Holding everything in balance
‘Will the boy holding the girl in the wrong way, please hold her in the right way’. These words spoken to me in a dance school when I was sixteen remain as one of my great humiliations (self-inflicted of course). These were the days just before dancing became a non-contact sport. From time to time, people ask me what would I have been if I hadn’t been a priest. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I always say ‘a dancer’. Holding a person in the right way is an art to be learned and worked at as well as a gift to be celebrated. In contemporary dance, the holding of another dancer is a complex series of moves of athleticism and gracefulness, sometimes holding someone tight and sometimes holding them as a springboard for being free to do something they could not possibly do on their own.
Holding a person in the right way is a phrase that means a number of things, and can be used to describe good and healthy relationships. In the ups and downs of our relationships we do not always succeed at ‘holding everything in balance’ (Tom McGuinness, The Rower). We have just celebrated Trinity Sunday, and the tradition hands down to us two distinct ways of thinking about the Trinity and visualising it. A daring attempt to suggest what the internal life of the Trinity might look like is by the celebrated Russian icon painter, Andrei Rublev. This picture (see below) holds two contradictory things in balance. The painting is a masterpiece of that stillness which we find in the icon tradition. Yet at the same time, we sense that there is movement there among the figures. The early theologians of the Greek tradition recognised that there is a choreography for the internal life of the Trinity; there is a dance inscribed in that Trinitarian life.
The other tradition takes as its starting point that the Trinity, as well as having an inner life, also has a lifethat reaches outside itself. This of course is something more familiar to our experience of the Incarnation. God so loved the world that he sent his only Son into the world (John 3.16). But this truth at the centre of our belief is given an extraordinary visual form. The subject is called the Throne of Grace, words used in Hebrews 4.16, but it goes well beyond those words in its presentation of the life of the Trinity as you can see in this painting by the great artist Sandro Botticelli. In this painting, the Trinity is flanked by the two St Johns, the Baptist and the Son of Zebedee. But central to the drama of the picture is the holding. See how the Father holds the cross which holds the Son. See how the Holy Spirit is held in balance between the Father and the Son; that holding is a dynamism which will set the Spirit free into the world. The words of the fourth gospel express the death of Jesus in the words he handed over the Spirit (John 19:30). The Father is holding the Son in the right way, and in that holding, we see the Father identifying with the mission of the Son. In the way that relations seem to work in the Trinity, the Father, too is shaped by the Son’s death, in such a way that he fully embraces Jesus’ death for the world.
It is as though the Father is expressing something of what we do when we sing those lovely words of David Haas, We hold the death of the Lord deep in our hearts. It is that holding that shapes us, living now we remain with Jesus the Christ.
Do I still want to be a dancer? I do hope to hear the words , “Will the boy holding the death of the Lord deep in his heart come and join the Trinity in the dance?”
James Crampsey SJ
“To speak of the Godhead is, I know, like crossing the ocean on a raft, or like flying to the stars with wings of narrow span.” So begins a homily preached sixteen hundred and thirty years ago by one of the great fathers of the church, Gregory Nazianzen. Speaking of the Trinity has not got any easier than it was in his days, and there remains for any preacher a strong temptation to slide away from the topic.
But here is the heart of our faith. However the gods have been portrayed and understood in different faiths, old and new, widespread and particular, our God is no single monarch, no unitary power, nor do we believe in some clan of superbeings populating Olympus or Valhalla.
Our God is one. Our God is three. The God revealed in Jesus is koinonia - community, is relationship.
As one of my American brother-Jesuits expresses it:
God is a community of persons. Mutuality is the source of life. Relationship grounds being. There is otherness from the start. The doctrine of the Trinity affirms God as loving and knowing, giving and receiving. We profess that God could not be God without the "other" (the Son) and the eternal bond of their relationship (the Spirit).
And in today’s readings what is spelt out for us is that God’s “reaching-out” – God’s knowing and loving, giving and receiving – embraces us.
Moses reminds the people that God has been involved in their lives – that God is committed to God’s first and always chosen people.
St Paul, in the letter to the Romans, tells us something so extraordinary that we might not have heard it first time round. I have a good friend whose job used to take him to Israel, where he occasionally stayed with an Israeli colleague. John shared with me the moment when he was taken by his colleague to visit his home and family, and they were met by his young son running down the path to meet his father. Let me ask you a question: if you are a parent, what would your child be calling out at that moment? And if you are a child, or closer to being a child, what would you be shouting?
