Monday, May 27, 2013
The Holy Trinity
Fr. John Julian, OJN sent me a copy of the sermon
which he preached on Trinity Sunday. It's so rich
in insight that I just had to share it: with his permission.
+ + +
A sermon by the Rev. John-Julian Swanson, OJN
450 Sunnyslope Dr. #305, Hartland, WI 53029
26 May 2013
I speak to you in the Name of God: (+) Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Do you know what a neutrino is? Here is the formal and official definition: “A neutrino is an elementary particle that usually travels close to the speed of light, is electrically neutral, and is able to pass through ordinary matter almost unaffected.”
I sat down to write this sermon, and I flipped back and looked at six sermons I had preached on this Feast Day in the past, and thought, “What else could I possibly say about this impossible doctrine? What is left to say?”
Anyway, this frustrating thinking drove me (as such frustration often does) to look past the surface, to ask embarrassing and improper questions, and to look for what is hidden under the overt subject matter. This reminded me of a statement from St. Augustine: “The Bible was composed in such a way that as beginners mature, its meaning grows with them.”
And I realized that that is true about literally everything that has to do with Christianity—scripture, doctrine, liturgy, ascetics, spirituality, and everything else: “…as beginners mature, its meaning grows with them.”
So I asked myself the awkward question: “Why in the world did God come up with the complicated idea of a Trinity?” Every single thing God is and does could just as easily be done by a monotheos—a single unitary Godhead. In other words, God does not NEED to be a Trinity. So, why in the world did God choose to manifest the Godhead this way? There must be something extremely important which the very existence of the Trinity has to teach us. Just by BEING a Trinity and then letting us know about it, God must intend that we come to comprehend something that makes a difference. What could that be? What is hiding behind the barren and incomprehensible dogmatic definitions of Trinity-hood that God wants us to sense, to intuit, to figure out? Is it conceivable that the Trinity is not only a doctrine or dogma, but is actually also a message, a teaching in itself? I think so.
Let me tentatively outline some of the mystical implications of the doctrine of the Trinity as I see them. (In advance, I do not guarantee orthodoxy or universality in these statements: then are only sharing my mystical wool-gathering with you.)
First of all, of course it means that never before or after history has God been or ever will be alone. God has been, is, and always will be a community. That alone is a first hint: human beings, created by a community-God are also community-beings. Even Aristotle recognized that when he described humans as political animals, i.e., animals who live together in a polis, a city. This means that whether we like it or not, whether we choose it or not, whether we prefer it or not, by our very created nature in the image of a communal God, we are in community. That is something we cannot avoid. We can declare ourselves private and individual and separate, but those are hollow claims because we cannot change the fact that human beings do not and cannot exist except as communal beings. Every single thing you do affects me and everything I do affects you. Trying to pretend that that is not true produces cultural psychosis—like evangelical Christianity or free market Capitalism or heavy metal rock music or non-communicative art or the private disregard of communally-professed vows. Each of these activities places individual good over against and inimical to the common good. But, as John Donne put it: “All mankind is of one author, and is one volume…”
That, I think is the first message of the doctrine of the Trinity: a human being cannot manifest true human nature without being in relationship with the community.
But it is even deeper and more uncanny, because the Persons of the Holy Trinity do not only exist as a gathered group, but they actually enter into each other, permeate each other, dwell within each other. This is what the technical theological term circumincession means. The Persons of the Trinity are more like currents of air than objects (or, to paraphrase James Alison, they are more like nothing than something
). And that is the very thing we humans seek when we search for what we stupidly and ignorantly call “falling in love”—if you have ever been in love, you know that a lover passionately longs to become lost within the beloved, to somehow merge ultimately so that the two are actually one being—or as Genesis and Jesus put it: “they become one flesh”. But, by the way, I think we have been wrong to apply that teaching only to marriage which cannot ever by itself support such a primal longing: I think all spiritually healthy human beings sense that mystical union in friendship, in a commonly-held faith, in a parent-child relationship, in the bond between a mentor and protégé, and in various other human social bondings as well as in matrimony.
Thirdly, the great classical term used to describe the relationship of the persons within the Trinity is the perichoresis of the Trinity: that is a Greek word which is derived from the Greek words peri (meaning “around”) and koréo (which means “dance”). The Trinity is a circle dance. The relationship is not a mere static essence, but it is a truly active, truly dynamic, utterly lively current give-and-take, back-and-forth. It is not a one-way flow, not a top-down hierarchical relationship but a relationship of indescribable, overwhelming correspondence and utter unqualified equality and exchange.
Fourth, we encounter that strange and hugely controversial issue of “procession” which has divided Eastern and Western Christianity for almost a thousand years. Does the Holy Spirit proceed from the Father, or from the Father and from the Son? And that controversy is a good definition of “systematic theology” because unless one approaches theology from the mystical point of view all one is going to get is one distortion or another. Look: (pardon the inaccurate masculine pronouns, but it’s very hard to talk about it otherwise): the Father gives himself eternally in perfect and total love to the Son and the Son gives himself eternally in perfect and total love to the Father, and self-giving love that passes between these two mutually Divine Persons is itself a Divine Person: it is the Spirit, proceeding from the Father to the Son and identically the Son to the Father from forever and before time. This is beyond human grasp: that a procession, a giving, an outflowing is so absolute and complete that the bonding two persons is actually itself a Person. The bond itself is identical to and equal to the bonders—the covenant is identical to and equal to the covenanters—the vow is equal to the one professing the vow and the one receiving it. The love itself is God! The friendship itself is heavenly! The bond itself is celestial! The union itself is divine!
And the last point I want to indicate is that not only does the state of the Holy Trinity transfer over to us in our human and earthly lives, but it also describes the relationships each of us has with that very same Holy Trinity. We are mystically a copy, a replica of that Divine Community—and when we have shed these bodies, we will surge into that Holy Trinity and be totally one with those divine Persons just as they are one with each other.
Remember the neturino? That particle so unique that can actually pass entirely through matter without either being altered or affected. That is the closest thing I have ever able to find as an analogy for the Trinity: because for me it is incomprehensible; it ought not to exist, but yet it does; I cannot see it, but I can see some of its results; I do not understand it, but I am intuitively aware that it lies near the center of being.
And all of this was summed up 2000 years ago when Jesus prayed, "That they all may be one; as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us” — note: “IN us”, not “with us”. (John 17:21).
In the name of that Most Holy Trinity, ✚ Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.