Isaiah has a profound and overwhelming vision, the kind of experience you can’t share. He despairs of telling about it, knowing that language (especially descriptive language) breaks down in God’s presence. All that’s left is to sing with the angels, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” We’ll sing that too, in a bit – complete with words about the Trinity, the idea that God is three in one. The Trinity is a fascinating idea. It’s never strictly laid out in Scripture, but you can hear echoes of it all over, like echoes of the angels’ song that shook the Temple.
I want to explore that idea today – not so much to explain it as to ponder it – not so much because it makes sense, which it doesn’t exactly – but because it points to the mystery of God. I had the blessing of going to divinity school with a bunch of Unitarian Universalists, and I spent the three years fending off their more or less friendly attempts to convert the resident Calvinist. Well, I understood where they came from, and I tend toward Universalism too, but I’m somehow drawn back to the Christian Trinity, even if just because of my background. What it comes down to for me is Einstein’s idea that the goal of theory is that “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler” (this is a paraphrase). Human logic wants to boil God down to one thing, but I suspect that’s too simple. God is bigger than human logic. Among other things, the Trinity says that our logic breaks down when we go to talk about God.
So why three? Of course, it’s easy enough to read that in terms of the biblical narrative (the Old Testament God, the Gospels’ Jesus, and the Church’s Holy Spirit), but you could break that story down in other ways, as many do. I hear something deeper or more universal than than the biblical narrative as a particular religious text: something happens conceptually at the number three that doesn’t happen with one or two. You can see patterns, as when you do something on the count of three, or with the rule of three in comedy and rhetoric. You need three ideas to see just how they relate to each other. Physicists know that systems of three interacting objects – like planets in space – are chaotic; you can model a two-object system, but you can only estimate the dynamic of a group of three. Kids know this from sharing a candy bar: the “I cut, you choose” approach works great with two people, but there’s no practical way to divide fairly with three (or is there?). Three is an interesting and powerful number; it changes the dynamics of the situation.
Parents know that this is why marriage gets harder when kids arrive: there’s always someone else sharing your attention. “Two’s company, three’s a crowd,” as they say. I suspect that the difficulty of human sharing is one reason three-way sharing came to be God’s name. It’s real and the ideal, but it’s too hard for us to do alone. Of course, I also know how those interfering kids get there – from the love between two people, whether the mechanism is genetics, adoption, or something else. We know that love makes more of itself. And we know that’s not just true about kids. When we share ourselves at home, in the wider community, or wherever, love expands us beyond our simple way of being. The more deeply we love, the more complex love gets – that’s the creative power of love.
That’s why we name God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is never one of these without the others. We can’t reduce life to one entity by itself – anything worth God’s name is beyond human reductionism – but God is always one, simpler than our human ways of dividing. Where God the Almighty is at work, God the Christ is always with her. Where two are, there’s always a third: if there’s me and you, there’s also us. Where God the Parent embraces God the Child, the Spirit of Love is there. Where the Lover is with the Beloved, Love is there – and it’s St Augustine who gave us permission to hear the Trinity as Lover-Beloved-Love (maybe that would be useful for us as we seek ways around using exclusively masculine language for God).
We hear the angels’ voices shake the Temple. The Triune God is present. And the question comes: who will be our messenger? Encountering God always means being sent out in love. This is how God’s love plays out: the internal relationship expands to enfold others. The Love shared between the Lover and the Beloved ultimately reaches beyond them. Parents often find that their love for their children opens them to greater sympathy for other people’s children (see the story of Julia Ward Howe and Mother’s Day). Thomas Merton found that, too. As a Trappist monk, he entered a hermitage and was surprised to find that the whole world was there in God’s love for him. Whether we’re alone, together, or both, God’s love always opens us to share with others.
That’s how God’s love is: it’s beyond our understanding and always making more of itself, leading us deeper into life. God is not to be tied down but to be praised. So I’ll invite us to sing to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer; the Lover, Beloved, and Love; the Holy, Holy, and Holy. Let us worship by sharing all we are and all we have, to God’s glory.