When I took a short break from my English parish a few years ago, I travelled by bicycle in northern France. One day I went into a great cathedral famous for its architecture.
What caught my attention was the artwork behind the high altar. It was a huge sunburst, perhaps 2 or 3 metres high. At its centre was an intense white spot, with gold rays of light streaming out from it all around. It represented God. This is very unusual, because what you usually find over an altar is something to do with Jesus, like this wonderful painting we have of Jesus at the Last Supper. Christian churches usually have no artistic representation of the person of God the Father.
Here at St Mary Magdalene we have images of Jesus and his mother, and the ceramic icon representing Mary Magdalene. We also have one enormous representation of Jesus’ resurrection. This church, like many churches, faces east. As you sit in the pews, you are facing east towards the rising sun. This is on purpose. Jesus is the Son who has risen. He is described in the last book of the bible as the bright morning star rising in our hearts.
If it is usual for the Father to be under-represented in a Christian church, the same is true also for the Holy Spirit, as we saw last week. In the area where I was travelling in northern France, my guidebook said that there was a town with a chapel dedicated to the Holy Spirit. I got lost on my bike and found myself in that town, so I stopped to have a look. But I could not see any representation of the Holy Spirit in the chapel of the Holy Spirit! Over the main altar was a huge crucifix, and there was other artwork as well. But no Holy Spirit.
What is going on in our Christian art? It reflects very imperfectly the way we know and experience God as Trinity. We have a faith grounded in facts, in the life of one historic human being. He is so extraordinary that he consumes the fire and passion of just about all of our art, our architecture, and our hearts. To him we give all honour and glory. Without Jesus, we would never have known the amazing truth of a God of love. With Jesus, we are forgiven and redeemed, our past is behind, we are re-born as God’s children, and we are heirs with Jesus of the glory he has received from the Father.
What about the Father, whom Jesus spoke about constantly as his Father? Philip said to Jesus, ‘Lord show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.’ This should blow our minds away – to see Jesus is to have seen the Father, the holy, the eternal God.
And the Holy Spirit? Jesus says the Spirit is another advocate, another comforter, another Friend. In the stillness, in the singing, in the prayers, the Spirit is the voice of God within us, the breath that enlivens us, and gives us gifts for serving others and the building up of the church.
How can God be these 3 Persons and one God? It’s like asking, what goes on inside a black hole? We say we don’t understand the Trinity. Who could? Does a pot understand the potter? Can a fish explain the nature of water?
The Trinity is something we get drawn up into. The Trinity is the community in the heart of God. There is an invitation to us to be a part of that community of love.
I believe it is best depicted in the icon of the Trinity by Rublev, a 15th century Russian artist. There are three angels seated around a table, and a cup is on the table. Rublev meant it to be a picture of the 3 angels who visited Abraham and Sarah and told them they would have a child in their old age. But Rublev also intended much more than that.
The 3 angels look like each other, each sits on the same kind of throne, each carries the same kind of staff, because each is fully divine. They are in silent communion with each other. With your finger you can trace a circle around the outside of the 3 figures, showing their perfect communion with each other. Their unity is the unity Jesus prayed for us, that we might be one, just as he and the Father are one.
Each angel wears a blue garment, a symbol of the heavens and their divinity. Each one also wears something that gives us a clue to their individual uniqueness.
The angel on the right wears a green robe - the colour of new life in the spring when things grow. So this is the Holy Spirit, who brings new life to all of creation. Behind this angel, barely visible, is a mountain. The Christian journey has been described as climbing a mountain towards God with the help of the Spirit. Mountain tops can be thin places between heaven and earth where we feel close to God. Moses went up a mountain to receive the 10 commandments from God. Jesus was transfigured on a mountain.
The angel in the centre is Jesus. He is blessing the cup which is on the table, a sign of the eucharist. His brown robe symbolises his down-to-earth humanity, and his blue robe his divinity. The gold stripe on his robe represents his kingship. He sits in front of a just visible tree, which is both the tree of the cross and the tree of life in the new creation yet to come.
The angel on the left is the Father. Both the Spirit and the Son acknowledge the place of the Father by bowing towards him, yet their thrones are on the same level as the Father. They bow not out of fear but out of love for the Father.
The Father wears a shimmering gold robe, and has both hands on his staff, a symbol of his complete authority. Behind him is a house, the house of many rooms that awaits us as promised by Jesus.
In the centre of the circle of love within the Trinity there is a table or an altar. On the altar is a chalice containing the red blood of sacrifice. Under it is a box. In ancient and medieval churches relics of the martyrs would be placed in a box under the altar. We are being invited by the angel on the right, the Holy Spirit, to join the fellowship of the three, to take our place at the table and participate in the eucharist. We are also being invited to live our lives as witnesses of the resurrection, just as the martyrs did, being willing to give ourselves for others and for the faith. To emphasise this life of self-offering we are called to, the left and right figures actually form a huge chalice in outline.
The more we look at this holy image with the eyes of faith, the more we can see that it is painted not as a helpful explanation of the difficult doctrine of the Trinity, but as a holy place to enter and stay within. As we place ourselves in front of the icon in prayer, it is possible to experience a gentle invitation. It is an invitation to share in the intimate conversation that is taking place among the three divine angels. It is possible to join them at the table. We are lifted up and held secure, even in the middle of all the daily challenges that we all face. The fellowship of perfect love of the Holy Trinity surrounds us, and we begin to see that it surrounds the whole of our lives.