One night when I was about 14 years old, I saw something that was almost indescribably beautiful, something that left me completely transfixed. Mom and Dad had gone out for dinner, just the two of them. I don’t know what the occasion was, but Mom was wearing a black cocktail dress and Dad was wearing his best suit and tie.
A few hours after they left, I was in my bedroom doing homework when I heard the front door open and then close. When I didn’t hear anything else for a minute, I padded down the hall to poke my head into the living room and make sure everything was okay. And that’s when I saw it.
Mom and Dad were dancing.
Glen Miller’s Moonlight Serenade was playing on the stereo, and my parents were dancing. They weren’t just dancing…they were dancing beautifully. They moved together perfectly. They didn’t just sway together in time to the music, they knew The Steps, and they did them together flawlessly, as if they had practiced this every day for their entire lives.
My parents were dancing, and it transformed them. My dad was no longer the stocky guy with a short temper who, frankly, scared me a little, he was suddenly Gene Kelly, elegant, athletic and graceful. My mom was no longer the brainy little elf with her nose forever in a book, she was suddenly Cyd Charisse, fluid, weightless and willowy! They were no longer two separate persons, they were one, united by the music, their synchronized steps, and their embrace.
So why am I telling you this very personal story about a very personal moment between my mother and father? I’m telling you this story because this is Trinity Sunday, and for one brief moment when I was 14, I saw the Mother, the Father, and the Holy Music united together as one: a nearly perfect analogy of the Holy Trinity.
Nearly perfect. And also, not even close to perfect. That’s because even the very best analogies break down at some point. They break down because they are trying to describe something that is too vast and deep and intimate to fit into human words. Martin Luther said that to deny the Trinity imperils our souls, but to try to explain the Trinity imperils our sanity.
And that makes sense when you think about it. Can you explain you? Could you give a concise yet comprehensive description of everything that makes you you? You are not an intellectual construct to be defined and understood. You are a person to be befriended and loved. The only meaningful way for someone to “understand” the mystery that is you is to relate to you—to be in a relationship with you.
When I saw my parents dancing that night, all those years ago, it was an epiphany for me, but it was by no means the final epiphany. I had a new understanding of who they were together and what they meant to each other, but it was by no means a complete and exhaustive understanding of the mystery of their relationship. Much of their relationship would remain a mystery. In the same way, no matter how many epiphanies we have about the relationship, the oneness of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit, there will always be more that remains a mystery.
The infinite God cannot be boxed into our very finite minds. The limitless God cannot be corralled by our limited understanding. The Holy Trinity, the union of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, three distinct persons united as one God, is not a puzzle to be solved. It’s a mystery in which to immerse ourselves. Frederick Buechner called the Trinity the Mystery beyond us, the Mystery among us, and the Mystery within us. You don’t solve mysteries, you explore them. You enter into them. You participate in them. Maybe instead of calling this day Trinity Sunday, we should call it Mystery Sunday.
When something is a mystery, especially when it’s a God mystery, that doesn’t mean it can’t be understood, it means that it can be understood endlessly. There is always more to see. There is always more to relate to. There is always more to understand. There are always new steps in the dance.
And it is a dance—or at least that’s one of the best descriptions we’ve ever had of the Trinity. But how did we come to have the Doctrine of the Trinity in the first place?
Well, early followers of Jesus had a problem. Like the Jews—and remember, the first followers of Jesus were Jews—these early Jesus followers believed that there is only one God. But they also believed—or at least most of them did—that Jesus was divine in nature and that he was somehow completely one with God whom he called Abba or Father. On top of that, they had received the Holy Spirit—the very breath of God, who they also experienced as a divine person because the Spirit often seemed to exist and act independently of Jesus and Abba. At the baptism of Jesus, all three seemed to have been present: Jesus coming up out of the water, the Spirit, descending in the form of a dove, and the Abba, speaking like thunder. So how do you reconcile three divine persons but hang onto the idea that there is only one God?
Well, you don’t, said one group of Christ followers. These people were called Arians because the main proponent of their theology was Arius of Alexandria. The Father is God, said Arius. Jesus, the Son is a slightly lesser god. All his authority and power comes from the Father, but he is separate in substance and stature. And the Spirit is a lesser god than Jesus, the Son, and also of a lower stature and substance. What the Arians were saying, more or less, is that there are really three gods and the Father is the only one who is really God, the one with all the power and authority.
Hang on a minute, said the Trinitarians. Jesus said, “The Father and I are one. You who have seen me have seen the Father.” After the resurrection, Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into the disciples. He is in his breath. It’s his Spirit flows in us. When the prophets would say, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” they were talking about the Father’s Spirit. So, the Three have to be One. They are also Three. But they are also one. Three persons, One being.
This disagreement had started to become violent and threatened to completely and irreparably divide the church which had only recently really begun to come together in a meaningful way. So in 325, the emperor Constantine, who had recently declared himself to be a follower of Christ, decided that this question had to be settled for the good of the Church and the good of the empire. He called for a Council and ordered all the bishops to meet at Nicaea to debate the matter. After much argument, Constantine declared that the Trinitarians had won the debate.
Constantine ordered the Council of Nicaea to formulate a statement of Doctrine to describe the Trinity. This was the very first official doctrine of the whole Church, by the way, and the bishops and presbyters argued heatedly over the words they would use. They argued about whether the Father and the Son were made of the same substance and whether they had the same nature. They knew they were standing at the edge of an enormous Truth about God and they felt it was vitally important to get all the details exactly right even though there was no possible way for them to even know or see all the details. In some ways, they were like children who stand on the beach and think they can fully describe the breadth and depth and power of the ocean and all the life contained in it.
They created the first draft of the Nicene Creed and decided that adherence to this statement of faith would determine if someone was a true Christian or not. Ironically, their very useful insight about the all-loving, all-relating God who exists eternally in the expansive community and relationship of the Trinity led them to formulate a faith statement that would be used to exclude people from the community and the embrace of the Church.
Fortunately, about 50 years after Nicaea, the Cappadocian Fathers, Basil, the bishop of Caesarea, his younger brother, Gregory, the bishop of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzen, the patriarch of Constantinople came up with a better description of how the three persons of the Trinity exist as one God. The model they used was a circle dance, and the fancy theological name they gave their idea is perichoresis, a Greek word which more or less literally means circle dance. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, they said, exist as one in an eternal circle dance of love. The Trinity is an eternal, joyful, radiant manifestation of love, loving, and being loved. The love that endlessly flows between, in and through the Father, Son and Holy Spirit creates and sustains the universe.
One of the beautiful things about this idea is that there is no hierarchy in it. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are equal in their eternal love for each other and for their creation, which includes us. Another wonderful thing about this idea is that it describes God as always in motion, God as a verb and not as a static noun, exists as an endless flow of love. But perhaps the most powerful thing about this idea, at least as far as we are concerned, is that we are invited into their dance. We are invited to participate in the endless flow of love, loving, and being loved. The Holy Spirit, who dwells within us, carries us into the loving embrace of the Father and the Son and invites us to learn the steps of the dance.
When I saw my mother and father dancing on that long-ago night, they had lost themselves in each other and the music. They were still themselves, but they had become something more, and that something filled up the whole room and spilled out into me and my sister and the dog. It’s like that with the Trinity. The eternal dance of love spills over to create the universe and fills that universe with love. You and I are invited into the dance. Never mind if you don’t know the steps. The Spirit will teach you, and as you learn, the dance itself will carry you.