There is a classic story told about St. Augustine, who was strolling along the seashore, struggling to comprehend the mystery of the Trinity. He encountered a youngster with a little pail. The boy trekked back and forth, emptying bucket after bucket into a hole in the sand, a short distance from the shoreline. When Augustine asked him what he was doing, the lad replied that he was putting the ocean into the hole. When Augustine told him that was impossible, the boy responded that it was just as impossible for him to comprehend the mystery of the Trinity.
Augustine himself affirms that if we think we have understood, then what we have understood is not God (Sermon 117.5). While Augustine’s insights are indeed true, this does not mean that we cannot know anything about the triune God. We strain to express in words and images and symbols what we have experienced of God, knowing that we cannot ever capture in our paltry expressions everything about who God is.
Moreover, we cannot know God in God’s own self but only in relationship to us. When Moses was struggling to know how to name God to his fellow Israelites, God responded in terms of how the Holy One was ever present: “I will be with you as Who I Am” (Ex 3:14). At the same time, the enigmatic tetragrammaton, YHWH, can also be translated, “I am who I am,” or “I am the one who causes to be what comes into existence,” capturing also something of God’s being and God’s doing.
In the exchange between Moses and YHWH in today’s first reading, Moses entreats God to “come along in our company” and “receive us as your own.” This plea voices the desire of our hearts to experience God with us and for us and to know ourselves as belonging in the divine embrace. For Christians, the experience of God-with-us comes to its fullest expression in the unfathomable divine love enfleshed in the person of Jesus and the ever-abiding Spirit. Today’s Gospel tells of God’s ecstatic love for the world that overflows in the gift of the Son. He was sent not to die but to share the life and love that is the very essence of the holy One-in-Three.
While much of Christian art depicts the relationship among the three persons using a triangle shape or in a linear procession, an ancient term from the Eastern church fathers, perichoresis, can help us envision the dynamic love relationship of the Trinity in circular fashion. The Greek word means literally “going around” and suggests a vigorous dance-like movement—each person circling, interweaving, whirling in vibrant interaction with the others. The point of this dance of love, however, is not the enjoyment of the divine dancers only. The dance is an open circle that invites all onto the dance floor, drawing them right into the midst of the energetic flow of divine delight. If some hesitate, preferring to sit on the sidelines, the Three-in-One circle back again and again, extending the invitation over and over to each and to all, changing the pace and the rhythm, so that even the most clumsy of us can learn the steps in the dance of divine love.
Paul suggests some practice steps for the dance: rejoice, mend your ways, encourage one another, seek agreement, live in peace, greet one another with a holy kiss. In these ways, we help one another onto the dance floor, where we become one with the very source of grace, love and communion.
• Pray with the image of perichoresis and let yourself join the circle dance of expanding love.
• Use one of the translations of YHWH as a mantra, and let the divine “I Am” be revealed in you.
• Give thanks for God’s self-emptying love, as expressed in Jn 3:16.