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The Rev. Irina Dubinski

"Isaiah" by Michelangelo

"Isaiah" by Raphael

Trinity Sunday, 2021

On the Sunday after Pentecost, Western Christians observe the feast that celebrates the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Worshipping God as the triune being is likely the most unifying feature of all branches of Christianity, and so this holiday is one of the 12 principal feasts that most of the Church observes, albeit with some liturgical differences (e.g., merging the Trinity and Pentecost in one feast, as the Orthodox Christians do). Yet, the doctrine came into our calendar fairly late.

Three centuries after the writing of the gospels, two significant gatherings of the early church bishops took place: the first in Nicea in 325, and the second in Constantinople, 381. Both of these lasted for several months, and it is to them that we owe the trinitarian dogma and the Niceno- Constantinopolitan Creed that we recite today. The reason it took so long is that there is not one place in the Scriptures that tells us specifically that God exists in three Hypostases: three distinct Persons who are “undivided in splendour”.

What we do have is mainly Jesus’ words regarding himself as “one with the Father”, the manifestations of God’s activity referred to as the Holy Spirit in both the OT and NT, and the mysterious Word, featured in the mystical prologue to John’s Gospel. With this little to go on, the Church Fathers resolved that the only way to define the Hypostases, and yet maintain both their unity and uniqueness, is by their relationships. So, we know the Father as the one who begets the Son, the Son as the one who is begotten, and the Spirit as the one who proceeds from the Father (for some Christians, from the Father and Son together).

With all of this being rather abstract, confusing and complicated, we’ve all found a way to adapt our thinking to accommodate the teachings we now take for granted. Traditions play a significant role in helping us to do so, which in many cultures intertwined Chrsitian beliefs with the rituals that predated them. For example, when Christianity came to the Slavs in the 9th century, the existing rites associated with the arrival of the summer became incorporated in celebrating the Trinity Day. The result was a curious mixture of Christian piety and superstition, whereby people believed that on this holiday, one must strive for perfect harmony with God and all nature. So, on this specific day, they not only tried to eschew all negative thoughts, but... also refrained from all swimming! (Since nature was represented by the mythical creatures who were believed to live in lakes and rivers, on this day, their homes were to be kept sacred).

Today, we might smile at this naive syncretism, but it’s worth remembering that such simple traditions encouraged the people to emulate the idea that God is relational and internally harmonious, and helped keep folk spirituality alive even when Christianity was suppressed. And do we really do full justice to the 200-years-long labour of the Church Fathers when we reduce God to our own, Sunday-school understanding? Such as the three manifestations of God, or three states (“like the water”), three family members, modes, roles, job descriptions... None of these is really “it”, as each such definition is at best, limited, or worse -- anthropocentric.

On the other hand, some wish to do away with the doctrine altogether, due to the modern-day concerns that never troubled the ancients (e.g., the masculine bias and the familial terms). Indeed, the image of a loving father who, nonetheless, expects eternal, perfect obedience from the son may have been an epitome of harmony in the 4th century Nicea, but does it still work for us?

I have always believed that we shouldn’t put God in a box, whether it is 2000 years-old, or that dictated by the world of today. But if we don’t, how do we begin to “know” God? After all, without knowledge, there is no authenticity to a relationship; no hope for a real communion. Today’s reading from Isaiah illustrates this paradox of faith -- the state of grappling with the desire to know God and yet the fear of it; oscillating between the assurance that we do know something about God’s nature, and the realization of how risky it is to make any such assumptions.

Upon receiving his own vision of God, Isaiah exclaims: "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips… yet my eyes have seen the LORD!”, indicating his overwhelming sense of unworthiness when confronted with the fullness of God’s holiness. Yet, when God asked, "Whom shall I send?" to deliver the message to the people, Isaiah answered, "Send me!". What was it that emboldened Isaiah to give such a response? That burning coal that the seraph had touched to his lips? Probably, quite a few things: the mystical awareness of God’s presence, the hope of pardon, the gift of purpose. The message that burned his lips and demanded to be told was, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwell in the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.”

Above this text, you find two famous portraits of Isaiah from the early 1500s, which show the birth of his prophetic vision, by Michelangelo (the Sistine chapel ceiling) and Raphael (Church of Saint Agostino). Note how Rapael almost copies Michelangelo’s composition, yet with the addition of a small detail, he presents us with a radically independent vision. Both figures are seated in contrapposto as though heeding a call, and holding their writings to the putti. But Michelangelo’s Isaiah is gazing inward and tense, while Raphael’s is dynamic and engaging. Most importantly, where Michelangelo shows the book as nearly closed (the prophet’s finger marking the place known only to him), Raphael shows the text and even includes the word “open”.

The gospel is open and available; not only to Isaiah's, or his people, or the angels, but to all viewers who have been looking at him for these 5 centuries. As we worship here today, let us accept our own invitation to be more like Raphael’s Isaih. To come to know God, and openly carry his message to the world. Let us join with the angels in the singing of the Sanctus, and really mean it -- reverently, yet without fear. Let’s give thanks that even though we might never fully comprehend the extent of God’s holiness, we are allowed, and in fact, mandated to participate in it. In doing so, may each of us be reassured of God’s forgiveness, and renewed in faith and vocation, if only for today. Amen.