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Trinity Sunday

Coronation of the Virgin by the Trinity, Holy Trinity, Goodramgate, York, 1470, © Raguin/MMK

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through the belief in the threeness,
Through the confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation.

from St. Patrick's Breastplate [click here for full text]
(better known in the translation of Cecil Francis Alexander: "I bind unto myself today")

St. Patrick's Breastplate is a prayer for protection from the perils of both the visible and the invisible worlds. While it has traditionally been attributed to St. Patrick himself in the fifth century, many scholars believe that it more likely dates to the eighth century. Whatever its date, this ancient prayer witnesses to a deeply imbedded trinitarian consciousness in British Christianity. It is written in the style of a traditional Celtic prayer for protection on a journey. The Celts of pre-Christian Britain, who were pushed west and north, to Wales, Ireland, and Scotland by the Romans, perceived both the natural world and divinity in trinitarian terms: the threefold cycle of life (birth, death, and rebirth), the three elements of the cosmos (earth, air, and water), and the triple goddess (maiden, mother, and crone). Furthermore, this trinitarian perspective was maintained within a sense of friendship, even intimacy, between the natural world and the divine. The ancient Celt was confident that the gods cared about creation and creatures and were involved in day to day life at every level. Thus, there were prayers for every activity, invoking the assistance and the blessing of the gods on everything from starting a fire to going on a journey, from shearing sheep to weaving cloth, from birth to death. In that context, it was only natural that St. Patrick would use the familiar shamrock as an illustration in his preaching. For the three-thinking Celts of Ireland, the leap from three-in-one in creation to the Three-in-One Creator, must have been relatively natural. There was certainly skepticism about leaving behind the old gods, but once the transition had been made, translation was not at all difficult. In the nineteenth century, Alexander Carmichael traveled around Scotland collecting folklore which he published as Carmina Gadelica. For the most part, the prayers and blessings in his collection are clearly Christian, but the cadences and the concerns of the prayers appear to rise seamlessly out of the old religion and find a perfect home in the new. Here are a few examples.



THE sacred Three
To save,
To shield,
To surround
The hearth,
The house,
The household,
This eve,
This night,
Oh! this eve,
This night,
And every night,
Each single night.




I WILL rise early on the morning of Monday,
I will sing my rune and rhyme,
I will go sunwise with my cog
To the nest of my hen with sure intent.

I will place my left hand to my breast,
My right hand to my heart,
I will seek the loving wisdom of Him
Abundant in grace, in broods, and in flocks.


In the name of the most Holy Trinity,
In name of Columba kindly,
I will set the eggs on Thursday,
The gladsome brood will come on Friday.



THOU Michael the victorious,
I make my circuit under thy shield,
Thou Michael of the white steed,
And of the bright brilliant blades,
Conqueror of the dragon,
Be thou at my back,
Thou ranger of the heavens,
Thou warrior of the King of all,
     O Michael the victorious,
     My pride and my guide,
     O Michael the victorious,
     The glory of mine eye.

I make my circuit
In the fellowship of my saint,
On the machair, on the meadow,
On the cold heathery hill;
Though I should travel ocean
And the hard globe of the world
No harm can e’er befall me
’Neath the shelter of thy shield;
     O Michael the victorious,
     Jewel of my heart,
     O Michael the victorious,
     God's shepherd thou art.

Be the sacred Three of Glory
Aye at peace with me,
With my horses, with my cattle,
With my woolly sheep in flocks.
With the crops growing in the field
Or ripening in the sheaf,
On the machair, on the moor,
In cole, in heap, or stack.
     Every thing on high or low,
     Every furnishing and flock,
     Belong to the holy Triune of glory,
     And to Michael the victorious.

The three texts above are from sacred-texts.com, scanned October 2005. Proofed and formatted by John Bruno Hare.
This text is in the public domain in the United States because it was originally published prior to January 1st, 1923.
These files may be used for any non-commercial purpose provided this notice of attribution is left intact in all copies,
printed or electronic. Illuminated letters above (S, H, M) and below (C, I) are from the same source.

And finally, the stirring concluding verses of Mrs. Alexander's translation of St. Patrick's Breastplate, evoking the transcendent power of the Name of the Triune God, the intimate nearness of Christ, and the inseparable nature of God's work of creation and salvation:


Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.



