“I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; […] and one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’” [Isaiah 6:1-3]In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When I was ten years old, I remember taking confirmation classes with a small group of my peers. There were probably four or five of us, all boys (for it was an all-boys school), who would head over to our chaplain’s office each week. There, in typical English fashion, we were served tea, biscuits, and theological instruction—very much in that order. Our chaplain though was none other than Dr. Jeffrey John, now the dean of St. Alban’s Cathedral, who was, and still is, wonderfully skilled at communicating his extensive theological knowledge in a way that was accessible even to a group of preteen boys. (This was particularly important because several of us didn’t really have much interest in being at confirmation class at all…)
I received a wealth of new knowledge and understanding from those classes, as we learned about God, the Bible, the church, the sacraments, and so on. With one big exception: The doctrine of the Trinity—the divine relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s a hazy memory now, exactly thirty years later, but I recall the Trinity being presented with some kind of triangular diagram, accompanied by an equally cryptic explanation, neither of which I found particularly convincing.
Our Old Testament Lesson today, Isaiah’s vision of God, has been associated with the Trinity since the time of the early church. The seraphs, each with three pairs of wings, call out “Holy, holy, holy,” and the temple fills with smoke. One of the seraphs carries a message of redemption from the altar in the form of a coal, and Isaiah receives his commission from the Lord, responding “Here I am, send me.” And as if all that weren’t enough, we read in the Acts of the Apostles that St. Paul himself quoted the last line of our Lesson, saying: “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your ancestors through the prophet Isaiah,‘Go to this people and say, You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive.’” [Acts 28:25-26]
Isaiah’s incredibly rich imagery has also been a source of inspiration for many authors and composers over the years. Today’s processional hymn, a traditional Anglican favorite, was written in 1861 specifically for Trinity Sunday, and uses the call of the seraphs-- “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty”—as its first line. The tune is even named NICÆA after the council in the year 325 at which the doctrine of the Trinity was codified, and from which our Nicene Creed gets its name.
For some of you, especially if you’ve attended Catholic services in the past thirty years or so, hearing the Isaiah reading may have reminded you of a very different song: “Here I am, Lord, is it I, Lord?” Written in 1981 by Dan Schutte, a founding member of the Saint Louis Jesuits, this bases its text not only on this call of Isaiah but also on that of Samuel, who was interrupted by God from his sleep, hence the line in the chorus “I have heard you calling in the night.” (A line that, I hasten to add from personal experience, has a very different significance to parents of young children!)
Now clearly these two hymns (“Holy, holy, holy” and “Here I am, Lord”), while based on the same Isaiah text, are written by composers from different times and places, and indeed in very different musical styles—one in the Victorian choir and organ tradition, the other in the American folk mass genre. Yet I would argue that their most interesting distinction is not actually musical or historical, but theological. “Holy, holy, holy” presents the divine majesty in all its stately grandeur—while a hymn of praise to the Trinity, as I sing it I think of praising God the Father and Creator. By contrast, as I sing “Here I am, Lord”, even though its lyrics only obliquely reference Jesus, I sense the music drawing us into a closer personal connection with the divine, perhaps specifically with the incarnational work of God’s Son.
And, lest we forget the third person of the Trinity, those of us here last Sunday for Pentecost had the opportunity to sing “Every time I feel the Spirit” at the conclusion of the service—an African American spiritual whose joyous syncopations carry us into closer relationship with the work of the Holy Spirit; its text reflecting on that work historically at Mount Sinai and in an ongoing way through baptism.
I mention these three examples not only because as music director this is a rare and exciting opportunity for me to share an exegesis of hymns from the pulpit. But also because, thinking back thirty years ago to my confirmation class, I wonder if at age ten as I was then, or at age forty as I am now—or indeed at age seventy or eighty—the easiest way to understand the Trinity is through a diagram or indeed through a doctrine at all. Instead, I wonder if an easier way for many of us to comprehend, or indeed to relateto the Trinity isthrough art or music, through poetry or prayer. Or in fact through any of the many other vehicles that we believe God, through the Holy Spirit, enlivens each one of us individually and collectively within our church and our community.
Fred Pratt Green was a twentieth century British Methodist, who is perhaps best known in the Episcopal Church for his hymn “When in our music God is glorified.” Today’s Offertory Anthem sets a text that he wrote in 1971, titled “Rejoice with us in God, the Trinity.” The first verse reads: “We would rejoice again, and yet again, that God reveals his truth to mortal men; unveils for all to see, in what God is, what we ourselves may be.” Some of us here may gladly rejoice in the beauty of that poetic theology, even as others of us may find it too distant or complicated. But his second verse reads: “How long and earnestly the Fathers strove to frame in words a faith we cannot prove; but O how dead our creeds unless they live in Christ-like aims and deeds!” For some of us, following the example of the ministry of Jesus may be the reason you are here, or indeed that you are a Christian at all.
The hymn concludes: “Rejoice with us that we may yet achieve what God himself has dared us to believe: The many live as one, each loving each, as Father, Spirit, Son.” Daunting as this might sound, I also think that the author’s challenge helps us to better understand a core element of the Trinity, and perhaps its most important—that it is relational. Just as we are somehow created in God’s image, so our relationships with one another should be influenced by our relationship to the persons of the Trinity.
Now to be clear, it would be limiting and probably just plain weird to somehow trifurcate your human relationships into categories of parent, child, and spirit. But, rather, I want to invite you to reflect about how at this point in your life you most readily relate to God and to your neighbors. Perhaps you’re still beaming in the Pentecostal drive of “Every time I hear the Spirit?” Perhaps you’re still basking in the radiance of “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty?” Perhaps you can’t wait for me to finish—only, of course, so that we can get to the end of the service and sing “Here I am, Lord!” All these are distinctive and authentic ways to relate to God, just as each person here is distinctive and authentic, and—for that matter—just as each person of the Trinity is distinctive and authentic.
But if one of the images conveyed by these pieces of music particularly resonates with you, I wonder why that is? Perhaps, as with Jesus’ response to Nicodemus in the Gospel today, you’ve had an experience where you felt you were born again through baptism and the Spirit? (Even here in the Episcopal Church it’s possible!) Or perhaps, to paraphrase St. Paul in today’s Epistle, you feel close to Jesus as a child of God, or even, regrettably, as one who suffers alongside him? Or perhaps, thinking of Isaiah, you felt God’s distinctive call at some point in your life, and responded, “Here I am Lord”—or maybe you didn’t respond, or perhaps you wish that you’d responded differently…
Thinking to the future, I wonder if you might benefit from contemplating, praying to, singing about, or otherwise relating to a person of the Trinity that is currently less personal to you? For instance: Are you somebody who finds beauty and joy in God the Creator but finds it hard to pray to Jesus? Or are you somebody who loves and emulates Jesus’ example of service to others but feels intimidated by the radical message of the Spirit? Or are you somebody who enthusiastically embraces the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit but perhaps lacks a strong foundation of reverence for the Holy One?
Finally, I wonder how thinking more deeply about your relationship with the Trinity might influence your relationships with your family, friends, and neighbors? Might you become more aware of the diversity of human personalities? Might you begin to see God in other people and the world around us in new and exciting ways? Might you be more sensitive to the challenges some of us might be facing, even if they are not clearly visible to you?
Fred Pratt Green, in the third verse of today’s anthem, put it this way—and in conclusion, I invite you to pray with me using his words: “So let us all remove, rejecting none, whatever keeps us from loving the Son, all ills that still divide the fold of Christ, and all the world beside. Rejoice with us in God, the Trinity, the Three forever One, forever Three, Fountain of Love, Giver of Unity!” Amen.
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