TRINITY SUNDAY – Benedicta sit
Introit: Blessed be the holy Trinity, and the undivided Unity: we will praise and glorify him, because he hath shewed his mercy upon us. Ps. 8. O Lord our Governor: how excellent is thy Name in all the world.
Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who hast given unto us thy servants grace, in 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: we beseech thee, that thou wouldest keep us stedfast in this faith, and evermore defend us from all adversities; Who livest and reignest one God, world without end. Amen.
OT Lesson: In the year that king Uzziah died, I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphim: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke. Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts. Then flew one of the seraphim unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: and he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged. Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me. (Isaiah 6.1-8)
Gradual: Blessed art thou, O Lord, who beholdest the great deep, and sittest upon the Cherubim. V. Blessed art thou, O Lord, in the firmament of heaven: and worthy to be praised for ever.
Epistle: O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? Or who hath been his counsellor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen. (Romans 11.33-36)
Alleluia. Blessed art thou, O Lord God of our fathers: and worthy to be praised for ever. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him: Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. Jesus answered and said unto him: Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him: How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? Jesus answered: Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. Nicodemus answered and said unto him: How can these things be? Jesus answered and said unto him: Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man, who is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. (St John 3.1-15)
Many people dread Trinity Sunday like dental surgery, while others rejoice in it. I am always grateful for Trinity Sunday, because it invites us to enter deeply into that great mystery at the very centre of our Christian Faith. We often hear it said that Trinity Sunday is unique in that it is the only Christian Festival that celebrates a doctrine rather than an event. But I would challenge that view, and suggest that the Trinity is also an event, the difference being that this event is not just a one-off historical occurrence, but an ongoing reality. The Trinity is primarily an experience; it is the way Christians experience God in their lives. It is a matter of faith, which by definition negates the notion that it is an idea to be understood or a puzzle to be solved. But still we become frustrated when we can’t understand the Trinity, and by the Church’s teaching that it is a mystery beyond understanding. And of course the Trinity is a mystery, but it is a mystery because the Trinity is an event of love, and love itself is a mystery. We can’t describe or explain or analyse or dissect love. We can only experience it: and so it is with the Trinity.
‘Shema Yisrael …’, ‘Hear, O Israel …’. This ancient confession from Deuteronomy is the foundation for all we believe about God—we worship one God, and God is One: one in essence, one in being, one in power, in holiness and in purpose—the One the prophet Isaiah encounters in his vision. Isaiah catches but a glimpse of the hem of His robe, and even that is so imbued with God’s holiness that Isaiah must turn away his eyes, crying out, ‘Woe is me!’ Of the many things being said in this first lesson, central is this vision of God’s holiness—God’s complete otherness, God’s separateness—that is what ‘holy’ means. God is so entirely different from everything else in existence that we simply have no point of reference—no analogy is possible. Theologians know that every metaphor for God finally breaks down. Nothing in creation is comparable to God. So wholly other is God that even the seraphs—those heavenly beings that guard God’s glory—shield their eyes with their wings as they cry out their eternal hymn: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord …’. Yet their song reveals something more about God than just His holiness. As holy as God is, not only heaven, but also the earth is filled with the majesty of His glory. Here is the divine contradiction: God, who is so far beyond anything in the created order, is nonetheless personal, fully present, and at work in this world, and revealing Himself in ways that can be encountered and comprehended by mortals such as us. Isaiah cries out, ‘Woe is me; I am undone! for I am a man of unclean lips… yet, mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.’ God, who is holy, and wholly other than us, is also for us and present to us.
Some people think of God as some great cosmic judge who glares down and makes us behave out of fear and guilt. Others think of God as a divine clockmaker who made the creation, wound it up, and lets it tick away on its own. Still others think of God like some distant star: shining out there somewhere, but far removed from us and from our lives. But as Christians we discover that God is none of these, but rather, God is a community of Persons – Father, Son, Holy Spirit, in a living and dynamic communion of love, mutuality, and self-giving—a life in which the Persons of the Trinity constantly relate to each other, giving to each other, and loving each other. The Eastern Church Fathers called this ‘perichoresis’—mutual self-giving and intermingling, the continual giving of oneself and receiving of another. And this perichoresis of love cannot be contained. It spills out and flows beyond the three Persons. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, so that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” The love of God reaches out, connects, and enfolds, manifested in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The doctrine of the Trinity draws us into the mystery of who God is, but it does not explain or dispel the mystery. God the Trinity is the love we find in Jesus Christ and experience in the Holy Spirit. God the Trinity is the mystery of love we can experience but never understand. We can employ all the formulae from mathematics and geometry and science and philosophy; we can use all the lofty expressions of art and literature; we can take the entirety of human skill and knowledge and put it all together, and we would still fall short of comprehending God. Trinity Sunday reminds us that God is not like anything or anyone we can ever imagine. All the analogies eventually break down or stray into heresy. But they are all attempts to rationalize what is beyond rationality: they are attempts to examine logically that which is beyond logic. Belief in God comes as a consequence of the experience of God in people’s lives. Some things should not be excessively explained or predicated on rational understanding. They can only be experienced. To attempt explanation sometimes diminishes or even eliminates the experience. Yet as Christians, we have to talk about God.
