One of the things I love about this time of year is what many of us know as ‘golden hour’. This is when the evening sunshine hits the west front of the cathedral full on. It glows and the shadows of the arches line up perfectly with the windows. It is stunning and I don’t think it is a coincidence. I think the medieval masons knew just what they were doing and the effect they were looking to achieve.
If you look at the west front behind me, you can see that it consists of three arches and porticos. There are a number of theories about these, but one is that it is modelled on a Roman triumphal arch. These were built to record the victories and prowess of a general or emperor. This one, though, proclaims the power, the glory and victory of God and not some earthly potentate. God, who in the Christian faith, is Father, Son and Holy Spirit; God the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sustainer; God who is beyond and awesome, God who comes alongside us and is the one who bridges what would otherwise be beyond reach, God who moves and unites and sets in motion.
So, when the sun hits this west front full on, as it is doing now, the shining, the glowing, the alignment of shadows and arches, proclaims the awe, wonder and majesty of God. We are meant to go ‘wow’, as so many visitors do who come through the Norman Gateway from the square – they reach roughly outside our house, stop and you can see them mouth ‘wow’ as they take in this vista for the first time. The most dramatic are children who are stopped in their tracks. God is awesome, so an awesome building sings that praise in stone and form. And it does that whether the doors are open or shut and ‘golden hour’ usually happens when they are closed at the end of the working day.
The Trinity: God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which we celebrate today, is the distinctive Christian doctrine of God. For all the similarities between faiths, the points of connection and mutual understanding, this is our major difference. It is both very difficult to comprehend, well how can anyone comprehend the fullness of God, and also we just know we need something of that complexity otherwise we’d be selling God short.
Today is not a day for glib statements to try to tame God – just as Aslan in ‘the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ is not a tame lion. Today is a day when we need a doctrine big enough to cope with what we are talking about. And I find that each tradition of the church has a shadow side that falls into error when it either loses touch with one of the persons of the Trinity, or over emphasises one of them at the expense of others.
When we talk of God the Father (or mother, God who is utterly other), if we miss out the immanence of the Son or the dynamic power of the Spirit, we end up with a God who is like an absentee landlord. The world gets on with it without God, is completely separate from God, and we miss the personal, the relational and the loving. This leaves room for the angry parent out to get us. And I know many struggle with that picture. God is as he is in Jesus Christ, who is not out to get us, but came because of love.
When we talk of God the Son, if we miss out the Father who is present all along, and the Spirit’s fire, we can get confused when we look at the cross because in that isolation it can look like a deranged parent sacrificing their child. We rightly recoil because that misses the crucial point of who we are talking about. On the cross the one who gives of himself is none other than God in God’s fullness. In the Son, the Father is present and not separate. The Trinity has to be held together, especially in theories of the atonement, of what we say happens on the cross.
When we talk of the Spirit, if we miss out the Son we will have some vague sense of being inspired, but we won’t have the rooting and grounding in living, loving and longing; the wind blows without purpose and point. The God who inspires, who is our source and goal, comes among us, is close up and personal in the Son.
So, the arches at the west front of this cathedral, glowing in the evening sunlight, speak of the one to whom all our thinking and acting is to praise. If we keep the three arches, the Trinity in unity before us, we will keep our sense of truth and hope in balance.
This triumphal arch is to God who is beyond our imagining, comes up close and personal, and sets our hearts ablaze with the fire of love. The writer, Janet Morley, expressed this as a dance, reflecting something dynamic and in motion, poetic and vital. And so I end with her prayer:
O God our mystery, you bring us to life,
call us to freedom, and move between us with love.
May we so participate in the dance of your trinity,
that our lives may resonate with you,
now and for ever. Amen.
Sermon for Trinity Sunday, Peterborough Cathedral online worship, Sunday 7th June 2020.