Summary: Artists can reinvigorate our understanding of the trinity using the examples of Rublev’s icon and David Hetland’s stained glass.
A Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2007
One of the things I was most looking forward to in moving to Surrey Hills was that coming to a Church named Holy Trinity. Trinity Sunday would then be our patronal festival. This means we always celebrate our patronal festival on a Sunday and don’t have to transfer it from another day as we would if say the Church was named after St Luke or St Matthew. But more importantly it means Jenny and I would be more than justified in inviting guest preachers to address us on the day that preachers most fear. Next year things will be different. What to say about the Holy Trinity!
One of my favourite images of the Trinity is the rose. For this image to work properly you must have a rose still growing in the earth, not a cut one. That is because it is the roots that stand for God the Father gives life to the rest of the plant, hidden yet vital to that life. The stem and flower represent Jesus the living, visible and beautiful identity of the rose. What’s left then to illustrate the Holy Spirit? The pervasive, wafting, and wondrous fragrance reminds us of the Holy Spirit.
The history of the term itself is interesting. Trinity has become over the centuries a near universally accepted way of speaking about the God of the Christians – our God. This is interesting in itself because the word “Trinity” does not appear in the scriptures. The word Trinity according to some sources was coined by Tertullian who wrote in the late 2nd and early third centuries. He is said to have also coined 509 new nouns, 284 new adjectives and 161 new verbs. It is not surprising then that when he turned his attention to God, his inventiveness came to the fore, and though not many of his new words caught on three certainly have: Trinity, person and substance.
I was made to think again about the Trinity because Tertullian’s use of the term person. For us a person is an individual. Personality could be described as the essence of what distinguishes one person from another. Whole industries have sprung up around questionnaires like Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram that tell us what type of person we are. These have a value, but not for Tertullian’s description of the Trinity. Tertullian lifted the word persona from the theatre. A Persona was an identity adopted by an actor in role. In Tertullian’s day roles were distinguished by the use of masks. An actor would change roles by changing masks.
There are difficulties in this illustration because we assume actors change masks with little reference to their own substance as human beings. So the image for us is of God having three masks that change God’s persona in a way that hides rather than reveals God’s substance.
I don’t know a great deal about acting, though some would say that actors and clergy have a lot in common! As I thought about Tertullian’s choice of words and how over the centuries they had become central to Christian thinking about God I wondered if such a simplistic view of persona would do justice the relationship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Trinity tries to point to the Christian experience of God, not just what we think God might be like. The psalm we heard this morning, psalm 8, takes us back to a time long before Christ and to the reflections of an author seeking to speak of the wonder of God’s presence. In this poem or hymn we catch a note of the author’s wonder at the relationship between God and humanity. Here is someone able to lift up their eyes from the hardships of day to day life and to wonder and give thanks for God. Perhaps rather than trying to understand the Trinity we might allow ourselves to wonder about God:
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers: the moon and the stars which you have set in order,
What are we, that you should be mindful of us:
that are we, that you should care for us?
This is one way in which we experience God – as the creator and sustainer of the universe. The creator of this universe deserves our wonder and our thanks and we need to be reminded that worship is not meant to be something we add onto our already busy lives if we feel like it. It is meant to be central to our relationship with our creative God. What a difference it makes when our attitude to life is one of wonder and thanksgiving rather than of manipulation and acquisition.
But if the psalmist wondered why God would be concerned about creation in general and human beings in particular he would have been astounded at the depth of concern God would eventually show for us. In a sense the gospel answers the psalmist’s wonderment. John’s gospel sums things up in chapter 3:16. “God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” It is because of God’s overwhelming love for creation, for us, that Jesus comes into the world. God cares about us because God loves us.