June 16, 2014

Exegeting an Icon

           Yesterday was Trinity Sunday and, surprisingly, many Baptist churches celebrate the significance of this liturgical demarcation.  Coming the week following Pentecost, this Sunday is the church’s way of saying the fullness of the Triune God has intersected human history.  It is not that the Spirit only showed up when the mighty wind and tongues of fire demonstrated God’s igniting power, yet the relationship between the Risen Christ and God’s creative presence announced the arrival of the messianic age.

            As the guest preacher at Dayspring Baptist Church in St. Louis, I experienced a congregation invested in learning more about God’s trinitarian life with us.  From children’s sermon using St. Patrick’s clover to illustrate oneness and threeness to the traditional East African folksong, which praised the threefold manifestation of God, to the hymnody featuring “Come, Join the Dance of Trinity,” the worship service proclaimed God as Triune.
            I used the famous “Trinity of the Old Testament” icon as a portal into the richness of divine communion, which is an open Trinity, creating space for human participation.  Written by the fifteen century Russian Andrei Rublev, this icon recounts a tremendous encounter of shared hospitality and good will between God and humanity.

            What catches the contemplative eye is the position of the three figures.  They are arranged in a circle, inclining toward one another, but the circle is not closed.  It is as if the viewer is invited to pull up a chair and join the intimate conversation of attentive self-giving. What the image suggests is that the mystery of God is not self-contained but a communion of relationship.
            One of the most interesting things about the icon, depicting the encounter of the divine messengers with Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18, is that the figures have both wings and staffs.  This prompts the question: “Why would they need a staff if they could travel with swiftness?”  The history of interpretation of this icon suggests this answer—because God desires to accompany us in our “slow way across the earth.”

            Simply put, we cannot be fully Christian without receiving the hospitality of the Triune God who welcomes us in Christ and abides with us as the Spirit.  To speak of God as Trinity is necessary, thus, to be faithful the story of our salvation, the birthing of the church, and the hope that God’s reign will be fully realized.
            God’s triune hospitality is expressed through human community, which I surely experienced at the Dayspring church.  They know how to express welcome!  It may be possible to detect the health of a congregation by how long they linger to connect with one another after the service.
            The Christian doctrine of the Trinity—a distinctive affirmation we make among the monotheistic faiths—recognizes a divine communion of persons who cooperative undividedly in all their creative, redemptive, and sanctifying work toward the world.  The self-giving of the inner life of God, its perichoresis, spills over into all creation, and we join this holy dance of God.

            Molly T. Marshall

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