Trinity is not a number

The feast of Epiphany in the western churches celebrates the visit of the Magi to the new-born Jesus. Hence, it is celebrated as the revelation of Jesus to the nations. In the Orthodox Church it’s celebrated as the Baptism of Jesus Christ. Theophany = the revelation of God. The revelation of God as Trinity. 

Baptism of Christ – wall icon at Holy Trinity Church, Portland ME. The baptism of Christ is viewed as a theophany, a manifestation of God, because the voice of the Father spoke in witness – “This is my beloved Son” – and the Spirit appeared in the form of a dove, hovering over the Son in his incarnate form of Jesus Christ.

But Trinity confuses people. How are we to think of God as one and also three? Well, first of all that’s the problem. To think of God, the infinite, indescribable God, in terms of numbers is simply wrong. Trinity is just a word, a theological term, to express our experience of God in terms of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We experience the Father differently than we experience Jesus. As a matter of fact we only are able to speak to God the Father because Jesus has shown us the way. Abba, Father. Our Father who art in heaven….Jesus is the Son of God – not in some birth giving sense, but in the sense he comes from God the Father, and God acts through Jesus. That’s why Jesus is also called the Word of God. God creates by the Word. “Let there be light…” And God gives life through the Spirit. God breathed into the first human, and the first human became a living being, a fully alive person. Trinity, a glorious, magnificent revelation that began on the day of Baptism.

But people have trouble with the Trinity. The Jews and the Moslems reject it outright. And many Christians have a huge difficulty making sense of Trinity. Here’s what I think is a major reason why people reject the Trinity: They want a legislating god, not a God who suffers in solidarity with humanity. The central truth about the Trinity is that only as Trinity can God enter into human life, and live and die for us. A legislative god gives people permission to imitate a legislative god! And when god is simply about laws and obedience, you can have terrorists acting in the name of god (Allah), you can have people breaking into the Capitol in Washington carrying signs that say ‘Jesus Saves’. It is also why many fundamentalist Christians get more out of the OT than they get from the NT. When I left Vancouver to go to Seminary, a close friend at church – a very ‘Orthodox’ friend – told me all sorts of things I had to be careful about, and they all came out of the Book of Leviticus. Women in the Orthodox Church are given all sorts of restrictions about their bodies straight from the Book of Leviticus. Why not? That’s what a legislative god demands. 

But Trinity is about freedom. Trinity is about fellowship. Trinity is about EQUALITY. There is equality and community at the heart of the Trinity. The Trinity IS Community! God is not about Love; God doesn’t just love us; God IS Love! Love is not just something God does. God IS Love. Because God is Trinity. God can love us because love is the bond within God’s own deep inner self, from all eternity to all eternity. Only in God and only in community can we experience healing and safety from all the madness that seems to have taken over the world we live in. The icon of the Hospitality of Abraham in the entrance of our church symbolically and mystically represents the inner life of God – and it’s all about motion, movement, movement of love and unity, movement in community.

Icon of The Hospitality of Abraham at Holy Trinity Church, Portland, Maine. The famous Russian iconographer, Andrei Rublev, took out Abraham and Sarah, and since his time the Russian tradition has been to call the icon without Abraham and Sarah as ‘Old Testament Trinity’. The Greek tradition has stayed true to the original form of this icon, keeping the historical setting of Genesis 18.

Note how the two seated figures on the right lean toward the seated figure on the left, who leans toward them in return. The Son and the Spirit owe their origin of being to the Father, but the Father is always in dynamic communion with them, and is inseparable from them, and can only act through them! Although not a literal image of the Trinity, the icon represents the scene in Genesis, chapter 18. The encounter of the three figures with Abraham and Sarah has always been interpreted as in some way a symbolic encounter of the Trinity. Note how in the Genesis text the three figures are addressed as LORD, the usual way that English Bibles translate the presence of YHWH in the Hebrew text. And YHWH of course is the name of God revealed to Moses in Exodus, chapter 3.

