Trinity Sunday 2019
Well, we’ve arrived – we have reached the destination of Trinity Sunday! As summer approaches – so we’re told! - we arrive at the theological and liturgical summit of Trinity Sunday, from which we look back at the receding Easter season, which has culminated with Ascensiontide and Pentecost, but we also see ahead.
The grass may not be greener on the other side of Trinity Sunday, but the altar certainly will be! The Prayer Book referred to the post-Trinity Season in terms of ‘Sundays after Trinity’, but the compilers of the ASB in 1980 played it down and confused us all with ‘weeks after Pentecost’, but now, with Common Worship, the Sundays ‘of Trinity’ have returned to escort us all the way to Bible Sunday and the run-up to Advent (the Kingdom Season). What this all amounts to is a neglect of the doctrine of the Trinity itself, such that it is relegated to a singular Sunday, almost as if God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, are treated as saints whose shared day it is. We know that every Sunday is Trinity Sunday really, but such a designation in the Calendar encourages us to only think about it that day - today. And it also means Trinity hymns tend to get only one outing a year.
Trinity Sunday is a day that most preachers dread, but to which any hymn lover must look forward. I certainly do - it’s a chance to sing Holy! Holy! Holy!, and of course that marathon Irish megalith – St Patrick’s Breastplate, in which we bind unto ourselves the strong name of the Trinity. Having something novel, inspiring or even comprehensible to say about the divine Trinitarian mystery is a challenge indeed, whereas singing these glorious hymns helps us reflect together in a different but equally beautiful kind of way. For there are several Trinitarian hymns, of course, wonderful expositions in disguise, such as the two great seafaring hymns, Eternal Father and Lead us Heavenly Father, both of which are as much about the Trinity as they are about those in peril on the sea. Both can suffer a similar ‘once-a-year’ fate too – but we shall sing ‘Eternal Father’ because while everyone thinks it is a seafaring hymn, it also happens to be a great hymn about the Trinity – notice that the first three verses are about Father, Son and Holy Spirit, separately, and then the last verse begins, ‘O Trinity of love and power’.
And of course, if there is a Trinitarian hymn to triple-trump all others, it is ‘Holy! Holy! Holy!’, complete with exclamation marks, with which we began today. Trinity Sunday isn’t Trinity Sunday without it, and one might be tempted to report any vicar who omits it today to the Bishop!
For it was a Bishop who penned its mighty text. Reginald Heber became Bishop of Calcutta in 1823, having been the much-loved Rector of Hodnet in Shropshire since 1807. He only served as Bishop for three years, dying suddenly on April 3rd 1826 while taking a cold bath after having taken a service at which he confirmed 42 people.
But whether we are singing ‘Holy’ three times, or binding ourselves with the strong name of the Trinity, it is the love and power that we surely focus on, on this most theological of days. In the fourth century St Athanasius famously described the Trinity as the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible, which not surprisingly makes for a pretty incomprehensible idea of the Holy Trinity, by which we say that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one, and three, and one. Many hymns divide them up by having a verse to each – such as Eternal Father, strong to save – and this attempt to unravel incomprehensibility is human indeed. I don’t know about you, but being a bloke I can only do one thing at a time – I can only think about one thing at a time, and I can only say one thing at a time and I can only sing about one thing at a time.
So there is an obvious problem, we are not built to understand how something might be three things at once. Many people do the ice – water – steam thing – they are all H2O, the same thing therefore, but distinguishable, separable. But it’s not a perfect analogy. If you read my Lent Book this year – which of course, you all did… you won’t need reminding of my little idea that the Trinity is like a three-note chord. A C major chord has C, E and G – which can be broken out as an arpeggio or played simultaneously. The sum of the chord is greater than its parts perhaps – but this is not a perfect analogy either. But it does give me an opportunity to plug the ‘notes for notes’ scheme whereby you can buy a note on the almost restored organ, or, and here’s the theological bit, you can buy a three note chord, in which case you get a little discount, because you actually get four notes, and it only costs £100….
Perhaps Jonathan can demonstrate:
A chord is made up of three notes: C E G – which can be played together – or spread out. Add the higher C on top and you have a full chord. That’s where the discount comes in. But the notes can be played individually, or together. Three or One – Three and One – Three in One. And some recent scientific enquiry has suggested that a normal person can distinguish one note played on its own. Or two notes, and even three, but above three, people start to make mistakes. It is as though there is some kind of inbuilt limitation in the human ability to hear music, that three parts – a trio – is the ideal. More musical parts than that, and people start to make mistakes.
And the Trinity is a kind of trio. Not just a triad – three notes – but three lines of music – three melodies – a three part invention as Bach might have called it. Three musical tunes that work together and work separately.
The great Bach wrote a lot of music which was contrapuntal – counterpoint – lots of melodic lines weaving in amongst each other, harmonising at almost every point, but independent. Which is all to say before anyone glazes over as I wax lyrical about three and four part harmony, that there is something fundamentally trinitarian about music, or perhaps something inherently musical about the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Musicians have no problem with the idea that something can be something singular and something multiple at the same time. Three in one and one in three.
Perhaps we are built to understand how something can be one in three after all. Psychologically the idea of three melodies at once is satisfying and comprehendible. And western music is built upon the harmonic basis of three note triads. Perhaps it’s just a huge coincidence… or perhaps not. There is something fundamentally human, something fundamentally divine – something fundamentally musical about three-in-one.
Enough music – I really have been ‘preaching to the choir’, as they say! How many primary colours are there? Red, blue, yellow. When it comes to light, the three primary colours are red, green and blue – RGB – which is what you find making up everything in your TV set. But whether it is light or canvas, all you need is three colours. As the philosophers say, three primary colours is necessary, and sufficient. Two is not enough – three are necessary. And three is enough – sufficient to make every other colour.
Linguistics – how many tenses are there? - past, present, future. Our existence is fundamentally threefold. Three is enough, but we do need those three.
And this is perhaps where the idea of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit is both sufficient and necessary. If you take one away, and just have two of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, there is very much impoverishment - something lacking in our understanding of God. Some people like to think of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Well, take one away and try to get by with only two of those, and our understanding of God, who made the universe, as it says in our Old Testament reading from Proverbs; or the one who in Christ who redeemed the word, died and rose again for us; or indeed the Holy Spirit who calls us into church and unites us in faith: remove either of these and faith falls flat on its two-sided face, or two-faced side – I’m not sure which it would be!
We need the Trinity – we need to be created, redeemed and sustained, and we need it to shape a fundamentally human understanding of something that is divine and fundamentally incomprehensible. We may smile about the difficulty of understanding or explaining the Trinity, and reminisce about a series of heresies that beset the early church, and even joke about it being the day when curates get asked to preach – but actually it’s OK not to understand it, and it’s OK to try to understand once a year. ‘Between the motion and the act, falls the shadow’, as T. S Eliot put it – there is always something that we cannot grasp, but – going through the motions of exploring the doctrine of the Trinity is worthwhile and represents a serious attempt to take our faith seriously. And I don’t know about you, but if someone like me, or you, or even Einstein, or the greatest thinkers of history were able to nail this, that would be quite disappointing. Not only would we lose the mystery of faith, but some mere human being would have successfully put our God in a box and tied a red ribbon around it to present to a sceptical world. I want a God who is bigger than that. So I’m so glad I’ve got one.
To whom be all authority, might, mystery and grace, now and forever. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 16/06/19