This famous Russian icon of the “Holy Trinity” was created by Andre Rublev around 1410. Those of you who have read my book, It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian, know that icon has been very important in my life. Over a ten year period, a small version of it sat on my desk as I wrote my dissertation and then rewrote it into the book where it is the central image. And it is, I believe, one of the best depictions of the Triune nature, character and activity of God.
First a brief word about “icons”. We western Protestants don’t have much familiarity with icons. We tend to look at them as Christian “art” at best and heretical “idols” at worst. But for centuries, even continuing today, icons were used by Christians in the east as a tool for prayer.
Let’s be clear about this. You don’t pray TO an icon, you pray THROUGH it. An icon is not an idol. It is not something that we worship, but a tool for helping us worship the one true and living God.
In our tradition, the beauty of creation is used the same way. In the same way, that we might go and sit on the beach at sunset and pray to God while watching the light dim and the darkness of night slowly come upon us, an eastern Christian of another day, would set themselves before an icon and use it as a window to God.
This is also, by the way, that a lot of us use Scripture as a tool for prayer. In passages like the psalms that don’t teach ethics or theology, as much as they reveal the character of God in his actions with his people, we linger before them, letting them shape our prayers.
It’s best to think of it as a kind of window or frame that assists the believer in praying to God. And this one is really unique.
Most icons of the Trinity from that day look differently Usually a kingly “Father” figure, a baby “Son” figure and a dove as the “Spirit” figure, they depict the different modes in which most people encounter the Triune God.
But this one depicts the Divine Communion of the Trinity. Three figures, who all look almost identical. They are ageless and their gender is almost indistinguishable. They are all seated at a table and all are on the same level. All wearing a similar blue or purple colored robe, all with the same shepherd’s staff, all equally divine, equally regal.
The Father figure on the left has a mansion over his head, the Son figure in the center of the table has a tree, symbolizing the cross, and the Spirit figure on the right has a mountain overhead depicting the Spirit’s meeting us in nature and earthly moments. (Like Elijah’s encounter with the “still small voice”).
Notice that the Son and the Spirit’s heads are both inclined toward the Father.
Notice also how the blue/purple robe symbolizing the divine life is revealed differently by each person in the Triune Community. The Divine Life of God is obscured to us, barely visible. The Divinity of Christ is laid over his earthly garb, because it is through Christ’s humanity that we come to know God and the Divine Life of the Spirit is underneath a green robe that represents the beauty of nature or creation, that invites us to look deeper.
And now, notice how the fourth side of the table seems to open up in an invitation. There is a small square that is meant to be a visual device that draws the viewer into the scene. It is as if the Divine Communion, the Trinitarian life of God has made a space at the table for anyone who will come and join them.
And ultimately, this is the message of this icon: Will you join the table? Will you become part of this Divine Community? Will you join your life to the life of God? Will you become part of the life of God that we see here is a life lived together.
The first thing we discover as we seek to live out the life of God is what Justo L. Gonzalez describes as “The God whose essence is sharing…”
Of course, “essence” is Trinitarian language. Essence is the substance of God, the shared nature of God. No matter how we encounter God, whether through a spiritual experience, the Word of God spoken to us, in the life of Christ or in the beauty of creation, the one true God’s essence is the same, and that essence is a shared love (1 John 4:8-9).
As Christians we are to live out that shared love in order to reveal God’s saving presence in the world. Just like Jesus who was the incarnation of this Triune Communion, we, the body of Christ are called together to continue that incarnation of God in the world. Or to put it more succinctly, “Our job is to embody God.”
The model we have in God is not one of autonomy, but sharing. Of lives that are open to God, to each other and to the world. This sharing is not just out of need or neediness, (for God needs nothing, right?) but a sharing that expresses love through a shared life of authenticity, vulnerability and especially hospitality.
Let me encourage you to consider some questions this Lenten season as you seek to see God through this icon:
- What would it mean to live my life as an expression of this Divine Communion?
- What would it require for me to make my life less autonomous and more “shared”?
- What would it take for me to whole-heartedly sit at this table?
- What would I have to do to make my life a more authentic, vulnerable, hospitable extension of this Divine Life?