The Venerable Bede: Dancing with the Trinity

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Readings for the First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday (Year C)

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Psalm 8

Romans 5:1-5

John 16:12-15

This sermon is to be preached at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Crockett CA on May 26, 2013.

One day, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”

And his disciples answered and said, “Some say that you are John the Baptist returned from the dead. Others say Elijah or one of the ancient prophets.”

And then Jesus asked, “But who do you say that I am?”

Peter answered, “Thou art the Logos, existing in the Father as His rationality and then, by an act of His will, being generated, in consideration of the various functions by which God is related to his creation, but only on the fact that Scripture speaks of a Father, and a Son, and a Holy Spirit, each member of the Trinity being coequal with every other member, and each acting inseparably with and interpenetrating every other member, with only an economic subordination within God, but causing no division which would make the substance no longer simple.”

And Jesus answered and said, “What?”

And honestly, my response is similar whenever I hear someone try to rationally explain to me the mystery of the Holy Trinity.  After several years of theological education, my mind still wraps itself in knots whenever I try to make sense of the three-personed God.

This year, Trinity Sunday falls between the feast day of the Venerable Bede and the feast day of the First Book of Common Prayer. These two feasts, which flank this first Sunday after Pentecost, invite us to see the Trinity in light of the spirituality of Bede and in light of common prayer. These feasts help us to see the Trinity as more of an experience in which we can participate than a concept that we can explain.

Bede, whose feast day was yesterday, is considered the Father of English history and scholarship. He lived in the seventh and eighth century in the northeastern part of England [in Northumbria] in the double monastery of Wearmouth and Jarrow. He wrote extensive biblical commentaries, inspiring sermons, treatises on nature and astronomy, poetry, hagiographies, and histories including his magnum opus The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which covers the history of Christianity in England from its beginnings up to Bede’s present day. This history includes the mission of Augustine, the first missionary to the Anglos and the first Archbishop of Canterbury, back in the early seventh century. Coincidentally, Augustine’s feast day is May 26th, which would be today if it were not trumped by Trinity Sunday.

Not only is Bede the only Englishman to be named a Doctor of the Church, he is also the historian responsible for popularizing the use of AD for dating history (Anno Domini – the Year of Our Lord). So it is essentially because of Bede that we are in the year 2013 AD. Although there is much more to say about Bede and his lasting influence, this morning I want to highlight his spirituality, which was steeped in monastic prayer. While he delighted in teaching, reading and writing, most of his life actually involved praying, chanting and meditating with his monastic brothers. And for Bede, prayer was a profoundly mystical experience. According to his intellectual successor Alcuin of York (735-804), Bede used to say, “I know that angels visit the congregations of brethren at the canonical hours. What if they should not find me there among my brethren? Will they not say, ‘Where is Bede? Why hasn’t he joined his brothers in prayer?’”

For Bede, prayer involved more than people gathering together to make petitions to God. Prayer, for Bede, involved people gathering together with angels and with all the company of heaven to participate in the eternal dance of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The early church theologians, whom Bede studied thoroughly, used a Greek word to describe the Trinity. That word is perichoresis. Peri means “around” and chorea means “dance.” And it’s not referring to sermons (perhaps like this one) that dance around the idea of the Trinity. It refers to the divine dance: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit joyfully engaged in an everlasting dance, overflowing with creativity and love.

The readings this morning evoke this image of the divine dance. In Proverbs, Lady Wisdom (who represents an early Hebrew understanding of the Holy Ghost) joins Yahweh in the creation of the world as a beloved partner: “I was beside him…and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, and rejoicing in his creation, delighting in the human race.” Lady Wisdom appears to be a dance partner with Yahweh in the effulgent act of creation and, by delighting in the human race, Lady Wisdom appears to be inviting us to join in the dance as well.

This image makes sense in light of the other readings. In Romans, Paul speaks of “God’s love poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” The divine dance of the Trinity overflows with love, which pours into our hearts, pulling us and tugging us in, to participate in this celestial waltz.

And in John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of the Spirit as the One who will guide us into the same unity that he enjoys with the Father (“When the Spirit comes, he will guide you”). We are invited to follow the Spirit’s lead in order to learn the steps and feel the rhythm of the Trinity in our hearts.

Bede’s spirituality does not let us dismiss this dance of the Trinity as an abstract and poetic description of God. Bede’s spirituality invites to participate in this dance in the same way that he participated in the dance, along with the angels: that is, through common prayer. In the act of common prayer, we join the angels in the eternal dance with the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost, with Yahweh and Lady Wisdom. It is appropriate that tomorrow we celebrate the first book of Common Prayer, which helps us to pray “in the Spirit” and thus to participate in the perichoresis. The Spirit, which opened the tongues of the apostles at Pentecost, is the same Spirit that inspired Thomas Cranmer to write the Book of Common Prayer in the vernacular for the English people. By speaking our language, the Spirit creatively moves to tug us into the dance.

This is why our common prayer is so important. What we just did this morning was participate in the perichoresis, the celestial choreography of the Trinity. This is how we experience and enjoy the Trinity, how we taste and see that the Lord is good by gathering together in common prayer.

Bede spent his whole life in the monastery, dancing with the Trinity through common prayer and he invites us to join the dance in the same way. By regularly praying together, we can learn to dance to the same beat of the Trinity and allow that rhythm to infuse our lives. And I want to thank you for letting me participate in the dance of the Trinity with you this morning.

Before Bede died, he said to his friend Cuthbert, “Help me sit facing the sanctuary. It will do me good to sit facing the place where I used to kneel and pray with my brethren.” Before breathing his last breath, Bede recalled his past experiences of common prayer with his brothers and thus his participation in the perichoretic dance. And his last words were a prayer to the Trinity. Smiling, Bede said, “Glory to Thee, O God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” directing his final prayer to those divine partners with whom he had danced and with whom he would continue to dance with overwhelming delight for all eternity.

Bede Trinity

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