Speaker: Michelle Burkholder
This Icon is entitled: Trinity. Trinity here being a word used to represent the concept of a triune God in Christianity. A God that is Creator, Christ, and Spirit. Three separate beings in one entity.
Before I ever stood before this painting I knew that I would be preaching on the Trinity Icon in this series and I started thinking about what that might mean. Thanks to our 2 year old son Simon, one of my first explorations of the trinity was to ponder the nature of primary colors as we just did during children’s time. You see Simon has a Big Bird Sings cd that we listen to quite often in the car and one of Big Bird’s songs is about the primary colors: Just three colors, red, yellow and blue. Mix them up and see all of the amazing things they can do.
It sounded like a pretty great entry point into talking about a painting that explores the concept of the trinity. And this concept of the trinity is just that – it is a concept, and a mysterious one at that. Biblically, you won’t find a whole lot of scripture that is specifically about the trinity. Experiences and interactions with God as Creator, Christ, and Spirit are pervasive throughout the scriptures. It is through these various forms that God has encountered and been encountered in the world, but this word Trinity is not laid out in scripture as a definition of God.
In Genesis 18 there are hints of the trinity when the Lord come to visit Abraham in the form of three visitors. Some see these three visitors as a foreshadowing of the idea of the trinity. In the New Testament the clearest reference of the Trinity that we find is in the great commission found in Matthew 28:19:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations. Baptize them in the name of Abba God, and of the Only Begotten, and of the Holy Spirit.
The book of John talks extensively about Jesus being one with God and about the helper Spirit which God will send forth to the people after Jesus is gone. The writings of the early church are peppered with greetings in the name of Abba God, Jesus the Christ, and the Spirit. But the idea of the trinity, the actual belief of Trinity as a definition for the being of God wasn’t fully established until the 4th century when arguments about the nature of God and, in particular the divinity of Jesus, became heated and forged into creeds that created the doctrine of the Trinity.
In essence, God was incorporated.
When you incorporate a business, one of the purposes of incorporating is for legal protection. Within the language of legal-ease, once you incorporate, you are effectively recognized as one person – you may have different departments but you are one entity. The doctrine of the Trinity was created to protect and enforce the oneness, authority, and divinity of God in all three aspects, while attempting to put to rest some troublesome and, perceived to be heretical, notions of the time. From that point on this doctrine of the Trinity has been handed down from generation to generation [modified in moments, of course, as all things are] as the Christian understanding of our one God being Creator, Christ, and Spirit. We have been given this tidy, if yet mind-bendingly mysterious, package of 3 persons, one being.
All of this thinking was before I had even seen this painting.
And then the painting arrived.
When we were here at the church unloading these paintings, as they were pulled out of the vehicle they had been transported in, I noticed that one of them had a mirror collaged into it. As we brought them in to the foyer, I was trying to guess which icon was which. Once inside we started placing them in order for installation, Kathryn, the artist, told us which was which and I saw that this was Trinity.
I wasn’t quite sure what to think. My first instinct was to be a little perplexed and, dare I say, disappointed because it was the one that had the mirror. You see I was initially frustrated with the fact that this piece, through the inclusion of a mirror, breaks the pattern of the rest of the series. When you create a series of art, usually there is some sort of through line of elements that are in relationship with each other and make it cohesive. To then put elements into one piece that don’t reflect in any way with the others is slightly jarring and so I was confused about it.
Kathryn told us that this was the first piece she completed in this series. She had been working on the concept of the series and was trying to figure out how she was going to pull it all together. She had done several trial paintings of different sizes and formats, but they just weren’t working. And then she did this piece and all of a sudden if felt, to her, like her icon series had a foundation from which to work. She got the sizing and other elements of the rest of the icons from this piece.
Knowing this was the first also helps explain why this piece has some different qualities to it. Aside from the mirror, you may also notice when you go out again and look at the other pieces, that the color pattern in this one is slightly different than the rest. This is less distinctly red, blue, white and gold. This is black and gold and white and a mix of orange and blue and purple-y mauve. This is a different color set, most likely created by mixing the other colors that are used in the other pieces, but this treats those colors in a different way.
We had an artist talk before church on the first morning of this series while Kathryn was here with us. As she talked about her process and about creating these, it dawned on me, that for her, this wasn’t just the first artistically completed piece of the series, it was also an appropriate theological foundation for the rest of the series.
This piece, in its exploration of the Trinity of God, is the only piece in the series that speaks directly about the source of life, the source of our faith, the source of being. All of the other elements that she has explored through the icons [with the arguable exception of the Christ icon] are ways through which we interact with this source of being. They are explorations of some of the ways we respond to and are invited into relationship with God. But this piece, this is a direct reflection on God. In that sense, it is fitting that this piece is unique with different colors and the added element of the mirror.