Because the little boy, delighted to see his father coming home, was calling out “Abba! Abba! Abba!” And that, says St Paul, is how we can and should call on God.
And in the Gospel we are both commanded to spread the good news of God’s delighted love for us, and promised that Jesus, the fullest expression of that love, is with us to the end of time.
What more can we say? In some sense, as Gregory Nazianzen observed, it is almost impossible to speak about such a God. But we are also assured that God has made us in God’s own image and likeness, and that can embolden us to look in our lives for pointers towards the life of God.
We know that we are relational beings, that we find ourselves at our fullest only in transcending ourselves in reaching out selflessly to others.
We know this, though we may resist this knowledge when it seems that cutting ourself off from others is a more attractive path. Sometimes we may even invoke our religion in support of our solipsism – but when we do that we have lost sight of something essential.
Because it is not simply a moral injunction that we should engage with one another, nor even simply a reflection of our incarnate, embodied nature as human beings. We are called to engage with one another, we are called to relationship, we are called to community, because we are in the image of God, God who is Father Son and Spirit, Source Gift and Love, Creator Redeemer and Inspirer.
“Ecce ego et tu” says Aelred of Rievaulx in the opening words of his great book on Friendship: “Look, here we are, you and I, and I hope that Christ is a third in our midst.”
It sounds not that far off from the Trinity – as indeed should be the case. When I am most myself, the image of the Trinity is at its most clear in me. At my best, at my most loving, at my most giving, at my most creative, what can be seen in my life points towards the life of the Trinity, even though it is only a pale image of the reality of God.
Because Gregory Nazianzen was, of course, right – we cannot express the reality of God adequately, either in our words or in our lives. But we can learn to look with gospel eyes at the deepest and most human aspects of our living, and come to recognise there pointers towards eternity, indications of what our lives will be when we are caught up in the life of the Trinity. If last Sunday we celebrated the beginnings of the Church, this Sunday we celebrate the God who is both our beginning and our end. We have fashioned from the writing of St Paul a greeting for the beginning of our Eucharists: allow me to rephrase it as a pointer towards this fullness of life:
We live now in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We live now in the love of God.
We live now in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
k here to edit.
It’s a bit of a complicated time just now for us who live in Manchester. But maybe that can help us think about Pentecost.
To start on a lighter note: while hundreds of thousands of people across this country seized the opportunity yesterday to wrap themselves in the Union Flag, and wear silly hats, and celebrate the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markel, something of the icing on the cake was squashed for Mancunians by United losing out to Chelsea in the Cup Final – and what is worse, that not being the main item on the news.
At a more serious level, Tuesday sees the first anniversary of the bombing at the Manchester Arena. But out of this tragedy, which had been fuelled by fear turning to hate, emerged shared and individual acts of heroism and generosity and vulnerability. Let me just choose one small but iconic event, in addition to the acts of solidarity that took place here at the Chaplaincy and the Holy Name. I only this morning heard the story of Baktash Noori, a young Muslim man, standing blindfold in Market Street in the days after the bombing with a sign at his feet reading “I’m Muslim and I trust you. Do you trust me enough for a hug?” – and the constant stream of Mancunians responding with hugs.
We know the story of Pentecost – we have heard it many times. I still recall hearing it read out forty years ago in a hilltop chapel in the stillness and heat of a Zimbabwe afternoon. As we heard of the noise of the coming of the Spirit, so the msasa trees outside the chapel were moved by a great wind, and what had seemed to be the story of something that had happened once long ago suddenly became what it has always been if we are open to seeing it – the story of something that was happening there and then, that is happening here and now. The coming of the Spirit of Jesus is no event in the past, finished and done with: the coming of the Spirit is a present event – an event that is taking place here and now, as we gather in the name of Jesus, as I speak, as you listen, as we pray together around the table of the Eucharist, in Manchester in 2018.
