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A Meditation for Trinity Sunday (Year A) on Andrei Rublev’s Icon

Lay worship leaders are unlikely to be asked to take services on Christmas Day, Good Friday or Easter, but I have twice found myself taking a Matins on Trinity Sunday. In these circumstances, it would be foolhardy to launch into one’s own explanation of the Trinity (although one ‘kind’ suggestion was that I should use a pot plant as a prop to expound on Trinitarian doctrine).

At the last Year A Trinity Sunday, I drew heavily on a sermon by the Dean of Durham Cathedral, the Very Revd Michael Sadgrove, and a meditation by Dr André Boguslawski on Andrei Rublev’s icon of  the three Angels being hosted by Abraham at Mamré.

Holy God, faithful and unchanging:enlarge our minds with the knowledge of your truth, and draw us more deeply into the mystery of your love, that we may truly worship you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

The nation’s favourite hymn begins:

Immortal, invisible, God only wise
In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes…

It reminds us, if we need reminding, that God is beyond our understanding. Part of the point of today is to celebrate His mysteries, which are not the same as puzzles. Puzzles, however difficult, can be solved, but the more you explore mysteries, the more their mystery deepens. To contemplate them is more like prayer than intellectual analysis:
‘Great music,’ said the pianist Artur Schnabel, ‘is music that is better than it can ever be played’…Worship, too, is something that is performed. The words we say and sing this morning are like a musical score: only in the performance, in the doing, do they come alive. And we realise that however good the words, however honest our intentions, our worship always falls short of what it proclaims…On Trinity Sunday, we realise the impossibility of ever doing God justice by talking about him. We ask too much of language when we expect it to carry this profoundest mystery of all…For how can we speak about the God who is both high and deep; beyond us, yet within; encompassing all that has been, and is, and is yet to come? ‘To whom then will you compare God?’ asks Isaiah.40:18
I can barely comprehend the mystery of another human being, my own self even, let alone the mystery of God.
As the Welsh priest-poet R.S. Thomas writes:
‘For one like me God will never be plain and out there, but dark rather and inexplicable’.
But Trinity Sunday means more than what we can’t say. This ‘more’ is about what we can do, indeed must do, if we are to live as Christians. In the Trinity, we see a pattern of relationship that speaks of how we are to be towards others and towards the world. The threeness of Trinity means community, a society of persons moving constantly out towards one another in self-giving, living and being in that perfect oneness we call by the name of ‘love’.

The Very Revd Michael Sadgrove, Trinity 2005

Among the world’s most influential religions, only Hinduism shares with Christianity the concept of incarnate deity. Although one thinks of Hinduism as having a multitude of gods, they are all avatars or incarnations of one of the Trimurti: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver or Shiva the destroyer. Sometimes shown as one body with three heads, these three are engaged in the same triune cosmic dance that Michael Sadgrove describes in the last passage – ‘moving constantly out towards one another’. A single god is but a single point in the universe; two points would only allow for movement backwards and forwards between them, but three points form a triangle, the essence of a circle- Three in One and One in Three, in fact- which suggests perpetual movement.But we are getting into deep waters. The Russian Orthodox Church invented icons as a way of focusing on the deep truths behind our faith without the barrier of words, putting into colours and shapes what cannot be grasped by the intellect. Perhaps the most famous is the icon of The Trinity by Andrei Rublev.

Alexander Boguslawski leads us through his interpretation:

