The Holy Trinity Icon by Andrei Rublev
Jesus had just spoken to them about the importance of avoiding sin and therefore leading other people into sin. He had spoken to them about admonishing the sinner. He had spoken to them about the importance of forgiving those who had hurt them. Knowing how difficult it is to live up to the expectations of discipleship they responded with the request of the Lord, “Increase our faith” (Luke 17:5). To this he basically said, “If you truly want an increase of faith, you simply need to be faithful.”
I decided that it would be interesting to look up these two words in the dictionary. In the New Oxford American Dictionary I found some interesting things. First of all, I remember that when a word has multiple meanings or uses the first definition listed refers to the most common use of the word. The definition of “faith” reads “complete trust or confidence in someone or something: this restores one’s faith in politicians.” The first definition of the word “faithful” is “loyal, constant, and steadfast: he exhorted them to remain faithful to the principles of Reagenism . . . or . . . faithful service . . .”
Neither of these definitions has anything to do with religion. According to this dictionary, “faith” and “faithfulness” only secondarily refers to religion. But these definitions reveal to us an important thing about faith. We apply faith to someone, or something. And so faith is about relationship. And so, if we want to increase our own faith, we need to be faithful in our relationship with the Lord. This is not rocket science. If you want to become a great athlete you have to practice the sport. If you want to become a great musician you have to practice your music. If you want to become a great Christian, you have to practice your faith. In other words you need to nurture and deepen your relationship with Christ.
This is at the heart of what it means to be a disciple. This is also what it means to enter into the heart of the God. And this makes absolute logical sense. We, who are created in the image and likeness of God, are created to be like God. It has been revealed to us Christians that God exists as a Trinity of persons; one God, three person; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In other words, God exists in relationship. Therefore we were created, in God’s image to exist in relationship; not simply with others. We were created to exist in relationship with God. When we live in relationship with God, our faith will increase.
So, for the Christian, how does this work? How do we enter more deeply into a relationship with God? To assist our reflection I invite you to pick up the Worship Aid that you received when you came to mass today. On the back of the Worship Aid is an image of “The Holy Trinity,” an icon painted by a 15th century Russian artist by the name of Andrew Rublev.
An icon is a sacred image upon which we gaze as a form of prayer. In silence we gaze upon the image to enter more deeply into the mystery which it is trying to reveal. By emptying our minds of the clutter of words that try to explain the essence of God, and focusing only on the image represented, one can move from head to heart allowing God to speak to us in the silence of our hearts. By so doing, one enters more deeply into union with God.
In this icon the Trinity is portrayed as three angelic figures, seated around a small table, engaged in an intimate conversation. In the background is a tree and a house. In the center of the table, right in the middle of the three figures, is a chalice containing the Eucharist.
The three figures and the tree remind us of the visit which angelic messengers paid to Sarah and Abraham at the oak of Mamre. As the three enjoyed the hospitality of Sarah and Abraham, the messengers announced the unexpected birth of Isaac, whom Abraham would later be asked to sacrifice to prove his fidelity to God. Because of the deep faith of Abraham and Sarah they are considered the father and mother of Judaism. It was through their generous welcome, and their obedience to God, that the Judeo-Christian faith came into being.
Our faith teaches us that the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac, prefigures the great event of our salvation; God’s sending His only beloved Son who willingly offers himself as a sacrifice for our sins and give new life through the Holy Spirit.
When first looking at this icon you notice the three figures. They appear to be in intimate conversation as their heads lean in towards each other, the Son and Holy Spirit both looking at the Father.
The figures are each making a gesture with their hands. Each of them holds a staff of authority in their left hand. The Son points to the chalice indicating his mission to be the sacrificial lamb. The two fingers symbolize his two natures, human and divine. The Father’s hand is stretched in blessing towards his Son offering His encouragement to fulfill His mission. The Holy Spirit points to the opening in the front of the altar, indicating that the divine sacrifice is given for the salvation of the entire world.
This brings us to the opening. This space is rectangular in shape representing the created order which stretches north, south, east, and west, including all people. Its position, directly beneath the chalice, signifies that there is room around the divine table only for those who are willing to become participants in the divine sacrifice by offering their lives as a witness to the love of God.
Thus a cross begins to emerge. The vertical beam is formed by the tree, the Son, the chalice and the opening in the altar. The horizontal beam includes the heads of the Father and the Spirit. The outer edges of the three figures form a circle, at the center of which again is found the Blessed Sacrament.
This brings us then to the deeper meaning of the icon, and the truth about the Trinity that is being revealed to us. Just as Christ had two natures, human and divine, we are called to live in two worlds, the physical (human) and spiritual (divine). The physical world is filled with fear and hatred. It is often difficult to have joy and hope in the face of the difficulties that this world has to offer. Some would say that the world is the household of fear.
The narrow opening in the altar is God’s invitation for us to enter into the spiritual world, the household of love formed by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We can enter this house only by our willingness to offer our lives, like the Son, for the sake of others. When we offer our lives for others we know the love of the Father who gave us his only Son. We know the love of Christ who offered his life for us. We know the love of the Holy Spirit, who invites us, strengthens us, and encourages us to do God’s will.
Every time we celebrate the mass we enter in the mystery of the Holy Trinity. In our communion we become united with God and with one another in that community of love. In other words, we enter into the midst of the Holy Trinity so that we might begin to understand how to be committed to the struggle against hatred and fear in our world, as we dwell in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the household of love.
Next weekend, beginning Sunday evening, I will be giving three evenings of reflection on the three persons of the Holy Trinity. This mission is a sort of kickoff to our year as we take the journey into the heart of the Holy Trinity. I invite you to reflect on this icon this week as you prepare to enter in the journey. Then I invite you to come to our mission. I promise you, if you enter this journey with us, your faith fill be increased. You will know more deeply the love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as you dwell in the household of love.