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Readings: Trinity Sunday

17 May 2013

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Proverbs 8.1-4, 22-31; Romans 5.1-5; John 16.12-15

Almighty and everlasting God, you have given us your servants grace, by 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: keep us steadfast in this faith, that we may evermore be defended from all adversities; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spriit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

IF YOU go up a narrow, wooded lane, off a B-road in Northumberland, you find a tiny stone church, which was built in 1107. Nothing prepares you for what you see inside on an overcast day, when the dark nave is effectively invisible, and your eyes are drawn to the beautifully lit, tiny apse.

"Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts" is inscribed above the gold altar frontal, below a starry ceiling. Old Bewick Church is a window into the Trinity, because the only appropriate response is to worship, to join the angels' cry: "Holy, holy, holy."

Sadly, many preachers dread Trinity Sunday, feeling (rightly) unequal to the task of explaining the Trinity. But the Trinity is not a concept to be explained intellectually: the Holy Trinity is God to be worshipped. The worshipping approach to Trinity Sunday yields something far richer and more wonderful than attempts at explanation using inadequate illustrations.

Gospel readings in recent weeks have emphasised abiding in Christ, and thus, in him, our relationship with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. The Orthodox Churches emphasise this through their understanding of the divinisation of humanity in Christ, who has taken his humanity into the life of the Godhead.

Through abiding in Christ, humanity shares the life of God, not becoming God, but being drawn into the life that the Son shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Greek word is perichoresis, and one way to understand it is through the language of the dance of God, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit respond to one another in love. In Christ, we are bidden to join the dance: in George Herbert's famous words, "Love bade me welcome."

This invitation to participation is a lovely frame for reflection on Trinity Sunday's readings. Jesus's words about the life of God into which his disciples were being drawn continue with his assurance that his departure from them was but the doorway to a new beginning. The Holy Spirit would guide them and glorify Jesus to them.

In Proverbs, Wisdom calls us wherever she can waylay us - on mountains, roadsides, by city gates, by the entrance to the Temple - calling us to find her, and thus find life and favour from the Lord.

Paul reiterates that it is through Jesus Christ that we have access to the grace in which we stand, and can boast of our hope of sharing the glory of God, experiencing (sometimes through suffering) that God's love is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Our worship of God as Trinity flows from who God is, and it is enabled by the joyful miracle of our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We call God "Father" only because Jesus called him "Father". Always, always, Trinity is about the life and love of God, and the invitation, indeed bidding, to participate.

Today's collect is strong on doctrine, as the Church needs to be, because within that frame of orthodox belief we are liberated to worship. In the fourth century, faced with the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Christ and thus that there are three Persons in one God, the Church not only developed its Creeds, but concluded its prayers and hymns with a Trinitarian ascription.

In the century after that, the Athanasian Creed expounded the doctrine of the Trinity more fully, while retaining a realm of mystery in its language, as it tried to give voice to wonders beyond human comprehension: "And the Catholick faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons: nor dividing the Substance." The salient word is "worship", and no wonder this creed ends with the Gloria.

If Pentecost is about language's transcending human constraints to proclaim the wonders of God, Trinity is about the limits of language to express our worship. The collect uses language of glory and majesty to call us to worship, and Old Bewick Church proclaims "Holy, holy, holy" as the adoring response.

So, on Trinity Sunday, hymns such as Reginald Heber's "Holy, holy, holy" and John Mason's "How shall I sing that Majesty" express our response, when language surrenders to transcendence: we are called to be "lost in wonder, love and praise".

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