This icon takes as its subject the mysterious story where Abraham receives three visitors as he camps by the oak of Mamre. He serves them a meal. As the conversation progresses he seems to be talking straight to God, as if these ‘angels’ were in some way a metaphor for the three persons of the Trinity. Genesis 18:1-3
In Rublev’s representation of the scene, the three gold-winged figures are seated around a white table on which a golden, chalice-like bowl contains a roasted lamb. In the background of the picture, a house can be seen at the top left and a tree in the centre. Less distinctly, a rocky hill lies in the upper right corner. The composition is a great circle around the table, focusing the attention on the chalice-bowl at the centre, which reminds the viewer inescapably of an altar at Communion.
On one level this picture shows three angels seated under Abraham’s tree, but on another it is a visual expression of what the Trinity means, what is the nature of God, and how we approach him. The three angels show a paradoxical equality and dissimilarity, so much so that commentators disagree on which represents the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit [but in my view] reading the picture from left to right, we see the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
On the right, the Holy Spirit has a garment of the clear blue of the sky, wrapped over with a robe of a fragile green. So the Spirit of creation moves in sky and water, breathes in heaven and earth. All living things owe their freshness to his touch. The Son has the deepest colours; a thick heavy garment of the reddish-brown of earth and a cloak of the blue of heaven. In his person he unites heaven and earth, the two natures are present in him…The Father seems to wear all the colours in a kind of fabric that changes with the light… that cannot be described or confined in words. And this is how it should be. No one has seen the Father, but the vision of him fills the universe.
The wings of the angels or persons are gold. Their seats are gold. The chalice in the centre is gold, and the roof of the house. Whether they sit, whether they fly, all is perfect, precious, and worthy…The light that shines around their heads is white, pure light. Gold is not enough to express the glory of God. Only light will do, and that same white becomes the holy table, the place of offering. God is revealed and disclosed here, at the heart, in the whiteness of untouchable light.
The Father looks forward, raising his hand in blessing to the Son…This is my Son, listen to him… The hand of the Son points on, around the circle, to the Spirit. In this simple array we see the movement of life towards us, The Father sends the Son, the Son sends the Spirit. The life flows clockwise around the circle. And we complete the circle: we are invited and sent to complete the circle of the Godhead with our response.
The Spirit touches us, even though we do not know who it is that is touching us. He leads us by ways we may not be aware of, up the hill of prayer. It may be steep and rocky, but the journeying God goes before us along the path. It leads to Jesus, the Son of God, and it leads to a tree. A great tree in the heat of the day spreads its shade. It is a place of security, a place of peace, a place where we begin to find out the possibilities of who we can be. It is no ordinary tree. It stands above the Son in the picture, and stands above the altar-table where the lamb lies within the chalice. Because of the sacrifice this tree grows. The tree of death has been transformed into a tree of life for us.
The tree is on the way to the house. Over the head of the Father is the house of the Father. It is the goal of our journey. It is the beginning and end of our lives. Its roof is golden. Its door is always open for the traveller. It has a tower, and its window is always open so that the Father can incessantly scan the roads for a glimpse of a returning prodigal.

Henri Nouwen sums up:

Through the contemplation of this icon we come to see with our inner eyes that all engagements in this world can bear fruit only when they take place within this divine circle. It seems to beckon. It seems to say, ‘Join us. Join us in the circle of true love, where there is joy for evermore.’

Eternal Trinity, you are a deep sea, into which the more we enter the more we find, and the more we find the more we seek. The soul ever hungers in your abyss, longing to see with you with the light of your light and, as the deer yearns for the springs of water, so our souls yearn to see you in truth. Amen.

 


1. Grateful thanks to Dr Alexander Boguslawski and Dean Michael Sadgrove for their generous permission to quote at length from their copyright work as above.
The extracts from Dean Michael Sadgrove are in Courier font, the extracts from Dr Boguslawski are in Georgia font, and my own narrative is in the default font. (I’m sorry it is still a bit muddling!)
2. Postscript: ‘The Circle of Love: Praying with Rublev’s icon of the Trinity’ by Ann Persson is reviewed by the Revd Peter McGeary in the Church Times of 7 January 2011
3. The illustration is  Rublev’s  icon showing the three Angels being hosted by Abraham at Mamré via Wikimedia
4. The first prayer is an Additional Collect for this Trinity Sunday.

2 comments on this post:

UKViewer said...
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I was introduced to this by my SD a year or so ago after I had written something trite for him about the trinity. I've also had the use of a Clover used to demonstrate the 3 in 1 and 1 in 3 of the trinity. I preferred the Icon.

I'm leading intercessions this Trinity Sunday. Lots more editing to do later.

14 June 2011 16:22
Lay Anglicana said...
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I join you in preferring the icon to any of the simplistic 1-in-3, 3-in-1 metaphors on offer, which really insult the intelligence of anyone in the congregation over the age of 10. It is SUPPOSED to be a mystery and glib explanations do not help. I love the whole idea of the icon, and Nouwen's summary, which reminds me of C S Lewis's 'Further up and further in' in 'The Last Battle'.

14 June 2011 16:37

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