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The Rev. Irina Dubinski

Holy Trinity as an Image of Perfect Unity

This week we observe another principal feast of our Church. In the Western world, we call it “Trinity Sunday”, and celebrate it one week following Pentecost. The Eastern Orthodox tradition merges Pentecost and “Trinity Day” in the same liturgical event, to mark the full revelation of the Holy Trinity together with the coming of the Holy Spirit. In spite of such liturgical differences, recognizing God's self-disclosure and self-donation to the world in the trinitarian form is probably the most unifying feature of all branches of Christianity.

A central teaching of our faith, this doctine did not emerge until three centuries had passed since the gospels were written; and even then, it took another century or so to be fully detailed and accepted, especially regarding the Son of God as equally human and divine. The gathering of the bishops in the town of Chalcedon that took place in 451CE is usually taken as the key event in the development of the core set of Christian beliefs, and its proceedings informed the creeds we now recite as part of our church services. The reason it took so long is that there is not one place in the Scriptures that unequivocally refers to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as God’s “hypostases” -- the “fundamental substances”, the divine “Persons” to which we refer to describe God as the Holy Trinity (“of one substance”, yet perfectly distinct!). What we do have is mainly Jesus’ words regarding himself being “one with the Father”, as well as the various manifestations of God’s activity referred to as the Holy Spirit that appear both in the Jewish scriptures and in the New Testament writings, and also the mysterious “Word” featured in the meditative prologue to the Gospel of John.

That’s not much to go on, isn’t it? It’s easy to get lost in the complexity of the trinitatian dogma -- after all, it stipulates that our understanding of these divine Persons cannot simply be reduced to seeing them as various states or manifestations of God, nor as the “components” or “family members” within God, and not even as the modes/roles in which God engages with the world. The modern mind begins to beg all sorts of questions: why conceptualize the divine mystery in exactly three persons; why are the Persons defined by such specific sets of relationships (e.g., the Father “begetting and sending” the Son, and “breathing out” the Spirit); why is it so slanted towards masculinity? The image of a father who loves his son, yet expects eternal, perfect obedience could very well seem an epitome of harmony in the 5th century Chalcedon. It may not be so for us; but, if we completely dismiss the ancients’ attempts to grasp at their understanding of the nature of God as complicated or inadequate, then we, too, face the same, impossible task of putting God “in a box” - a “box” that is still defined by our own times. What are we to do? Could the rich, ancient, dynamic Triniatiran imagery be useful to a modern-day seeker of faith, outside the seminary walls?

For me, turning to the visual symbolism of an icon has always been more fruitful than grappling with the divine mystery on an intellectual level. An icon frees us to engage with the transcendent reality on a purely emotional and spiritual level, just as its creator works under no obligation to deliver the true likeness of its subject. It frees us from the limitations of our thought, which is always bound by our language.

My interest in iconography rescued me five years ago, when I was a curate just weeks after my ordination to the diaconate. As I walked into the church on my first Trinity Sunday morning as an ordained clergy, I was greeted by my supervisor who handed me a print of the Holy Trinity icon, and astounded me with the news that I was to preach the sermon twenty minutes later. In his words, “any curate should be able to tell the faithful what she remembers about the Trinity from her seminary studies”... and to do so in about 8-12 minutes! I like to think that I did have a few useful recollections to share with our congregation that morning.

But even more importantly, it made me realize that communicating the full intricacies of the “hypostatic union” is not essential for either a Sunday homily, or daily spiritual life. I suspect that by putting me on the spot, my supervisor has, in fact, saved me from myself, a still new and enthusiastic theologian. Had I had the time to prepare the homily in advance, I would have likely got caught up in all the interesting details I learned from the Church Fathers and Karl Barth, and failed to deliver one central message - that the Trinity is first and foremost the embodiment of spiritual unity, peace, harmony, mutual love and humility. The icon, on the other hand, represents it perfectly to an eye familiar with its rules.

The print I had in my hands as I stood in the chancel that morning was of, perhaps, the most well-known icon in the West, created by the Russian painter Andrei Rublev in the 15th century. It was commissioned by the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius, near Moscow (a “lavra” is a type of monastery consisting of cells clustered around a church). The original icon surface nowadays is a combination of layers created during various time periods, beginning with as early as 1600s. It is kept at the Tretyakov Gallery in a specially conditioned window, which it only leaves once a year at Pentecost to be displayed in the Tretyakov Gallery's church. But, there are also two consecrated copies (made in 1600 and 1928), kept at the Lavra.

Also called called “The Hospitality of Abraham”, the icon depicts the three angels who visited Abraham, the founder of the Jewish nation, to give him the good news that he would, in fact, become “the father of many” - an Old Testament narrative that predates the development of the trinitarian doctrine by many centuries, but employs a similar metaphor of the “Three”. Rublev chose not to paint Abraham or Sarah, or even the details of the meal (aside from the cup on the table, containing the head of a calf). However, in the background, there is Abraham’s house with the oak tree and the mountain that are mentioned in the story. The left angel (with the house behind it) might symbolize the Father. He blesses the cup and passes it to the Son, represented by the central angel (and its attribute, the tree -- that of life and/or crucifixion?), who in turn also blesses the cup, and accepts it. The mountain behind the third angel is a symbol of the spiritual ascent, which we accomplish with the help of the Spirit. The first and second angels’ wings overlap, recalling Jesus’ words, “I and the Father are one”. The colours are significant as well: the divine blue is found in all robes, the green represents the new life cultivated by the Spirit, and the earthy tones assert the humanity of the Son.

Rublev’s angels are gazing into eternity without moving, eating, or talking. And yet, the image is dynamic; the angels’ silent communion radiates energy that flows along the circle formed by their bodies, and spills out of the gap in the bottom - a space at the table, a seat reserved especially for me and you. That’s the image I’d like to leave with you to ponder this Trinity Sunday, as well as the poem by a much more famous fellow lover of icons, Rowan Williams.

Consider its final lines as a prophetic response to the anguish and outrage that has threatened to engulf the world over the past months and days, as it spills into our living rooms from every screen we own.

"Rublev" by Rowan Williams (1994)

One day, God walked in, pale from the grey steppe,

slit-eyed against the wind, and stopped, said,

Colour me, breathe your blood into my mouth.

I said, Here is the blood of all our people,

these are their bruises, blue and purple,

gold, brown, and pale green wash of death.

These (god) are the chromatic pains of flesh,

I said, I trust I shall make you blush,

O I shall stain you with the scars of birth

For ever, I shall root you in the wood,

under the sun shall bake you bread

of beechmast, never let you forth

To the white desert, to the starving sand.

But we shall sit and speak around

one table, share one food, one earth.