In the early Middle Ages, there was a movement to develop some diagram that would explain the Holy Trinity. How are the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit separate yet in eternal relationship with each other? The answer was a chart with a triangle, each point being labeled as one of the three Persons. In the middle was the term, “God” (or “Deus”) in Latin. Each of the points connects to the center. The Father “is” God, so is the Son, and so is the Holy Spirit. But, the connection between each of the three Persons is marked with a bold, “Is Not.” The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father. In the medieval church, the diagram became known as the “Scutum Fidei,” the “Shield of Faith.” (And it did appear on the shields of fervent and pious knights!) So on this Sunday of the Holy Trinity, it is well to bring out the shield of faith and reflect on it, especially in light of our Gospel Lection. How do our Lord’s promises of the gift of the Holy Spirit in St. John’s Gospel square—or “triangle”--with the Shield of Faith?
Hearing the Lord’s words about the sending of the Holy Spirit in our Gospel lection, we are struck right away by all the movement and life. Jesus promises that when the gift of the Spirit comes to pass, the Counselor, the Spirit “will guide you along the way.”* The message resonates with our Lord’s announcement that he is “the way and the truth and the life.” So right away, we sense a difference between the true doctrine of the Shield of Faith and the proclaimed Word in the Gospel. There is movement here in Jesus’ words; we are the children of God who are being led along the way. In fact, this journey of ours is that of the people of God (a major theme of the church in the Second Vatican Council and St. John Twenty-third. Our journey is not solely that of our own lives. We are bound together by the Word made flesh and we journey together in faith. Now, the Lord promises his followers that our journey will not be alone and will not be without direction. The Spirit will guide us along the way.
In 1411 in Russia, Rublev, the iconographer “wrote” the Icon of the Hospitality of Abraham for the Trinity Orthodox Monastery.** At the center of the icon are the three strangers who appear to Abraham. Abraham’s hospitality is evident—the three sit around a table with a cup at its center. In Orthodox tradition, the three strangers are the Persons of the Holy Trinity. At the left is the Father; at center, the Son; and to the right, the Holy Spirit. All are in blue garb, signaling Divinity. And the three have faces all exactly the same—there is a profound unity here. But each is subtly different as well. The Father, on the left, is slightly dominant, but gazes upon the other two in delight. The Son extends his hand to bless the cup—that cup of sacrifice and of sacrament. And the Spirit’s hand is nearby on the Table, ready to continue Christ’s work upon his death and glorification. Rublev’s vision of the Holy Trinity mysteriously reverses the hospitality of Abraham. Now, we children of Abraham, and of Jesus, are invited into the embrace of the Trinity. Henri Nouwen reflected prayerfully on the icon and wrote this:
“It is painted not as a lovely decoration for a convent church, nor as a helpful explanation of a difficult doctrine, but as a holy place to enter and stay within.” *** So, once more, a depth to the mystery of the Holy Trinity that may not be evident in the Shield of Faith diagram—Our holy God, Father Son, and Spirit, share in the mystery of a community of pure love. And the glory of our faith is that we are invited to be embraced by the Trinity, to be welcomed into the holy place of our Triune God. This festival day is when Christ’s faithful are ever more deeply invited into the mystery that is the Holy and Triune God. We are embraced by the Trinity, and when the Bread and the Cup are blessed, it is the Father’s Gift through the Son by the work of the Holy Spirit. We are, as incredible as it sounds, welcomed to the Table of the Holy Trinity, in a Feast of love.
The icon by Rublev has a further meaning that resonates with our Lord’s words in the Gospel lection. Recall what occurs in this scene of Abraham and Sarah and the three strangers. Old Abraham and old Sarah (“it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women,” Scripture puts it) were given a promise of a son, of posterity, of a people of God. Soon, Isaac would be born. And from then on, Abraham and Sarah and their family would be led out on a journey, guided along the way by God, by those three Strangers who visited them by the oaks at Mamre. Now, Jesus promises to his flock that the Spirit of truth will guide us along our way. The journey continues and we will not be left to our own devices or need to follow in the ways of the world. Of course, there are signs of this journey of Christ, our journey with Christ, all around us. The Stations of the Cross are the way-stations of our Lord on the way to His Cross,…a journey we have made once more during those Forty Days of Lent. And at the heart of the universe is Christ’s own Passover from death on the Cross to new and glorious resurrection life. The Paschal Mystery of this journey from His being “crucified under Pontius Pilate” to the proclamation, “He is not here; for he has been raised!” In our baptism, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to join in share in the Passover of the Lord, dying with Christ and being raised with him. Now, a church being guided by the Spirit is always journeying along the Way, the pilgrim way of the faithful. Have you noticed that when the world’s darkness presses in on the church with fury and distain, God’s people in Christ always do several things, practices that hold us in community and keep us in faith? We continue “in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers”(Acts 2:42). There is one other sign of a faithful church in the midst of the world’s darkness—the church goes out into the world in procession. We processed on Palm-Passion Sunday, waving the palms. At the Easter Vigil, we processed into the church in darkness, following the light of the Paschal Candle. Just last week, Christians gathered in a public space for the opening celebration of Pentecost Sunday and then processed to their churches, led by a processional cross and banners of blazing red. All of these are signs of Christ’s promise being fulfilled in our midst. We are being guided along the way by the Spirit.
The Spirit’s leading has a deep, Trinitarian character to it. Our Lord promises the gift of the Spirit who will guide us in all truth and declare to us the things that are coming. The Spirit proclaims to us the truth that is revealed in Jesus Christ. In a world that thinks it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere about it, the Spirit proclaims the truth that is Christ. We proclaim that truth in the Creed at every Mass and we hear that truth proclaimed in the church’s teaching, its preaching, its serving, and its singing and praying. We are a people guided on the way by the Spirit of truth. But there is another way we live out the truth in Christ. It is by growing into the fullness of who we are called to be, children of God. Once more, Rublev’s icon proclaims the truth of the Holy Trinity. Our parish may not be located in the wilderness by Abraham and Sarah’s “oaks of Mamre,” but we are to be a truth-filled people here in this place. Embraced by the Trinity, we turn and welcome the strangers, first because we have been welcomed into the flock of the One Shepherd. But also because this is what the children of God do,…they welcome strangers, especially any who are outcast and lost, any who are alone or burdened down. We are called to be such a people, the people of God. And God’s people welcome strangers. After all, when Abraham and Sarah welcomed the strangers, offered hospitality, it led to a journey that will find its completion only when God comes to set all things right. In between the times, a community of the truth embraces the stranger,…as we have been embraced by the Holy Trinity, as we are being led along the way of truth.
*Fr. Raymond Brown’s translation of John 16: “He will guide you along the way of all truth.”
Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John, (xii-xxi) (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1985), 702.
**See: Blog, Bill Gautiere, “Enjoy the Hospitality of the Trinity (with Rublev’s Icon),” accessed, May 8, 2016, http://www.soulshepherding.org/2012/08/enjoy-the-hospitality-of-the-trinity-with-rublevs-icon/.
***Henri Nouwen, Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons, (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1985), 20.