This blog is a place for theological and topical reflections and a sister to the website of the parish that I pastor, Holy Trinity Orthodox Church.
Holy Trinity – what a beautiful name for a Christian congregation, a name that brings us to the heart of the Christian faith. And the heart of the Christian faith is not a dogma, but a fellowship of being. Most Christians relate to the conventional trinitarian terminology “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” as dogma. Of course, it is dogma, a fundamental dogma of Christianity. But it is also a dogma that has been frequently misinterpreted or misapplied. It has led to idolatrous and downright heretical icons showing an old bearded man, a younger bearded man, and a bird! No wonder most people imagine God in masculine terms. We have such an icon in our iconostasion:
We had a second, similar, one at the entrance, but we replaced that one with an icon that more truly represents the Orthodox understanding of Trinity:
The icon which Orthodox tradition calls “The Hospitality of Abraham” shows the scene in Genesis 18 when Abraham and Sarah were visited by three men who somehow represented the presence of God. Most likely they were angels, and the icon shows them with wings. But the iconographic tradition is very faithful to the book of Genesis and sees them as somehow representing God the Trinity. Indeed, this is the only acceptable icon of the Trinity; but it must not be taken as a literal representation of the Trinity.
Trinity is fellowship – the fellowship of equals. But within the fellowship of equals, one is the source of being. Notice how the second and third persons are shown leaning toward the first person. Clearly, the two derive their being from the first. There is fellowship and movement in this icon. The inner life of the Trinity is dynamic. If the church is to be the medium of God’s presence and activity in the world, its existence must also be dynamic. The church fails when it chooses the safety of what is known no matter how outdated it is.
The icon of the Hospitality of Abraham saves us from the danger of idolatry. It prevents us from thinking in exclusively masculine terms. The three figures are male, but masculinity is not what defines them. Their appearance and relationship to each other are expressions of profound theology and mysticism. One can pray before such an icon. One can experience mystical unity before such an icon. And every congregation can understand the mission of the church as fellowship and movement.
There is something static about the terminology “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” but the icon reminds us that the Orthodox tradition has drawn on the full richness of biblical language to speak of the Trinity. Especially important is the identity of Jesus as the Word (Logos), just as we read in the Gospel of John. The dynamic Word of God is the means by which God created the universe. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). In Philippians 2:6-11 Paul sees the entire history of Jesus as a story of movement.
The first two verses of the Bible, Genesis 1:1-2, picture the Holy Spirit (the ruah of God) as a wind sweeping over the primeval chaos, before God began to give form to the creation. Today also the Holy Spirit sweeps over the chaos that humans have created: political chaos, economic chaos, environmental chaos, moral chaos, spiritual and psychological chaos, confusion in all realms of life and thought, devaluation of the arts, the loss of human individuality, privacy and freedom… The Spirit is ready to sweep away the chaos. But the chaos is created by us, so the Spirit will not sweep the chaos away without our cooperation.
Jesus, in the Gospel of John, calls the Spirit by the Greek word Paraklitos, which means Comforter, Counselor, Advocate… The Spirit counsels, inspires, guides and comforts us in our struggles. But the Spirit does not impose God’s will on anyone, not even on the planet. Jesus spoke of “rivers of living water” overflowing from the hearts of those who believe in him, and by this he meant the Spirit. The meaning is clear: God gives the Spirit, and we allow the Spirit to flow out of our hearts, our words and actions. We are meant to be co-workers with the Spirit. There are too many in the Church who simply believe that the Spirit blesses everything we undertake, especially if we say the right prayers or do the proper ritual. No, there is freedom in our relationship with God. God respects our freedom. God also is free, and cannot be manipulated by rituals or prayers. God reads our hearts, not our rituals
In the Acts of the Apostles (2:1-4) the Spirit is described as “a violent rushing wind” and “tongues of fire”! In (John 7:37-52), Jesus described the Spirit as “rivers of living water.” Dynamic images of movement describe the Spirit as much as they describe the Word. And it’s all because God wants to share fellowship with us – the same fellowship that exists within the Trinity. Yes, the Trinity is a foundational dogma of the Christian faith. But it is more than dogma. It is an invitation to share life with God and with each other. The life of the Christian should be a life of fellowship and movement. Look upon the icon of the Hospitality of Abraham and enter into the hospitality of God. Next time you enter Holy Trinity Church in Portland stop and gaze on this icon for a bit. Let it show you the inner life of the Trinity. Let it show you the life you and I are to live – a life of fellowship and movement. God does not remain still. Neither should we. The Christian life is meant to be a life of renewal, transformation and TRANSFIGURATION. More on transfiguration as we come to the feast of Transfiguration on August 6th. In the meantime, rejoice in the hospitality of God!