Friday, May 24, 2013

The Trinity keeps a place at the Table

Trinity Sunday Year C

After 40 days of austerity and fasting during the penitential season of Lent, three climatic days of celebrating the central mystery of our faith during the Easter Triduum, and 50 gloriously festive days of Eastertide concluding with a commemoration of the birth of the Church at Pentecost, one would have expected a more sedated Ordinary Time allowing us to return to our daily, ordinary and sometimes mundane routine. We are in Ordinary Time, but there is hardly anything ordinary about this time. The next few weeks remained littered with celebrations, a series of three Solemnities of the Lord, beginning with the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, which we celebrate today, followed by the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi) next Sunday and finally, the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus on the Friday following Corpus Christi.

Celebrating the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity after Pentecost makes perfect sense because today’s feast sums up God’s revelation which was brought about through the Paschal Mysteries: Christ’s death and Resurrection, his Ascension to the right hand of the Father and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It may be a little more difficult to see the connection between this Sunday’s Solemnity and the feast which we will celebrate next week. We can’t imagine how the Church can draw the line of trajectory that links a contemplation of the lofty intangible mystery of the Holy Trinity to that of contemplating the sensually tangible substantial and real presence of Christ in the elements of bread and wine.

Perhaps, the first clue to understanding the link between the Trinity and the Eucharist comes from this paragraph in the Catechism of the Catholic Church – “The Trinity is a mystery of faith in the strict sense, one of the mysteries that are hidden in God, which can never be known unless they are revealed by God.” (CCC n. 237) Similarly, the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is also “a mystery of faith in the strict sense”, one which can only be known through the revelation of Jesus, when he told his disciples whilst showing them the bread, “this is my body, which is given for you” (Luke 22:19) and when he clarified that his “flesh is real food” and his “blood real drink” (John 6:55). In other words, we can only come to know of the Truth behind these two mysteries, because God had allowed us to eavesdrop.

The second clue comes from Eastern Iconography, in particular a 15th century icon which I deeply treasure, Rublev’s Icon of the Holy Trinity. This marvelous icon beautifully illustrates the association between the greatest of Sacraments and the mystery of the One God in three persons. In this icon the Three Divine Persons are depicted as three angelic beings gathered around a table. Why are angels chosen to represent the three divine persons? At one level, the icon tells the story of the three men or angels who visited Abraham at the oak of Mamre (Gen 18:1-5). The Fathers of the Church saw these three angels as a prefiguration of God in Three persons. Another reason why angels are chosen as visual representations of the Three divine persons is because according to Eastern Tradition, only Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity can be represented in art because he alone of the Three Divine Persons, took on flesh in the Incarnation. It is a perennial challenge to visually depict all three persons of the Trinity together, especially when both the Father and the Holy Spirit are wholly spiritual beings. The only logical solution would be to choose a spiritual being whom we can visualise to represent another spiritual being that we cannot visualise.

As we place ourselves in front of the icon in prayer, we come to experience a gentle invitation, an irrepressible pull to participate in or ‘eavesdrop’ on the intimate conversation that is taking place among the three divine angels and to join them around the table. What strikes us about the three distinct figures of the angels is not only the exceptional harmony of the composition, but also their inherent unity. A circle can easily be discerned. As the figures gaze at each other, we imagine a circular movement, a kind of a dance, where each is drawn to the other, each is focused on the other, each expresses love for the other. We literally imagine their love, which is an extension of their very being, weaving in and out of each other in a blissful, dynamic circle. The Father looks forward, raising his hand in blessing to the Son. We seem to hear the words, “This is my Son, listen to him…” The hand of the Son points on, around the circle, to the Spirit. “I will send you a Advocate …” In this simple array we see the movement of life towards us, the Father sends the Son, the Son sends the Spirit. Life and love flow clockwise around the circle. But it remains incomplete until we complete the circle.

Our eyes naturally fall at a particular spot on the icon which beckons us to enter and take our place at the table. The fourth side of the table, the one closest to the viewer, has been deliberately left bare, an empty seat, a vacant space. All points to this space, this mystery: within it, everything about God is summed up and expressed, his power, his glory, and above all his love. And it is expressed in such a way that we can reach it. For the space at this table is on our side. We are invited to complete the circle, to join the dance, to complete the movements of God in the world by our own response. We are lifted and drawn into this circle of unending love, to eavesdrop on the divine conversation, and to share the communal meal of hospitality with our divine hosts. The vacant space helps us to remember that when we contemplate both the mysteries of the Holy Trinity and the Eucharist, there is no room for bystanders or spectators, only for those who are prepared to sit down and share the meal.

What sort of meal is this? It is no ordinary meal. It is placed on the table or altar which lies at the centre of the picture. It is at once the place of Abraham's hospitality to the angels, and God's place of hospitality to us. That ambiguity lies at the heart of communion, at the heart of worship. As soon as we open a sacred place for God to enter, for God to be welcomed and adored, it becomes his place. It is we who are welcomed, it is we who must 'take off our shoes' because of the holiness of the ground. Contained in the centre of the circle is a chalice with a sacrificed lamb. Firstly it is the symbol of the Incarnation. In Christ, the whole of humanity is incorporated into the divine Trinitarian life. By becoming incarnate, the second person of the Trinity takes our humanity into his own relations with the Father and the Holy Spirit. In Christ, space is made for us on the vacant side of the table.

But it is obvious to us that the chalice which sits at the centre of the table signifies the Eucharist too, the great Sacrament of communion and unity. It is here that we come to understand the magnitude of what it means to receive communion and be in communion. Every time we receive communion, we not only receive the Body of Christ, we are received into the communion of the Three Divine Persons. This leads us to the conclusion, that while the Eucharist is the greatest of sacraments, it leads to something even greater: to eternal life, by which we share in the very life and loving exchanges of the Persons of the Holy Trinity. Participation in the Eucharist is participation in the divine life itself.

We finally come to realise what the three persons are talking about. Our eavesdropping bears fruit. The subject of God’s eternal colloquy is the divine economy, the divine mission – humanity’s redemption. They have been talking about us all along. The meal had been prepared and the table set for us, we are to be God’s guest of honour. The subject of this homily too must find its ultimate conclusion here – to know the Trinity, to understand the Eucharist, is to be one with Christ and with Christ, to be one with the Father and the Spirit.

One last thing to be said about Rublev’s icon: there are three signs behind each of the divine angels – a hill, a tree and a house. We need to follow the Holy Spirit up the hill of prayer that leads us to find shade under the tree, the cross of sacrifice of the Lamb but now transformed into the tree of life. Having rested beneath its shade, it is time to continue our journey home, to the house of your Father. This is the goal of our journey. It is the beginning and end of our lives. Its roof is golden. It’s door is always open for the traveler. It has a tower providing a wide vantage to the Father who incessantly scans the roads and the horizon for a glimpse of a returning prodigal. There we shall find a meal, not just in Sacramental form, but truly a heavenly feast fit for kings and saints.

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