Thrice Holy! Father, Spirit, Son;
mysterious Godhead, Three in One
A particular visit that I made some years ago has always stuck in my mind. It was to a widow who had lost her husband and she wanted me to say a few words about him at the funeral, which I was glad to do. The conversation started and with her permission I began to take some notes.
It became quickly apparent that there was an event round which the whole of their life together pivoted and this was when her husband had lost his leg. So the answers that she gave to many of my questions about Ernie began with: “About 4 years before Ernie lost his leg……” or “That was probably about 6 months after Ernie lost his leg…”
It was a simple dating system clearly arising from the fact that the loss of Ernie’s leg had been a deeply traumatic event that had had a huge impact on their lives. It had changed everything!
Our dating system, and by that I mean not just yours or mine, but all of our dating system in the West has been determined up to now by Christ. In the same way as the loss of Ernie’s leg became the way that this person dated other events, so we have for many centuries now, taken Christ’s birth for our own simple dating system – dates being either AD or BC!
We’ve done this because of the huge significance of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. A theological statement is being made by the use of AD and BC about the pivotal importance of Christ – and that theological statement results in the distinctively Christian doctrine of the Trinity that we are celebrating today – Trinity Sunday.
I think that it was Saint Augustine who suggested that God can be thought of as a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. I’ve always found this a particularly stimulating suggestion. It holds together two things about God that are fundamental.
Firstly the universal presence of God – the circumference is nowhere. And there are many passages of scripture and hymns that we sing where God’s universal presence is celebrated and proclaimed. But there’s a temptation then to think that God has got to be spread very thinly indeed to be everywhere!
So alongside suggesting that God can be thought of as a circle whose circumference is nowhere, Augustine also says “and whose centre is everywhere”. So wherever we are we don’t get a watered down version of God, but the centre of God, God’s absolute presence, is totally here – wherever that ‘here’ may be.
God can be thought of as a circle, whose circumference is nowhere and whose centre is everywhere.
This quite abstract, philosophical understanding of God probably originates with Plato – and it gets totally transformed in Augustine’s thinking by the person of Christ.
God’s universal presence now ‘has a face’, Christians believe. The absolute presence that Augustine talks about, using that image of a circle with its centre and circumference, becomes ‘filled out’ with the features of a person – the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
This is the impact that Christ makes in the Christian understanding of God. And so begins the understanding of God as Trinity – or at least a duality of Father and Son which gives full weight both to the mystery of God’s universal presence and also to God’s particular presence in Christ.
To this is then added the further dimension of the divinity of the Holy Spirit, the presence of God not just in the particular person of Christ, but in you and me too. And again, this is not a watered down version, nor a thinly spread version of God, but a fully divine person at work in our hearts and minds.
Saint Augustine is such a great thinker and there’s another passage from him that I treasure which concerns our use of the word ‘person’ in any description of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit.
The doctrine of the Trinity, while it refers to persons, is not saying that God consists of three people!
“Because the Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Father, and the Holy Spirit is neither the Father, nor the Son, they are certainly three……… Yet when you ask ‘Three what?’ human speech labours under a great lack of words. So we say three persons, not in order to say that precisely, but inorder not to be reduced to silence.”
One of the great mystics of the Church, Ignatius of Loyola, had a vision of the Trinity at the beginning of his conversion as a young man when he has living in a cave at Manresa in northern Spain. He wrote about it at the end of his life, how one morning when he was praying, he saw the Most Holy Trinity in the form of three musical organ keys, with these three distinct keys being held as one and so forming one sound, one chord.
It’s an interesting vision because the sound in it is more important than the sight. It is also quite abstract too, as music is. Three musical organ keys – that was all it consisted of! Yet this vision profoundly affected Ignatius of Loyola’s whole life and his understanding of God, and from then on he experienced great devotion when he prayed to God as Trinity.
Our understanding as Christians of the mystery of the Holy Trinity, arises from the impact Christ makes on our understanding of God – that in some sense difficult to find words for, Christ is every bit as much God, as God is! And our dating system changed as a consequence!
But further than this, the experience of God in the lives of Christians down the centuries is of the Holy Spirit, also fully God. As we heard Saint Paul write:
“…God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Romans 5.5
“Thrice Holy! Father, Spirit, Son;
mysterious Godhead, Three in One,”
we have just sung.
And we concluded by singing:
“before thy throne we sinners bend,
grace, pardon, life to us extend.”