Sunday, May 30, 2021

Trinity Sunday

 Isaiah 6

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

the whole earth is full of his glory.”

4 The pivots[a] on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

It’s easy to get lost in the image of the three hares.

Three hares appear to be chasing each other in a circle, and their ears form a triangle in the centre of the image. Looking closer, you see that there are only three ears for three hares, with each ear doing double-duty as the ear of the other. If you focus again, this time looking at each hare, they clearly appear to have two ears.

So, a unique image, but also a unique story. Or maybe I should say lack of story. For you see, the image of the three hares appears from the Far East to Britain: in China, Nepal, Iran, Southern Russia, Switzerland, Germany, France and the UK. They appear in caves, on sacred artifacts, and on medieval church decorations. In Devon alone, there are 29 examples found in 17 churches.

Theories abound about the source and origin of the symbol, but it remains a mystery. Rabbits and hares are common enough symbols, with some obvious associations and others that are less obvious. The ancients believed that rabbits reproduce spontaneously, and could therefore be associated with the Virgin Mary. This might explain why some of the examples in Devon place the hares near the equally ancient symbol of the Green Man, which in a church setting may represent our fallen state—sort of a point and counterpoint idea.

Point and counterpoint. One of the great ironies of church life is that this place we associate with holiness and purity is also a place built for sinners. This is where we confess, this is where we seek to be reconciled with our brothers and sisters in the faith, and this is the place we hear of the life and death of our redeemer. The healthy are in no need of a doctor, Jesus said, and therefore we find a home in his church.

And this point and counterpoint is also at the heart of our reading from Isaiah. On the surface, it’s a rather elaborate call story, where the prophet appears in the presence of the Most High and takes up his vocation. But ritual action tells us that this is also our story, the story of entering a sacred space to be redeemed.

Everything is the story is meant to overwhelm: the almighty seated on a throne, the six-winged seraphim, and even the song that sounds familiar to our ears as the seraphim call to each other: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The threshold of the imposing doors shook, and the temple filled with smoke.

And then the counterpoint. You might imagine our future prophet would have joy to sing or praise to extend, but instead we get dread. “Woe to me!” he cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” This, of course, is a reference to Exodus 33, when Moses asks to see God but is warned off. “No one may see me and live,” is all God says, a bit of divine legislation that need not be repeated twice.

So Isaiah braces for the worst, but then the extraordinary happens: from the brazier a seraphim retrieves a burning coal, and this coal is skillfully carried to the lips of the prophet. With this his sin is removed, and his feelings of guilt taken away. Then finally, the call and response: I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”

And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

In our context, it’s hard to miss the movement here. A very human prophet is created, approaching the Most High with all his limitations and flaws. Through ritual he is cleansed of his sin, redeemed to do the work he is called to do. Then this call is formalized, with the pledge to go to the world and speak for God, to tell-forth through the power of the Holy Spirit.

I think you see the shape of this movement. Created, redeemed, sustained—God in three-persons, blessed Trinity. And it all seems straightforward enough until someone asks you to explain it. And for this purpose another symbol emerged during the Middle Ages, that of the “Shield of the Trinity.” Developed by a French Theologian (Peter of Poitiers), the shield has God in the centre circle, with three others circles surrounding the first. The three outer circles are labelled Father, Son and Holy Spirit, with lines connecting all of them. On each line you find writing, with the lines connecting the outer circles to the inner circle labelled “is” and the lines between the outer circles labelled “is not.” Reading the lines and circles, you get this:

God is God

The Son is God

The Spirit is God

God is not the Son

God is not the Spirit

The Son is not the Spirit

(and so on)

It’s not as intriguing as intertwined hares, but it serves a purpose. The persons (personas) of God are separate, but all part of God. Each has a role to play in the unfolding of our life with God—creating, redeeming, sustaining. Each helps us arrive at the place where we enter the picture, speaking for God, through the Spirit, in the name of Jesus Christ.

Speaking of those hares, it truly is more than a clever design. Like our circles and lines, the missing or not-missing ears underline the interconnectedness of God. You don’t need six ears to see that each is a hare, each is linked to the others, and each is connected to the whole.

Outside the church there is a surprisingly durable vinyl sign that says “Seeing Christ in Others Since 1821.” Again, not as intriguing as the three hares, but showing us (in words) the same interconnection. Together, God made us and made us one in our humanity. When we see Christ in others, we see evidence of our redemption, and we know that Christ is in our midst. And when we see Christ in others, and we speak to them, we speak through the power of the Spirit, the same Spirit that asks “Whom shall I send?” And the answer—with God’s help—is “Send me!” When we see Christ in others we never see strangers, only friends. We speak to them and for them, making us one.

May you be surrounded by evidence of the Three-in-One God we worship. And may you always trust the words when you answer the call, saying “Send me!” Amen.


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