The Beautiful Aroma of the Trinity

Sermon for Sunday, May 31, 2015
Trinity Sunday

Galeries Lafayette, Paris

This morning’s sermon may at times seem like it’s about the Nicene Creed, but it’s really about the Trinity; and more specifically, the role the Trinity can play in our lives, if we let it.  In just a moment we’ll get to the Creed and the Trinity, but first I’d like to begin with perfume.

Several years ago when Ashley and I were in Paris to celebrate our tenth anniversary, we stopped at the Galeries Lafayette department store.  To call the Galeries Lafayette a “department store” is really not fair, because it’s more than a department store.  Its Belle Epoque (1893) architecture is stunning, and it’s considered a Paris heritage site.  From its over-the-top façade to its multi-colored glass dome to its Art Nouveau staircase, the Galeries Lafayette is an amazing building, itself worth a trip to the 9th arrondissement.  It has a superb shoe department, women’s handbags to die for, a really – REALLY – good food court, and the perfume selection…. OMG.  Neither of us is into perfumes, but we went from one astonishing fragrance to the next, smelling brands and formulas I had never heard of but whose scents hinted of romance and exotic places.  This one was definitely a citrus-y fragrance; that one an herbally-lavender.    This one must have had some sandalwood in it; that one, cinnamon and maybe nutmeg.  I had never paid much attention to perfume, but that afternoon of smelling was an astonishing, overwhelmingly beautiful experience.

Icon of Fathers of Nicene Creed

I have a hunch that we tend not to think of the Nicene Creed as beautiful.  The Creed has no meter or rhyme.  It has no hummable tune.   There are no movements or gestures that accompany it, and no color.  I doubt that few of us – if any – would point to the Creed as the high point of the liturgy.  Indeed, I suspect that for many of us the Creed is a word-y formality, a document of doctrine and orthodoxy, recited even though we’re not sure we believe everything in it

Maybe if we understood more about the Creed we might find it beautiful…  Maybe if we knew, for example, that the Nicene Creed was written by a council and is a product of multiple controversies in the 3rd and 4th centuries ; or maybe if we knew  something about the so-called “Trinitarian controversy,” which wondered just how exactly three persons are one, and one is three.  Or maybe if we knew Greek words like “ousia,” which means “substance,” and “hypostasis,” which means “person,” and maybe if we knew that in 325 the council of Nicaea declared that the Trinity was three hypostasis in one ousia.  Maybe if we knew all this, maybe then we might find the Creed beautiful.

Or not.  Given it’s length, it’s conciliar, legalistic tone, and the substantial layers of theology that undergird it, I’m concerned that the Creed risks leaving us with an impression of the Trinity as something intellectual and difficult and “orthodox” – and certainly not as persons with whom we can relate.

Icon of Holy Trinity

The Trinity may be orthodox, and trying to understand it may seem difficult, but the Trinity is also more than difficult and orthodox.  If we look beyond the controversies, the doctrine, and the “orthodoxy” of the Trinity, I suspect we might see the Trinity as beautiful.

Some of the great saints of the Church saw the Trinity as beautiful.  Writing in the 12th century, Hildegaard of Bingen describes the Trinity as light and color:

Then I saw a bright light, and in this light the figure of a man the color of a sapphire, which was all blazing with a gentle glowing fire.  And that bright light bathed the whole of the glowing fire, and the glowing fire bathed the bright light; and the bright light and the glowing fire poured over the whole human figure, so that the three were one light in one power of potential.

Or consider Catherine of Siena, writing in the 14th century, who spoke of the Trinity as love:

You said, “Let us make humankind in our image…”  And this you did, eternal Trinity, willing that we should share all that you are…  Why did you so dignify us?  With unimaginable love you looked upon your creatures… and you fell in love with us.  So it was love that made you create us and give us being, just so that we might taste your supreme eternal good.

Or consider how Bernard of Clairvaux, also writing in the 12th century, preached about the Trinity using the passage from the Song of Songs, “Let him kiss me with the kiss of his lips”(!):

If, as is properly understood, the Father is he who kisses, the Son he who is kissed, then it cannot be wrong to see in the kiss the Holy Spirit, for he is the imperturbable peace of the Father and the Son, their unshakable bond, their undivided love, their indivisible unity.

If these great saints of the Church could understand the Trinity as color and love and kissing(!), it seems to me that we can give ourselves permission to think of the Trinity, not in terms of doctrine or orthodoxy – things that can leave us feeling cold and distant – but as someone who wants to draw near to us, to dwell with us, to relate with us, and who loves us.  Maybe the Trinity is quite beautiful.  Maybe – if we give ourselves permission – we would be very much attracted to it.   Maybe if we let it, the Trinity would be for us what the perfume department at the Galeries Lafayette was to Ashley and me that afternoon several years ago in Paris:  an astonishing, overwhelmingly beautiful experience.

I’m going to close with both a quote from the Apostle Paul and also from a little-known Carmelite saint, Elizabeth of the Trinity.  First, the passage from Paul (found in 2 Corinthians):

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved… a fragrance from life to life.

The source of this aroma is the Trinity.   In 1906, in the last weeks of her life young life (she was only 26), Elizabeth of the Trinity wrote a short retreat based on the “High Priestly Prayer” in John, chapter 17.   Elizabeth writes:

[Jesus’] ultimate prayer before returning to the Father [is to] desire that, where He is, we also may be; not only in eternity, but now in this time, for our eternity has already begun … the Trinity is where we are to abide, to make our abode, our ‘home’, the Father’s House from which we must never depart.

I wonder if we might be drawn to make our home in the Trinity?  And to let the Trinity make its home in us?  For as we abide in the Trinity and the Trinity in us, then an astonishing, overwhelming beauty – perhaps best described as a fragrance – will dwell right within us.  And through us God can spread “the fragrance that comes from knowing him… the aroma of Christ to God… a fragrance from life to life.”

I wonder, wouldn’t you like to be such perfume?


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