Today churches around the world – Anglican and Episcopal, Orthodox, Catholic, and others – celebrate the feast day dedicated to the Holy Trinity. To celebrating and – often – attempting some explanation of our Christian doctrine that God is One but also Three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The setting-aside of the Sunday after Pentecost to honor the Trinity goes back at least a thousand years. If you Google it, the simple historical explanation that everyone’s church websites have is that the observance of Trinity Sunday was instituted by Archbishop Thomas Becket of Canterbury in the 12th century. That seemed both too tidy and incomplete, so I tried to dig a little deeper online and found this sentence in a book review in a 1954 religion journal: “Much is made of the alleged origin of the feast of Trinity Sunday at Canterbury under Thomas Becket. Actually, the office… had been followed in the English monasteries (and doubtless elsewhere) from the time of St. Dunstan.”
Our hymnal is full of hymns to the Trinity that poetically explore the mystery of God in three persons. We’ll sing several of them today. The fact is, the Trinity is really a better subject for poetry than for exposition. It’s notoriously hard to explain clearly. Every year amongst my clergy acquaintances on Facebook, there’s a round of finger-shaking: “Make sure you don’t commit heresy!” I can’t get too worked up about it, myself. Both heresy and doctrine are creations of the Church, a human institution. And the words we use – Trinity, Father, Son, Holy Spirit – they’re just words. The doctrine of the Trinity is an effort to capture the mystery of God in human language and concepts. To eff the ineffable, if you will.
But that’s not to say I think the truth behind the words is unimportant. I think it’s very important – so important that we should be mindful of how the words we use can obscure the truth we’re trying to name. What do Christians mean when we name God as a Trinity? Christians have come to understand God as One, and yet also Three.
And the Three are not interchangeable but have distinct personhoods: God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, the Ground of all being, the One who holds all time, all space, in the palm of their hand…. God at God’s biggest, beyond all knowledge and all thought.
God, the Incarnate, the Immanent. The movement of Divine thought into substance, who was with God in the beginning, by whom all things were made. Emmanuel, God-With-Us, who comes into the immediacy and mess of human life, walks with us, eats with us, shares the experience of being embodied, limited, breakable. Is broken. But not ended, because although one of us he is also still God.
God, the Spirit, breath, wind, flame, wisdom, whisper, shout. The still small voice. The presence gentle as a dove. The Wind that moved over the face of the waters, when as yet there was nothing but that primordial sea. The Holy Spirit: how we name the Divine When it stirs something within or among us, Inspiring, converting, healing, transforming, making possible.
Creator, Incarnate One, Divine Breath. Father, Son, Spirit. Two of our Scriptures today use that set of names, what’s called the Trinitarian formula: The Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. A huge part of the conflict between early Christianity and Judaism was the notion that Jesus was somehow also God, which challenged Judaism’s deep belief in only one God. Early Christians had to wrestle with their language, to make room in monotheism for a God who is somehow, mysteriously, more than One. By the 50s or 60s, when Paul wrote the second letter to the Corinthians, early church leaders had worked out this way of naming God as Three in One. (The Gospel of Matthew was likely written down a couple of decades later. It’s hard to know whether Jesus actually spoke the Trinitarian formula himself, or whether Matthew gives him those words that had become central to Christian baptism and teaching by the time Matthew is writing.)
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… The terms Father and Son come to us directly from Jesus. Interestingly, Father was not a dominant metaphor for God in the Old Testament. God is named as a Father a few times, but God is much more often a husband, sometimes a mother, sometimes a master. It’s Jesus who gives Father language to Christianity, by naming God as his Father and teaching his followers to do the same. There’s a sticky translation issue here – Jesus used an Aramaic word for Father, Abba. That was a familiar word, not a formal word – You’d actually call your father “Abba,” Whereas to call your father “Father” sounds odd to most of us. But we don’t have a good equivalent to “Abba” in American English. “Daddy” is a little too childish, “Dad” maybe a little too informal, though it may be our best option. In any event, the term “Father” in our cultural context carries some sense of formality and distance, and that’s a pity, because that wasn’t Jesus’ intention in giving us this way to name God. He wants us to think of ourselves as children of a loving father – a loving daddy? – who cares for each of us, is always ready to hear our concerns and share our celebrations, always waiting for us to wander home.
