Today is a holiday feared by pastors everywhere; the day when we are asked to explain the Holy Trinity. It’s our job, apparently, to tell you how one God can have three persons, and why you should care that our God does. It’s a hard job, especially because most of the material we have to back us up is not particularly clear or compelling. We can choose between the highly technical writing of philosopher theologians, and the shorter, but generally even less poetic creeds written by committees of bishops. For example, I could tell you that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are consubstantial and coequal, co-omnipotent and coeternal (that’s according to the wisdom of the 4th Lateran Council). But I’m not sure that would enlighten or excite anyone.
The job for pastors on Trinity Sunday is hard. But perhaps even harder is the job of the people who designed our lectionary – the schedule of biblical readings that we follow each Sunday. On Trinity Sunday, they had to find a passage from the Hebrew or Jewish Scriptures (the Old Testament) that relates to the Christian Doctrine of the Trinity. This doctrine is certainly not a part of Jewish belief. It was not even accepted by a majority of Christians until after all of the texts in our bible had been written.
But these lectionary designers made a great choice. They chose the passage that Karen read from the book of Isaiah. It’s is the call story of a Jewish prophet, not a description of the Holy Trinity or an explanation of it. And yet, in this text from Isaiah we discover a root of our Trinitarian belief. It’s not so different from what happens at other times of the year. During Advent, we see the child Jesus through words of Isaiah: a young woman shall bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel (7:14). During Holy week, we see the crucified Jesus through the words of Isaiah: a suffering servant, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (53:3). So, too, when we consider the Holy Trinity, our tradition is shaped by its parent tradition, by the Jewish faith, and by the words of this particular Jewish prophet.
Isaiah sees the Lord sitting on a throne, surrounded by seraphs with six wings, calling out “Holy, Holy, Holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The prophet, full of awe and humility, proclaims that he is a man of unclean lips; and yet he has seen God. And then one of the seraphs flies to him, holding a live coal from the altar of the temple. The Seraph touches the coal to Isaiah’s mouth, purifying him to speak about God. God asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah replies, “Here am I; send me!”
The text was chosen because of the words of the seraphs: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory. These words are part of Jewish worship, and have become part of Christian worship as well: they are one of the most ancient Christian hymns. In Christian tradition, this song is called the Sanctus; always containing these words from Isaiah, and usually adding additional words found in the Psalms (118:26) and the Gospel of Matthew (21:9): Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest. Many Christian denominations use this song as part of every communion celebration; if you have spent time in a Catholic or Episcopal or Lutheran setting, I’m guessing you’re familiar with it.
Holy, Holy, Holy Lord; the whole earth is full of your glory. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest. For Christians, calling God “thrice holy” can be a way of lifting up God’s trinitarian nature. Rather than a philosophical argument or a creedal statement, singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” can be a way to embrace a God who is three-in-one without trying to parse the mystery of it.
Among us today I am guessing we have a whole variety of beliefs God. There are agnostics here. There maybe even be a few atheists, here on a visit; humoring their families; enjoying the music and the company. I know there are Unitarians and plenty of undecided. I know there are Trinitarians, too, your pastor included, each of us probably understanding this mysterious concept in a slightly different way.
These differences are important, because they reflect our search for meaning and holiness. Our tradition in the United Church of Christ honors inquiring minds, diversity of belief, and candid testimony. But there’s something lovely in the fact that I think almost all of us can honestly proclaim together the words of this most ancient hymn, the song of the seraphs: Holy, Holy, Holy is our God; the whole earth is full of God’s Glory.
Who is God to you? Would you say that God is three-in-one; and if so, how? If so, why?
When Chris Broadaway-Bauman visited last week, she encouraged us to embrace the Pentecost practice of testimony: to speak aloud our own truth about God, however incomplete. I thought perhaps today we could sing it, instead – using words that point towards the mystery of the Trinity that we celebrate on this day.
There are so many versions of the song, in so many styles of music; but when Jim and I played through them, the one that made me start to cry was the one from Franz Schubert. In looking it up, I also discovered that I’m not the only one who likes it. It’s in Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, United Methodist, African American, United Church of Canada, and French and Spanish language hymnals. So I invite you to sing with me these words of praise that come to us from so long ago, and which we share with our Jewish sisters and brothers and so many Christians around the world. Let’s sing this through together twice, so that the words and melodies may sink into our hearts, and inform our minds of the nature and love of God.
(You can hear the music here.)