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Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Trinity: Euchatastrophe & Cognitive Resistor

Trinity Sunday Reflections 2015

Readings: Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17;

I want to offer you a new word this morning; not one that I have made up but one coined by J.R.R.Tolkein to describe what he realised as a distinctive feature of Fairy Stories – how they end in joy but only after a long (and transforming) way through tears, misadventure and sorrow.  The word he coined to describe this was ‘eucatastrophe’ – from the Greek prefix ‘eu’ meaning good and ‘catastrophe’ being disaster or destruction. 

"I coined the word 'eucatastrophe': the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth… And I concluded by saying that the Resurrection was the greatest 'eucatastrophe' possible in the greatest Fairy Story – and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love.” (Letter 89)

You could say that Trinity Sunday marks the ‘end’ (though it is never ‘The End’) of the great story of God’s redeeming work that we began to-retell on the First Sunday of Advent (way back in December 2014).  Sunday by Sunday and through the Seasons and Festivals of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost the story has unfolded, been rehearsed and reflected on until, on this Sunday, we may recall it no longer but must now live it.  The story has caught up with us and we must now continue the story into the future.

But why do I say all this on Trinity Sunday?  I think this is because on Trinity Sunday we mark the limits of revelation and reason as we have known or experienced them.  The great story of God’s work has been told and that, with the labours of the church and its theologians through the centuries, has brought us to this Sunday and this expression of the mystery of God, as known in the Holy, Blessed and Glorious Trinity.

It might have been thought that at the end of our liturgical journey, and remembering the roughly 2000 years of similar liturgical journeys that have preceded us, that we might come to this Sunday with a sense of enlightenment; a sense that we have grasped the mystery of God.  Trinity Sunday dispels any such notion.  The doctrine of the Trinity resists all our explanations, our models, our concepts about God: God remains ‘hidden’ in the bright cloud of the Trinity and no understanding we have of the world as we know it really assists us at all. 

By analogy, drawing from the world of electrical circuitry (where, I understand, a resistor may dissipate or terminate electric current flow) the doctrine of the Trinity does something similar to our thinking about God: it stops us!  So, for the moment consider the Trinity as a cognitive resistor!

Each reading this morning confronts us with traces of resistance.

·         The reading from Isaiah is unnervingly of a God who is utterly ‘other’ and beyond us and the visionary who glimpses the ‘Holy’ is filled with fear, awe and an overwhelming sense of his finitude – everything that sustains his sense of being implodes and it is as if he is nothing – and this ‘nothingness’ of being is expressed in that realisation of what he calls uncleanness or sinfulness.

·         In Paul’s Epistle to the Romans there is (as in much of Paul’s thinking) what amounts to a kind of dualism – here expressed in terms of flesh and Spirit.  Note that Paul presents these two terms, these two distinct ways of being, as being incompatible and mutually incomprehensible.  To live in the life of the Spirit is utterly different to the life of the Flesh – reality is understood quite differently.  So, when someone living, as Paul puts it, ‘in the flesh’ is confronted by something related to the Spirit, the result is sheer, blank incomprehension.


·        Now what about the Gospel for today and that extraordinary story of the night visit by the Pharisee Nicodemus to see Jesus?  Commentators have often tried to explain why Nicodemus visited by night but when you think about the constant play and tension between dark and light through the gospel it is not too hard to understand.  The symbolism John works with shows Nicodemus as being physically and intellectually ‘in the dark’ about Jesus and what God is doing.  

So, for instance the cognitive dead end about being ‘born from above’ or ‘born again’ in the old versions – and Nicodemus is a dead literalist and not at all attuned to the fact that in the person of Jesus all language shatters and all concepts crumble into dust.  Here is the one who cannot be defined by the language and the understanding of the world as Nicodemus (and we) know it.  As Jesus speaks of the movement of the Spirit we can feel Nicodemus gaping with incomprehension – and we hear it as he mouths “How can these things be?”

Against the mental chaos Nicodemus experiences Jesus gives form, expression and meaning to the heart and mind of God through one of the most quoted verses of scripture – I think it was the first text that I was set, when a child, to remember: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” These are words we carry in our hearts; words that resonate in our minds; words that carry no conceptual construct to account for God but that nonetheless offer a bare minimal compass through the darkness to guide us home.

So at the end of our readings this Sunday, we find no explanation or map to frame the Trinity or hold the mystery of God; at the end of the great tale that we have told and re-told from Advent to this Sunday, our minds remain as baffled as when we began.  Except for this: we have followed the story in uncertainty and hope, known moments of joy and of great darkness and now that the story seems not so much to have closed as to have caught up with us, we sense a new direction and a presence drawing us on into the future.


Trinity Sunday is our eucatastrophe: the story is not ended but its completion beckons and we are part of it.  As in the Rublev icon of The Trinity there is space for us to sit with them at table, so there is now space for us in the great story of God as it unfolds with us.

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