Today is an unusual day. Most of the high days and holy days of the Christian year mark moments in the life our Lord, and we have just left the season of Easter which contains more of them than any other. Today though, we are called to contemplate the very nature of God himself in the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Indeed we are summoned to do so, much as the Apostles were summoned to preach the good news in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost in today’s gospel reading.
How can we do this? What does it mean for God to be both three and one? If you don’t mind, I would ask you to close your eyes for a while.
Imagine yourself alone on an empty and barren heath. A storm is coming. You are deep in the shadow underneath the clouds. You can’t see far ahead of you and you are unsure in which direction to tread. It is getting cold as the wind picks up. Thunder can be heard in the distance.
Suddenly, the clouds break and you are covered in the light of the Sun. You look up, but immediately have to look away because the fiery disc is too brilliant. However, you can see where you are now, for the light has purged the darkness away. What seemed so drab and gloomy, no longer seems so bad, and far off in the distance the sunlight reveals trees, fields and habitations. The heath has reached its boundary and better country is ahead of you. And a strange thing happens when the light falls on you. You feel warm; you feel comforted not only outside but inside as well. There is still some distance to go, and the clouds may well return, but you now know you will make your destination.
The best way to contemplate the mystery of the Holy Trinity, I think, is through metaphor, which can makes things clearer to us in a way that lengthy, abstract explanation may well not. Think of the images I have just described to you.
The Sun is God the Father. Just as light and heat come from the Sun, so Jesus and the Holy Spirit are generated by him. Nobody has ever seen the Father, just as nobody can look directly at the Sun at noon. However, we can feel his love, because he has sent His Son Jesus and His Spirit out to reach to us.
The sunlight is Jesus. Think about the Sun in the sky. The light that radiates from it is not the same thing as the Sun itself, but they are clearly and utterly inseparable. They are distinct, but they are clearly one. There can be no Sun without light – it is absolutely necessary for the Sun to shine in order for it to be what it is. In the same way, God the Father is who he is, precisely because he generates his Son and has always done so. It is absolutely fundamental to his nature. And what does the light do? Perhaps it is best to imagine our own relief and delight when the rainclouds pass and everything is clear and brightened – hope, clarity, knowledge of where we are, of where we are going and of what awaits us.
The Holy Ghost is the warmth we feel when the light shines upon us. Again, it is hard to put into words, but we know it when we feel it: a sense of comfort and new life inside and out, but inside in particular. It is a warmth that brings us an indefinable joy where once there was nothing but chilly gloom. There can be neither Sun nor sunlight without this warmth. Equally, Father and Son are who they are because of the love that exists between them –love so strong that it has an existence of His own – the Holy Ghost. To take away one from the other is impossible.
Clearly this metaphor is limited, as are all attempts to encompass God within our limited human understanding. But if it reveals something about the inner life of God, how does this relate us?
Well, God exists in community, a community of love. If you would, please look at the picture that you all should have received with your hymn books and pewsheets. It is from a famous 15th Century Russian icon and it portrays the visit paid to Abraham by three angelic figures in Genesis. This has subsequently been interpreted as a divine visitation by the Holy Trinity to Abraham.
There is something striking about the icon – obviously the wondrous event it portrays, but also the fact that there is a space between the front two figures. Are we not being invited to step forward? Are we not being asked to sit and break bread with our God – Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Are we not urged to reflect the image of our Maker by giving ourselves completely to others in service and sacrifice just as God has already done for us?