Once when I was on a holiday break, I went into a church. Before you think to yourself, how dull and boring this fellow is, or, how outrageously pious this fellow is, let me defend myself and say that this particular church is known for its outstanding architecture.
Among other things, what caught my attention was the sculpture behind the main altar. It was a representation of God. This is unusual, because what you usually find as the centrepiece in a church is a cross or crucifix. Like the big cross outside our window.
In the church I visited the centrepiece was a huge gold sunburst, perhaps 4 to 5 metres high, and at its centre a large bright white spot. Flying out of the centre of the brilliant white spot was a very small bird. It was a depiction of God the Father, with the Holy Spirit as a dove coming towards the worshippers.
And it slowly dawned on me as to why there was no image of Jesus. It was because the sunburst was just above the altar, and on the altar at the time of worship would be the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ. So the 3 Persons of the Trinity were depicted: the Father in the sun burst, the Son in the bread and wine on the altar, and the Holy Spirit proceeding towards us as a bird.
God the Father, who is more than we can ever conceive of, invisible, indescribable, outshining the sun in all its glory. The Holy Spirit, the humble dove, the almost unnoticeable gift of God, coming to us from God. And Jesus, our nourishment, the bread of life, who makes his home in the believer.
Here in Christ Church there is no direct representation of God the Father. And yet there is. God the Father can be seen in our view through this glorious window, for it is God who has called into being what we can see through the window, and when we take time to notice and reflect, it is awesome. As St Paul says, God’s eternal power and deity can be seen in what he has made.
If it is usual for the Father to be under-represented in a Christian church, the same is true also for the Holy Spirit. In the area where I was travelling on that same short break, on my bicycle, my guidebook said that there was a certain chapel of the Holy Spirit which was all that one small town had to offer the tourist. It was easy to decide to give it a miss; but I got lost and found myself passing through this town anyway. So I looked around for the chapel, saw this old looking building, read the label on it, and went in. I could not see any representation of the Holy Spirit in the chapel of the Holy Spirit! Over the main altar was a huge crucifix, and there was other artwork about. But no Holy Spirit.
Here at Christ Church, the Holy Spirit is portrayed in our red altar cloth with a dove on it, which comes out on Pentecost, once a year, last Sunday. Otherwise we have the banners on the sides, but not in the centre of our vision.
Surprisingly, we have a number of representations of the Holy Trinity here in Christ Church, and they are all from the old bluestone church: do you see them? In the backs of the chairs and in the window of the Good Samaritan.
Some Christians would say we don’t need art or architecture for our spirituality. Yet the bible is full of stories of people who related to God through all of their senses. Art and architecture can be reminders to us and future generations of what we believe and hold fast to.
What is going on in our Christian art? I believe it reflects the way we know and experience God, which is our experience of God as Trinity. It begins with the fact that we have an historic faith – our faith is grounded in facts, in the record of the life of one extraordinary human being. So extraordinary that he must consume the fire and passion of our art and architecture and hearts. To him we give all worship and glory. Without Jesus, we would never have known the amazing depth of God’s love. With Jesus, we are forgiven and redeemed, our past is behind, we are God’s children, heirs with Jesus of the glory he has received from the Father.
What about the Father, whom Jesus spoke about constantly as his Father? Philip said to Jesus, ‘Lord show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Moses and the 70 elders of Israel went up Mt Sinai and sat and ate in God’s presence, and God spoke with Moses face to face. Many have sought that same vision of God.
Many young people, and also the not so young, have gone searching for the spiritual in hallucinogenic drugs. Someone once gave me a copy of Stephen Hawking’s ‘The Universe in a Nutshell’. It’s supposed to be for general readers, but I keep wanting to say to Stephen, help, I don’t know what you are talking about. Scientists are searching for a theory of everything. In doing so, they also are seeking a vision, an opportunity for them to discover the eternal power and deity of the Father.
In answer to Philip’s request to see the Father, Jesus said, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.’ With Philip I find this confusing and yet also comforting – we look on Jesus in and through the bread and wine, and we see the Father, the holy, eternal God. How? As one who is not above entering the most lowly representation of himself, ordinary bread and wine.
And what about the Holy Spirit? Jesus says the Spirit is another advocate, another comforter, the invisible Jesus we experience now. In the stillness, in the singing, in the prayers, the voice of God within, the breath that enlivens the universe, that sustains all the little bits the scientists are searching for, our guide, our life force. I believe we need more silence in our worship if we are to perceive the Spirit, who does not force his presence on us.
How can God be these 3 Persons and yet one God? It’s like asking, what goes on inside a black hole? You say you don’t understand the Trinity. Who could? As someone else has asked, can a fish explain the nature of water?
The Trinity is something we get drawn up into. Things I’ve read that have helped me have spoken about the Trinity as a community of love occurring in the heart of God, and that there is an invitation to us to be a part of that community.
We are invited not just to be viewers, but participants, to join in the loving community of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We can be just viewers – we could be in the church all of our lives, and never have been more than just viewers. Real faith comes when we say yes to the invitation to take the seat that has been reserved for us.
Among the last words of the bible, the Spirit says ‘come, all who are thirsty, and take the water of life.’ It is on the table at the place reserved for you and me in the life of God the Holy Trinity.