Welcome to the Healing Dance

. 8 min read

to the Healing Dance
11, 2017: Trinity Sunday
the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had
directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some
doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on
earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all
nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the
Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded
you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
In the
fall of 1972, when I was in 8th grade, Angela Smith asked me to be
her escort for homecoming. Angela was a beautiful young woman who was a bit more
“mature” than most 8th grade girls, and the student body of Gassaway
Junior High School had elected her to be their homecoming queen. She had a 17
year old boyfriend who was not permitted to attend her coronation at the homecoming
football game or accompany her to the dance, and so she asked me, probably
taking my social backwardness as a sign that I was “safe”—which in those days,
at least, I most certainly was. I said yes, not so much because I was
flattered, but because I felt obliged—regardless of how uncomfortable it might
make me feel. I joined her in my football uniform at midfield before the game,
and then that evening I escorted her to the dance. So far, so good. But then
things got complicated. Angela asked me to dance. I remember it as my first dance, and I was a sweaty package of
anxiety and cluelessness. I survived, but a die had been cast, for I was and remain
a terrible dancer, far too self-conscious to allow myself to enjoy the
experience. That October night was the beginning of a history of frustration, because
for the last 45 years I have disappointed every woman who has tried to teach me
to dance, up to and including the one to whom I am married. Yet even after all
that, I have not completely given up on dancing. I still have hope that one day
I might dance, if not with beauty, then at least with joy.

