Trinity in the Holy Land

Assistant Rector's House, July 1998

And the Catholik Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity ...
The Father eternal, the Son eternal: the Holy Ghost eternal...
Creed of St Athanasius

As many of you will know, Jim and I spent six weeks in the Holy Land during May and June. The very fact that so many call Israel the 'Holy Land' implies that this is a place where one is especially likely to be deeply aware of the presence of God. This is a sacred place for Jews, Christians and Muslims - where people of faith have reached the heights and depths of spiritual experience, where one’s senses are constantly assaulted by the smell of Christian incense, the sound of the muezzin calling from the Mosque, the sight of ultra-Orthodox Jews walking the streets in their traditional garb. Unlike most Western countries, Israel is a place where God clearly matters.

In a sermon a few days after we came home I reflected on my own experience of God during those weeks, and the unexpected realisation that I could best make sense of it by thinking of God as Trinity. Several people have asked me to put down in writing some of these thoughts – so what follows is a condensed sermon, heard before by some!

Father

We began our trip in the Sinai desert in Egypt, where the Israelites wandered for forty years but we spent just five days, sleeping out in the open under the stars, visiting St. Catherine’s Monastery and ascending Mount Sinai (on camels!). In all of this the experience of God, the great creator, was very real. The vast tracts of silent empty sands out of which arose those huge craggy mountains, the startling beauty of the swiftly rising sun, the vastness of the night skies with their hosts of bright stars - in Sinai there was no doubt that God speaks in his creation. And not just through its sheer immensity and grandeur. There was life in the apparent emptiness - scrawny bushes in the driest places, unexpected oases of water and palms - lizards, snakes, camels, birds, insects - Bedouins quietly appearing out of nowhere. All of this sustained by gifts of water and shady rocks and blazing sun.

The graciousness and protectiveness of God were all around us, God the creator was inescapable, the first person of the Trinity was there - he said "be still and know that I am God".

Son

And yet this did not give the whole picture. The God of Sinai was too mysterious to relate to intimately, and the cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem came as a welcome contrast. These are noisy, messy commercial places, where ordinary Arabs and Jews live their lives against a backdrop of political and religious conflict, in the midst of tourists seeking souvenirs, and young soldiers constantly patrolling with rifles. Here it hits you that in the midst of just such chaotic human life Jesus was born and lived and died. Among people very like these, with the same problems and needs, God walked in human form. In places like these Jesus showed us the nature of that, in many ways unknowable, God of the desert.

Holiness is awesome but it is also intimate, expressed in a life of love, forgiveness and mercy, attentive to every individual need. I knew the second person of the Trinity as real and relevant, among these particular people, in this particular spot.

Holy Ghost

And I was aware all the time that there is a third way in which God is known in Israel. If we confine God to the God of the Desert and the God we see in Jesus, we are in danger of missing something fundamental and limiting Him. Our strong feeling was that the spirit of God freely ‘blew where it willed’ throughout that land and always had. Typically in ancient sites one finds a Crusader church built on the foundations of a Byzantine church, which in turn is on the ruins of a first-century synagogue, which had superseded a Roman temple, in the place where 1000 years before had been an altar to the pagan gods of Canaan.

From the beginning of time the people of Israel have been continually searching for the truth of God. It seems that the Holy Spirit has always been there - inspiring people to worship the holy, to follow the good, to create the beautiful, to the best of their ability, in their own time.

And we recognise that same action of the Holy Spirit, still present today. Present within the lives of small groups of people working for peace across so many boundaries - agnostics in universities urging religious tolerance, a small congregation of Orthodox Jews willing to speak against the dogmatism of their fellows, Muslim and Christian Palestinians working together to build community. Present within the warm hospitality we received - in the secular community of a kibbutz, in the cramped home of a Muslim family in a refugee camp in Bethlehem, at a Sabbath meal with a wealthy Jewish family.

The Spirit of God, the third person of the Trinity, can be discerned in Israel’s past and present - offering hope, vision and encouragement where there is doubt, searching and despair.

Nowhere in the Bible does it say the words, ‘There are three persons in one God’, and yet that was my lived experience in Israel, of one being known in three ways - and you can’t dispense with any of them. Creator, Redeemer and Spirit are intimately and inextricably connected. The idea of a Holy and undivided Trinity sounds intimidating. I am grateful for this overwhelming personal realisation that this truth of God is not academic, it is as real as can be.

Eileen McLean


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St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 29th June 1998