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Trinity Sunday: Athanasian Poetry – Br. Mark Brown

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Br. Mark BrownProverbs 8:14, 22-31/Psalm 8/Romans 5:1-5/John 16:12-15

Today we celebrate an idea—an idea that represents our best understanding of the mystery and paradox of God: the Holy Trinity.  There is one and only one God; and this God is a trinity of persons.

There’s a delightful poem about the Trinity called “The Creed of St. Athanasius”.  Whoever wrote it (it wasn’t St. Athanasius) probably didn’t mean to write delightful poetry, but I do find it both delightful and poetic. Here are a few lines from the Creed of St. Athanasius:

“… we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Spirit uncreated. The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Spirit unlimited. The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite. So likewise the Father is Almighty; the Son Almighty; and the Holy Spirit Almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties; but one Almighty. So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Spirit is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord; the Son Lord; and the Holy Spirit Lord. And yet not three Lords; but one Lord… And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped…”

There’s something about this that I find delightful—is there something a little Lewis Carroll-y about it, something a little “Alice in Wonderland” 1000 years early? I wonder if God may be smiling at this. But it’s the best we poor creatures can do to try to explain the mystery. We can only speak of God in poetic language and in awareness of the limitations of our words and concepts.  And yet our limited words and concepts have a way of leading us through and beyond to that which is ineffable, inexpressible in words—like music, in a way. And, as it happens, Jesus taught mainly in parables, that is, in metaphoric, poetic language.  Even his actions can be read as parables or metaphors pointing beyond themselves—the calming of the sea, for example—or the Cross. Besides being something Jesus did, the Cross may be the greatest of all parables.

We speak of God as best we can because we want to, for some reason.  But the fuller truth lies somewhere beyond whatever words we utter and beyond the grasp of our minds.

(The Athanasian Creed, by the way, is not in the poetry section of the Book of Common Prayer, but in a section called “Historical Documents of the Church” toward the back of the book.)

It’s so easy to get lost in all our words about God and tangled up in the abstractions of theology. It’s not bad to be lost and tangled in abstraction once in a while, but in doing that we may overlook the most important thing about the Christian understanding of God: God is not an abstraction; God is personal, and we believe God is revealed in very specific, concrete, fleshly, human terms.

The masculine gender issues aside (for today), one thing key to our understanding of God is that the language of the Holy Trinity is very human and very personal. “Father” and “son” are unapologetically personal, human terms.  God is not an impersonal “force”, like in the Star Wars movies. We do speak of the creative power of God, the animating energies of the Divine, but, paradoxically, there is also about God an essentially personal quality: flesh, blood, laughter, tears.

This fundamental paradox about our understanding of God is illumined by holding up together two passages from scripture: the beginning and the end of the Gospel of John. The beginning of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being through him was life, and the life was the light of all people…” [John 1:1-4]

These words invite us to reflect on God as the creator of all things: the one who “spoke” all things into existence.  The quarks and gluons, electrons and photons, the elementary entities that have the capacity to combine in more and more intricate levels of organization resulting in a fabric of existence that includes the galaxies, black holes, gravitational waves, planets, mountains, oceans, genetic codes, higher mathematics, the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, living things, fish and fowl, poetry, music, dance, drama, literature, religion….and human beings with consciousness and intelligence to ponder these things.

What kind of intelligence is capable of creating all these things and more? There is about this God something so far beyond comprehension as to leave us speechless. (And there is wisdom in silence before God—but I’ll continue just a little bit longer…)

But God, the Word of God who was God, the Word of God through whom all things came to be, became flesh and lived among us. And died. And rose from the dead. And near the end of the Gospel of John, we see this Living Word, this Risen Christ, inquiring of a human being “Do you love me?”  I have shown my great love for you—do you love me?  He asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?”  And Peter answers, three times: yes, you know I love you. The Gospel of John begins cosmic in scope and ends in a scene of tender personal intimacy. [John 21:15-17]

And this is the essential paradox of God, this is the essential scandal of the Trinitarian understanding of God: yes, God is the One who spoke all time and space, quarks and gluons, photons and electrons and everything made possible by these fundamental particles—and this same God says to us, “I love you—do you love me?”

There is poetic resonance here with the “Song of Songs”, which, on one level, is a love song between two human beings who exuberantly celebrate their mutual desire, their mutual delight in the other, their reciprocal love. This is the central not only paradox, but scandal of the Christian religion: that God, Creator of all things, loves us and takes delight in us, and desires that we love and take delight in him.

Well, we speak of God as best we can, in our poor words, in parable, metaphor and poetry.  But the most poetic language of all may be the poetry of silence…

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1 Comment

  1. Dean Hantzopoulos on May 27, 2016 at 18:46

    A truly wonderful Sermon. I have always glossed over the Athenasian Creed before but this Sermon really took me back and made me look at it in a totally different way. Thank You.

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