I bind unto myself the Name,
the strong Name of the Trinity,
by invocation of the same,
the Three in One, and One in Three.
Of whom all nature hath creation,
eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
praise to the Lord of my salvation,
salvation is of Christ the Lord.


Coat of arms of St Thomas of Canterbury: three choughs ("beckits") on a silver fieldThe doctrine of the Holy Trinity is older than Celtic Christianity, and the celebration of Trinity Sunday as a major feast of the Church year did not originate in Britain. Nevertheless, it clearly found a most congenial climate and took root easily. Indeed, the spread of the observance of Trinity Sunday and its ultimate establishment in the universal calendar of the Western Church is largely due to the popularity of an Englishman: Archbishop St. Thomas (Becket) of Canterbury. As early as the ninth century, the first Sunday after Pentecost was being observed in some places as a day particularly devoted to celebrating our trinitarian faith in one God in three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. However, the observance was far from universal and one pope even dismissed it as an unnecessary observance since every act of worship is offered in the Name of the Trinity. In 1162, Thomas Becket was ordained to the Priesthood on Ember Saturday in Whitsun week. On the next day, he was consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury. As Archbishop and Metropolitan, he obtained for all of England the privilege of celebrating the Sunday after Whitsunday as Trinity Sunday. After his martyrdom in 1170, and subsequent canonization, his shrine in Canterbury became one of the most important pilgrimage shrines in all of Europe and the popularity of Trinity Sunday also spread. In the 14th century Pope John XXII added Trinity Sunday to the calendar of the whole Western Church. For many centuries, the Sundays after Paschaltide were counted as "Sundays after Trinity," and the season was known as "Trinitytide." The liturgical movement of the latter half of the 20th century was responsible for the present custom in many Anglican provinces of counting the Sundays after Pentecost, though Trinity Sunday retains both its title and its stature as a major feast of the Church.

On first glance, Trinity Sunday appears to be unusual, if not unique, among the feasts of the Church year for, based on its title, it seems to celebrate a doctrine, an article of belief, in contrast to most feasts that commemorate an event in the life of our Lord or else the witness of one of the saints. In fact, the contrast is a false one. When considered in dogmatic terms, the idea of the Trinity is a challenging one, abstract and somewhat difficult for the average believer to grasp, even though it is an essential part of the content of Christian believing. There is a necessary aspect of our faith that is expressed with intellectual propositions and definitions. In that context, the diagram at the left may be a helpful tool for some. On the other hand, homely divinity, the incarnational approach to theology that characterizes our Anglican tradition, tends to look elsewhere for a way of understanding God. It is interesting to note that Anglicanism has produced relatively few systematic theologians. There have been some. But our great strength has always been pastoral theology, theology that is shaped in the crucible of daily life, theology that, as we have said elsewhere, takes its cue first of all from that homely moment in a stable in Bethlehem in which the great doctrine of the Incarnation was first defined in the flesh and afterwards in ideas. What happened at Bethlehem manifests a deep mystery, and saints and theologians have taken great pains to put that mystery into words. But those words are meaningless apart from the Person of the Word made flesh, the second Person of that Mystery known as the Holy Trinity. Likewise, in celebrating the Persons of the Holy Trinity on Trinity Sunday, we certainly do not celebrate a diagram, nor do we only celebrate an abstract, even if important, idea. Rather, we celebrate a relationship, or rather a constellation of relationships, beginning with the communion of three Persons within the Godhead, and expanding to the relationship between the Triune God and all of Creation. In particular, Trinity Sunday celebrates the encounter of the eternal God with humankind both in and beyond time.

Coronation of the Virgin by the Trinity, Holy Trinity, Goodramgate, York, 1470, © Raguin/MMK
Coronation of the Virgin by the Trinity, Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate, York, 1470, © Raguin/MMK; image used by permission.

