Sunday, May 30, 2010
Hagia Sophia: The Love Which Is The Three-in-One God
There’s a legend about a holy bishop walking along the seashore one day, trying to figure out the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. He came upon a young child, running back and forth between the water’s edge and a small bucket. The bishop watched the child for awhile, with growing curiosity, then asked, “What are you doing?” “Putting the ocean into my bucket,” replied the child. “But,” said the bishop with a laugh, “that is impossible.” “Not nearly as impossible,” the child said, “as your trying to understand the mystery of the Trinity.”
Humankind has learned through the centuries that to understand or grasp the Trinity is simply beyond human ability. Nevertheless, the Holy Trinity can at least become more intelligible for us. Those who wrote the Apostles’ Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and the Nicene Creed did so because they discerned that God’s most basic relationship to humankind seems to be threefold: God relates to us as Creator, as Redeemer, and as Sanctifier. The Council of Nicaea in 325 asserted that these three are all equally ways in which God is God to us, and they’re essential to understanding that God’s very essence is to draw all things into the unity of interrelatedness.
This, however, isn’t the place to puzzle over the intricacies of Trinitarian theology and doctrine. Today’s feast is about the mystery of God the Holy Trinity. Someone has wisely observed that: “In Christian faith, a mystery is not something which fails to make sense. It is, rather, something whose sense can be discerned, and even stated, but never mastered or fully comprehended in its richness...not because of its absurdity or its incoherence, but because of its depth...” And so, this feast of the Holy Trinity is a time to celebrate the mystery of the Holy God, in all its richness: to stand in awe before the One Who Is, to join with the whole communion of saints and angelic beings in praising God who is all Power, all Wisdom, all Goodness and Love.
Each of today’s texts, in its own way, helps us to get some inkling of who God the Trinity is. They especially help us to get at both the overwhelming, elusive otherness of God, by using ideas of Creator and Father; as well as at the intimate, comforting familiarity of God, by speaking of Jesus and the Spirit, though still in somewhat elusive language.
The first reading (Proverbs 8:1-4; 22-31) speaks of Wisdom, suggesting aspects of God’s life and being which are as yet largely unfamiliar to most of us. Here we encounter Holy Wisdom, in Greek, Hagia Sophia, who cries out, particularly to the little, to the ignorant, to the helpless: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live...” Biblical scholars have puzzled over this personified Woman Wisdom, some identifying her as a figure of poetry, some as the principle of order in creation, some as a personified attribute of God.
The writer of Proverbs describes this mysterious Wisdom with many images. One could look at this as a sort of new creation-story, celebrating creation as a process of wise and delightful play and business and spiritual experience, all in one. Wisdom is like a little child dancing around a parent who is seriously at work, wanting to be part of it, wanting to “help” as children do, with delightful joy and laughter. “...I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race...” (8:30-31) Thomas Merton, famous Trappist monk and writer who died in 1968, and who spent most of his last years reflecting on and writing about Holy Wisdom/Hagia Sophia, says that she means profoundly more. He concluded that Wisdom, before all else, is Godself, not only as Father, but also as Mother, both at once, because this expresses the completeness of God’s Being and reality. Contrary to common misunderstanding among church people, this is a very ancient understanding of God, well-known in the early Church. Over thirty theologians, mystics, writers, and saints, including St. Clement of Alexandria, St. Augustine, St. Bernard, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Julian of Norwich, Dante, etc., specifically wrote of this.
Merton says that Sophia/Wisdom expresses God’s Being, “not one of the Three Persons, but each ‘at the same time, are [Wisdom] and manifest her.’” Wisdom is also the “blessed sweet [pivot] point” of all being and nature, “that which is the smallest and poorest and most humble of all...” Likewise, wisdom is unfathomable mercy, made manifest in Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection. Sophia/Wisdom is “God’s love and mercy coming to birth in us.” (Christopher Pramuk) God, as Love and Mercy “shows Himself to us within ourselves as our own poverty, our own nothingness (which Christ took upon Himself...)” (Merton)
So, who is Holy Widsom/Hagia Sophia? “She is the Spirit of Christ but more than Christ. She is the Love joining the Father, Son, and Spirit that longs for incarnation from before the very beginning. She is Jesus our mother, and Mary, the Theotokos [the God-bearer]”, mentioned on p. 864 of the BCP. Wisdom is, according to Merton, our “true self”, “when we...allow Christ to be birthed in us, and so realize the hidden ground of mercy, creativity, and presence in our very selves, the mystical Body of Christ...” (Pramuk)
In the Epistle (Romans 5:1-5), Paul reminds us that we stand on the threshold of a sort of stairway which leads to “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ...through the Spirit that has been given to us.” In fact he says that “we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God”. But first, Paul says, we have to climb the step of “suffering”. Much as we hate it and fear it, here the saying “No pain, no gain” definitely applies. Taking that step in hope, we find that it leads to a second step: “endurance”. And that leads to the next step: “character”, which then allows us to reach the step of “hope”, which, Paul notes, “does not disappoint us” because at that point “God’s love [God’s Self] has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has [already] been given to us.” Julian of Norwich, great 14th century mystic, says: “...before God made us, God loved us...in this love God has done all God’s works...and in this love our life is everlasting...In our creation we had a beginning, but the love in which God created us was in God from without beginning, and in this love we have our beginning. And all this we shall see in God without end...” Dr. Kerrie Hide calls our life “a journey in love from God to God.” We have our being in going forth from God’s love in creation; we have our growing during our human life here below as we continue in an identifying relationship with God who is Love, in and through Jesus; and finally we have our completing in passing from this world, returning to God in Christ and in the Spirit of Love.
