The dance of love: perichoresis
The theologians in the early church tried to describe this wonderful reality that we call Trinity. If any of you have ever been to a Greek wedding, you may have seen their distinctive way of dancing . . . It’s called perichoresis. There are not two dancers, but at least three. They start to go in circles, weaving in and out in this very beautiful pattern of motion. They start to go faster and faster and faster, all the while staying in perfect rhythm and in sync with each other. Eventually, they are dancing so quickly (yet so effortlessly) that as you look at them, it just becomes a blur. Their individual identities are part of a larger dance. The early church fathers and mothers looked at that dance (perichoresis) and said, “That’s what the Trinity is like.” It’s a harmonious set of relationship in which there is mutual giving and receiving. This relationship is called love, and it’s what the Trinity is all about. The perichoresis is the dance of love.
Hespeler, 22 May, 2016 © Scott McAndless – Trinity Sunday John 17:1-4, 20-24, Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Philippians 2:1-11
If you are ever invited to a Greek wedding, you ought to expect that a number of great things are about to happen to you. You can be sure that you are going to have a great time. You can be sure that there’s going to be excellent food and excellent wine and probably healthy servings of Uzo. There will be people yelling “Opa!” and (warning) some dishes may be broken. But, best of all, you can also be sure that, somewhere in among the celebration, the music will start and people will stand up and form a circle and begin to dance.
The circle dance has been a part of Greek culture for a very long time. It is almost something that is programmed into the people themselves. A celebration, for them, is just not complete until at least three people (it cannot be done with two) have stood in a circle and danced around each other, in and out, in a constantly changing circle. They do the intricate steps, move in and out, under and over. The dancers begin to move faster and faster in perfect harmony until it is like the individuals fade away and it seems that all you can see is the blur of movement that makes up the whole. No one knows how old the circle dance is, but we can be pretty sure that it is at least as old as the Cappadocian Fathers. The Cappadocian Fathers were three important church theologians who lived in the middle of the late fourth century of the common era in Cappadocia – a region in the centre of modern Turkey. Their names, just in case you want to find them in your great Christian theologian trading cards collection, are Basil the Great, bishop of Caesarea; Gregory, bishop of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus. And it is important to note one other thing about these three learned men: they may have lived in the territory we call Turkey, but they were ethnically and culturally Greek. This is actually quite important as you will see. The really hot topic, in the days of the Cappadocian Fathers, was the trinity. The puzzle was basically this: Jesus and the New Testament writers had described their experience of God in a surprising and unprecedented way. Though they had experienced the unity of God – had known that God was one – they had specifically experienced God in three distinct ways: as God the Father and Creator, as God the Son and Redeemer and as God the Spirit and Sustainer. Though the Bible never actually says, not in so many words, that God is three in one and one in three, some sort of Trinitarian formulation was really the only way to make sense of what the Bible did say about God. So, by the time the Cappadocian Fathers came along, the basic Trinitarian notion of God – one God experienced as Father, Son and Holy Spirit had been pretty well established. What the Cappadocians were trying to do was wrap their minds around how the various persons of the trinity related to each other and to us human beings. They were wise enough to realize that their poor human words could never precisely describe the functioning of the divine. What they did feel that they could do, however, was find a metaphor. They could paint some sort of picture and say, well, God is something like this. And they did come up with a metaphor. They said that God was a perichoresis. Perichoresis is a Greek word that means rotation. And, if you listen to the way that these men described God as a rotation (and you remember that they were Greek) it becomes clear that the specific kind of rotation they were thinking of was a circle dance. Now, let me ask you, when you hear me (or someone else) say or do something “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” what sort of picture does that draw in your imagination? I’ll bet that, for most of you, if you were forced to draw a picture of that formulation, you would come up with some sort of image of three static figures – perhaps an old man with a beard, a younger man who looks something like Jesus and some sort of a ghost or perhaps a dove to represent the Spirit. That is what we tend to do when talking about the trinity. We imagine three distinct persons and then we try to find a way to blend them together. I’ve heard people talk about how one individual may play different roles in their life. One woman, for example, can be a mother in one part of her life, a daughter in another and a sister in another. I’ve heard people talk about the three parts of an egg – the yolk, the white and the shell. These are all attempts to wrap our human minds around a concept of the divine that cannot be understood with the human mind. They are metaphors that can be sometimes helpful to us in our understanding and imaginations and that can sometimes be very unhelpful. Imagining God as a circle dance is, in essence, just one more metaphor among many others, but this metaphor may be more helpful than some of the others. While most of the other ways we imagine the trinity seem to be static, the image of a dance is all about movement. After all, if you put three people together in the centre of a dance floor and they just stand there – if they do not dance – they remain separate beings. But if they start to move in concert with each other, you suddenly have something new on that dance floor: you have the dance. And when you put some really good dancers together, they can produce something