This Sunday is Trinity Sunday, which is celebrated the first Sunday after Pentecost. It is an unusual feast, as it is one of the few feasts of the church year that celebrates a reality or doctrine rather than an important person or event in the history of the Church. Trinity Sunday celebrates that God is not only one but also three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (or Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctified to use more gender-neutral terms).
In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus makes reference to the Trinitarian nature of God, telling his disciples to go and baptize people of all nations “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This ancient baptismal formula is the one we still use today in baptism, marking baptized Christians as believers in a Trinitarian God.
Yet the Trinity is a difficult idea for us to wrap our heads around! How is it possible for God to be one and three at the same time? The way that ancient Greek theologians put it is that God is one in essence, yet three in persons. But “person” as the Greeks used it did not mean a human person like you or me. It meant something along the lines of “that which stands on its own.” So God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit each have something distinct about them, something which makes them stand on their own, while they are still united in will and essence, that is, united in what God intends for the world and in their very God-ness.
The Trinity is a mystery but that does not mean that it is completely impossible to understand. What it does mean is that the intricacies of God’s Trinitarian nature will be beyond our human comprehension, while other aspects of it may be revealed to us through prayer, song, art, and symbol. As it has been said, “Mystery is not a wall to run up against, but an ocean in which to swim.” In other words, as human beings, in this lifetime, we are not going to somehow crack the code of the Trinity or break through a wall to complete understanding of it. However, we may be able to surround or immerse ourselves in the reality of the Trinity so that we live in its reality, even without fully comprehending it.
In the spirit of immersing ourselves in the reality of the Trinity, I invite you to try an ancient religious practice this week: meditating with an icon of the Trinity. The icon pictured here, written by Andrei Rublev in the 15th century, is one of the most famous and beloved icons of the Trinity. It actually depicts the three visitors who came to Abraham and Sarah as told in Genesis 18. These visitors have often been identified with the Old Testament Trinity, and they sit in a circle that is open to the viewer. It is as if we are being invited to sit at the table with them, to share in a meal and relationship with them.
In the Orthodox Christian tradition, icons are said to be “written” not “painted.” Rather than mere works of art, icons are a form of prayer. An iconographer prepares for writing the icon with prayer and fasting, and the actual act of creating the icon is also steeped in prayer. Iconographers allow themselves to be guided by God in their creation. As such, icons can be windows to God.
Praying with an icon is a different form of prayer than we normally practice. Praying with an icon involves keeping your eyes open, seeing not so much the icon itself but seeing through it to God. Praying with an icon is prayer without words, where we focus on being in God’s presence and listen for what God may say to us.
So how do you pray with an icon? First, prepare for it as you would prepare for any type of prayer. Find a quiet spot, get comfortable, and slow down, perhaps focusing on your breathing to center yourself. Place the icon where you can easily see it and allow yourself to be still, resting in the knowledge of God’s presence with you. You may speak or pray to God, or simply look at the icon and let God speak to you. See if you can sustain your prayer for five minutes.
What questions do you have about the Trinity? Ask them here and we will try to offer answers in the coming weeks.
Also, please let us know how praying with an icon went for you. What was challening about this form of prayer? What did you like about it?