Updated: Jul 31, 2021
In the name of the triune God: our Mother, our Brother, and our Friend.
Today, we observe the first Sunday after Pentecost, commonly called Trinity Sunday… Or, as we call it in priest school, “Stick it to the seminarian Sunday”! Because, without a doubt, every congregation that has a seminarian (or a freshly-graduated curate) gets to hear them preach on the Trinity today, while the rector sits comfortably in their seat with a snide grin on their face… I take great solace in knowing I am not alone with this hopeless, disconsolate task.
Trinity Sunday is a little bit of a loner on our lectionary calendar. It’s the one Sunday that commemorates a doctrine of the Church. This morning, our readings don’t necessarily focus on those typical stories of Jesus’s ministry: performing miracles, healing the sick, or teaching in the temple. Instead, we celebrate (?!) the doctrine of the Trinity. And this is a difficult thing to do. Perhaps you noticed that, in today’s readings, none of them explicitly mention the Trinity… They separately mention the Creator, the Son, and the Spirit—but none of them together… No trinitarian language can be found!
There are a few places across Christian scripture that point to that trinitarian formula, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” but none of them explicitly explain how we ought to understand the Trinity, or why it matters… As Christian doctrine took its shape in the early church, the idea of the Trinity was argued for (or against) by theologians and scholars for several centuries. Council after council met to authorize what this doctrine should be and to determine just what it means for the Church. I suppose it is probably safe to assume that nearly every theologian, at some point, has tried to fashion a metaphor for the Trinity, and yet we still can’t quite pin it down. Of course, the Trinity remains a central belief in Christianity today. We affirm the doctrine every time we recite the Creed, in every baptism, and at so many other points in our common Christian life. Though I’m sure very few of us could write a theological treatise on the Trinity, we still uphold this ancient doctrine without really understanding it …
So, what’s the point of Trinity Sunday? The beauty of the doctrine of the Trinity is that it is a reminder of how incomprehensible God is to our human understanding… how we can’t really capture God within our limited imagination and reason. In part, I suppose that Trinity Sunday is a chance for us to take three giant steps backward to accept, if only for a moment, that we don’t actually know as much about God as we might like to think we do. Personally, I think that there is so much more that we don’t know about God than what we can say we do.
Everything that we can claim to understand about God comes directly from God revealing Godself to us. Think about Moses and the burning bush, or Elijah and the still small voice. Or throughout the psalms, where the psalmist describes the powerful Creator who shaped the world we live in, who created the birds and beasts of the sea, who ordered the universe and the stars in their orbit. We see evidence of God the Mother in everything around us—in the complexity of molecular physics and in the beautiful diversity of humanity, all which shows us different glimpses of God’s face, of the image of God that is stamped upon each of us.
And we also encounter God in the person of Jesus—God who became human; Emmanuel, God-with-us. The Creator gave up a part of Godself to be human and understand us better—to live and die as one of us—and also to give to us eternal life. Today’s Gospel passage gives us what’s probably one of the most-memorized verses in Christian scripture: “For God so loved the world…” but it’s followed by another verse which, to me, feels more important: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” The Son did not become incarnate to punish humankind, but instead to save—to bring redemption to the sinner, to liberate the captive, to proclaim his love for all that the Creator has made… so that the triune God might love us better.
And, of course, we encounter God through the Holy Spirit. Throughout our life, the Spirit walks alongside us to remind us of the love that God has shown us through the Incarnation. If we know God through Jesus as Emmanuel, as God-with-us, perhaps we know God through the Spirit as God-near-us or God-within-us. The Spirit helps provide God’s continuous revelation of Godself to us. Like the wind, the Spirit is elusive—coming and going where and when she pleases, somewhat just far enough beyond our perception to not be able to comprehend her, yet we believe she’s there—that still small voice of calm.
The Spirit that swept over the waters at the creation of the heavens and the earth is the same Spirit that is present in the waters of baptism. At the same time, she is both the tranquil sea and the raging hurricane… the quiet wind and the tornado. The Spirit is ever-present—within us and around us, both internal and external. The Spirit is that gentle nudge that turns us to God and strengthens us to say, “Here I am, send me!” like the prophet Isaiah, but she is also the abrupt slap across the face that we sometimes need.
The metaphor that we often encounter for the Spirit is the dove—the dove that came down from heaven at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. The dove is a symbol for gentleness, beauty, peace, and hope. Some cultures view the dove as good luck or as a reminder of a loved one who has died. These are all really lovely ways to view the Spirit!
However, there’s a metaphor for the Spirit that I like a heck-of-a-lot-better than the dove… Celtic Christians viewed the Spirit not as a dove, but as a wild goose. While still elegant, the goose isn’t some demure and vulnerable little white bird that’s gonna get plucked up by a hawk at any moment… This idea of the Spirit makes me think of a mother goose, her wings set broad and her neck curled into an ‘S’ as she hisses and screams at you, telling you to get away from her precious, fuzzy goslings! She’s fierce and protective. She’s loud and straightforward—surprising and sometimes aggressive. The goose is unexpected and unpredictable. Disruptive.
If God is truly incomprehensible to our tiny human brains, perhaps the Spirit can be both dove and goose, as Jesus Christ can be both fully divine and fully human. The simple idea of a Holy Trinity, a three-in-one and one-in-three God, itself is a paradox. It is, in my estimation, too obscure, too convoluted, too unfathomable for us to be able to pin down… And that’s okay.
Because God continues to reveal Godself to us in so many ways, we can never fully know God. Trying to do so sounds a little bit like a wild goose chase… except… this time, we’re not chasing the goose… the Goose is chasing us.