Monday, May 16, 2016

Don't Say What Can't Be Said


This week is every preacher's favorite Sunday: Trinity Sunday. Last Sunday, we received the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, and now, one week later, it's time to explain the mysterious doctrine of the Trinity--a doctrine at the heart of our faith yet essentially absent from scripture. That's right: there is no "One God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" in the bible. The closest we get are invocations at the end of Paul's letters, the creation narrative with its God, Word, Spirit imagery, or the words of Jesus to his disciples about his coming from the Father and the promised sending of the Spirit. So, yes, a sermon with no clear scriptural warrant. What could be more fun?

I'm preaching this Sunday, and I'll spend the week looking at the lectionary-appointed readings to see if any of them might lend itself to a coherent, non-heretical sermon fit for this feast. In weeks like this one, however, it often works best to pick a lesson and preach a sermon without any regard for the theme of the day. (Right now, I'm leaning towards Jesus' "this ain't over yet" advice in John 16.) But for today I'd like to invite you to consider modeling the doctrine of the Trinity instead of explaining it. After all, it can't be understood. Maybe the best we should hope for is to reflect the truth of God's Trinitarian nature in our worship.

How about this liturgical practice that completely blew me away? This past week, I had reason to browse the Eucharistic prayer from the 1662 BCP. (Don't ask; it happens.) In my reading of this beautifully Calvinistic, Epiclesis-absent rite, I noticed an asterisk that I had never noticed before. Immediately after the sursum corda, the celebrant continues, "It is very meet, right and our bounden duty, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto thee, O Lord, *Holy Father, Almighty, Everlasting God." Have you ever noticed that asterisk before? Maybe it's just me, but, when I read the accompanying instruction in the margin beside it, I was taken aback: "These words [Holy Father] must be omitted on Trinity Sunday."

Wait, what? Omit "Holy Father" from the opening of the Eucharistic prayer? That's part of the auto-pilot words that priests say when they've offered these words to God in prayer over and over and over. You can't take them out. I mean, I get why one would do that. It's Trinity Sunday, and we want to reflect the unitary nature of the three persons by not using appropriation to artificially direct our prayers to the Father when it is, of course, the One-in-Three who always receives our prayers. But that change seems so inconsequential to everyone except the celebrant who must now train his focus on not reciting the words that are only omitted one day a year.

How long did this go on? I looked into it and found, again to my surprise, that this liturgical practice was used in the Episcopal Church all the way up until the 1928 Prayer Book. That means that for the majority of our church's Anglican history--stretching from 1662 (the rubric doesn't appear in earlier versions) all the way through the 1920s--we dropped the reference to the Father on Trinity Sunday. Leaving it in, therefore, is just a newfangled liturgical innovation--like the Peace.

So what's the point? Leave it out this Sunday? No, I don't think so. But I do think we should look deeply and specifically at our worship and wonder to ourselves--perhaps even aloud--at the ways in which our worship reflects our belief in the Trinity or, perhaps more often, masks that belief. Are we separating the works of the persons, making one Creator, one Redeemer, and one Sanctifier? Heresy! Are we pretending that the death of the Son satisfies the wrath of the Father? Heresy! Are we praying to the Father, through the Spirit, in the name of the Son? Unless we see that the separation is only a pretense to help us make sense of it, it's a heresy.

The truth is that we can't say much about God. In fact, when preachers like me try to explain anything about God, we usually end up making the situation worse. The best we can do is not do any harm. This Sunday, don't do any harm. Get out of the way. Trust that God--Father, Son, and Spirit--is drawing us into the divine life. Don't split it up to make sense of it. But listen for it. Look for it. Take a long, careful look at the liturgy--as if you were presiding for the very first time all over again--and see how what we will do reflects what we believe about God. When it comes to the Trinity, it's always easier to do it than to say it.

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