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Perichoresis: The Dance of the Trinity

Pentecost 2, Common Lectionary Year A

Genesis 1: 1-2; 4a,  Matthew 28: 19-20

©Rev Elisabeth R. Jones

I’ve just committed the mortal sin of preachers, with that sermon title you see on the screen. No preacher in their right mind would knowingly trot out a Greek theological term like that;  it just sets us all up for trouble: makes me look like a hopelessly disconnected academic counting angels on pin-heads; and should make most of you want to run a mile from what is –if the title is a clue – going to be a dry-as-dust doctrinal sermon.

But, I’m fulfilling a promise I made back in 2012 when we held a Wednesday evening study series on the Words of Faith,in which we examined various statements of what we, as the United Church of Canada, believe. We got to talking about “Trinity” – the way Christian tradition understands God as Creator, Christ, Spirit,three persons, one God. As we had other fish to fry, I tried not to get derailed with the questions and promised “one day I’ll preach on it.”

So, here goes. To help sweeten the pill, let me begin by establishing my credentials on this topic:

As a small child, in a Roman Catholic primary school, Sister Suzanne set us the task one day of drawing a picture of the Trinity. I drew a picture of an old man, white long beard, holding a planet in his hand.  Next to him was Jesus, a stick man pinned to a cross. And standing in front of them both,  a goat. Now I wasn’t so very old, so perhaps my goat was not particularly accurate, so it was an understandable question from my teacher to ask “Elisabeth, tell me about your picture.”

“Well, Sister, that’s God the Father, he made everything. That’s God the Son, he died on the cross. That’s God the holy Goat, Amen!”

How she didn’t laugh is beyond me, (perhaps she did), but it was clear from her reaction that I’d not got it quite right…. but I’ve been on a quest to get a better handle on this Trinity thing ever since!

My own journey of faith, at times quite rigorous, within and then beyond the RC tradition, meant that I could recite Nicene, Apostle’s and Constantinopolitan, Athanasian and Chalcedonian creeds like a pro. Recite that is, not necessarily understand. For this doctrine, teaching about the Trinity, is a theological construct dense and opaque enough to “overload our mental circuits”, as one theologian has aptly put it.

But faith is far more than the arcane constructs of the mind. Lively faith is a compulsion of energy, a soul in search of meaning, a heart in search of loving, a life in search of  purposeful liveliness.

Surely it is possible, faithful, and helpful to find ways to understand the Trinity that not only opens windows for us into a deeper understanding and love for God, but also ways which might open up deeper understanding of ourselves as people shaped in the image of God, to be creators, sustainers, lovers and caretakers of God’s very good creation?

The reason I said I’d preach Trinity one day is because for me at least, and I hope for you, there are ways, images or windows, as deeply embedded in the Christian tradition as those formal creeds, but they are far more symbolic, poetic, imaginative, and lively. I’m going to offer two that have helped me.

The first is the Celtic Triquetra.  Its origins are lost in the mists of time. It probably predates St. Patrick’s arrival in Ireland. It’s most likely that the triquetra was a pre-Christian symbol of the intertwining of the three elements: earth, air, water, Other scholars suggest it is/was symbolic of birth, life, death.

If these two possibilities are true, then all the better because they deepen the meaning of the triquetra in Celtic Christianity as a symbol of the Triune God, known as Creator, Christ and Spirit.

Look at it: a single cord with no beginning or end, intertwined in the shape of three points and a unifying circle. Three points intertwined, flowing around one another, defining one another, giving direction to one another. In perfect symmetry and balance, each needing the other, enhancing the other.

Add to this then the layers of meaning. God, as Creator, Christ, Spirit, intertwined. God’s creative force and care, ongoing and eternal in earth, water, air.

With the two arms to the side, an entwined crucifix, God’s girdling, God’s entwining of self in incarnation, birth, death, rebirth. Or, Spirit wings, Spirit breath hovering over creation,

Trinity, dancing in creation, embracing human incarnation, entwined in Spirit’s breath, none without the other.

Which brings me back to that deadly-looking Greek word: Perichoresis. The Eastern orthodox tradition * has a lively, iconic, poetic approach to describing the Divine, and this is their word for describing Trinity. I discovered it back in seminary and once I grasped what it meant, I was hooked.  Trinity was no longer an academic problem to be solved, but a holy mystery to be enchanted by. Perichoresis: Mutual indwelling. Interdependence. A community of being. A dance in which there are only partners, no leaders. Wow!

Imagine! God as Creator, Christ and Spirit, engaged in an eternal dance together! The dance impossible without the three together, interdependent. *A community of beings in a cosmic dance Of Parent, Child, Promise; of Birther, Birthed and Rebirth-er; of Love, Lover, Love’s power… indwelling, entwining like cords in the Celtic knot, no beginning no end.  And this dance, lively, joyous, pouring love, care, delight, adoration, compassion, power, generosity, weakness, strength, shared freely between the divine community.

If we begin to grasp the imaginative possibilities of seeing God – the Triune God-  this way; if we begin to imagine the Divine, God, as being in essence “community”, “dance”, “mutuality”, “interdependence” then what does that say about us? *We, who are made in the image of God?

Surely it says that we too, if we become fully who we are made to be, are individuals entwined together, dancers in earth, air, water, birth, life, death, creating, redeeming, sustaining,  supporting weakness, sharing strength, pairing compassion and purpose, brains, hearts, souls, weaving idea and action, creation with rest, forgiveness with endless beginnings, hope wrapping around despair,…. what a dance we are made for, of mutuality, community, interdependence; none without the other, none alone. Made in this image of the Triune Dancers!

In the name of God, Creator, Christ, Spirit, Dancers all. Amen.

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