Three Persons in One: The God of Relationship
Social scientists these days are pointing out the increase of spirituality in the contemporary world, a spirituality that is not only distinct but often separate from institutional religion. According to one author, spirituality refers to individual and personal experiences that are related to “a search for meaning, for unity, for connectedness, for transcendence, and for the highest of human potential.” This spirituality may or may not include belief in a personal God. Some of the people, who follow this path of spirituality-outside-religion, consider ‘god’ in terms of an energy or a universal soul. What could be lacking in such a position is the belief in God who is a person!
The feast of today, once again reminds us that the God we believe in as Christians is a person. And therefore we are even able to refer to Him, as ‘He’. Going beyond the Trinity as a mere article of faith, what does this belief imply for our lives lived in the light of faith? We will focus just on two aspects of the implications of this belief: (a) God wants to relate, (b) because God is relationship.
God, the Person who wants to relate
One weakness of the belief in a god who is conceived in terms of energy or as an abstract being is that it (that god) may not be a personal God with whom we can build a relationship. This could be the god of the philosophers and scientists. The God of Christians, on the other hand, is a God with whom we can build a relationship.
One of the major themes in the Hebrew Scriptures is the covenant. God takes initiative to walk among humans, even when they tend to reject Him (Gen 3). He constantly seeks them out, renews His covenant with them – with us, sets up systems to remind us of that covenant: the Law, the Scriptures, the community, the leaders.
Right at the beginning of the Book of Genesis, the Lord God makes a covenant with Noah:
“I am now establishing my covenant with you and with your descendants to come, and with every living creature that was with you…; everything that came out of the ark, every living thing on earth. And I shall maintain my covenant with you…” (Gen 9:9-11). The rainbow becomes the symbol of this all-pervading relationship.
With Abraham this covenant is taken one step further. The symbol of the covenant will be part of the body of man himself – in circumcision (Gen 17:1-13). The Lord God declares: “My covenant must be marked in your flesh as a covenant in perpetuity” (verse 13). Recently, students of theology visited the synagogue in town. And one of them was recounting to me their interaction with the Chief Rabbi during that visit. The students were discussing with the Rabbi about the meaning of circumcision. The Rabbi seems to have said that the symbol of the covenant in your flesh is something persistently with you; you cannot simply forget the mark in a sensitive part of the body; it constantly reminds you of the covenant.
The act of creation and the establishment of the covenant are the beginnings of the revelation of the Triune God. However, some time in human history, God shares in the human form and existence. This marks the beginning of the revelation of the second person of the Trinity: He was made visible in Jesus of Nazareth. Again, Jesus’ mission, in his own words, was “to seek out and save what was lost” (Lk 19:10). In other words, he came to re-establish the covenantal relationship. Moreover, Jesus would refer to God as his Father, and would teach us to address the Creator-God as “Our Father” (Mt 6:9). Thus the relationship between human beings and God becomes even more intimate. This is not all. Jesus would also introduce us more tangibly to the third person of the Trinity. He would leave the Spirit as his parting gift – the Spirit of the Risen Christ who proceeds from the relationship that exists between the Father and the Son. The Spirit would strengthen us, enlighten our minds and hearts, and draw us into union with God, the Trinity.
In short, to me, our belief in the Trinity reminds us that our God is capable of intimacy and invites us into that intimacy. This is even deeper when we see the Trinity as three persons who are mutually in love.
God, the Three who are intimate with each other
The mutual intimacy between the three persons of the Trinity is best captured in the classical icon by Andrei Rublev (c.1360-1430). And I wish to center the second part of the reflection around this icon. The original title for the icon is, “Three angels at Mamre.” Early Christian writers saw the story of Abraham welcoming the three angels under the tree at Mamre (Gen 18:1-15) as the precursor to the revelation of the Trinity. It is interesting to note that though the story begins with the mention of three men, actually Abraham speaks to ‘them’ as if to the Lord God – Yahweh; and in the course of the story the number also changes from the plural to the singular. In any case, the reference of the icon to the story of Abraham welcoming Yahweh, reminds us that our belief in the Trinity is about hospitality which calls for faith and personal sacrifice.
The second aspect to focus on in the icon is that the three figures are enclosed within a perfect circle, the center of the circle falls where the two fingers of the central figure lay on the table. Representation of the Trinity in a circle, rather than as a triangle or the leaf of the shamrock, is very interesting. The unbroken band of a ring, without beginning or end, is the perfect symbol of the love that exists between the persons of the Trinity. In a sense, we ourselves cannot grasp the mystery of the Trinity without entering into that circle of love.
Among the three figures, our attention first falls on the figure on the right of the icon – the Holy Spirit – dressed in blue and green: the symbols of water and vegetation – the symbols of life. The inclining posture of the Holy Spirit moves our attention to the two others in the icon. That is the action of the Spirit: He directs us and draws us to the Father and the Son in a dynamic yet graceful movement.
The second figure, seated in the middle, dominates the center of the icon. His voluminous robes – covered in royal blue – gives Him an irresistible prominence among the figures. The second person of the Trinity has His two fingers at the center of the circle suggesting the two natures of Christ, the divine and the human. Yes, without incarnation there would be no human knowledge of the Trinity. The two fingers might also suggest the two roles of the Messiah: the priest and the king. Yet, despite his majestic posture the glance of the Son are so tenderly and intimately focused on the Father. Christ the king is our mediator and the way to the Father.
The Father is seated in a receptive, welcoming posture, as if accepting the attention of the other two persons. However, the father is not cast in the role of an authoritative figure but as an anxious Dad who waits and longs for our home coming. One cannot avoid being reminded of the father in the story of the lost son (Lk 15:20).
At the foreground of the picture, there is an empty stool. A space that is crying out to be filled. Now if you had a second look at the three persons, you might notice that somehow the three persons are also expectantly looking at that empty space. The more one sits meditatively before the icon the more one feels attracted to occupy that empty place at table and be part of the communion of and with God. This then is the depth of the mystery that we contemplate today: God, who is a communion of three persons, invites me to be part of that communion. Am I ready to take that seat?
Fr. Franco Pereira, S.D.B.