Monday 1 June 2015

Trinity Sunday Year B: Celebrating Mystery and Majesty and Mercy

In an interview, Paul describes the shack as "the place we build to hide all our crap." Who are we hiding from - God or self?

“Moses said to YHWH, “But, never in my life have I been a man of eloquence,

either before or since you have spoken to your servant.” Ex 4:10

Trinity Sunday Year B: Celebrating Mystery and Majesty and Mercy.

This weekend we honour and celebrate the triune nature of the one true God. It would be easy to get into all sorts of theological abstractions. All catholic and many mainline protestant churches will probably say or sing the 6th century Athanasian Creed. In praying the creed we as Christians affirm the unity and co-equality of the Godhead. We also deny both tritheism (that we worship three gods) and subordinationism (that the Son or the Spirit is subordinate to the Father). Although the Western Church affirms the Athanasian Creed, in the Eastern Orthodox church it has never had widespread use. This is strange, because Eastern "Cappadocian fathers" of the fourth-century: Basil the Great of Caesarea, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and their friend and bishop of Constantinople Gregory Nazianzus, contributed much to the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. When Eastern Orthodox believers celebrate the Trinity, they start in a different place. Western Christians tends to start from intellectual abstraction while the eastern approach emphasises adoration of the mystery. It has always been wary of the limitations of human mind and language, when approaching the reality of an infinite God. And it's a good place to start when we worship God.

Evagrius of Pontus (345–399), who spent the last sixteen years of his life among unlettered Coptic Christian peasants in the harsh Egyptian desert, once observed: "God cannot be grasped by the mind. If he could be grasped he would not be God." The Syrian monk and bishop John of Damascus (676–749) wrote in his 'Exposition of the Christian Faith' (I.4): "It is plain, then, that there is a God. But what he is in his essence and nature is absolutely incomprehensible and unknowable. God then is infinite and incomprehensible; and all that is comprehensible about him is his incomprehensibility." I just love this inscrutable eastern approach to the mystery of God.

The Old Testament reading (Deuteronomy 4:32-40) this week speaks of the transcendent God as creator and liberator. The psalmist (Psalm 32) speaks of the 'word' of the Lord which can be applied to Jesus the 'Word made flesh'. Paul in his letter to the Romans (8:14-17) teaches about the Holy Spirit's role of helping us to know our true selves in Christ by grace. Paul says, we should not relate to God from fear, but as a child who feels safe with their father: "Abba, Father" (see also Mark 14:36 & Galatians 4:6). The Aramaic word "Abba" used by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane could be translated as "Papa." a word that Jesus and children of his time first learned to speak for their father. This word is used only three times in the New Testament, and conveys a shocking sense of human intimacy with the divine infinite. In Matthew's gospel (28:16-20 which is used this weekend in Catholic churches) Jesus shares his authority with his disciples urging them to baptise in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit. The assurance that Jesus will always be with us is a comfort to us who now live the 'experience called Spirit' or the Church.
God's radical transcendence is only part of what we celebrate on Trinity Sunday. God is infinite, but in the Romans reading we are remind that God is also intimate and immanent. Many of us would have seen a reproduction of Rembrandt’s painting (pictured below) the "Prodigal Son" (1666) now housed in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia or have read Henry Nouwen's classic reflection of the painting titled 'The Return of The Prodigal Son' (19192). The painting is full of deep, dark reds and browns. In it, the stooping father embraces his kneeling son with compassion, with tenderness, and without any questions about his many failings. The painting illustrates Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Jesus says this is what God is LIKE (a welcoming father).
For me God is also like a nurturing mother. This feminine side of God is beautifully developed by the American writer Paul Young in his novel "The Shack" (2007). I read this book as we all do with the lens of my background and conditioning, and found it at first challenging. The book was rejected by 26 publishers, and so at first Young self-published it. It was vilified by many self-appointed and self-important theological gatekeepers from both protestant and catholic conservative backgrounds as 'new age' theological nonsense. Today there are over 10 million copies of "The Shack" in print which is a sure sign that the book speaks very powerfully to many readers. The "shack" is a metaphor for our place of shame (the icon of our deepest pain or the place of our deepest nightmares). In an interview, Paul describes the shack as "the place we build to hide all our crap." Who are we hiding from - God or self?

I don't want to spoil the novel, but it begins with a mysterious note (invitation) from God, who invites Mack, the main character, back to the shack he has in the wilderness. And so the shack becomes a place of healing, for our intimate and tender God always meets us in "the middle of our mess" or as scripture of put it - the desert or lonely place. "The Shack" is really a doctrine of the Triune-God in the form of a story (a safe way to do theological speculation). It is not the abstract dogmatic Athanasian-Nicean Creed. The author pictures the Trinitarian God who welcomes us back to the shack as: El-ousia, "a large beaming African-American woman" (Father), a Middle Eastern man dressed like a labourer (Jesus) and "small, distinctively Asian woman" named Sarayu who collects tears (the Spirit).
Mack the very emotionally wounded hero in the novel, discovers that God isn't like what he thought. God's not the product of his projections or the neat formulas of academic theology. God's perfectly good who seeks to heal and not humiliate, to free and not to limit us. Mack learns to trust the God not of his conditioning but the God of 'mystery and mercy' fully and to believe that God is near (See Psalm 139). That for me is the good news for this Trinity Sunday.

Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch the first among all orthodox bishops of the Easter Orthodox churches (he's like the pope of the east) and profound spiritual writer, captures both God's transcendence and immanence in his book 'Encountering the Mystery' (2008). He writes: "God as unknowable and yet as profoundly known; God as invisible and yet as personally accessible; God as distant and yet as intensely present. The infinite God thus becomes truly intimate in relating to the world” (p186). So as one in the world I see signs or footprints of the holy-other and the holy-close and I am grateful. So our liturgies begin with the signing of ourselves with the cross and naming the holy three. Now we are at the deep end of the pool of mystery straight away and we have to swim with the help of others past and present to the holy altar-table where we through the elements of the earth we consume God and are consumed by God. By continually developing the art of negotiating this mystery we can learn ways to sink, float, swim and so ready ourselves to be like Christ in desiring and saying "into your hands God, I commend my life".
All theologians and men and women of prayer would agree that our thoughts about God and our prayers to God live with limits. A poem by British Anglican apologist and theologian C. S. Lewis captures the practical implications of God's transcendence. It's called 'Footnote to All Prayers'.

He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow 
When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou, 
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart 
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art. 
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme 
Worshiping with frail images a folk-lore dream, 
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address 
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless 
Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert Our arrows, 
aimed unskilfully, beyond desert; 
And all men are idolaters, crying unheard 
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word. 
Take not, O Lord, our literal sense. 
Lord, in thy great Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.

As usual on the feast of the Trinity, I am tempted to try and say something really new and novel about the mystery in which "we live and move and have our being" but I am a person who recognises their limitations. So as I come before or stand or knee within the reality of that which is "mystery and majesty and mercy" - I stammer. Please forgive