The Scriptures tell us ‘God is love.’ But what does ‘love’ mean? We use the word in all sorts of ways. ‘I love my cat,’ ‘I love chocolate cake’: is that the sort of love God is? Love can be a destructive obsession. Love can be self-indulgent sentimentality. Love can be all kinds of things, and sometimes nothing much at all. ‘God is love’ has meaning only if we understand what God’s love means. So the Bible spells out what it means to say that God is love. It relates how God created the world out of love. It tells how, even when we rejected God’s love and marred His creation with evil, still God went on loving us and did all manner of extraordinary things to rescue us from sin and to win our love. That is the Old Testament story of God’s involvement with the people of Israel – a story that culminates in the Incarnation, when God, in His love for us, actually became one of us, to live a human life and to die and rise again for our salvation. The story continues with God’s loving presence in our own lives through His Holy Spirit. The entire Bible is the account of God’s love in action. And the story of God’s love goes on.
Nicodemus was a Jewish religious leader; but there is sometimes a difference between being religious, and actually knowing God. Nicodemus had a public and external commitment to God; but he wants something more, something deeper—an interior relationship with God. So he comes to Jesus secretly, under the cover of darkness, to learn more. What Our Lord told Nicodemus was shocking and confounding. He says, in effect, ‘Nicodemus, you have it backwards! You don’t need God to come into your life; rather, God offers His own life and invites you to enter into it. In fact, you need to be born all over again—born from above—reborn into God’s life.’
‘But I don’t know how to do that,’ protests Nicodemus. Our Lord replies, ‘The Life of God is right here before you, speaking to you now.’ The love that binds together Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—that passionate, unconditional love that comprises the divine life—has spilled out into our world in the Person of Jesus Christ, so that all who believe in him might have real, and everlasting, life. Christ is the Way into the fullness of the loving and mysterious life of God. This is why when people choose to follow Him, they are baptized in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. To be baptized is not just a ceremony, but a rebirth into a whole new way of life, into the very life of the Holy Trinity.
God is self-giving love. He doesn’t just sit up in heaven and wish us well. He gets involved with us, and gives Himself in costly self-sacrifice. ‘God is love’ means that God gives Himself – to us and for us. When we see God’s love in action, we see not only a God who cares for us like a parent for his children; we see the God who loves us by coming alongside us as a human brother, living and dying for us; and we see also the God who breathes into our very being, who loves us from the inside, sharing His love with us, so that we can love with God’s love. It is because God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that we experience God’s caring, self-sacrificial, self-giving love. So although we may find the doctrine of the Trinity difficult, how could we express it otherwise?
But even more significantly, if God is love, then God’s love must be more than just His love for us. God didn’t begin to love when He loved His creation. Even before we existed, and from all eternity, God is love in His very being, and God’s love for us is but the overflowing of that love that God is from all eternity—the eternal love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When God the Son comes into the world to redeem us, and when He sends His Spirit into our hearts, God is inviting us to participate in His eternal life of love, into the perichoresis of God the Holy Trinity.
The doctrine of the Trinity draws us into the mystery of who God is, but it does not explain or dispel the mystery. It is the mystery of love that we can experience but never understand or explain. The doctrine of the Trinity raises more questions, rather than giving answers, but it does tell us some very important things about God – things that are life-changing. The deepest and most profound truths of our lives are not empirical and provable facts. The Feast of the Holy Trinity is ultimately not about a doctrine. It is a festival of life and self-giving love, a celebration of mystery that invites human beings to participate in the Divine.
Thee, O God, the Father unbegotten; thee, O only-begotten Son; thee, O Holy Spirit, the Paraclete; O holy and undivided Trinity: with our whole heart and lips we do confess, we praise thee, and we bless thee: to thee be glory for ever and ever.
*On the lighter side, you might enjoy the following: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQLfgaUoQCw
For a more in-depth expression of the doctrine of the Trinity, (summarized by the image below) see the Athanasian Creed (BCP, 695ff)
Collect: Almighty God, who hast revealed to thy Church thine eternal Being of glorious majesty and perfect love as One God in Trinity of Persons: Give us grace to continue firm in the confession of this faith, and constant in our worship of thee, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; who livest and reignest world without end. Amen.
May God the Holy Trinity make you strong in faith and love, defend you on every side, and guide you in truth and peace: and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.