Owning the Mystery

Who here likes a good mystery story?

I certainly do. The more complicated the better. Layer on mystery upon mystery, please. Some shadowy conspiracy, perhaps a secret society or two, supernatural elements here, action set pieces there, and you’ve got a recipe for success in my book. I will spend hours thinking about a good mystery show or novel, testing my theories, working out the plot holes, letting my imagination run wild about where the plot could be leading us.

But here’s the thing about mystery stories: I hate when they end. It’s when you reach that third act, as we’re in the thick of the climax, the rules of the story dictate that you must reveal the secrets, all of them. The villain is in cuffs and we prepare to rip off the mask, and oh, it was the gardener this whole time. Didn’t see that coming. And, oh wait, you’re going to tell me all the excruciating details of your plot? Oh, why thank you, that’s so kind and dull of you.

No matter how hard a storyteller tries, that final reveal will always disappoint.  It’s perhaps inevitable, because while the filmmaker or the writer has to make sense of it all, they have to let things line up in a way that no loose end goes untied—often on an ever dwindling budget or page count.  But here’s the thing: your imagination doesn’t have those constraints.  And because of this, the poor writer is never going to be able to live up to the glorious mystery that’s going on up here.

We could say that “mystery” is the theme of the day. It’s Trinity Sunday, the Sunday of the year when we’re especially invited to plow headfirst into a holy mystery—the mystery of the one-in-three God.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret here: There’s not a lot in the Bible about the Trinity. One of the mentions is in what we just read—Jesus’ closing words to his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew. There is Paul’s greeting in our second reading. A few more here and there—including a few, such as in First John, that may have been added later—but that classic formula (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), its got a pretty thin basis in Scripture.

So why do we have this idea of the Trinity? And why are we devoting a whole Sunday to it? Well, over time, in the early centuries of the church, there was a lot of figuring out to do. How does this all fit together? they asked. How do we make sense of it all? So if God is, God, and Jesus is Jesus, and Jesus is God too, and there’s this Holy Spirit/Advocate thing he’s talking about…what’s going on? No one could agree, and it was threatening to split the church.

So they did what every good churchgoer should do when there was trouble: They called a committee meeting. Or more specifically, a council. And in a town called Nicea, in what is now modern-day Turkey, they attempted to solve this mystery but putting it to words, to come up with some sort of working theory. We’ll speak those words today when we say the Nicene Creed—“God from God, light from light, true God from true God.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Uh…what? 1+1+1=1?” The men who gathered at Nicea didn’t quite understand what was going on either. They were doing what we try to do all the time—they were attempting to describe what they observed about God, what they knew about God—through what they had read in the Bible, through what they had observed and experienced in their daily lives.

When we attempt to explain the divine, when we try to describe the infinite, we are always going to fall short. Like the paltry explanations at the end of the mystery story, our words are always going to disappoint, even when we use such storied words like “Trinity.” Our minds can only go so far. If anyone tells you that they fully understand the mystery of the Trinity, you have my permission to laugh at them.

The Trinity. One thing we know for sure: the Trinity is a holy mystery. This is not some cop-out, this is not the brainy theologian trying to dodge they question…nor is it the cosmic equivalent of the “because I said so”—“It’s a mystery, you won’t understand it, DON’T ASK QUESTIONS…”

No, the Trinity is a mystery like life is a mystery. It’s a mystery like beauty is a mystery. It’s a mystery like love is a mystery. We can describe around it, we can strive to understand its mechanics, but we will never truly grasp it—at least not right now. We simply experience it.

The Trinity doesn’t have to be spelled out for us to know that it exists—we constantly see the evidence of a God that has created us and saves us and makes us holy. As we hear today, God created this world, and cradled it from its birth. God made us in God’s own image, and God took on our image. God came down to us, lived with us, took on a name (Jesus) and a place (Nazareth). He experienced joy and pain, hunger and thirst, fear and hope..he died yet lived…and through that death saved us all. And God is always with us even now, surrounding us with love, shaping our lives, directing our paths, guiding us.

The Trinity. However we choose to describe it or think of it or explain it, we know the truth of God’s indescribable love for all of us.

And it is because of that indescribable love that we stand in awe and reverence, even if we can’t quite comprehend it.  And to borrow the words of our gathering hymn:

Holy Father, Holy Son,
Holy Spirit, Three we name Thee;
While in essence only One,
Undivided God we claim Thee;
And adoring bend the knee,
While we own the mystery.