Image: The Trinity is an icon created by Russian painter Andrei Rublev in the 15th century. The icon depicts the three angels who visited Abraham and Sarah at the Oak of Mamre (Genesis 18:1-15), but the painting is full of symbolism and is interpreted as an icon of the Holy Trinity – the embodiment of spiritual unity, peace, harmony, mutual love and humility.

‘New faith, hope and love’

Andrew Collis
Trinity Sunday, Year A
Genesis 18:1-15; Ezekiel 1: 1-28; Matthew 28:16-20

Andre Rublev’s 15th-century Icon of the Holy Trinity is a treasure of Russian art, a treasure of Russian Orthodoxy, and a treasure of Christian faith. Already we are thinking in threes.

The icon is regarded high theology, rewarding close attention, veneration. Three barefoot and androgynous figures are seated at a low table. The composition, which turns about a central chalice, is balanced – three figures with three sceptres; one house, one tree, one hillside. The colours complementary – red and green, blue and orange – on a gold background. There is space at the table for another – for one who prays. 

Scholars speculate on the identity of the three. The middle figure turns toward the figure on the left – Father to Son? The figure on the right wears green – symbol of the Spirit? Which may be forcing things a little. What matters, it would seem, is an equanimity. There is no sense of hierarchy or dominance. 

Greek theologians speak of homo-ousios – an essential unity of the three divine persons. We might speak of one love, one purpose. Essentially, the figures and setting comprise a safe space, welcoming and nourishing – hospitality. 

We would be right to regard this a Eucharistic setting. We would be wise to ensure our Eucharistic celebrations, however peculiar, repeat this holy welcome, this holy nourishment and concern for safety. 

Rublev has written the icon in reference to an older story. 

In Genesis 18 (vv.1-15) we read that Abraham and Sarah are camped by an oak grove at a place called Mamre. Abraham is seated “at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day”. Jewish commentary suggests he is praying. Then Abraham sees three travellers or strangers. What should he do? Ignore them while he completes his prayer? Threaten them with violence lest they mean to do him harm? 

We read: “When he saw them, Abraham ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them; and bowing to the ground, said, ‘If I have found favour in your eyes, please do not pass by our tent. Let some water be brought, that you may bathe your feet, and then rest yourselves beneath this tree. As you have come to your faithful one, let me bring you a little food, that you may refresh yourselves. Afterward, you may go on your way.’”

The story teaches that the three strangers (messengers or angels) are YHWH. And God promises that Sarah, although advanced in years, will soon give birth.

Rublev sees the Triune God, the God of Christ, in the God of Torah. He looks within the Abrahamic practice of hospitality, the risk of love and assurance of freedom, and sees the ministry of Jesus. He looks to the hopes of Sarah and Abraham, the promise of blessing for all, perhaps even to the laughter of Sarah (whose child Isaac means laughter) and hears/feels the holy breath, the Spirit – on the water, in the grass and in the leaves of the trees.

What matters, we might say, is that we move beyond contemplation (like Abraham, ever willing to look up from our prayers) to acts of godly devotion – welcoming and making safe, attending to the promise of blessing for all – especially in the interests of those least secure, worst affected, most afraid.

What matters is the birth of new life. New faith, hope and love.

Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes: “God was seen at a certain moment and in a certain place, and God left behind words and memories which were then passed on. Henceforth humanity’s road toward God was no longer contemplation but the commentary and interpretation of that ambiguous message whose energy is never exhausted … Christianity is diametrically opposed to ‘spiritualism’. It reopens the question of the distinction between body and spirit, between interior and exterior …”

We might consider another example. 

Ezekiel was a Jewish priest exiled by Nebuchadnezzar in the fifth century BCE. Along with his fellow exiles (many of them cultural/community leaders), Ezekiel suffered humiliation. By the rivers of Babylon, he sat down and wept when he remembered Zion/Jerusalem. 

Ezekiel’s vision is striking. He looks into a stormy sky, into the dark-cloud predicament of exile and loss, and he sees the throne chariot or merkabah of YHWH – the awesome presence of God who accompanies those least secure, worst affected, most afraid.

The poetry is full of terrestrial and celestial beauty. Ezekiel’s vision has stood as the central image of Jewish mysticism for centuries. The priest-cum-prophet describes wheels within wheels, all covered with eyes, and four living creatures (each with four faces and four wings) amid the wheels. Wind, wheels, living creatures (the Book of Revelation and Christian tradition align them with the four gospels), all move together, all move as one. There is homo-ousios, unity of purpose. 

Just as we desire/remember a harmony between human and non-human being. Just as we desire/remember a harmony between culture and nature, labour and life, sustainability regarding technology, economics and urban design. Just as we desire/remember a place called home.

What matters is the birth of new life. New faith, hope and love.

Ezekiel sees that God rides the storm/chariot/merkabah. God accompanies exiles in mourning. God protests, encourages, comforts, inspires, refreshes, renews, leads home.

We might see Ezekiel’s wheels, then, as wheels of the seasons, or wheels of history – even revolution. Wheels of lament and learning. Wheels of justice and peace. And again we may perceive the turning of these wheels … 

“Know that I am with you always,” Jesus says.

“Christ’s stay on earth was only the beginning of his presence, which is continued by the Church. [And] Christians should … live out the marriage of the Spirit and human history which began with the Incarnation” (Merleau-Ponty). Amen.