Singing the Trinity: A new approach to Trinity Sunday

May 26th, 2015

The harried pace of the church year rips us from Advent through Easter, barely pausing long enough for us to catch our breath before Pentecost brings a new wind in the door. 

Then, just after that fiery wind calms down, we come to Trinity Sunday. Some poor lay person who drew the short straw on the schedule finds his way up to the front of the congregation and attempts to say something to our children about what it means to say God is “Three-in-One.” Usually it involves an illustration that further confounds and unsuspectingly brings our kids into a heresy condemned by the church sometime in the 6th century. The preacher for the day is then bound to follow up with a sermon that leads to a similar outcome, and by the end of the morning the congregation is left stumbling to lunch, hoping that this was it for all the Trinity talk.

These wan Trinity Sunday celebrations point toward what I suspect is the larger problem: we try too hard to explain the Trinity. We treat the Trinity as a teaching point, as if we are trying to convince congregations that God is actually Three-in-One, or as if we are a little embarrassed by the idea and feel like we should say something because there is a Sunday bearing the name. In the end, we are left a little confused and ready to move into Ordinary Time with its more ‘ordinary' stories.

What we need is a better imagination for Trinity Sunday — how it might be a feast and not a chore. What Wesleyans have come to realize, in large part thanks to our inheritance from John and Charles themselves, is that the doctrine of the Trinity is better sung than said. We do a much better job navigating the intricacies of life with the Triune Lord when we sing our way in and through those mysteries.

Charles and John were by no means the first to discover this truth. We only need to look at the church’s liturgical memory to find the places where our best Trinitarian proclamation has appeared in verse. Well over 100,000 Sundays have included the singing of the Sanctus with its words taken from Isaiah’s song. The sounds of the Trisagion, the Gloria Patri and the Doxology so often fill the air throughout Christian worship history. In the past few hundred Sundays, one might even hear Vineyard’s “Glorious the Three,” Chris Tomlin’s “Praise The Father, Praise The Son” or David Crowder’s setting for the Doxology as often as you hear more traditional pieces.

In singing these hymns, their words work their way into hearts and souls, forming and reshaping us. We all know how catchy a song can be. Psychological research has shown the deep connection between music and memory in brain function. So by singing our way through these songs, we are imbibing a profoundly orthodox Trinitarianism that could never come as well through teaching discourse or classroom discussion.

Realizing now that there is so much beauty in the ways we can sing the faith, there is a simple two-part plea in all of this: don’t ignore Trinity Sunday, and don’t try to explain the day away.

Don’t do the local church the disservice of ignoring the day, not when this feast is the culmination of so many other Trinitarian feasts throughout the year: Annunciation, Incarnation, Baptism, Transfiguration, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost. Trinity Sunday is not a tack-on or a catch-all day, but the peak of the church’s entrance into the mystery of professing a Three-in-One God. An entire story, a whole world is wrapped up in professing “Father, Son, Spirit,” and it is a story best professed and celebrated.

When it comes to the liturgy of the day, don’t fill it with explanations or attempts to teach. The day is for doxology, not dogmatics. Here are some possibilities for how we can reflect this proposal in our worship:

  • Celebrate the Trinitarian hymns of the faith. Sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” as you gather, or one of the countless other overtly Trinitarian songs we have. Let Spirit remind us why we are here and in whose name we have gathered.
  • Fill the service with congregational singing, even more than usual. If you are in the right context, make it a “Hymn Sing” Sunday, and choose from the depth of Trinitarian hymns we have. Have the choir or music team lead the more complex pieces, but don’t shortchange the church’s voice.
  • Keep the sermon more of a “homiletical preface” than you might typically be inclined to do. Share what was said here with the church, that the real preachers for the day are the poets and the songwriters, not the typical voice from the pulpit.
  • Don’t wait until Trinity Sunday to celebrate the Trinitarian stories. Help the congregation to see how each feast is an epiphany of Trinity’s life shared with us in communion.
  • Don’t wait until Trinity Sunday to share in professing our faith with the creeds. If the Nicene Creed only gets rolled out on Trinity Sunday, no wonder the day feels so obtuse. Bring it into the worshipping practices of the church more often throughout the year (Eastertide being a wonderful time to form this habit), and it won’t seem so out of place when we reach for it on this actual Sunday.

The Trinity is a mystery to be contemplated, not a puzzle to be solved. Wesleyans have long suspected this, and we are at our best when we rejoice in that truth. From Athanasius to Augustine, Cyril to Charles, we have a rich tradition of voices to bring into the conversation, and we shortchange ourselves by ignoring them or silencing their song. Let the chorus of the saints carry us forward into communion with Father, Son, and Spirit:

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;
Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessèd Trinity!

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