“Trinity” is an icon attributed to Andrei Rublev. The work was prepared in the early 15th century currently housed in the Tretyskov Gallery in Moscow. The image depicted comes from the account of the three visitors to Abraham at the Oak of Mamre (cf. Genesis 18:1-15).
One day while Abraham was sitting near the entrance to his tent, three visitors appeared. He runs out to greet them, bows and says: “Sir, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. Let some water be brought, that you may bathe your feet, and rest under the tree. Now that you have come to your servant, let me bring you a little food, that you may refresh yourselves; and afterward you may go on your way.”
The visitors accept the invitation. Sarah prepares the meal. Abraham then serves the meal to them. During the meal one of the visitors tells Abraham that he will return in one year and by that time Sarah will have given birth to a son.
One might ask why the iconographer would choose this story as the basis for an image of the Trinity. The reason is that early Christians interpreted the three visitors as being a visit of the Holy Trinity or at least a representation of the Holy Trinity. One peculiarity in the text is that although there are three visitors to Abraham he addresses them as “Sir” in the singular. One of the themes of the story is that God visits with Abraham who welcomes him and serves him. The message regarding the birth of a son is a pledge that the promise once given by God to Abraham will be fulfilled.
In the icon Rublev depicts the particular scene of the three visitors sitting at the table sharing the meal. The faces of each look out toward the one viewing the icon. It is as though the viewer is being invited into the gathering, to have a seat at the table, and to partake of the one meal.
Today we celebrate Trinity Sunday. The solemnity focuses our attention on this central aspect of our faith. God exists and he is three in one. The belief is based on the revelation of Jesus, the Son. He reveals to us the Father and makes known the Holy Spirit. Although the term “trinity” is not found in the New Testament the reality that this expression signifies is quite present. Throughout the Gospels Jesus speaks of his relationship with the Father, he calls God his Father and says that they are one. He promises to send forth the Spirit, which he does. Furthermore, he invites us to call God “Our Father.”
The unity of the one Godhead consisting of three persons is called a mystery. This mystery is something that we are invited to experience and reflect on, recognizing that no words or images completely capture the reality they signify. Hence for 2,000 years theologians and artists have come up with different ways to depict the reality we celebrate. Not one of them is complete in itself but each gives us insight into the mystery we celebrate. In addition to Rublev’s icon there are other examples: St. Patrick’s shamrock, the image of three intersecting circles, the “dance,” and so forth.
One weakness of the Rublev icon is that the singularity of the Godhead (there is only one God) might be hard to grasp through three individuals seated at table. That being stated, one aspect of the icon, which speaks to us about the Holy Trinity, is that an invitation is being offered. The three persons sitting at table looking at the viewer suggests this invitation. As mentioned above the viewer is “pulled into” the gathering. In a sense they are offered a seat at the table to share in the life being celebrated. This certainly resonates with the lived experience of the Church.
The final words of Jesus before he ascends to the Father are recounted in today’s Gospel passage. The reading comes from the Gospel according to Matthew. Jesus tells the 11 apostles: “All power in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
Jesus’ command is one of mission. He directs the apostles to baptize in the name of God, to teach and to make known his abiding presence. Essential to this mission is the invitation.
The invitation that the apostles will offer is an invitation to life. They first experienced this invitation in their encounter with Jesus. Recall that very early in the Gospel, almost at the very beginning of the public ministry, Jesus first offers this invitation to Peter, Andrew, James and John. From then on many others are invited to learn about life through their encounter with Jesus. He shares his life through his presence, his teaching, his example, his encounters, his actions, his prayer and his preaching. Ultimately the disciples come to experience and to share in his life of love and mercy through his passion, death and resurrection.
As they enter into this life they come to realize that this is a life of divine love. The relationship with God that Jesus offers is a participation in the divine life of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Baptism in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is the gateway to this experience.
Jesus’ final words are one of mission because this invitation to divine life – this life of divine love, of being one with God and each other dwelling in peace and joy – is meant for everyone. The apostles will carry this invitation with them wherever they proclaim the Gospel. We are the recipients of this invitation and through our participation in the sacramental life of the Church we enter into this relationship of divine love. Hence we can be called sons and daughters of God.
St. Paul speaks of this several times in his letters. The second reading for today’s liturgy, from the Letter to the Romans, is one of these places. He writes: “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a Spirit of adoption, through whom we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’”
In this Paul speaks of the presence of the Spirit in and among the faithful, an experience of which they were keenly aware. He then speaks of this union in divine life as also being one with Christ Jesus. One with Christ, the Son of God, makes us children of God and “heirs” of God. The fullness of life that the Son eternally shares with the Father and the Spirit will be ours. Hence we are “joint heirs with Christ.”
The celebration of Trinity Sunday provides us an opportunity to reflect and ponder the mystery of God, Three in One. As we meditate on the greatness of God we recognize the magnitude of his love that would create us, redeem us and sanctify us; and we are moved to thanksgiving for the life he gives us. At the same time, we recognize that we are called to mission. Empowered by the Spirit, directed by the Son, we invite everyone to life, the life provided by the Father.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.