The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins has his own take on it:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil…
The Holy Spirit – the Spirit of Jesus – is the Spirit of truth. The Spirit enables us to see things as they really are. Too often we find ourselves persuaded to see things as other than they are: to see things as the spirit of this world would have us see them. So we see possessions as the key to happiness; we see status and power as the essential attributes of a good life; we see each other, all too often, as either competitors or as resources to be used; we see ourselves as committed to a life which is an anxious series of tasks and conflicts. Or we see a world bleak beyond redemption, spiralling into moral chaos and depravity; we see a Church which is not the Church in which we remember growing up; we see a Church which if it really knew us would not accept us. Perhaps we see ourselves as unable to do more than ‘get on with life’ in a series of sad compromises.
To see in these ways is to become trapped, knowingly or unknowingly. To live like that has consequences: Paul, in the second reading today from the letter to the Galatians, has spelled them out for us. These are the outcomes of living in a false world, the consequences of being guided by an untrue vision of the world, by an untrue vision of each other, by an untrue vision of ourselves. And it is these untruths which can lead to fear, and fear fed by untruth can lead to hate and destruction and suicide bombings.
The Spirit of truth enables us to see the world, each other, and ourselves as we really are. It is not that there is some great secret knowledge, as the Gnostics believed, nor some over-simplified Pollyanna-ish refusal to see, as some critics of religion would assert. The truth is both simpler and more real, because the Spirit of truth is the Spirit of love.
The experience of knowing the truth is something we all recognise in our human relationships, when the truth about someone we love suddenly breaks in on us. And the truth may be nothing more strange, nothing more mysterious than that this person loves me, or that I love this person (but can anything be more strange and mysterious than that?). When we see the truth in that way, we realise that it was always there for us to see, but something prevented us from seeing it. Our hearts were, if not burning within us, at least smouldering, and we needed our own Emmaus experience in order to turn back, to come home to where we always belonged.
The truth which the Spirit enables us to see is that same truth – that each one of us is loved beyond calculation by God our Father, that we are called together as those who know God’s love revealed in Jesus so that we can love each other into living-out that same love as Jesus lived it out, that we – each one and together - are held and empowered by the Spirit of Jesus who makes what seems to be impossible become visible as what has always been possible – for nothing is impossible to God, and we have the Spirit of God in us and among us.
When we recognise that we love someone utterly, or that another offers us such love, then our lives can seem changed beyond recognition, but in reality we have drawn closer to who we always have been, and we spend the rest of our lives growing into the fullness of who we are – a long homecoming.
It is the Spirit who is at work in our relationships of love, just as the Spirit is at work in the gathered community of the followers of Jesus, just as the Spirit is at work in our prayer alone and in our prayer together, in our sacramental celebrations, in the Scriptures, in our Eucharist. And we can see that it is the Spirit at work because Paul has given us a list of the signs of the Spirit, that list which we heard read out a few minutes ago:
“What the Spirit brings is very different [from the marks of self-indulgence]: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
These are the signs of the Spirit: these are the signs of who we truly are – every last one of us – me and you. And when we look with eyes opened by the Spirit, we can see these signs in our lives – the lives of every last one of us, me and you. And Paul spells it out: “There can be no law against things like that, of course.”
Those who look on us without love will not see these signs, and knowing their rejection we may fear, deep down or with acute awareness, that if they really saw us as we are, every last one of us, me and you, we would in their judgement find no place in God’s gathered people.
But those who look on us with love can, in the measure of that love, see us as we truly are, and can, in the measure of ththat love, speak God’s truth to us and tell us who we are. And God looks on us with a love that is without measure, and that sees and encompasses everything that we truly are, and if we let the Spirit touch us, God will speak God’s truth to us and tell us who we truly are, every last one of us, me and you.
Prince Harry & Meghan Markel yesterday told each other who they really are – and in so doing told each of us something of the same truth. Baktash Noori, standing there in his blindfold on Market Street, helped hundreds of people tell him, and tell themselves, who they really are – and via YouTube hundreds of thousands of people shared that same truth about themselves and their neighbours.
We are God’s beloved in this corner of Manchester this Pentecost, and to the measure that we let God tell us that, then the grandeur of God, which is the truth of God and the love of God, will flame out from each of us, here, today, as on that first Pentecost, and those around us, each in their own language, (for love and truth are a shared language), will hear us preaching about the marvels of God, because the Spirit of the Lord fills the whole world.