Only in God the Trinity can we fully experience the gift of life and the gift of this incredible planet, of the magnificent universe. One of the great literary heroes is Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. Listen to this passage.

Filled with rapture, his soul yearned for freedom, space, vastness. Over him the heavenly dome, full of quiet, shining stars, hung boundlessly. From the zenith to the horizon the still-dim Milky Way stretched its double strand. Night, fresh and quiet, almost unstirring, enveloped the earth. The white towers and golden domes of the church gleamed in the sapphire sky. The luxuriant autumn flowers in the flowerbeds near the house had fallen asleep until morning. The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars. . . .

Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth. He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto the ages. “Water the earth with the tears of your joy, and love those tears. . .,” rang in his soul. What was he weeping for? Oh, in his rapture he wept even for the stars that shone on him from the abyss, and “he was not ashamed of this ecstasy.” It was as if threads from all those innumerable worlds of God all came together in his soul, and it was trembling all over, “touching other worlds.” He wanted to forgive everyone and for everything, and to ask forgiveness, oh, not for himself! But for all and for everything, “as others are asking for me,” rang again in his soul.

But with each moment he felt clearly and almost tangibly something as firm and immovable as this heavenly vault descend into his soul. Some sort of idea, as it were, was coming to reign in his mind – now for the whole of his life and unto ages of ages. He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life, and he knew it and felt it suddenly, in that very moment of his ecstasy. Never, never in all his life would Alyosha forget that moment. “Someone visited my soul in that hour,” he would say afterwards, with firm belief in this words. (The Brothers Karamazov, pages 362-63, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, North Point Press, 1990 San Francisco)

Did you hear what Alyosha felt about forgiveness? Alyosha wanted to forgive everyone for everything. And to ask for forgiveness – but for others, not for himself! Because he knew others were asking for him! In this transcending moment he experienced the world as a forgiving place, he experienced the mystical community that exists among humans BECAUSE God is Trinity! At the heart of true community is what Alyosha experienced. He did not need to pray for himself because he KNEW that others were praying for him!

Today’s Epistle reading from Ephesians: Brothers and Sisters, grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift…. And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature personhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

Note carefully. He did not give gifts to destroy and to harm – only to build up. Christianity is a religion of truth; and the truth comes from God as revealed through Jesus Christ and made real to us through the Holy Spirit. I love what Father Daniel Berrigan said about Dorothy Day: ‘she lived as though the truth were true.’ Isn’t that beautiful? Truth is the Trinity, and it is the Trinity we celebrate on this wonderful feast of Epiphany/Theophany. But then we are called to live the Trinity by living the truth. It’s a challenge, I know for myself. I often question whether the truth is true – and I’m not talking about fake news and all the nonsense that consume our minds in these politically volatile times. I’m talking about the truth that is God, the truth that is Jesus Christ! But it is only by living the truth and doing the truth that we will know that the truth is true. That’s how Dorothy Day lived, Mother Teresa, and many others. And you know, when someone lives the truth that is Jesus Christ, you don’t even think about his or her politics, his or her race, his or her social standing. You don’t even worry about the person’s religion – because the truth that is Jesus Christ lives in many people who don’t go around claiming to be Christian. Oh, if only all people of the world could begin to see God as Trinity – perhaps we will forever let go of the legislative god and live in peace with each other.

The above was preached as a sermon (with some changes) on January 10th, the Sunday After Epiphany in the Orthodox calendar. Audio File below.

2 Replies to “Trinity is not a number”

  1. I really enjoyed this, Kostas, and I’m also a big fan of ‘The Brothers Karamazov”, which I think is possibly the best and most profound novel ever written! God the Trinity is a wonderful mystery and love and relationship are at the heart of God, as you say.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Michael. Trinity is in the forefront of my thinking at this time. Your own frequent reflections on Rublev’s icon have also prompted me in this direction. I will start my next Bible Study series in the parish in two weeks, and it will be a study on the Trinity.

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