Trinity Sunday: A Metaphor for Understanding

by Dean Ben Shambaugh

This coming Sunday is Trinity Sunday. With the Ascension of Jesus and coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the Godhead is complete and we are about to enter the long green season of Sundays after Pentecost that is sometimes called “ordinary time.” There are two problems with this: first, that there is never any “ordinary time” in a church and, second, that as much as we use it as a tagline in our prayers, the idea of the Trinity is still a difficult concept to grasp. When you get right down to it, the Trinity and Trinity Sunday are human ways of trying to explain the inexplicable, of trying to understand God and God’s interaction with us and the world God has made. I don’t know about you but when I am confronted with this kind of conundrum, one of the more helpful things for me to do is to find a metaphor that helps it make sense.

When it comes to the Trinity, one of the great metaphors is water. We know water in three forms. If you think of how glaciers carved out bays and lakes and leveled mountains, you begin to understand the power, the creative power of the solid form of water. In ice and snow, we have an image of God the father, the creator. The second and most familiar experience of water is as a liquid. While humans can survive for a reasonable time without food, without water we quickly dry up and die. With water, we can be quickly revived. While water as a solid is creative and powerful, water as a liquid gives life. Here we have a symbol for God the son, the redeemer. The third form of water is as a gas, as steam. From the early narrow gauge railroads that crisscrossed this state to the triple expansion engines built in South Portland for Liberty Ships in World War Two and the nuclear engines in submarines that at least for now being serviced on our coasts, steam has long a symbol and source of power for motion and change. This, of course, brings to mind the Holy Spirit whose coming we celebrated last week, who is the God experienced in our lives and in the church. Solid, liquid, gas – each form of water is different, each is essential, each is a unique way of experiencing exactly the same thing we know as H20. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – each person of the Godhead is different, each is essential, each is a unique way of describing the same thing, which we know as God.

The Trinity allows us to experience God in a multitude of ways. If you are spiritual but not religious, the Trinity is for you. If you find God in the mountains and the forests, on the water or the ocean, in the starry night, the Trinity is for you. If you find God in relationships with others, in healing of wounds, or in helping those in need, the Trinity is for you. And, if you find God in silence, in mysticism, in holy contemplation or music or meditation and prayer, the Trinity is for you. Despite the patriarchal language, the Trinity even opens up gender possibilities for God. In the Bible, the Wisdom of God is referred to as feminine. Some scholars think that Wisdom is the Holy Spirit and use “she” to refer to the Holy Spirit in the Creed. Others see the Wisdom who was with God in the beginning as Jesus and see in Jesus (or “Sophia,” the Greek word for Wisdom) as the feminine embodiment of God. The Trinity is not about rigid belief. It is about God being in a relationship with God’s self and us being in relationship with God in a diversity of ways and a diversity of places and in a diversity of times and experiences in our lives. It is, as the Orthodox say, a holy mystery: a mystery that invites us into deeper relationships with others, and with God.