understand what dancing of any sort—let alone my
dancing—has to do with our being here today is admittedly a bit of a stretch. Today
is Trinity Sunday, the liturgical sequel to the events of Pentecost, which we
celebrated last week. It is in many ways a curious day for Christians who
bother to acknowledge it, for even though most of us profess to believe in the
Trinity, we usually do so only when asked, often quite unsure about what it
means or what difference it might make.
regard to the former matter, that of being unsure about what it means to claim
that God is Trinity, you should know that you are in good company. As we saw
just a moment ago, even saints sometimes falter in their efforts to make sense
of it, and for good reason, for when we say we believe that God is Trinity we
are saying, in effect, that “one plus one plus one equals one.” To borrow a
line from one of my favorite Coen brothers’ movies, “That don’t make no sense.”
As a
beginning theology student, I learned two valuable lessons about the Trinity,
which I remember clearly to this day. The first is that where the Trinity is
concerned, scripture is of limited use. As one of my favorite teachers often
said, the Bible doesn’t give us the doctrine of the Trinity; rather, it gives
us the problem to which the Trinity turns out to be the answer. The first
Christians were all Jews who had grown up repeating over and again that most
fundamental of Jewish confessions: Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad—“Hear,
O Israel, the L
is God, the L
alone.” When they became Christians they didn’t abandon that confession,
because they believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah promised and sent
by the L
the one true God of Israel. Yet it wasn’t long before they found themselves
standing against the idolatrous claims of the Roman Empire and its Caesars, doing
so by proclaiming that most fundamental of Christian
confessions: Iesus Christos kurios—“Jesus
Christ is Lord.”
Now, there
was a problem, or at least a question; assuming as they did that there was no
negotiating the oneness of the God of Israel, what did it mean for them to use
the title that had for generations been reserved exclusively for that
God—“Lord”—to talk about Jesus the Messiah? And that’s not the only question: What
does the author of the prologue to John mean when he says (of Jesus), “the Word
was with God, and the Word was God”? What was Paul getting at when he called
Jesus “the exact image of the invisible God,” saying elsewhere that while Jesus
was “in the form of God,” he “did not regard equality with God as something to
be exploited”? These questions and others like them led to a great deal of
speculation, and were the reason the church fathers formulated the creeds, confessions,
and definitions that articulate the doctrine of the Trinity.
Which brings
me to the second lesson, which is that any attempt to explain the Trinity will necessarily be wrong, and all those pleasant
analogies we might employ trying to do so place us, along with our friend Patrick,
on a path to heresy. The Trinity is territory where language fails us, and
where the careful, self-conscious use of metaphor is the best we can do. To
paraphrase Saint Augustine, who when writing about the idea that the one God
consisted of three distinct persons, allowed, “of course we all know that God
is not a ‘person’ in any conventional sense. We merely say this in order to be
able to say anything at all.” The creeds and formulas of the early church don’t
explain God so much as they set boundaries
of belief by saying what God is not. The Trinity is among the most profound mysteries of our faith—not a puzzle to be
solved, but a truth to be received by faith through initiation and practice.
So, if
you’ve been paying attention, you may now know some things you didn’t know when
you walked in this morning. If this is the case, you might want to ask the two
questions I tell my students they should ask anytime they learn something new:
“So what? Now what?” What practical difference does it make that God is both one
and three, and what does it mean that we are baptized, and that we baptize
others, “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit?
If God
is in fact Trinity—and God is in fact
Trinity—then there was never a time when God was not
Trinity. Trinity is who God is. To be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is God’s
very Being, which is Being itself, the source of all being, including our own.
And because God is both Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and Being itself, then
God’s being is being-in-communion. God is
not simply inherently social; God is a perfect
in which the members of the godhead live together in perfect communion,
bound together by a love so flawless and so beautiful we can barely begin to
imagine it.
here’s the thing—because of all this, everything that exists, to the extent it
participates in its Maker, is made for
. That includes you and me and our neighbors and our enemies. We
exist—all Creation exists—because of the generous overflowing of the very love that
binds together the godhead. Our being, at least according to God’s intention
for us, is also being-in-communion. When God speaks in Genesis 1:26 and says,
“Let us create humankind in our own image,” he is saying, in effect, “Let us
make humankind to be like us, to live in communion, with us and with one
another, and to be a society of love that is an earthly icon of our own.”
course, the reality of history, and the reality of the world we inhabit, and
all too often the reality of our own lives is anything but loving communion.
Human greed is effectively destroying the earth and leaving millions of people destitute,
and we seem generally ok with that so long as we can get our hands on the new
iPhone. Terrorists kill innocent civilians. Criminals brutalize victims. Racism
remains deeply entrenched in our society. Husbands abuse wives, parents hurt
children, and neighbors sue or even shoot each other simply because they don’t
like the signs posted in the yard next door. Add to all that the kinds of
garden variety selfishness and greed and overindulgence we all experience on a
daily basis, and you have yourself a big hot mess of self-seeking, exploitative,
and often violent individualism.
The good
news—the gospel—is that there is another way. It is the way of the perfect
communion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God beckons us to enter into
that communion, and having entered, to welcome others to enter, as well. This
is the substance of Jesus’s “Great Commission,” to welcome the beaten down
members of a broken Creation into a place of peace and generosity, to love them
as we have been loved, and in doing so, show them the love that is God.
image you are seeing on the screen is one of the most famous icons in Christian
history. It was painted by a fifteenth century Russian named Andre Rublev, and
it depicts the story of the three visitors to Abraham and Sarah at the Oaks of
Mamre from Genesis 18. The name of the icon is “The Trinity.” Volumes have been
written about this icon, in part because it is so theologically rich, and in
part because it is such a wonderful example of iconographic technique. You see,
icons are painted to have a particular effect on those who contemplate them. In
stark contrast to the (then) newly developed realism of Renaissance paintings,
which seem almost to leap off the canvas, icons appear not just flat, but
almost concave. They are designed not to amaze, but to attract, to draw in, to
welcome. To this technique, Rublev’s Trinity adds a feature peculiar to the
story on which it is based; the three visitors are sitting down for a meal, one
to which we who contemplate the icon are being welcomed. “Come,” they say,
gesturing toward the open place at the table. “Join us. There’s more than
enough, and it would be our pleasure to share with you.”
we receive their invitation, we will be blessed by their generosity. Having
been nourished and refreshed, we may then rise from the table to do the good
work we have been given to do. That work is not a burden, or even an
obligation, for it is a participation in God’s work, which is a work of healing
and being healed. My friend Wendell Berry writes, “The grace that is the health
of creatures can only be held in common. In healing, the scattered members come
coming together is achieved through mirroring the social dynamic of the
Trinity, which the ancient church described using the Greek word
“perichoresis,” which means, roughly, “to dance around.” This is quite
obviously a metaphor, one that calls to mind a complex folk dance, with circles
within circles and dancers continually changing positions and partners among
those circles as they join together in a joyful celebration of music and
movement. This is a dance of the sort that even I might be able to enjoy, for
the kinds of self-conscious worries about getting it right that paralyze me as
an individual dancer disappear in the engagement with the multitudes of other
dancers and the music to which they move.
is a healing dance, not unlike the one upon which Berry muses a bit further in
the same essay. “It graces with health,” he says. “It heals with grace. It
preserves the given so that it remains a gift. By it, we lose loneliness: we
clasp the hands of those who go before us, and the hands of those who come
after us; we enter the little circle of each other’s arms, and the larger
circle of lovers whose hands are joined in a dance, and the larger circle of
all creatures, passing in and out of life, who move also in a dance, to a music
so subtle and vast that no ear hears it except in fragments.”
The good
work to which we are called is simply to join in and be part of this healing
dance. This is the commission we have been given. It is more invitation than
command, more about sharing the hospitality we have been shown than foisting
rules and ideas upon others. To make disciples—to baptize and to teach—is to
welcome and share with them the healing dance of life of which we have already
been made part. In the joyful sharing of our lives at the point of the
brokenness and need of those we encounter, we extend our hand to them and invite
them to dance. Thanks be to God.