Encountering God’s Essence (and Energies)

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
May 27, 2018
Feast of the Holy Trinity—Year B

Isaiah 6:1–8
Psalm 29
Romans 8:12–17
John 3:1–17

Trinity circle croppedMy Friends:  We have come to that Sunday of the Great Church Year that nearly every clergy person dreads: Holy Trinity Sunday.  Having just celebrated the Feast of Pentecost at the end of the Great Fifty Days of Easter last week, with its celebration of God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to the nascent Church of Jesus Christ, we are now bidden by our liturgical calendar to contemplate and glorify that greatest of all mysteries—God’s self-revelation as a Trinity of Persons—before we cross the threshold into the season known as Ordinary Time.  This movement, of course, implies that we have already been immersed in the extraordinary since the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the Great Church Year.  And indeed we have, as we have celebrated every one of the great mysteries of our redemption and salvation with each passing feast day and each special season for the Spirit.  Some will say that with Trinity Sunday, our liturgical calendar has saved the best for last; others might claim that the Church has given us today the “mother of all the mysteries” of our Christian Faith.  I subscribe to both of these points-of-view.

Now, before I say anything about God as a unity of three distinct persons in one absolutely unique essence this morning, let me remind you of something I have mentioned in several other venues.  With very good reason, the contemplative order of Benedictine monks known as “Trappists” or the “Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance” was for many centuries forbidden by its Constitution to preach on this one Sunday of the year expressly because the Holy Trinity is regarded as such a profound mystery that no one can really say anything sensible about God’s inner life.  The only thing that we humans can know about God is what God has chosen to reveal to us through scripture, tradition, salvation history, and in the silence of a pure heart.  This means Torah for Jews and Jesus of Nazareth for us Christians, because Jews and Christians are the two lungs of the “body” of God in the world.  And while God may very well be revealing God’s self to other peoples through other of the world’s great religions, God has uniquely entered into a sacred covenant with Jews and Christians to be a sign of God’s presence in the world and partners with God in the world’s restoration and redemption in God’s ongoing work of Creation.  (There is enough love in God to choose a distinct people again and again.)  In the words of the Nunc dimitis drawn from Saint Luke’s gospel, Jesus Christ is “a light to enlighten the nations and the glory of your people Israel.”  As covenant “People of God,” Jews and Christians both have been elected and commissioned—each in its own way—to be the visible expression of God’s “light of the world” in time and history: Jews through peoplehood, Torah, and the Land of Israel; Christians through Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  I will leave it to the Jewish people to testify to their unique experience of the Holy One, blessed be he, through the three modalities of peoplehood, Torah, and the land.  And I will do my best today to stammer a few words about the Christian experience of God as “one in essence, but three in energies,” according to the formal definition of the Holy Trinity in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.  So, here goes!

It should be obvious by now that we are in very deep waters whenever we speak about the Holy Trinity.  And this gives you an inkling of just why Christians literally killed each other for nearly a millennium over their futile efforts to explicate this holy mystery.  It may be hard for us in the modern secular West to fathom it, but deadly riots broke out regularly during the fourth and fifth-centuries CE among Christian factions with competing views on the matter.  How times have changed—or have they?

Saint Augustine, who wrote voluminously on the Holy Trinity, tells us that we can only speak about God by analogy; that it is much easier to say what God is not than what God is; and that, in the end, it is more important to know that God is rather than what God is.  So, on the premise that “only fools rush in where the wise fear to tread,” I offer this morning just one of several distinct and traditional analogies, drawn from the Christian tradition, for entering into the mystery of the Holy Trinity in our spiritual journey.

St Patrick and clover - Kilbennan_St._Benin's_Church_Window_Detail_2010_09_16

St. Patrick with shamrock, Stained glass detail, St. Benin’s Church, Wicklow, Ireland

You are probably familiar with Saint Patrick of Ireland’s famous analogy for the Holy Trinity, which he apparently used to great effect in converting the Celtic tribes of the “Emerald Isle” to the Christian faith.  That, of course, was the three-leaf clover.  But several centuries before Saint Patrick, St. John Chrysostom of Antioch used a more homely analogy for God as a trinity of co-equal persons: the humble candle.  A candle is made of three distinct entities, each essential to its nature as a candle: wax, a wick, and a flame.  If you take away any one of these three integral features of a candle, you no longer have a real and purposeful candle.  A candle is only truly a candle when its flame is lit and its three distinct elements are united in expressing and fulfilling its whole meaning and purpose as a candle: the giving of heat and light.  And so it is with God, according to Chrysostom: one divine “essence,” in three distinct “energies,” without which God would not be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit united in will, purpose, and love in truth.

In his colloquy with Nicodemus in this morning’s Gospel, Jesus tells his fellow Pharisee teacher, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘you must be born anew.’  The “ruach” (in Hebrew) the pneuma” (in Greek) the “wind” or “spirit” (in English) blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit….  Truly, truly I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen….” And so it has always been for the Church of God as well.  The early Christian writers who first articulated the doctrine of the Holy Trinity stated—over the strenuous objections of, first, some Jews, and later some Muslims—both of whom claimed that Christians were not true monotheists—that their experience of God as “one in essence and three in energies” compelled them to testify to the mystery of God as a Holy Tri-unity.  This conviction emerged not only from their reading of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Testament, but, most importantly, from their life of prayer and worship.  When we pray to the Father through his son Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit, we Christians are addressing our prayer and worship to the Triune God, who is also the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: an absolutely unique, personal being, of singular will and purpose, united in love, and committed to Creation in time and human history.  We will never encounter God in the labyrinth of the rational mind alone; rather, like the holy prophet Isaiah in this morning’s reading from the Hebrew Bible, we encounter God in prayer and worship and only with a humility rooted in our human limitations and at the mind’s limits.  Saint Paul reminds us this morning in his letter to the Romans that “When we cry ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ,” and always with the caveat, “if we in fact suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”

Trinity-Church-0430

Photo Credit: Craig Orsini

My sisters and brothers in Christ, there is no reason to worry if you are unable to apprehend God with your rational mind alone.  God is no more to be found there than in the empty tomb of Jesus Christ.  It’s through a life of “suffering servanthood,” and through the prayer and worship found in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church, that we encounter God “in the face of Jesus Christ” through the power of the Holy Spirit given to us in Holy Baptism.  In the meanwhile, we have our poor words, clumsy analogies, and humble props—which must never be mistaken for the real thing—to lead us to the courts of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the throne of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, where we cry, along with the heavenly choir: “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh”; “Holy, Holy, Holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.”  AMEN.

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One thought on “Encountering God’s Essence (and Energies)

  1. I see that my son has followed the traditional practice of assigning preaching on Trinity Sunday to the associate.
    Masterfully done, James! Todd passed it on to a most capable associate.
    I invariably enjoy your homilies.

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