Sunday, June 15, 2014

Reading the Rublev

Thinking about the Trinity, sermon preparation for Choral Evensong on Trinity Sunday...

It is so familiar and it is so loved.  Rublev's icon of the Trinity is a representation of a subject treated by many painters of icons, 'The Hospitality of Abraham'.  The subject is based upon Genesis 18 where three angels visit Abraham by the oaks of Mamre.  This icon evolved as Christians came to see in this visitation a foreshadowing of the Trinity:  three angelic persons speaking and acting as one; three 'hypostases' but one substance.

Rublev's icon only gestures toward the background narrative: he leaves Abraham and Sarah out and we glimpse only a hint of a dwelling and a single tree.  All the focus is upon the three figures and we are invited to 'read' them.  

The convention is that we read the icon from left to right but the central figure is dressed in bolder colours and reveals an under-tunic with a stripe - which is how Christ is most frequently represented in Eastern Christian art.  The emphasis in the icon seems to be the direction of our attention toward Jesus Christ, the incarnate son; the implication that the Son is pivotal to our understanding of the Trinity.  While his hand hovers over the chalice on the table, the inclination of his head and the direction of his eyes turn us toward the figure on our left and it seems that there is a natural tendency to then circle toward the figure on the right whose posture again directs our attention back to the figure on the left.

The movement in the icon, if icons can be said to move, is circular: each figure directs us to the other.  Our eyes have no place to rest.  No one figure can be engaged with. There is no full face contact with any one figure; each figure leads us to the other.  Inevitably this calls to mind John's gospel – with Jesus always moving toward the Father and the great work of love endlessly circling from one to the other: Father, Son, and Spirit.  This images the doctrine of the Trinity superbly.

But there is more – there is a place for us!  I realize that this image of the Trinity has a vacant space at the table, the empty space from where I am watching; this is the space inviting me to participate in the circle; drawing me to live within this divine life.  This icon does not just show me a truth about the doctrine of the Trinity – it invites me to live that truth.

Preaching on Trinity Sunday

This is definitely NOT my favourite Sunday for preaching but ...

Trinity Sunday 2014

‘I don’t believe in God.’

That’s a fairly common thing for me to hear from all sorts of people I have the privilege of meeting. 

There are any number of responses I might make when someone says that to me but, assuming time and place are right, one I might make to it goes something like this: ‘Tell me about the God you don’t believe in; the odds are that I don’t believe either.’

Well, it’s a way of developing what might be a great conversation but not everyone is very clear about the kind of God they don’t believe in - sometimes they haven’t thought  about God all that much and their ‘unbelief’ is more a flag of indifference or laziness than conviction.  

For many however the problem is the image they associate with God.  Their latent image of God seems to approximate the comic-strip divinity that cartoonists have devised for us – an old man in the clouds! That seems to be the central image, starting point or icon for many so-called unbelievers’ mind-map of God – they start from an image of a God that we don’t believe in either.  (You only have to Google ‘God cartoons’ and you’ll see what I mean.)

But where did that comic-strip caricature come from?  The concept has a great ancestry. For instance, Michelangelo’s panel of the Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel where God is imaged as an elderly white-bearded man wrapped in a swirling cloak!  We understand that Michelangelo was not saying that God is like that but every ‘image’ of God carries the potential to limit or slant the way we think about God.

With that in mind one can see the wisdom in the common tradition of the Abrahamic faiths, especially Judaism and Islam, where there is an absolute prohibition against visual images of God.  The early church shared the Jewish inhibitions of its roots and images were slow to emerge. (The unease about images of God has surfaced from time to time: one thinks of the attacks on holy images in the Eastern Church by successive Emperors in the 8th Century, and in the Western Church the ruthless iconoclasm of some Protestant reformers and Cromwell’s Roundheads.)

Yet Christianity is full of images!  Think of the icons of the Coptic and Orthodox churches in the East and West; our crosses and crucifixes; and the whole story of Western art – it is saturated with images of the Christian story. The Christian argument for all such art builds upon the theology of the incarnation and argues that such imagery stirs the imagination and the mind and so stimulates faith.  I think that is absolutely true. 

But all the language we have for God, every image that religious art may offer, is constrained by the theological ‘grammar’ that the doctrine of the Trinity imposes.  In the seminaries the Trinity is always a difficult and unsettling doctrine: the reformer Martin Luther said ‘to try to comprehend the Trinity endangers your sanity.’ Yet that difficulty is also our gain. The Trinity defies our mental images, eludes our mind-maps and constructs: it forces us beyond facile images and concepts of God. 

All theological and liturgical styles, however they may be slanted, can be disciplined by the doctrine of the Trinity: one reason why it is so important that our collects typically conclude with the prayer being offered to the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. 