The mirror. Let’s talk about that for a minute. As I said, my initial response was to be frustrated by this mirror. Yet, as I have interacted with this painting over the past couple of weeks, I have come to realize that when you step in front of it, particularly when it is at a lower level than it is right now, this painting forces you to enter into the painting, it engages you because you become part of the painting.
Even if you don’t stand right in front of it you still see reflections. Perhaps of the person who is standing in front of it, or the reflection of the building you’re in, or as Kathryn told me of one response from a little kid in another church when this painting was hanging at the front of their sanctuary, the kid leaned over to the pastor and said: “I can see the whole congregation in there!” How beautiful is that? That when we look into the heart of the trinity, we see ourselves, we see our community, we see the structures we live in reflected back to us.
Reflected back to us, in pieces, because this mirror is broken. And that is right. That is right because we live in the midst of brokenness. As individuals we are broken, there is brokenness in our relationships with ourselves, with others, and with society. This week was once again a glaring reminder that our society itself is full of broken structures propped up on unjust, fear-based, and racist ideals at the expense of human lives. We can name names: Alton Sterling, Philandro Castile, 5 police officers in Dallas: Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Smith, and countless other places and un-named but not nameless victims of unjust violence and brokenness. We are killing each other because we are afraid of being broken by the other, when the reality is we are already broken.
As I looked at this painting this week while feeling raw from waves of anger, sorrow, numbness, and outrage I saw all of that thick, textured, paint surrounding, cutting through, swirling over, and embracing that broken mirror. I noticed the paint filling in and overflowing the gaps and spaces between the broken pieces of the mirror and remembered that even in the midst of brokenness we are surrounded by the presence of God. A triune God whose diversity of presence is able to encounter us in whatever form it takes to accompany us through the complexities of each moment.
For me, that is where the beauty of the Trinity starts to shine. It is a rich gift to be in relationship with a God who has the ability to be present with us in mystery, in the presence of people, and in the swirl of the Spirit in, through, and around us. That is perichoresis.
Perichoresis is one of the theological terms about the Trinity that I love because of the way it talks about the interconnection of the three elements of God – the Creator, the Christ and the Spirit. In perichoresis, the three elements of the trinity actively intersect each other, fully participating in the being of each other, while simultaneously maintaining their individual identities.
Once again we see aspects of God incorporating, but this time it is not in the form of a legal structure set up for protection or regulation. It is an interweaving, a dance. That is part of why I invited Katrina to explore the idea of trinity through movement for us today. To offer us another point of access to explore the nature of how God interacts with God’s self and with us.
I say with us, because we are invited to participate in the dance. We are called into the movement of God in the world and we are called to become part of the movement of God in the world. The heart of God’s law is embodied love. A love that we offer to God with all aspects of our own beings; a love we are to share with each other without reserve.
When we stand before this painting, we are placed in the midst of God. As we confront the image of ourselves reflected back to us we are reminded that there, even in the heart of God, we do not escape that which surrounds us. Escape is a luxury of privilege. There is no true escape for the marginalized and the oppressed while God’s vision of justice is still just a vision. Simply drawing near to God doesn’t mend the systems of oppression that surround us. Instead, it highlights the brokenness within our own beings and the structures we live within and it urges us to live in new ways. God’s law asks us to first turn fully to God with all of our hearts and our souls, and then, from out of that God’s word empowers us to turn and reflect that love to others.
The word of God is very near to you; it is in your mouth, and in your heart so that you can keep it.
One of my seminary professors, Mary Farrell Bednaraowski, had this great way of talking about how we are physically created to identify moments that place us on holy ground. She talks about how we have within us, much like the trinity, different aspects of our beings. We have intellect represented by our heads, and emotions represented by our hearts. In the moments when both our head and our heart are stirred up at the same time, they come together to form a lump in our throat. A physical clue inviting us to honor the moment as sacred space and to pay attention.
Holy ground is fertile ground where God meets us in unexpected ways exposing that which gives life and that which does not. Moments on holy ground can happen every day. They are moments of pure love and connection. They are the tension of bittersweet joy. They are outrage and pain. They are spaces like the brokenness of the mirror in this painting, interrupting our patterns and expectations, breaking them open and making space for God to come into the world in a new way.
May we recognize the brokenness within and around us. May we create space for healing by naming it and confronting it. Let it anger us and move us to action. May it break us open to see with new vision and embolden us to join in the dance of God’s work in the world. A dance that incorporates us into the love of God, and interweaves our lives with each other, inviting us all to be co-conspirators in the work of God’s justice through presence, embodiment, and spirit.