Finally, in reading today’s Gospel passage (John 16:12-15), bear in mind that the context is Jesus’ last sharing with the Apostles at their meal on the night before he suffered and died for humankind. He tries to prepare them for his absence: “I still have many things to say to you, but... When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth...” How would you have felt? I’d venture to say that all of us, at one time or other in our prayer life, have experienced something like the Apostles’ loss, that sense of absence. The truth is: God can never be absent to us, really, or we’d simply cease to exist. Nevertheless, there are, for sure, times when we “feel” like God is absent. That feeling might mean a number of different things. It might mean that we feel that God isn’t meeting our expectations. After all, we all have great plans for our lives! Or it might mean that we’re actually experiencing a different form of God’s presence.
Sometimes God is present to us as silence/aloneness. Once in awhile when the grace of silence comes upon us, we realize that everything feels just right; we sit in quiet and peace, with no direction to our thoughts, no desire, no particular clarity about our place in the world. Just peace. Or, perhaps more frequently, we don’t find ourselves in a good place. We feel the burden of our inevitable failings and selfishness; we feel helpless and abandoned; we feel that everything is wrong with our world. Yet, even in the silence and darkness, deep down we may find an amazingly unexplainable peace. Someone has written that “God is the nail that splits our palms to break our grip on the world. He is an unfathomable darkness.”
Sometimes God is present as quiet undemonstrable love. Novelist Timothy Farrington writes that “Real prayer is a disappearance, a surrender to the embrace of deepening mystery, in darkness. In that darkness, finally, God alone is. And God is infinite surprise...” That, I believe, is what Jesus is trying to convey to his Apostles in John’s Gospel: that the Advocate, the Comforter, the Spirit, whom we celebrated on Pentecost Sunday last week, though unseen, is the continuing presence of both the Father and of Jesus the Son, present here and now in their lives. The Spirit of Love invites us into a deep, direct experience of God among us, with us, and in us.
Julian of Norwich describes the Holy Spirit as “...the grace-filled gift of action in which we love God for Godself and ourselves in God, and all that God loves, for God’s sake”. Jesus says that “the grace-filled...action” of the Holy Spirit includes guiding us into “all the truth”: to all that Jesus has already taught and to what must still be further revealed; and speaking and declaring to us what the Father and Jesus share together.
In his book, The Go-Between God, John Vernon Taylor offers this amazing statement: “The Holy Spirit is that power which opens eyes that are closed, hearts that are unaware and minds that shrink from too much reality. If one is open towards God, one is open also to the beauty of the world, the truth of ideas, and the pain of disappointment and deformity. If one is closed up against being hurt, or blind towards one’s fellow-men, one is inevitably shut off from God also. One cannot choose to be open in one direction and closed in another. “
As the Father is the power responsible for creating us in love, as Jesus is the model par excellence of addressing one another’s needs through the power of love, so the Spirit of Love is God giving us the power to love constantly. God’s presence in our lives through the Spirit of Love is full of surprise. It is subject to no restraint, and breaks out in all directions. It doesn’t constrain or hold us back, but enables us to see with new eyes and understanding, to be sensitive, caring, giving. It enables us to know the truth which makes us free. In opening us towards the Father and the Son, the Spirit enables us to be open to the beauty of the whole world. Imagine the implications this has for motivating us to discontinue polluting and wasting our air and water, timber, animal life, etc., and to not support others who do? for helping us to not allow children to be abused and maltreated? for helping us to not continue in unhealthy and addictive habits? The Spirit enables us to be open to all truth: to finally commit ourselves to become less lazy in learning and in passing on our heritage; to become more tolerant of others’ viewpoints, even though we may disagree; to become less resistant to letting God’s Word work in our everyday lives.
But having said and having heard all this, having professed our faith using the Creed, which we’ll do in a few minutes, we find ourselves still standing in the face of the mystery of God, One and Three. We accept. We believe. But none of us can boast that we fully understand. Without ever abandoning our search to learn about and love God more, to make God more intelligible in human terms, perhaps what we simply need to do is what God does: to be in relationship within the Holy Trinity: to relate to the secure, providing, protecting God Who is Parent; to relate to Jesus Who is the only statement, in flesh and in truth, of the real God’s honest-truth, on which you and I can stake our very lives; to relate to the warming, comforting, helping, loving, yet unseen Present God in the deepest part of our spirits: as available and pervasive as the air which keeps us breathing, and yet as elusive as fire. For those who believe in such relationship -- whether bishop or child -- no explanation is necessary. For those who don’t believe in such relationship, no explanation is possible.
Borrowing words of St. Paul: “I pray that, according to the riches of [the Father’s] glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God...[T]o [God] who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine,...be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:16-21)