The consistent and rigorous awareness of God as Trinity in our liturgy and in our prayers checks us not just theologically but also trains us spiritually.  The Trinity shapes how we pray: – we become more relational in our style and see the world differently, as the theologian Thomas Barry (1914-2009) reminds us‘The universe is not a collection of objects, but a communion of subjects.’)  

My hunch is that trinitarian thinking trains us to think of God in more open, fluid and dynamic ways, more open to making connections with the activity of God in the arts, the creation, and such speculations of theoretical physics as hyperspace, string theory, multiple dimensions, multi-universes.

Tell me about this God you don't believe in. ...

Pentecost Sunday

There are times in the Church’s year where the subjects we are invited to consider seem so daunting that a preacher wishes he had artfully scheduled his annual leave to coincide with that time!  That applies to these weeks where one Sunday after another, relentlessly, we are presented with Ascension, then Pentecost and then Trinity Sunday! A veritable procession of the enigmatic, the mysterious and the incomprehensible!

At theological college in the 1970s I was approached by students who assured me that they had been baptised in the Spirit and they spoke in tongues and invited me to receive the same gift.  I was willing to receive it but must have been intractable material – the tongues of Pentecost did not ‘take’ on me and, the gift of ‘tongues’ or glossolalia has never been my experience. 

Our story of Pentecost is mainly shaped by Luke in his Gospel and in Acts.  Luke gives us a sequential account of events in a sort of history – but one greatly simplified and shaped by symbolism.  That something happened, I don’t doubt; but exactly how and when I am not sure – but probably not in the first few weeks after the Resurrection.  What was it that happened?  Luke manages his account with some humour – to some the experience he recounts in Acts could have sounded like a drunken babble; sounding something like speech but yet not quite a known language.  (Linguists speaking of the glossolalia – as this is called – confirm its similarity to speech in sound but a speech that seems to be without meaning.)  For the moment, I am content to think of ‘speaking in tongues’ as a gift of ecstatic utterance, a flow of sounds in response to the sense of the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God.

In the Jewish world Pentecost was a Festival that (among other things) celebrated the coming of the divine Law on Sinai. Legend has it that on that occasion a flame came down from heaven and divided into 70 tongues of fire, one for each nation of the world. All could understand, but only Israel promised to keep the Law.

Such symbolism has shaped our story. Perhaps it also lies under the influence of the Tower of Babel story in which human ambition resulted in the collapse of the tower and the breakdown of communication: the legend serving to explain why people speak different languages and cannot understand one another (Gen 11:1-9). Certainly the imagery of wind reflects the word for Spirit, which in both Hebrew and Greek, means wind, breath and Spirit.

These rich embellishments may conceal a historical event. (It is entirely credible that Pentecost, the first great pilgrim festival after Jesus' execution at Passover and his disciples' acclamation of his resurrection would have been a special occasion for the fledgling Christian community. Perhaps there was some event amid the crowd. Perhaps there was some experience which some believers saw as an outpouring of the Spirit.) Luke is hardly likely to have dreamt the whole thing up!

But Luke’s story of Pentecost, his stylized history, has made us celebrate the Day of Pentecost as the day of the coming of the Spirit.  Treat this with caution! Compare Luke’s account with John's gospel where the Spirit is a gift of the risen Jesus on the day of resurrection when he appears after having risen and ascended to the Father! Everything is turned around compared to Luke's scheme. No other New Testament writer has Luke's timetable of events.

What I do not question, and never cease to wonder at, is that there was this moment, this experience (perhaps it included many moments and experiences) when the early Christians deeply and collectively really grasped the great reality of Christ risen from the dead and that God really was with them in a way they had never before quite understood - and this was an experience so liberating and so empowering that no language could quite explain it. Wind, fire, vision, dream, signs, portents, blood and fire, smoky mist, the moon turning to blood – the wild and troubling images of Peter’s words – all suggest a transformation in the church from confused uncertainty to radical hope and joyful proclamation. 

The truth is that what we celebrate at Pentecost is the supernatural creation of a new reality – the church.  The church may look to us like an ordinary human institution but its source is in that unlikely and unimaginable moment when the lives of those first disciples are changed. The moment when those frightened Galilean fishermen (our ancestors in faith) are transformed and become outspoken witnesses to Christ; the church is ‘born’.  This becomes the pattern that forms the story of the church as around the world and across the centuries, again and again, people and communities are liberated and empowered by the power of God in their lives; the love of God in their lives; making, breaking, re-making; dynamic, unpredictable; dark and glorious.  This dance of the Spirit is the very essence of the Church and we come to the Eucharist this morning not just to remember and give thanks but, most especially, to be open to the Spirit of God.

‘(Come) Holy Spirit, gentle as a dove, living, burning as fire, empower your (people)’.