"The Trinity" by Andrei Rublev, c. 1425 A.D.
Even on first reading, we can hear the theme of hospitality that links these lessons: Abraham and Sarah, Martha and Mary all welcome their guests, all open their homes, all offer their hearts, to the Holy Other.
Going deeper into these stories, we are invited to look into the very nature of welcoming: Hospitality is not just good manners, nor just preparing a feast. True hospitality is to open oneself to others - even daring to become open to the Spirit's presence in the Other.
Going even deeper, we begin to find that hospitality is part of the infinite nature of God.
Mary and Martha, Sarah and Abraham - each has his or her own way to greet the stranger. Martha runs around her house, preparing a feast for Jesus; Mary sits at Jesus' feet with the other disciples, listening to what he has to say. Abraham sits under the oak of Mamre with the three strangers, asking questions, listening to their stories; Sarah hastily prepares the meal and then hides away in her tent.
What is true hospitality? Isn't it to prepare a space for others, to reach out with practical help, and also to sit and listen?
Each of us, I suppose has a "Mary" and a "Martha" within ourselves; each of us is probably inclined towards one style or the other, but each of us has the life-long task of being both Mary and Martha, doing practical things with our hands and voices, and at the same time listening with our minds and hearts.
I could end today's meditation right there each of us must find a way, like they did, to welcome God into our lives, into our hearts.
But I must go on with a question: How can we learn how to do that?
And that leads me to another question: How did the first disciples experience God? They all grew with the Jewish idea of God, the Holy One, the Almighty, the Creator - they had learned about God from their parents, from worship, and from Torah. Now, however, they also experienced the presence of God in a man, Jesus of Nazareth. And the presence of God in Jesus was not just the brief flashes of holiness that all of us experience at times in our encounters with others; in Jesus of Nazareth, they experienced the steady welcoming, the deeply embracing, the constant presence of God. How were they to understand this new experience of God's presence with them? And then, after the crucifixion, they experienced him again - not only the Risen Jesus, whom at first they could see and touch, but also the Spirit, unseen but with Jesus' personality, his guidance, his comfort, his welcoming embrace. How could they explain all these ways - this kaleidoscope of experiences - that brought them close to the presence of God?
Only very gradually did the idea of "Trinity" emerge - an idea which tried to put into words the Christian experience that God has come to us in more than one way. Only very gradually did the idea of "Trinity" become a doctrine of the church.
Karen Armstrongs newest book, The Case for God, examines the development of western rational thinking on the Trinity. While we may think the definition of "Trinity" ends in the Nicene Creed of the 4th and 5th centuries, western thinking about the experience of God has never ended. Western attempts to understand God rationally, western attempts to find the words that will nail it down, have never ceased.
But no matter how many words we use, Gods nature cant be rationally analyzed - no matter how many words we use, no matter how smart we are, we'll never completely understand God.
On the other hand, Eastern Orthodoxy has seen the Trinity as a mystery to be contemplated, rather than a doctrine to be explained and mastered -- and the icons of Eastern Orthodoxy can give us another way to contemplate the mystery which we call God.
The Dutch priest Henri Nouwen encountered God in Andrei Rublev's famous icon of the Trinity, which on the surface recalls the story of the three men who visited Abraham under the oaks of Mamre. But in this icon, Nouwen found what he came to call "the house of love where God resides.
Nouwen wrote of this experience in "Behold the Beauty of the Lord": During a hard period of my life in which verbal prayer had become nearly impossible and during which mental and emotional fatigue had made me the easy victim of feelings of despair and fear, a long and quiet presence to this icon became the beginning of my healing. As I sat for long hours in front of Rublev's Trinity, I noticed how gradually my gaze became a prayer. This silent prayer slowly made my inner restlessness melt away and lifted me up into the circle of love, a circle that could not be broken by the powers of the world. Even as I moved away from the icon and became involved in the many tasks of everyday life, I felt as if I did not have to leave the holy place I had found and could dwell there whatever I did or wherever I went. I knew that the house of love I had entered has no boundaries and embraces everyone who wants to dwell there. (p. 21)
Take a moment now, like Henri Nouwen, to gaze at Rublevs icon.
Notice that, unlike most icons, the angels are not looking at you; they are facing each other.
Notice, also, that even while the angels seem frozen in place, frozen in time - yet there is movement between them. There is a circle of energy which turns and turns, and if you sit before the icon for a while, that circle ultimately will draw you in, welcoming you into the circle of love.
And then above the angels, notice the little house, the tree, the mountain.
The house may represent Abraham's tent; but it also points to the House of Love. The tree may represent the cross of Christ; but it also points to the Tree of Life. The mountain may represent the Palestinian landscape; but it also points to the heights of insight.
And again, notice the table. This is the table of Eucharist, at which the angels sit to eat.
Look now at the open space on this side of the Table: there is a space there for you.
Through this icon, we are invited to enter the mystery of love:
the mystery of God's infinity;
the mystery of God in community;
the mystery of God in the Eucharist;
and Gods mysterious, continuing presence in human acts of hospitality