He Will Guide You
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He Will Guide You
By The Rev. Dr. James D. Kegel
Perhaps the most famous icon in art history is one written by Andrei Rublev in about 1410. There are three angels around a table. The wings of the angels are gold leaf; the robes of the angels a beautiful blue. In the center of the table there is a chalice and in the chalice a calf’s head. The title of the icon is The Holy Trinity and it was painted to illustrate the doctrine we celebrate today. Many scholars consider Rublev’s Trinity as the most perfect of all Russian icons and perhaps the most perfect one ever written. The work was created for the abbot of Trinity Monastery, Nikon of Radonezh, the disciple of the famous St. Sergius of Radonezh, a leader of monastic revival in Russia in the late thirteenth century.
Russia at the time was despoiled by the Tartars, the Mongol invaders who laid waste to much of Europe as far as Krakow in Poland. The Russian people were being led by petty and uncertain leaders. St. Sergius considered the feudal quarrels at the root of Russia’s problem and made the country an easy prey for their Muslim, Asiatic enemies. One of the most powerful movies that I have ever seen is Rublev made in Soviet times about this icon writer and the desperate conditions he and his country faced. The Soviet made the movie in black and white but at the end of the movie, the icons of Andrei Rublev were shown in color. The aim of the movie, made in 1966, was to portray the iconographer in secular times. At the time the only official mention of religion was to ridicule it. For a godless country under the communist regime, this movie by Tretyakov portrayed in dramatic ways an affirmation of faith in the worst of times. It was an affirmation of the power of Christ and Orthodox Christianity known for its dogma of the Trinity. It is considered one of the greatest films of all time.
Russia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was newly Christian. Many of the people were still pagan or nearly so having only the most rudimentary knowledge of Christianity. The Trinity is difficult to explain: One God in three persons, three personae, three hypostases—God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. One mother of a student in my confirmation class gave the example of an apple—one fruit but with a red skin, white and meaty fruit and a pit. Well, it is a try. It is not only ordinary people who find explaining the doctrine difficult, even theologians have a difficult time trying to do so. In the history of Christianity it has engendered fierce debates, violent persecutions and great confusion. In some of these areas were the dogma was most debated, Islam found ready converts—it seemed so simple and attractive. But it was the dogma of the Trinity which mobilized the Russians to renew their faith and drive back the Tartars. And their icons brought the presence of God and the angels, Christ and his mother, the saints into the present. In pictured terms, the ideas take on new meaning. The icon of Rublev, The Trinity, did for the Russian people. The image may help us as well.
Rublev went back to the Old Testament to pain the Trinity, to the story of Abraham and Sarah from Genesis 18: “Yahweh appeared to (Abraham) by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and saw that three men stood opposite him. When he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, ‘My lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, please don’t go away from your servant. Now let a little water be fetched, wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. I will get a morsel of bread so you can refresh your heart. After that you may go your way, now that you have come to your servant.’ They said, ‘Very well, do as you have said.’ Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Quickly prepare three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes.’ Abraham ran to the herd, and fetched a tender and good calf, and gave it to the servant. He hurried to dress it. He took butter, milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them. He stood by them under the tree, and they ate.” (Genesis 18:1-8 WEB).
That story is usually considered a demonstration of the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah. The Book of Hebrews tells us that like Abraham and Sarah we too may have entertained angels unawares. Yet Rublev eliminated the figure of Sarah and Abraham and made the head of the calf very small and almost indecipherable. He wanted to concentrate on the three angels who are really personae of the One True God. Most find the figure on the left to be the Father figure, the Son with his head turned to look at the Father in the middle with the Holy Spirit, the figure on the right. Both the middle angel and the one to the right have their hands extended to bless the chalice with the head of the calf—the blood of the calf to remind us of the Eucharistic sacrifice where we receive the blood of the lamb who was slain, the blood of Christ, and the head of the sacrifice, the body of the Lord. Each of the figures is of equal size and importance—no member of the Trinity is greater than another but all are coequal. The manner is gentle and inviting, a special challenge to anti-Trinitiarians that is not authoritarian or dogmatic but softly seeks to bring them to an understanding of the comforting truth of the dogma of the Holy Trinity. What binds the figures together is their love. God is love and love is of the very nature of God. The three persons of the Trinity love each other. If we look closely at the icon we notice that the angels are facing us as well as each other. The fourth side of the table is open to the viewer. We are invited to come and join them, to be one with God as God is one with us through Christ. We are welcome to come and dine, to come and love, to come and be one with God.
Henri Nouwen, the great spiritual writer from Notre Dame, notes: “Andrei Rublev painted this icon not only to share the fruits of his own meditation on the mystery of the Holy Spirit but also to offer his fellow monks a way to keep their hearts centered on God while living in the midst of political unrest. The more we look at this holy image with the eyes of faith, the more we come to realize that it is painted not as a lively decoration for a convent church nor as a helpful explanation of a difficult doctrine, but as a holy place to enter and stay within. As we place ourselves in front of the icon in prayer, we come to experience a gentle invitation to participate in an intimate table conversation that is taking place between the three divine angels and to join them at table. The movement from the Father toward the Son and the movement of both Son and Spirit toward the Father become a movement in which the one who prays is lifted up and held secure. Through the contemplation of this icon, we come to see with our own inner eyes that all the engagements of this world can bear fruit only when they take place within the divine circle. We can be involved in struggles for justice and actions for peace. We can be part of the ambiguities of family and community life. We can study, teach, write and hold a regular job. We can do all of this without ever having to leave the house of love…Rublev’s icon give us a glimpse of perfect love.”
On this Sunday of the Holy Trinity, the one God is inviting us into the house of love to commune with Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to love and be loved, to believe and be guided into all truth and beauty and peace. Amen.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2014, James D. Kegel. Used by permission