For a service of Choral Matins at St Mark’s Episcopal Church, Upper Arlington, Columbus, Ohio, USA.
Sometimes we can’t see something clearly because it is too small, but there are times when we can’t see something clearly because it is too big – like standing at the foot of a mountain and being unable to see to the top, but nevertheless being overwhelmed by the vastness of it. We may know in our minds, having read up on it, exactly how high the mountain is, how many people have climbed it, where it lies in the list of the world’s highest or most difficult peaks, or any other random facts. But standing there at the foot, and looking up, somehow the facts and figures will fail to explain away what we see – and the awareness that we are only seeing one view of something impossibly vast, impossibly ancient. The facts and figures can’t capture the awe, and the wonder.
Most of the year in church, it’s as if we are invited to follow particular paths up the mountainside, to stop along the way and turn over a few small stones, in terms of our understanding of God. Today, we are invited to stand at the foot of the mountain and try and drink in the whole thing. We’re invited to try this, annually, at least partly to reassure ourselves that we can’t.
Trinity Sunday is the day in the year when we remind ourselves that we cannot grasp God fully. That God is God, and we are us, and there’s an issue with scale and perception and language and sheer weakness of the human mind and soul that means we can look and feel awe and know that we’re not really getting it. I find this immensely reassuring. Because the moment we think we can get it, we can guarantee that what we are getting is not, in fact, it. The doctrine of the Trinity is supposed to be just a little bit mysterious, because it reminds us that God cannot be packaged into a neat box and be fully understood. That is to reduce God to something manageable – and ‘manageable’ doesn’t quite seem adequate as a description!
In our reading from John, this is captured wonderfully by the idea of light coming into darkness. In our translation, the darkness did not overcome it – in others, the darkness did not comprehend it. When I was learning Greek at seminary, it was suggested that the English word that best gathered together the Greek’s dual meaning of ‘understand’ and ‘overpower’ was ‘grasp’. The light came into the darkness, and the darkness couldn’t grasp it. Or, more colloquially, the darkness didn’t really get it.
And that’s why I’m not going to be talking about ice, water and steam, shamrock leaves, or any of the other wonderful and equally heretical images that the Christian tradition has come up with over the centuries to get through the mental block of the one in three and three in one thing. Useful though they are, they can be a bit of a red herring.
Happily, this is where matins comes in. Matins is full of the Trinity, in fact, what we call the ‘Doxology’ appears four times in this service today, by my reckoning: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be: world without end. Amen. ‘Doxology’ – another Greek word – simply means ‘words of glory’ – is a technical term for praise, and we use it for this particular formula of praise to the Trinity, capturing both the three in one and one in three, and the concept of eternity, in just a couple of verses.
It appears in the opening set of versicles and responses, and at the end of the psalm, and most of the canticle options. It keeps coming back, like a refrain, and the implication is that whatever you’ve just said, it’s going to be right and appropriate to finish by singing praise to the eternal Trinity. This can sometimes be jarring – Matins in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer doesn’t change much depending on the time of year, and the monthly cycle of psalms in it simply runs through them in order. So on certain days of the month you can easily have one of the more violent psalms, or one of the most profound laments and cries for mercy, and still be asked to sing ‘Glory be… ‘ straight afterwards.
This is also something I find reassuring. Yes, it may jar. But it’s a way of saying, God is still God, even when I’m having a bad day, or a bad year. God is still God, even when I hate the people who are giving me a hard time, even when everything is collapsing around me. God is still God even when all I can do is fall on my knees and cry for help, begging for mercy.
Because who God is doesn’t depend on how we are each feeling at any given moment. God is God, and God is glorious and worthy of our praise and worship, every moment of every day. Actually, it is precisely because God does not depend on our feel-good factor to be praiseworthy that we can, in fact, fall on our knees before him asking for mercy.
As the doxology reminds us that God is God, and that we mustn’t remake him in our own image, it also reminds us that instead, we must be continually remade in his image – an image in which variety, difference, mutual love, creativity, sacrifice, blessing and unity are the hallmarks not just of individuals but of churches, maybe even, in God’s ultimate purposes, of the whole of the human race. This is what the doxology looks like in real life.
Doxology, praise, worship – this is a kind of theology. It’s a kind of theology that lets God be God, and that lets us be us, that invites us to be drawn into the life of the Trinity that is all about love, and difference, and self-giving, and creative enjoyment of one another. It’s a sort of theology that allows us to say something to God and about God without getting stuck on one metaphor, image, or analogy or another.
That’s why it’s so apt that the very Trinitarian formula that we use to praise God in his vastness and greatness is also an expression of all the ways that that mystery has been made known to us – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are our experience of God through history and in our own lives. The very doxology that reminds us to let God be God also reminds us of all the ways that God always has been, is now, and always will be intimately concerned with his creation. We know what it is to be a child of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus, sharing our humanity, and we know what it is to have God within us, and breathing life into us, into the church, and into the whole universe.
It’s easy to see a whole mountain from a long distance away – part of the reason that we can’t grasp God easily is not that he is too distant, but that he is so very close, so very ‘everywhere’ and so very present, so constantly revealing himself to us in wonderful and awesome ways. The very expression of the doxology is a reminder that we experience the mystery of God not as something difficult and far away but as something nearer to us than we are to ourselves.
That’s why we’ll never really grasp it. How can we grasp the one who is already grasping us? How can we seek the one who has already found us? How can our faith be anything other than a response to God’s faithfulness? How can our understanding ever be other than a response to the fact that we have already been understood? How can we worship God if he has not first opened our lips and given us a voice to sing his praise?