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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

"To this I will say 'Amen!'" (Trinity Sunday A)

OK, I’m not going to do all the work for you re this little visual joke, but just let me say that if God looks like Carrie-Ann Moss, it’s a good start. (Insert multiple "Hubba"s and "hosannas" here).

Somewhere, a lot of priests got the idea that homilies should all start by telling us that Trinity Sunday is the “only feast of a doctrine” in the church calendar. I can think of a couple of different ways that is not true. The less important one is that the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the Feast of the Assumption are pretty much doctrinal feasts, and more clearly so than this one. But more important, the very reason for this feast, if one reads the actual scriptures and other liturgical texts for today (including John 3:16), is anything but doctrinal. There is no attempt by the church to interject anything “doctrinal” into the liturgy of today.

A colleague once commented that two homilists at his church used the same story from the Christian midrash surrounding St. Augustine, you know the one, where he muses on the Trinity while walking on the beach at Carthage. As the story goes, a little boy is playing, digging a hole in the sand, and filling it with seawater a bucket a time. He asks the boy what he’s up to, and the boy says he’s trying to fill the hole up with seawater. Augustine tells him it’s a big ocean, he’ll never be able to do it. The boy replies that he has a better shot at moving the ocean into his hole than Augustine does of understanding the Trinity, then the boy vanishes from sight. I mean, whatever...but why is it that the very people who ought to be challenging us to thoughtfully plunge into the mystery of God are warning us off of it, telling us the journey is impossible? We already know that. But the truth is that a mystery isn’t unknowable. It’s just that it can’t every be known completely. It’s a bottomless depth, but the joy of a mystery can be known at all levels of the depth, and it ought to be plumbed: we were made for that. I guess I’ve heard that story on Trinity Sunday more times in my life than I care to remember. I hope to be spared it this year.

Some people are offput by John 3 because in it Jesus in speaking to Nicodemus about truth, and in the process speaks of condemnation:
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,

so that everyone who believes in him might not perish

but might have eternal life.

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,

but that the world might be saved through him.

Whoever believes in him will not be condemned,

but whoever does not believe has already been condemned,

because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

But rather than being a club to browbeat those who find belief difficult, I see the words of Jesus more as a sad statement of quantifiable consequences. To believe in Christ is to find a way out of the cycle of misguided desire and escalating mimetic violence by discovering a God to imitate who “lets the rain fall and the sun shine on the good and bad alike.” To follow Christ, in other words, is the only way out of the anthropological fact of scapegoating, ritual sacrifice and religious or state-sanctioned violence. Belief, in Gandhi’s words, is a way out of hell. It is not, therefore, God who condemns the unbeliever; it is simply a way of perceiving reality in which to say “no” to the way out of hell leaves one in there, to want ever more what we can’t have, and to be willing to do violence to get it. Judgment is exercised not by God upon the unbeliever; the judgment is self-imposed by the non-believer who won't choose the way out of hell. We were made for interdependence, community, and love; to choose the self alone is to choose the consequences of isolation and selfishness.

Luckily for all of us, God never runs out of opportunities to change our mind, surrounding us with saints and the sparkling metaphors that invite us into the paschal mystery of God. One might further imagine, though we can’t see beyond the veil of death, that the opportunities for conversion and belief are not ended at the moment of death, when one might finally come face-to-face with unconditional love. We see that the grain of wheat has to fall into the earth and die to bear fruit; we guess that, perhaps, the same is true of people, and real death. Moses, in the first reading today, acknowledges how “stiff-necked” we are, but reminds God that S/He is merciful and slow to anger, rich in kindness and faithfulness. God precedes our birth, and “comes along with us” through life and death. This is the message in the readings of Trinity Sunday. If that’s some kind of doctrine, I’ll take it.

For me, the feast of the Holy Trinity celebrates principles that are woven into the fabric of observable creation: unity and diversity, agape and kenosis, the paschal mystery itself. We talk as Christians about God as Father, Son, and Spirit. We sometimes rightly bristle because of the male-dominant language of those words, and we are fortunate that in the very canon of scripture itself there are times when only feminine imagery can be used to describe God, scripture thus subverting any attempt at gender idolatry. But the church is also right, in my opinion, in reining in attempts to describe God in impersonal, functional terms like the oh-so-groovy “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier,” because we don’t worship a doctrine, we don’t worship three functions in one God, the three persons don’t exclusively do any single thing (this was rejected in the third century as the modalist heresy). It’s important that we see God as somehow personal, while at the same time recognizing that to say that, like to say anything about God, is hopelessly anthropomorphic. In other words, whatever God is that manifests itself to us as “person-al” is God being God, and we’re just interpreting it as best we can. To me, even to describe God as three “persons” is to hide more information than we can reveal. We’re describing a human attribute that we want to attribute to God, but whatever it is we’re attributing, it can’t be more than a shadow or a nod toward the reality of God.

A divine community of persons who share power as three is a wondrous thought, especially when we realize that “power” in this Godhead is kenosis, or the emptying-out of self, so utterly and completely that John can only say, theou agape estin, “God is love.” We think of power as the ability to control, to get our own way, to force the outcome of things. But in God, “power” is the opposite of that: it’s the outpouring of life so that the sharing of authentic life might fill the universe in all its parts. Within this divine community of shared agape there is both unity and diversity, agape pouring out of the Godhead and being returned, creating out of God’s own “stuff” and filling it with God’s own life, never with a thought of or need for return or gratitude. God is completely selfless, without jealousy, or the need for repayment or retribution. This is a great mystery, and it is the nature of the universe, and the reality into which the Christian is plunged at baptism.

I wrote a song text that I originally entitled “Credo,” (I believe), but it has changed into a different thing, maybe I’ll call it “Be Known in Us” or maybe I’ll call it “O Agape.” I think I’ll leave you with it today, as a bit of a meditation for Trinity Sunday, a little dance of the heart with this “beauty ever ancient, ever new” that fills the universe with love and, in Brian Wren’s words, “changes places, leaves the lofty seat, welcomes us with warm embraces, stoops to wash our feet.” This is my song for now — maybe you’ll find some comfort or hope in it for yourself.

O Agape, by Rory Cooney © 2008

O Mystery, beyond my grasping,

Beyond the depth and height and breadth,

Refusing to be known

In idols made of stone

Nor gold, nor human wealth, nor strength,

I know you in the hand of mercy

Responding to the prisoner’s cry,

And by the light within 

The shadow of my sin

Who will not meet the beggar’s eye.


O Agape, love freely poured,

O Abba, mirrored in the Son,

Sophia, flowing through the world,

Be known in me, be known in us.

I know you not in idle promise

When spoken to the most distressed

By those who use your word

To comfort the assured,

And bless the ones already blessed,

But in the seed, once dead and buried,

Now risen green upon the field.

I know you in the quest

For peace, which never rests,

The victim saved, the breach that’s healed. Ref.

When crescent, cross, or star be marked

Upon our weapons and our law,

When violence is done, 

With no “Eleison!”—

I know you not as god of war.

I know you in the voice of prophets

Who see the human family whole,

And challenge us to ease

The famine and disease,

And poverty that bleeds us all. Ref.

I know you in your sacred word,

In shepherd, gate, and mustard seed,

In Good Samaritan,

Lost coins and sheep and sons,

In lily, sparrow, wheat and weeds.

In healing hands, in those who labor

In field and mill ‘til all be fed,

We keep your memory

In solidarity

By sharing cup and breaking bread.

O Agape, love freely poured,

O Abba, mirrored in the Son,

Sophia, flowing through the world,

Be known in me, be known in us.

Copyright © 2008 Rory Cooney.
 All rights reserved.