Another attempt to explain the doctrine of the Trinity and reinforce belief in it is found in the Athanasian Creed, also known by the first words of its original Latin, the "Quicumque vult."  While it was once attributed to St. Athanasius, the great fourth century defender of orthodoxy from Alexandria, this creed is now believed to be an early sixth century composition, originating in the West, not in the East. It is called a creed, though it lacks the words "I/we believe," and it has been used liturgically. The English Book of Common Prayer, in each edition from 1549 through 1662, directed it to be said on 19 occasions, including Trinity Sunday. In recent years, some provinces have dropped it entirely from their Prayer Books, and in others its use is now optional or limited to Trinity Sunday.  We will not venture a guess as to why the Athanasian Creed has dropped out of favor, but we will suggest that it may not be the most accessible way of coming to an apprehension of the Holy Trinity.

At the right is a 14th century stained glass window from Yorkshire. It depicts the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the Holy Trinity. Stained glass was the only Bible many illiterate folk of the Middle Ages could read, and the way the Trinity is portrayed in this window is significant. Often, the Trinity is portrayed in a manner that might be called modalistic: each Person is characterized in a distinct manner suggestive of a special role: God the Father as a venerable patriarch on his throne, God the Son either crucified or in another manner suggesting his earthly incarnation, and God the Holy Spirit as a dove. In this window, however, the three persons are depicted as virtually identical--the same faces, the same clothing, the same crowns, and all acting in concert. The message, of course, is that God is One, and that the three Persons of the Trinity are equal in every way, and both exist and act as One in everything. Furthermore, they are united in their focus on the person who kneels in their midst and who, as every medieval Christian understood, represents the entire human race. In fact, Mary is virtually surrounded and embraced--in this window she appears to be quite literally overshadowed--becoming a fourth person in the eternal relationship to which all people are invited.

Retablo of the Holy Trinity, painted by New Mexican santero Alcario Otero in 2001.

A similar depiction is found in the retablo at the left. In the unique tradition of the New Mexican santeros (sacred artists who painted and carved devotional art for churches and homes) the Holy Trinity is represented again by three identical figures who are, in this case, crowned with triangles and united by a trefoil halo. Their feet all rest on the earth as a footstool and they hold a bar across their laps which, based on early examples of this type, seems to represent a stylized lightning bolt, signifying the transcendent power of God. Also, each Person is distinguished by a symbol on his breast: the sun for the Father, a lamb for the Son, and a dove for the Holy Spirit. Again, the idea that is portrayed here is the unity, equality, and inseparable identity of the Three-in-One, with the distinctions among the Three receiving somewhat more acknowledgment by the use of the symbols particularly identifying each Person. Curiously, this manner of representing the Trinity was "tolerated" for many years in official Roman Catholic teaching, largely due to the respect even in the West for the Eastern iconic tradition of the "Old Testament Trinity" (see below). However, in 1928 it was expressly forbidden by the Holy See, with no reason given. Homely divinity sometimes runs on a parallel, if not a contradictory, track with institutional religious standards. Thus, three quarters of a century after the official rejection of this image it is still being painted and certainly has not been removed from churches or the homes of the faithful where it has resided for centuries, giving visual emphasis to one of the primary tenets of the Christian faith. The persistence of this image of the Trinity, which is not widely found in other Christian cultures, strikes us as especially significant in New Mexico. There, due to the lack of regular priestly ministry in many of the remote villages of the Spanish colony, various lay societies emerged, such as the brotherhood known as the Penitentes. They provided a dynamic substitute for the infrequent sacramental  ministry of the Church, with an exceptionally heavy emphasis on the Passion of Christ. As a result, images of Christ--as the abused prisoner, as the condemned man on the cross, and as the dead victim in the sepulchre--invariably very bloody, are ubiquitous, potentially overshadowing other aspects of Christian teaching. Nevertheless, as prevalent as such images are, they are kept in context by the larger iconographic tradition, the expression of which is not limited to sacred space, per se, but is found everywhere, both inside and outside of homes, and in shrines found wherever people live and work and travel--homely divinity in a culture that is not Anglican, but which is beginning to permeate the larger society and to have an impact on other cultures and traditions in which it has come to live.

Icon of the Holy Trinity, St. Andrei Rublev, c. 1410
Icon of the Holy Trinity, written by St. Andrei Rublev for the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, Trinity Monastery, Sergiev Posad, Russia, c. 1410.

