truly learned to regard one another’s concerns as significant as your own, there would be no need for hierarchy.
Holy Spirit: And now we have come full circle, back to one of my initial statements: you humans are so lost and damaged that to you it is almost incomprehensible that relationship could exist apart from hierarchy. So you think that God must relate inside a hierarchy as you do. But we do not.
Papa: We want to share with you the love and joy and freedom and light that we already know within ourselves. We created you, the human, to be in face-to-face relationship with us, to join in the circle of love.
A Reading from The Divine Dance: the Trinity and Your Transformation
In the centuries of reflection, theology, and storytelling that have followed this original story, these three are often regarded as angels, and perhaps something more. Abraham-bowing low before them-seems to intuitively recognize this something more and invites them to a meal and a rest. He does not join them in the meal but observes them eating from afar, standing “under a tree.” A place at God’s table is still too much to imagine.
Abraham and Sarah seem to see the Holy One in the presence of the three, and their first instinct is one of invitation and hospitality-to create a space of food and drink for them. Here we have humanity still feeding God; it will take a long time to turn that around in the human imagination. “Surely, we ourselves are not invited to this divine table,” they presume.
This unique and multifaceted story inspired an equally unique and multifaceted piece of devotional religious art entitled The Hospitality of Abraham-also called, simply (and for reasons we’ll get into) The Trinity.
I believe all genuine art is sacred. Self-consciously “religious” art is often trying too hard and descends into cheap sentiment. But the particular form of artistic expression The Trinity belongs to-the icon-attempts to point beyond itself, inviting in its viewers a sense of both the beyond and the communion that exists in our midst.
Created by Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev in the fifteenth century, The Trinity is the icon of icons for many of us-and, as I would discover years after first encountering it, even more invitational than most. By my lights, it is the most perfect piece of religious art there is; I’ve always had a copy of it hanging in my room. The original is still on display in the Tretyakov gallery in Moscow.
There’s a story told that one artist became a follower of Jesus just from gazing at this icon, exclaiming, “If that’s the nature of God, then I’m a believer.” And I can fully understand this.
In Rublev’s icon there are three primary colors, which illustrate facets of the Holy One, all in the Three.
Rublev considered gold the color of ‘the Father”- perfection, fullness, wholeness, the ultimate Source.
He considered blue the color of “the Human” – both sea and sky mirroring one another – and therefore God in Christ taking on the world, taking on humanity. Thus, Rublev pictures the Christ as blue, displaying his two fingers to tell us that he has put spirit and matter, divinity and humanity, together within himself-and for us!
And then there’s green, easily representative of “the Spirit.” Hildegard of Bingen, the German Benedictine abbess, musical composer, writer, philosopher, mystic, and overall visionary, living three centuries before Rublev, called the Spirit’s endless fertility and fecundity veriditas-a quality of divine aliveness that makes everything blossom in endless shades of green.
Hildegard was likely inspired by the lushness of her surroundings at her Rhineland monastery, which I was recently able to visit. Rublev, in similar reverence for the natural world, chose green to represent, as it were, the divine photosynthesis that grows everything from within by transforming light into itself-precisely the work of the Holy Spirit.
Is that good or what?
The Holy One in the form of Three – eating and drinking, in infinite hospitality and utter enjoyment between themselves. If we take the depiction of God in The Trinity seriously, we have to say, “In the beginning was the Relationship.”
This icon yields more fruits the more you gaze on it. Every part of it was obviously meditated on with great care: the gaze between the Three; the deep respect between them as they all share from a common bowl. And note the hand of the Spirit pointing toward the open and fourth place at the table! Is the Holy Spirit inviting, offering, and clearing space? If so, for what?
A (W)HOLE IN GOD
As magnificent as this icon-and this fellowship -is…there’s something missing.
They’re circling a shared table, and if you look on the front of the table there appears to be a little rectangular hole painted there. Most people just pass right over it, but art historians say that the remaining glue on the original icon indicates that there was perhaps once a mirror glued to the front of the table!
If you don’t come from an Orthodox, Catholic, or Anglican background, this might not strike you as odd, but you should know that this is a most unusual feature for an icon. One would normally not put a real mirror on the front of a holy icon. If so, it is entirely unique and courageous.
This might have been Rublev’s final design flourish. Or maybe it was added later-we’re not sure.
But you can imagine what it’s meaning might be?
It’s stunning when you think about it-there was room at this table for a fourth.
At the heart of the Christian revelation, God is not seen as a distant, static monarch but – as we will explore together-a divine circle dance, as the early Fathers of the church dared to call it (in Greek perichoresis, the origin of our word choreography). God is the Holy One presented in the dynamic and loving action of Three.