In a poem, John Keats imagines the first Europeans to discover the Pacific Ocean. He’s thinking of the 16th c. Spanish conquistadores, Cortez and his men. They don’t even know the ocean exists. They cross the isthmus of Panama, climb a peak, and suddenly it’s there before them. They look at it “with eagle eyes”, they look at each other with “wild surmise … Silent, upon a peak in Darien” (the name of the place). “Silent, upon a peak in Darien” – it’s a great line. Here are men “wowed”, as we say, silenced by a vast reality.
And so for the Church, for us, today, on the feast of the Holy Trinity. After Advent and Christmas, after Lent and Easter and Pentecost, after so much “story”, such “theodrama”, suddenly we’re on this peak in Darien with the Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity before us. We might well be silent, awed, amazed, by what we see.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, the God who is and who was and who is to come.
When the Church prays the Psalms in the Divine Office, she always ends with the Glory be to the Father… Often the Psalms include dark experiences: physical illness, betrayal by friends, the attacks of national or personal enemies, desolation, abandonment by God – “out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord” – but at the end it is always, “Glory be to the Father and to the Son…”
In the 1st reading from Deuteronomy, Moses is now an old man. On the threshold of the Promised Land that he will not enter, he addresses the Israelites one last time, after the years of slavery in Egypt, after the Exodus, after forty years in the wilderness. And he invites them to look back, back beyond all the hardships and failures, and to riase their minds to the God who has been at work, to “see” him, acknowledge him, rejoice in him. “Was there ever a God like this?” A God who had come so close to such an insignificant people, freed them from slavery and entered into a covenant with them, made them his own at Mt Sinai and, as Moses says later, “carried them on eagles wings.” He’s inviting his people to awe and gratitude and worship, to be, in the words of the hymn, “lost in wonder, love and praise.”
What Moses was doing in response to the divine revelation proper to the Old Testament, so this feast does as regards the fullness of revelation found in the New Testament and which the Liturgy has been replaying for us ever since Advent. It asks to reflect on what we have passed through, in the Church’s year, over the last six months. What is it that has been happening? What is our faith really and finally about? It is “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor 13:14). It is the Spirit in our hearts, the Spirit of the Son, enabling us to cry out, Abba, Father! (2nd reading). God the Father has shown his love for us, he has “done us mercy”, by sending his Son as a human being, born of the Virgin Mary, brought to perfection through his death and resurrection and established as our Lord, our Head, in glory. And, further, the Father and Son have shown their love for us by sending their Holy Spirit, signalled by wind and tongues of fire, sent to form the Church, the Body of Christ, and so connect us to God and one another in a new creation. This is the real “story” of the New Testament, of the Creed, of the journey from Advent to Pentecost. God has drawn back the curtain, as it were, told us his secrets, shared himself with us, face to face and mouth to mouth, poured himself out and clasped us to himself. “Go, make disciples of all nations,” says Jesus, “baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. To “baptise” means to immerse, to plunge into water. We have come to the sea, the original Pacific Ocean, the Trinity.
We are not just theists, then, rather than atheists. We are not just believers in God, rather than in nothing or everything or vague New Agers. We have been bathed in the light and the joy of the Trinity. We are Trinitarians. We are sailors or swimmers in the ocean of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We have been made children of a heavenly Father, brothers and sisters and co-heirs of Christ, the Son. We are sealed and strengthened by the Holy Spirit, connected by him to Christ and one another. We have him praying in us. We don’t champion some withdrawn, singular, isolated, unattainable God. Nor are we just left to worship ourselves. We have a God above us, beside us, within us and surrounded by such a God we become all we are. The image recognises its archetype.
We have five senses, for example, with touch the primal, all-pervading one, engaging our whole body: a sign, is it not, of our spiritual aptitude for an all-embracing Father? We can see and hear, and we have been shown the Son, visible and audible as man. We can smell and taste, subtler organs, a sign of our receptivity to the influences of the Holy Spirit. In Seaton Park, there is what’s called the Secret Garden. It is full of various shrubs and bushes, and just at this very time of the year, they all flower – spectacularly, variously, colourfully, and the air is full of their scent. Indeed, think of a rose bush: there is the plant, the bush itself – the Father, we might think; then comes the Rose, the Son, the Flower, the expression, the offspring of the Father; and from the Rose a fragrance fills the air – like the Holy Spirit. And what delight this brings us! One other analogy – forgive me this, but think of the fine art of mixing drinks, making cocktails. One drink, but three essential components: the basic one, the original spirit (rum or gin or whisky or whatever), then the one that gives it character (vermouth or whatever), and finally the liqueur or cordial or bitters that give it colour and flavour. Three components, one drink; one alcoholic “nature”, three “personalities”! And a true cocktail doesn’t dull the appetite, but whets it, stimulates it, prepares us for the meal to come. Our Trinitarian faith is the cocktail; heaven the feast to follow.
After Advent and Christmas, after Lent and Easter, comes the feast of the Holy Trinity. After the sending of the Son and the coming of the Spirit, today’s paean of praise rises to Father, Son and Spirit. After their brave and brutal expedition came that awesome, calming vision of the great Pacific. Isn’t today, in a sense, a fore-feast of eternal life, a foretaste of heaven? “A peak in Darien.” There’s the passage and pain of the people of Israel, of Jesus’ disciples following him to Jerusalem, of the Church in her pilgrimage through time. To what end? We all pass through the mill. “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God”, says St Paul (Acts 14:22). Today we glimpse it. After “the weariness and the fret”, beyond the preoccupations, the busy-ness and the harrowing things, there stretches the endless ocean of God, fullness and peace and rest at the last: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Three in One and One in Three and we in Them, nothing but love and joy and praise.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 30 May 2021