Did you know that Trinity Sunday is the only day of the liturgical calendar that is set aside to celebrate a doctrine? (All the other days celebrate saints or an event.) If celebrating a doctrine seems counter-intuitive and forced, then maybe it is. Perhaps a few of us might be so enamored with the Trinity that we contemplate this doctrine all the time. But I suspect that for a great many of us, when we recite the words of the Nicene Creed, it leaves us wondering, “Isn’t this all too convoluted, too abstract, too irrelevant?” Should we ignore the Trinity, brush it aside? I don’t think that’s an option. Nor is rejecting it outright. Christians from the earliest times have affirmed the triune life of God, even as they have fought bitterly over the details. We owe it to our spiritual forebears and to ourselves to think through this doctrine for our time.
What might the Trinity mean for us today? In my own thinking, I’ve been helped by some of the writings of Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and a first-rate theologian. Williams argues that God is not a distinct being on high but rather a kind of life that is lived out historically in three ways. So in considering the Trinity, we need to rid ourselves of assumptions that God is situated in some realm beyond our world. Instead, we need to reimagine the very being of God as intimately bound up with the affairs of history. In other words, the life of God is deeply connected to the earth—and it’s the earth that can teach us a lot about God as Trinity.
Some of you have read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass. Kimmerer is a botanist and environmentalist, who is also of Anishinaabe ancestry. Her book is an attempt to weave together Indigenous wisdom and scientific knowledge. In doing this, she has a lengthy discussion of The Three Sisters—corn, beans and squash—agricultural staples of many First Nations. The name “Three Sisters” derives from a teaching long ago of when the people were starving. At the height of famine, three unknown women visited. One was very tall, dressed in yellow, the second wore green, and the third was clothed in orange. Despite the shortage of food, the people managed to feed the three women generously. As the three women prepared to leave, they revealed their true identities as corn, beans and squash, giving themselves back to the people as seeds so that no one would go hungry again.
The Three Sisters, Kimmerer says, are never separated. When First Nations plant the seeds each spring, all three are planted together in the same patch of soil. The corn absorbs water quickly and sprouts first, growing tall and straight. This is essential for the survival of the second sister. When the beans sprout, the young vine senses where the corn is and then wraps around the stalk in an upward spiral. The squash’s growth begins after the corn and beans are underway. It grows outward along the ground, away from the corn stalk. As its leaves get bigger, they provide shelter for the soil at the base of the corn and beans so that moisture is retained.
Kimmerer concludes that there is a profound natural reciprocity in the relationship of corn, beans and squash. If it weren’t for the corn sprouting up first, straight and tall, the beans would remain a tangled mess on the ground, easily trampled and overgrown by other plants. By wrapping itself around the corn stalk, the beans benefit from increased exposure to the sun. Along the ground, the presence of squash prevents weeds from popping up and choking the growth of the corn and beans. As legumes, beans have an uncanny ability to convert nitrogen from the atmosphere into nutrients, and this feeds all three—corn, beans and squash.
I think this lesson of The Three Sisters can help us in our understanding of the Trinity. In fact, The Three Sisters are one example, among many others, of the life of God among us. Corn, which emerges first, is the source of growth. Without corn, beans and squash could not thrive. In the doctrine of the Trinity, the Source of all things is what Christians have traditionally named Father. We go astray if we imagine God the Father as the male head of the global nuclear family. Father simply means Source. When you consider all things in creation—earth, water, fire, air, and all life and inanimate things in between—everything is derived from a singular divine Source. That eternal Source is what makes possible the universe as we know it, life here on earth, and its complex networks of biodiversity.
In the lesson of The Three Sisters, the bean vine wraps itself around the corn stalk. Beans are dependent on the corn for their survival, but beans also enhance the life of the corn by generating nutrients. In the doctrine of the Trinity, the Source of all things is known only insofar as the divine Word is made tangible in creation. Christians affirm that this divine Word was fully incarnate in the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth. He is the human face of God. The life of Jesus was so fully wrapped around the eternal Source of all things, pointing to God, revealing God, and magnifying the reality of God in the world. In that sense, God the Son is like the beans wrapped around the corn stalk. But God the Son is not merely reducible to the life of Jesus. In his resurrection, Jesus’ life becomes much more expansive and inclusive, incorporating all those who strive to follow in his way. There are many bean pods on the vine, and each in their own way clings to the corn. We are all like those many bean pods, incorporated into Jesus’ resurrected life, walking along his path, totally dependent on God the Source of all things. As we do this, we magnify the reality of God in the world, just as the beans produce nutrients for the corn.
And, finally, there is the squash, which I think fits the description of the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel of John, Jesus describes the Spirit as “blowing where it chooses.” Just as squash grows out, away from the corn and beans, so too God’s Holy Spirit is growing and expanding into the far reaches of the earth, to places where the corn and beans are not known. If we are carried by the Spirit, we will always be on the edge, in the dirt, not always in the full light of the sun. But that’s the point: the life of God extends even to the most lowly places.
I think the most important lesson of the The Three Sisters is not the fact that they grow together in reciprocity. Instead, the ultimate lesson is that The Three Sisters are food that sustains us. In the same way, a day like Trinity Sunday is not just about pondering the life of God, as though we are spectators in the bleachers, observing divine reality at a distance. Trinity Sunday is really a reminder that the life of God is sustenance and nourishment for ourselves, indeed for all of creation. In God we live and move and have our own existence. I hope today we can find comfort and strength in knowing 1) that all of creation is derived from one eternal Source, 2) that we are drawn back to that Source as we follow the Way of Jesus, who is the human face of God, and 3) that the Holy Spirit is ever prodding us and leading us to places where the reality of God will surely surprise us. That, I think, is the meaning of the Trinity for us today.