Friday, June 17, 2011

At the Church of the Atonement, Chicago: Pentecost Sunday, 2009.

The tower bells ring loud and often to warn the world that worship at the Church of the Atonement in Chicago is about to begin. Inside, almost angry organ-blasts announce a Processional Hymn. A flat and factual world collapses before the onslaught of these sounds and symbols, and reappears as layered, like the incense that hangs in sheets around the altar.


According to the preacher today, doctrine grows out of communal experience, and the Doctrine of the Trinity provides an example. He says that the experience of God as Trinity pre-dates the doctrine of the Trinity. He said that God is revealed in different ways in different parts of the Bible, and that, for instance, Moses and Isaiah experienced God the Father as an awesome and overpowering holiness, as light, and power like that of an erupting volcano.

It is common and widely accepted, I suppose, for preachers to describe Israel’s experience of Yahweh as an equivalent or prototype of “God the Father” in Christian theology. I, however, would be more inclined to say that any theophany that appears to humans in a tangible or definable manner is a revelation of the Word, and, in the case of events in the Hebrew Scriptures, prototypes of the Incarnation, in that they involve some degree of enfleshment of the Word/Wisdom of God. Hence, Elijah’s experience of a “still, small voice” would be an experience of the Word, as would Jacob’s encounter with the angelic wrestler at the Brook of Kidron. I would want to say that the experience of God the Father/Yahweh is always of the Unknown, the Unseen, the Behind-the-Scenes-Mover-and-Shaker… as when Joseph says to his brothers, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” So Moses proclaimed liberation in the Name of the Father/Yahweh, but the works of power that validated and enabled that liberation were manifestations of the Word/Wisdom. In Exodus, however, such manifestations were not fully understood (just as they are not fully understood by us), or else they would have perceived the Incarnate Word present just as much in Egyptian families grieving over their first born sons as in the liberation of the Hebrew slaves. So the Holy Trinity is often manifested as much in the unnoticed subtext of Scripture as in the mighty acts which occupy the spotlight.

The same is true of our own experience. I enter the Church of the Atonement and find myself awash in visual/auditory/sensory experiences of Word and Spirit. Yet there is also a light-heartedness that inhabits the boundaries, as if Christ had wandered in with some curious street people, wondering what all the fuss was about. “Is that me they’re talking about?” he wonders, and nods approvingly at the exertions of the bell-ringers. He looks around and sees the people ill-equipped to scale the smoke-shrouded slope of Mount Sinai, with the earth’s crust shaking and cracking under their feet, and the wild Law-Giver spitting out commandments like molten pebbles from an outraged volcano. Ready or not, everyone is Moses here.

And so Jesus volunteers to serve as tour-guide, as Sherpa, as expert on volcanoes who will take them to the fiery rim where they might safely view the face of God.

This Is My Body, cries the presiding priest, oblivious to the continuous clamor of the tower bells, and at once the streaming lava and the Precious Blood are one, the absent Father and the beaming tour-guide are one, the Spirit breaks loose and zooms around, and the Holy Trinity is/are all right there in one place, dancing a three-step around the crowded sanctuary.

Shreds of Spirit swoop away on tangents, spun off by force so centrifugal as to defy measurement. Strands of Spirit trail behind, whisps of Ruah, transparent in their orbit, a reverse tornado of sacred breath, encircling the round host, the round world, the curved universe, the curved and holy Trinity, still dancing, still circling, still Three.

The bells fall silent, and the spinning Spirit settles down, like a wide-winged bird settling upon its high nest. The shuffling communicants return from their pilgrimage to the volcano’s edge. Jesus wanders back out onto the street. The world rearranges itself into orderly sequences and rows. We arise, once again to the insistent throbbing of the bells. The Trinity recedes into the walls and floor, assuming its familiar, flat, doctrinal form. We walk unknowing on the Word, and, unthinking, breathe the incense-flavored Spirit while the Father/Yahweh retreats the furthest, where no words, however wise, can go.

In the aisle I speak to the Bishop who ordained me a deacon 43 years before. His eyes light up with recognition. “I am 88 years old,” he says, and so the Spirit moves, the Word takes flesh, and God the Father/Yahweh is.