The Father; the Son. That’s straightforward enough; the Gospels name Jesus as the Son of God – though not in the way of Greek mythology, for example, that led to many half-gods wandering around the earth. Jesus is God’s Son is a less literal, and a more eternal and fundamental, way. The first chapter of the Gospel of John picks up the threads of the Creation story, as John tries to describe who and what Jesus is: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son.” Gazing into the mystery that John’s Gospel poetry evokes, it becomes clear that the Sonship and the Fatherhood that we name in the Trinity are only the best effort humanity and divinity could make together, at a certain moment in our shared story, to describe what’s going on inside of God.
And then there’s the Holy Spirit, which has the benefit of seeming elusive and confusing right up front, unlike Father and Son, which sound misleadingly concrete. The Spirit is announced and named by Jesus, but Pentecost is not the Spirit’s first appearance; there are times in the Old Testament too when the Spirit of God is named as an agent or an aspect of God.
That’s the question, really – always has been. What are these different things that we name with these clumsy terms, Father, Son, Holy Spirit? Are they manifestations, avatars? Are they different colorful masks worn by one God? That would be much simpler than what Christians came to understand, and have struggled to believe ever since: This isn’t just one God wearing different costumes. These are three distinct Persons within One God. If you’d like a glimpse at the historical struggle to define and defend that paradox, read the Athanasian Creed sometime; it’s on page 864 in the Book of Common Prayer.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The truth behind the words matters: the truth that relationship is at the core of everything. That Divinity is community. That the heart of God is not a oneness sufficient to itself, but a plurality dancing with itself. So we, created in God’s image, are made for diversity, for relationship, for belonging. That is a truth that matters deeply right now. Always does, really.
The truth behind the words is powerful, paradoxical, and gracious. The words themselves… have their limitations. Human concepts come with human baggage. Few serious theologians would assert that God is actually male, but our language has led us to imagine God as an old guy with a beard, for millennia. Using the language of a patriarchal society to name God has served to reinforce patriarchy, for a long, long time. In addition to those big-picture issues, naming God as Father is really hard for some people because of their family history. We are simple animals, really; if the father we have known in real life was unloving or even abusive, then when we hear God named as Father, we cannot help having our experiences contaminate God.
I can’t see abandoning the Trinitarian formula, Father, Son, and Holy Spirt, because it’s so deeply rooted in Scripture and tradition. But when we recognize that those terms were just one attempt to wrap human language around divine mystery, it frees us up to try other formulas, other language. You’ll sometimes hear Trinitarian formulas that focus on how humans have experienced those three Persons. Maker, Redeemer, Sustainer. The One who creates, the One who befriends, the One who inspires. The anti-heresy brigade frets about modalism: the heresy that the Trinity is after all only one God acting in three different ways, as one human being might cook dinner, do the laundry, and feed the dog. What I like about those formulas, Maker, Redeemer, Sustainer, and others, is that they remind us of the kinds of things God does. They remind me to give thanks for, and look for, God’s ongoing presence and action in the world. So maybe we could all just promise not to commit the modalist heresy and to remember that there are three Persons in the Trinity? Okay?
Just the other day, my son Griffin and I were talking about pronouns. We both have friends who prefer the use of the non-gendered pronoun “they”, and we’re working to get used to that, because we respect our friends. And it dawned on us both that if you met God at the GSAFE banquet, where your name tag says both your name and your preferred pronouns, God’s name tag would say “they/theirs.” Because God is gender non-binary – not a boy or a girl – and God is plural. I’m trying that on, using “they” as my God-pronoun. It breaks open my thinking a little, makes me notice and wonder, and that’s a good thing.
The Trinity is beautiful, and holy, and true, and we really don’t understand it at all. But we celebrate it, with gratitude – the mystery and the truth of community in the heart of God, who is our Source, our Grace, our Love, our Table, our Food, our Host, our Light, our Tree, our Treasure, Our Life, our Truth, our Way. Amen.
The quotation about Dunstan came from this article:
Review: Algemene Geschiedenis der Nederlanden Deel VI, De Tachtigjarige Oorlog 1609-1648. Reviewed Work: Algemene Geschiedenis der Nederlanden Deel VI, De Tachtigjarige Oorlog 1609-1648. Review by: G. N. Clark, The English Historical Review Vol. 69, No. 271 (Apr., 1954), pp. 318-320