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May 30, 2012
Rublev’s Trinity
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

This Sunday, the Church celebrates the feast of the Trinity, the central mystery of Christianity, the mystery of God who is perfect love. The Trinity “is the source of other mysteries of the faith and the light that enlightens them” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 234).

Speaking About God

In The Discovery of God, Henri De Lubac cautions that “to speak of God is as dangerous as it is necessary, adding that “the danger, however, is no excuse for silence” (p 225).  A word then about the language about God.  God, who is beyond masculine and feminine notions, reveals the Divine Self in the Hebrew scriptures in masculine ways nevertheless–as Adonai (Lord), Melech (King), Avinu (our Father, Source, Our Maker), I-AM-WHO-AM, God’s unlimited existence as opposed to the gods of Greek and Rome.  These are figurative and not literal ways of speaking about the ineffable source of the universe. 

In the creation narrative handed down in the Judeo-Christian tradition, Jews and Christians inherit this limited vocabulary which helps us to speak of God who is beyond all human utterance. God creates the cosmos out of nothing, ex nihilo, outside of the Divine Self. For 25,000 years the world idolized the mother goddess until the Bronze Age when weapons and conquering warriors displaced the feminine image. Though biblical writers did write in part to oppose to the ancient worship of mother goddesses, it was never their intention to attribute gender to God.

In the creation myths of feminine deities, however, the womb of the mother-goddess sets the linguistic pattern conveying the sense that she gives birth to an already divinized world. Here, feminine deities emerge from the womb. This pantheistic cosmology—that there is no other God except God within—is foreign to the Judeo-Christian tradition in which creation, though an image of God, is not God. Creation participates in the attributes of God; “in him, we live, and move, and have our being (Acts 17:28).  An artist remains outside the work of art but is also present because it is his handiwork. So too with God.

Rublev’s ‘Trinity,’ the Hospitality of Abraham and Sarah

In the fifteenth century, the Russian monk, Andrei Rublev captured the meaning of the Trinity in a non-rational and beautiful way.  Words may define a dogma in precise though limited ways, but they are often dry and fail to express the beauty inherent in the dogma. It is only beauty that can bring about this wonder. 

In the Book of Genesis (18), we have the story of Abraham and Sarah giving hospitality to the three angels at Mamre who foretold the birth of Isaac to the elderly couple.  Rublev’s icon penetrates this narrative and depicts a visual representation of the three divine persons who celebrate the Eucharist.  The angels, holding traveling staff, are seated at a table on which stands a cup with a sacrifice offering. Abraham and Sarah are no where to be seen.

The Circle

The circle, the basic form representing the Trinity, is seen in the bowed figure of the angels deferring to one another.  Their wings touch each other as a tri-unity, while the hands of the two outer angels lean toward the center angel who clearly attracts attention. The circular shape of the picture calls attention to the oval cup on the table, the symbol of the Eucharist.

Unity of Colors

To symbolize unity, the angels wear a common blue and green in varying degrees of intensity. 
The center angel is Jesus, clothed in strong, clear colors because of his coming in history.  He wears a magenta tunic with a gold ribbon draped over the shoulder under the cloak of solid blue-green. In it, Jesus points to his sacrifice in the presence of the Father and Spirit.

Because the Father has never been seen by human eyes, Rublev has chosen indistinct hues of pale orange colored with a tint of blue-green for his clothing.

Wearing a green cloak over a tunic of azure blue, the Consoler-Spirit symbolizes life and sanctification. With the other two figures, Jesus blesses the cup with the stylized Eastern blessing.  The facial features suggest a set of identical triplets. The raised eyes of the Father appear anxious because of the sacrifice his Son will accept.

Unity in Diversity

The unity in diversity is brought about by the clothing, circular form, and motif of the composition revealing Rublev’s masterful insight into the mystery of the unity of the Godhead. Through the icon’s color, form, and symbol, we grasp the truth of the central mystery of the Eucharist.  Its loveliness has surpassed the abstract symbols of a bearded man and a dove.

A Matter of Relationship  

The Johannine gospel, more than the Synoptic narratives, is rich in Trinitarian theology.  Here, John gives us a deeper grasp into the inner life of the Trinity which is entirely about the relationship of love.  The Father is mentioned almost one hundred twenty times. And Jesus addresses God as Abba—papa. Scholars agree that in Jesus’ use of the Aramaic Abba, we have his very own word.

Jesus tells the disciples that he will ask the Father to send them the Holy Spirit in his name to teach them everything.   He taught his followers to pray to God as “our father.”   What did the Father mean to Jesus?  The answer is in the language of love: “I am in the Father, and the Father is in me” (Jn 14:10).  We participate in this divine life: “You (my disciples) will understand that I am in the Father, and you in me and I in you” (Jn 14:20).  This outpouring of love is not a thing or an emotion but a divine person, the Holy Spirit. The Father-Son relationship is the centerpiece of this gospel. 

The language of the Trinity draws on the human experience of parents, who are in a way the first representatives of God for us all. But human parents are fallible and can disfigure the face of motherhood or fatherhood.  God transcends the human distinction between the sexes: God is neither man nor woman, nor of material substance.  No one is father as God is Father.  Neither is the Father a father in the way we know human fathers; the Father does not earn a living, for example. 

The Father is the origin, point of departure and goal of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.  From him come blessing, grace, love, mercy, consolation, and joy.  For this reason he must be the addressee of prayer, praise, thanksgiving, and petition.  The Father speaks the Word of revelation, and the Son is the content of this revelation (Walter Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, 142-43).

The name Father is a relation, a relation to the Son whose name is Jesus. We may not name God in terms of function, that is, ‘in the name of the creator, redeemer, and sanctifier.’  Humanly speaking, we do not do this. A person is prior to his or her function. The Father’s name is so powerful that in this name the apostles are made one.  Remove the name Father from the Trinity, or substitute another word for it, and the foundation of Christianity collapses.

Ascetic theologians will readily say that the soul is feminine because it receives the seed of life from God. When the Church Fathers called God Father, they meant that there is an amazing intimacy of relationship, that of Father and family, between God the Creator of the universe and ourselves.  The New Testament reveals a number of narratives where God acts like a mother, and the most telling of these is that of the Prodigal Son (Lk. 15:11-32).  In all these places, God is a mothering father.

The God of the Universe Lives Within

St. Paul compares the Christian to a temple, writing: “Don’t you know that you are temple(s) of God and that God’s Spirit dwells within you?” (1Cor 3:16)  In his treatise “On the Holy Spirit,” St. Basil (d 379), says it this way: “The Father, as the Divine Poet, speaks the Word, the eternal Son, perfect, true, good and beautiful.  The Spirit is the Breath of the Word spoken by the Father.” This God whom Christians invoke as Father, Son, and Spirit invites us to participate in this Trinitarian love.  One way is through prayer. One is the Doxology; another is: ‘Father, give me the Spirit through Jesus your Son.’  Both prayers can be prayed on a crowded bus or subway, in a supermarket or in an airport, in the shower, in a hospital, and at other times of the day.  In this way the Trinity becomes central to the Christian’s life.  The God of the universe lives within as “this tremendous lover,” as “loveliness supreme,” and as our best friend.

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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