Today, the first Sunday after the day of Pentecost, is traditionally known as “Trinity Sunday.” Our hymns celebrate this sacred mystery of the church and not just the ancient faith, we even hear from St. Patrick and his breastplate. Our readings try to shed light on this concept, this story we tell over and over that God is not one, or three, but three-in-one.
Now the temptation for many preachers on this Sunday is to either spoon feed her congregation cute illustrations and even more metaphors for this threeness-in-oneness. Or, worse, to distill a rather esoteric theology of the relational, perichoretic nature of God in Trinitarian form using flow-charts and cryptic diagrams.
This is actually the third time in the past five years that I have preached on Trinity Sunday at . In the past I have tried to explain some of the more esoteric understandings of the Trinity, with mixed success, but not today. Today’s readings don’t leave me either option of a cute illustration or a flow-chart. None of these passages are dripping with stilted Trinitarian references but instead, these passages offer quieter reflections from less-obvious sources.
What really sparked my interest was the reading from Proverbs. Let me take a second to review the nature and context of this book. The book of Proverbs is part of the larger section of scripture known as wisdom literature. The wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures were most likely not written to be kept in-house. The writings were believed to have been shared with other cultures in the ancient world, in essence bringing the voice of Judaic wisdom to the larger marketplace of collected wisdom writings.
The books of Job, Proverbs and, most notably, Ecclesiastes lack many overt references to the Hebrew God that make other books of what we call the Old Testament more distinctly Jewish. These wisdom books seem to have been meant for the consumption of wider audiences.
In our reading from Proverbs today we encounter a character named Wisdom. In the first nine chapters of Proverbs there are actually two figures are making a play for human souls. Both are personified as female, a rarity in our tradition — Lady Wisdom and Mistress Folly. In this beginning section of Proverbs they are in dialog, and the narrator contrasts their actions and characteristics, with Lady Wisdom clearly portrayed as the one any decent and sane young man should cling to.
Surely there are many warnings directed at young Jewish men to obey the Law and to keep away from Mistress Folly, but here the appeal to follow Lady Wisdom is bigger than the Jewish Law – it is far more universal.
The writers of this wisdom literature were listening to the traditions and culture around them. It is perhaps in response to these other traditions that the characters of Wisdom and Folly find their way into the Hebrew Scriptures.
In the end, I believe this is meet and right. Wisdom is a concept that all cultures and religions share. Wisdom is one place where all world religions intersect. Is Wisdom not the one of the chief goals of our spiritual journeys no matter what the religious or cultural context? In most cultures isn’t wisdom the consolation prize for getting older? Wisdom is not a thing to be hoarded but shared. Wisdom by its very nature implies the interaction between beings. What good is personal self-enlightenment if it cannot help others? Indeed the love of wisdom, phila-sophia in the Greek, gave rise to Western culture as we know it.
The book of Proverbs fits nicely into this universal tradition of wisdom literature.
But why a reading about Lady Wisdom on Trinity Sunday, and why this particular passage?
Consider the remarkable language placed in Lady Wisdom’s mouth here in Proverbs 8. She is the first act of creation. She was present before the earth was created. Lady Wisdom predates the hills and the seas. She worked along-side God in creation as a master-worker. God delighted in her daily. These are remarkable words. Wisdom was present from the very beginning of creation.
Do these words not sound strikingly familiar? On other Trinity Sundays we might have read from John 1, where we would have heard very similar language ascribed to none other than Jesus Christ. The first Christians, especially those in the tradition of John, saw the personification of wisdom presented here in Proverbs to have become the incarnation of wisdom of the very real person of Jesus.
This was the miracle of the incarnation for the – the highest Christology possible – the primordial wisdom that predated the earth – the wisdom that all cultures seek – the object of all spiritual journeys – this wisdom became flesh and blood in Jesus.
By the time John 1 was written, Wisdom had become Logos. Hebrew thought had to be translated into a Greek concept. Dare I say most of the systematic theology written about Jesus since has emphasized the Greek aspects of Logos, relying on logic as the word implies, and has lost much of the beauty of Lady Wisdom.
Some Christian traditions have not lost their love of Lady Wisdom, indeed the Eastern traditions revere her as something of a divine figure. In you can visit what once was a Christian cathedral to wisdom, Hagia Sophia. For some, Wisdom is the spirit that breathes life into the universe. Some make wisdom the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit and even refer to the Holy Spirit as “she.”
Sadly, as diverse as the human traditions of wisdom have been, and even the diversity of traditions in Christian circles, some see wisdom as a commodity more like private property than shared wealth. Cold categories of right and wrong, truth and heresy have been used to divide and segregate the Church and “true believers” away from anything as messy and as unruly as universal wisdom. When many voices join together to discuss what wisdom is in their tradition, you wind up less with tidy categories of right and wrong. Instead you wind up with something more like a mosaic.
Regardless, many Christians have, in the name of Jesus, sought to divide the world into those who have Jesus vs. the rest. The name of Jesus has become for many a mark of superiority and cultural chauvinism – more like a flag behind which to rally forces rather than the name of a man who strove for peace and exemplified humility.
I grew up with a very sectarian understanding of the wisdom of other cultures – well, it’s just not as good as ours because we have Jesus. Other cultures and religions do indeed revere Jesus, not as figure of war and conquest, but as a man of wisdom, a great teacher. Something in this humble teacher from attracts their attention. This is the nature of wisdom, it transcends national boundaries. It knows no particular flag. Try as any particular religious tradition might, universal wisdom can’t be kept in a box with a key. As privileged as we are to be able to read the Christian Bible and to openly worship Jesus as wisdom incarnate, aren’t we forgetting our connectedness to the entire human race?
I dare say Jesus didn’t forget it.
This connectedness we share with the entire human race, based on our love of and our pursuit of wisdom, gives us common ground on which we can co-exist. Would we pursue peace with other nations? Bring us the wise of those nations, not those bearing weapons, but those considered wise, and let us reason together.
Have we lost the ability to talk? Where is Lady Wisdom these days? Is she hiding in a bunker with Lady Peace?
We humans continue to search for peace and for wisdom. When we are at our best, we share that in common. I dare say it is when the least wise among us, when the foolish are in control that trouble usually starts. Naïve though it may sound – would it be possible for nations to co-exist in peace if we recognized that we essentially are looking for the same things?
The relationships we share with each other on a global basis and on a local basis, with neighboring countries and with neighbors next door, these reflect our individual and corporate relationship with God. This connectedness – this is the message of Trinity Sunday. Lady Wisdom rejoices in the inhabited world and delights in the human race – this doesn’t sound sectarian to me. This sounds like a common humanity bound up in God’s wisdom.
Just as I have tried in a much more convoluted and esoteric way in years past to show you that God’s relational nature reflects our own, I think it may be easier to see, with the help of Lady Wisdom, that God’s love of wisdom, which Christians believe was expressed in the person of Jesus, reflects the love of wisdom shared by the entire human race.
The logic of systematic theology has its place, but surely the good news is better news than theologians debating exactly who is saved and who isn’t. The wisdom of the ages, the shared wisdom of all cultures, brought together, could it be here that we discover Jesus, wisdom, to be the man of peace rather than a figure of division?