Sixty years before the creation of the Yorkshire window, the depiction of the Holy Trinity in Russian iconography found its most sublime expression in the work of St. Andrei Rublev. Rublev took the traditional model of the Trinity, based on the visit of three angels to Abraham in the Old Testament, and gave it an expression that moved beyond the illustration of a biblical event to a powerful theological statement. Abraham, Sarah, and the servants and other local color are gone. All that remains are the angels, seated around a table with a single dish or cup before them. By the composition of the icon, it is clear that they are engaged in a dynamic and intimate relationship, a profound communion in which they are entirely One. Unlike the Trinity of the English window, the Rublev Trinity are distinguished by their clothing, but the distinction is mitigated by the fact that facially they are identical, perhaps making a somewhat stronger statement of Three-in-One. There is no one to stand for humankind in the Rublev Trinity, but there can be no doubt that the icon draws one in. There is a place at the table for another, and the artistic composition of the icon is an implicit invitation to the viewer to become a participant, and not merely a spectator. Furthermore, there is a dish in the center, containing the sacrifice, the holy meal in which divinity and humanity partake of one another and become one.

It becomes clear that the real point of the doctrine of the Trinity, and thus of the celebration of Trinity Sunday, is about relationships and thus about unity--God became man in order that man might become God, he in us and we in him. Ways of understanding God that hold him aloft in unapproachable transcendence simply will not do. The Holy Trinity desires and intends to be known as the divine Friend, unmistakably transcendent in Being, yet intimately and purposefully immanent and involved in our daily living. The relationships of the Three-in-One are always about being One-in-Three. So as we celebrate and accept the embrace of the Trinity, all of our human relationships must also be about unity. As the Church struggled to put the doctrine of the Trinity into words, in the creeds and in other doctrinal formulations, there was often division, but the goal was to unite, for only unity can express what it means to fully partake of the divine.

Oddly enough, Trinity Sunday has few distinctive traditions. There are hymns, such as "Holy, holy, holy," and St. Patrick's Breastplate that are often sung. The Te Deum may appropriately be sung in place of the Gloria in excelsis at the Eucharist, or else a "Solemn Te Deum" might be sung  at the conclusion of the Eucharist or Evensong, attended by incense and other ceremony. These things would emphasize the transcendent character of the Trinity and so attention should also be given to activities that would recall the homely aspects of the Trinity. In that regard, Trinity Sunday would be an appropriate day to give special emphasis to prayers for Christian unity, and possibly even to ecumenical gatherings for prayer, study, and fellowship. In our troubled times, these prayers should include petitions for the internal unity of our own Communion, as well as prayers for the reunion of the whole catholic Church of Christ. Trinity Sunday is the perfect day for covenanted parishes and institutions of different denominations, as well as ecumenical associations, to sponsor forums to work towards deeper mutual understanding and eventual reunion. "Faith and Order" is often the stepchild of ecumenical activity where it is easier to work together on worthwhile social endeavors than to address the issues that divide. As comfortable as we are in our own niches, we fail to offer due honor to the Trinity when we decline to pursue honest dialogue for the healing of divisions and the unity of all Christians. It is difficult to find ways of worshiping together that are satisfying to all who are involved. Lowest common denominator compromises, "show and tell" pastiches, and the like generally turn into worship "by the numbers," rather than real shared prayer. We believe that this is an area that requires great creativity and sincere openness--and Trinity Sunday is a good day to practice that. In the future, we hope to offer some resources for ecumenical prayer. 

Another theme that is deserving of mention on Trinity Sunday is pilgrimage. From the angels who stopped by Abraham's tent and the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, from the missionary journeys of Paul to the medieval and modern pilgrims to Canterbury, from the Christians who went in secret to the catacombs to modern labyrinth walkers, pilgrimage is a persistent theme in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. A pilgrimage does not need to have a grand goal in mind. As in the currently popular use of labyrinths, it is the intention in the act, not the precise location that counts. Sometimes, particularly when the destination is a place of particular holiness or even personal significance, there are substantial rewards at the end of a pilgrimage: spiritual renewal, physical or spiritual healing, enlightenment. At other times, the pilgrimage itself is the reward, as part of an intentional spiritual life that is literally at home with God wherever one happens to be. In the future, we hope to say more, also, about pilgrimage.

Triquetra vesica pisces

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