A few years ago there was an election of a Bishop in South Africa which was considerably disputed. In the end a friend of ours, Sigqibo Dwane, was appointed. Those opposed to his election were so angry they turned up at his enthronement with axes. There was a fight and 11 people were taken to hospital. On hearing this our late brother Aelred said "Wonderful. Just like the early church!". He was thinking, of course, of the monks of Alexandria who rampaged round the city in support of Athanasius, beating up anyone who had wrong ideas about the Trinity. Or the people who did the same in Antioch and Constantinople, compelling the Emperor to call a church council to try and make peace.
Today we are somewhat baffled by this. Why did it matter so much whether one believed Jesus had one nature or two natures, whether the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were of the same substance or like substance, whether they were exactly equal or not quite equal. Surely God is God and Jesus is Jesus and the Holy Spirit gets on with the work of spreading the Gospel? Why do we need a doctrine of the Trinity which seems to be a kind of mathematical puzzle which only a few really clever doctrine teachers can understand?
Well, I'm not one of those doctrine teachers but I do think this doctrine of the Trinity is vital to our faith and this Sunday, when we celebrate it, is one of the most important of the year. Of course the doctrine doesn't set out to explain God. It sets out some parameters which we must keep in place when we think about God, otherwise we will get God wrong. The doctrine tells us God is God and is beyond human all understanding. That is very important. From time to time the newspapers tell us about priests who have announced they cannot believe any longer in the Trinity, or that Jesus is divine, or that there is a God, because they can't get their minds around this doctrine of the Trinity. Yet that is surely the point. If we could get our minds around God, it wouldn't be God. If we could fully understood the Trinity, it would only be a mathematical equation, not a profound mystery of Divine existence embracing all eternity, yet somehow engaging with us human beings today in this very real and time bound world.
And here I would make a suggestion: if you really want an experience of the doctrine of the Trinity, don't try and study a text book. Read aloud that wonderful Athanasian Creed, which the prayer book used to make us proclaim on Trinity Sunday (and I wish it still did!)
You will hear those marvellous assertions:
We worship one God in
Trinity and Trinity in Unity;
Neither confounding the Persons: nor dividing the substance.
The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate: and the Holy Ghost uncreate.
The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible: and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.
The Father eternal, the Son eternal: and the Holy Ghost eternal and yet they are not three eternals but one eternal.
As also there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated but one uncreated and one incomprehensible.
So it goes on with marvellous lines like:
God, of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds and Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born in the world
Christ is One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh but by the taking of the Manhood into God.
This of course is poetry and we need poetry to get a little way into the being of God.
That is why today we have dressed up a little more in the sanctuary and are doing the Mass a little bit differently. Wearing gaudy tunicles and dalmatics doesn't really say much about theology. It does say this is a special day and if we can't fully describe the nature of the Trinity we can at least celebrate with colour and movement, the glory which God has made known to us and which one day will be our home. Christmas, Easter and Pentecost each emphasise a different aspect, or person of the Trinity. Today we bring it all together in a glorious finale, a magnificent statement of the mystery which will keep us going through the months of Ordinary time.
However, this doctrine is not just a beautiful piece of theology or a wonderful mystery for us to adore. It has intensely practical consequences. It is a matter of relationship and relationship is fundamental to the human condition. Call it friendship, love affair, marriage or just working together. The place where the Holy Spirit works most constantly, if we let him, is in the relationships we have with the people around. Here in the monastery the most demanding part of our life is that of living together. If you read St Benedict's Rule you will see that most of it is about how the monks live together, how they relate to each other. That is the coal face of monastic life. Growing in love demands constant work and attention. It doesn't just happen. Those of you who are married will know that. Quite soon many of you will be going out into the parish ordained as Deacons. Parish life is about people and how they get on. Congregations, groups, church councils are the place where God is working out his purpose for us all. We live out the life of the Holy Trinity every moment of days. Or we don't and we shrivel and die.
Also, in your parish you will need to talk with people who are soon going to die - either through old age, or through some terminal illness. What will you tell them as they look towards that going out into the unknown, into the dark. You can tell them about the Holy Trinity, that the wonderful teacher called Jesus of Nazareth really is God and because of that he can rescue us from our human condition and take us into the life of God. You can tell them that all the friendships and love affairs they have ever known are but a preparation for the wonderful love affair we will find when we enter that mystery of God.
So today we don't simply leave the church with the music of the Trinity ringing in our ears. We leave with the words of the Gospel "All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said the Spirit will take what is mine and declare it to you". God is not simply a distant mystery to be contemplated, like the universe of stars in all its splendour. God is a real person or three real persons who invite us into their company, who share with us the very nature of their being, who give us gifts now and promise us future gifts, the like of which we have never dreamt.
Nicolas Stebbing CR