that is better and greater and more beautiful than anything that the individual dancers could ever do on their own. The wholeof the dance is greater than the sum of its individual parts: the dancers. So imagine God this way. God is what is present when the individual members of the trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) start to dance together. God, as such, does not have any existence apart from the dance, nor does God need to exist apart from the dance because it has been ongoing from before the very beginning of creation and it will never end. You can also understand just about everything that the Bible tells us about God or the persons of the trinity as movements in a great cosmic dance. We hear of God the Father who creates, chooses, blesses, judges and sometimes punishes. These are all steps in a dance towards and away from humanity and this world and its issues. We read about God the Son who is begotten of the Father, who, in our reading from the Gospel this morning is sent into this world, who in the Letter to the Philippians, empties himself, takes on the form of slave and becomes fully human. We have his death, resurrection and ultimate exaltation at the right hand of God. These are all steps in and out and around humanity and ultimately encompassing the whole of creation. The movements of the Holy Spirit, though not particularly featured in our readings this morning, may also be seen in terms of dance steps. From the movement of the Spirit over the face of the waters at the very beginning of creation to the descending like a dove upon Jesus at the time of his baptism to the Spirit coming like tongues of fire upon the church at Pentecost and working and moving within believers everywhere bringing us together and making us one, God’s Holy Spirit is found dancing among us, in us and through us. Now every dancer in this great circle dance of the trinity has his own steps and her own movements. (Gender, by the way, really doesn’t matter very much when you are discussing matters of the nature of God. Gender is a human construct.) But here is why it matters that you think of the trinity as a circle dance. Each movement alone is really nothing without the coordinated movement of the others. Only when they move in concert with each other does any of it make any sense. So it is with the trinity. None of the actions of God throughout the history of the world make any sense unless you see them within the internal relationship of the dancers of the trinity. So when, for example, Jesus talks about his own relationship with God to his disciples in the Gospel of John – when he talks about the relationship between the eternal Father and the eternal Son – we see that the dance between the Father and the Son is so intricate that you can scarcely define the one without reference to the other. “Father,” Jesus says, “the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you.” It is like the glory of the one cannot exist without the glory of the other. They are in continual exchange of glory, love and grace within that unbroken dance. This, above all is what makes them who they are. Jesus goes on to say, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” This stresses the unity, the oneness of God but, interestingly, it seems to be a oneness that we are only able to know because of a dance move where the Father sends the Son away. A movement of sending the Son away from the Father would seem, you would think, to separate, not unite, the deity, but here we are told that it actually reinforces the unity of God. That is because the sending is a move in the great dance – a move towards humanity which is the most important movement of all. But that is not the most interesting thing about all this that I see as I read this prayer of Jesus, who is praying for the church in the Gospel of John. Jesus repeats over and over again that God is one in this passage. But he also makes it clear that this unity of God is not exclusive to God. In fact, practically every time that Jesus refers to the oneness of God, he also seems to pivot that immediately to speak of our unity as the church. For example, Jesus says, “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. “ He is saying that the ultimate proof of the oneness of God is not to be found in theological discussion or intellectual speculation about the nature of God, but rather in our own personal experience of unity in the church. If we are one with each other, that is the only thing that can give us a glimpse of the unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In other words, if the trinity is a circle dance it is the kind of circle dance that you do not understand and you are not meant to experience as a spectator. In order to get the concept of God that is presented in this image, you have to get up on your metaphorical feet and enter the dance for yourself. It is the practical things that we do for one another to support and help each other that allows us to even get a sense of how God operates as one. All of our attempts to intellectually understand and explain the nature and the internal relationship of the trinity will fail. We cannot describe it or explain it. Our human brains are not big enough to comprehend it. Our human language has not the words to express it. But we can experience it. We can experience it by choosing to care for one another, learn from one another and accept one another despite all of our differences and all of the things that could divide us. Do that, and you enter the dance together with Father, Son and Holy Spirit and once you are in the dance, you don’t need to explain these things because you are part of them and they are part of you. So if you want to understand the nature of the trinity, don’t try and reduce it to words and explanations. That will always fall far short. Get on with the hard work of caring for one another and loving one another. I think the Cappadocian Fathers may have been onto something when they chose to describe God as a circle dance. Of course, it was a radically different way of understanding God from what anyone had ever said before. Some found it so strange that they would accuse the Christians of being atheists because their concept of God was so different from what anyone had ever thought of before. Did the Cappadocian Fathers care about that? No, somehow I think that they were far too busy dancing with the divine.