Solemnity of the Holy Trinity at Mississippi Abbey
[Scripture Readings: Deut. 4: 32-34, 39-40; Rom. 8: 14-17; Mt. 28: 16-20 ]
Recently, Pope Benedict XVI wrote a reflection on the life of the great Byzantine monk, Theodore the Studite, who was a strong defender of the importance of icons in our lives. Pope Benedict taught that icons, sanctified by liturgical blessings and the prayer of the faithful, help unite us with the Person of Christ and his saints, and through them, with our heavenly Father. They provide a way for our visible, material world to enter into divine mysteries. This happened in a dramatic way with a beautiful icon of the Trinity we have in the Guesthouse at New Melleray. Here is the story behind that icon.
It was Thursday evening on a lovely day in September, 1997, when twenty-nine year old Dan Bockenstedt hopped on his racing bike and pedaled along South Grandview Avenue in Dubuque. This handsome young man with an infectious smile and mischievous sense of humor purchased his first Raleigh Grand Prix racing bike with his own money at age 13. A few years later his skills earned him personalized training at the Junior Olympic Training Center. Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s Dan competed in the toughest races in North America as a Category 1 Racer, winning regional and national championships. When he rode along South Grandview Avenue for a refreshing evening exercise that fateful September day, suddenly a car pulled out in front of Daniel and struck him head on. Janell Timmermans’ husband, Fred, was the first medic to arrive there. For two unbearable, agonizing days his parents, Mary and Walter, his brother, Paul, and his sister, Ann, watched by Dan’s bedside at the hospital. His injuries were too severe for healing and he died on Saturday, September 13. They were crushed by the loss of their lovable son and brother. Biker friends of Dan offered words of kindness and touching recollections of time spent with their teammate. Two road races were named in tribute to him, and he was the first person to be entered into the Iowa Bikers Hall O’ Fame.
But his family needed more than tributes to cope with their grief. They wanted something that would connect Dan to New Melleray which he loved and visited often, a memorial promising hope of reunion and the joy of life together once more. His mother asked Abbot Brendan for help, and he suggested the famous icon of the Holy Trinity painted by Andrei Rublev six hundred years ago. Photographs capture events in our past. They remind us of our history, things we did, people with whom we shared our lives. Icons do much more. They not only capture events in the past, especially events in the life of Christ, but they also tell us about our lives now, and our future. They are like windows showing us the hidden presence of divinity all around us, and they open up what is to come, our sharing with the saints in the kingdom of heaven, even the mystery of our union with God and reunion with those we love. Mary and Walter Bockenstedt agreed to commission the talented American iconographer, Peter Pearson, to paint a representation of Rublev’s Trinity in honor of Daniel. Two years later it was completed and put in a prominent place at the foot of the stairs in our Guesthouse where it is today.
This unique icon looks deeply into the history of what we believe, all the way back to a scene in the life of the patriarch Abraham when he served a meal to three mysterious heavenly visitors who passed his way. They appear as angels with wings touching each other. But we know they are the beginning of God’s self-revelation as three Persons in one divine nature. This beautiful icon invites us into this mystery, calling us to share their eternal life, the source and summit of all our happiness.
Unlike other icons and paintings in which God the Father is presented as an elderly, patriarchal figure watching over his much younger Son in the company of the Holy Spirit under the form of a dove, set in triangular positions, the great master, Rublev, portrays the three Divine Persons as entirely equal, indistinguishable in age and facial features, all sharing the same youthfulness and beauty, never aging, always young and desirable-exactly what we hope for. They are seated around a table in a quiet, gentle, contemplative presence, fully in love with each other. There is a circular movement in the icon from the Father on the left looking at the others, with the Son in the middle and the Holy Spirit at the far right. They return this loving gaze with heads slightly bowed toward the Father, revealing the mystery of divine humility among equals. Behind the Holy Spirit, the inclination of his head is accentuated by the curve of a mountain leaning in the same direction. It is Mount Sinai where God appeared to Moses, and it is also Mount Sion where God pitched his tent among us, his Temple, and it is Mount Calvary where Jesus gave his life for us. Even creation is drawn into this exchange of love and reverence. The mountain points back to the tree of life behind the Son which is also leaning toward the Father. It is the tree on which Jesus died, and it is the true vine on which we are grafted, restoring us to friendship with God, bringing us back into the unity of God’s divine romance. As our gaze flows back to the Father from the bowed mountain and the verdant vine which has become a tree, we see behind the Father a castle. It is the Church, the heavenly Jerusalem, the safe place prepared for us from the foundation of the world. Its doors and windows are open inviting us into the Kingdom that never ends.
Then our gaze naturally falls back to the face of the Father and we are swept up again in this circular movement back to the Son and the Holy Spirit, a movement St. John Damascene called Perichoresis, a Greek word meaning “to dance around each other.” This is the infinite activity of three Divine Persons sharing complete intimacy, who interpenetrate one another in total oneness. As our gaze sweeps around the circle we come to a wide opening at the front and center of the icon, an open place at the table where we can be seated with the Trinity in their romance of happiness. On this table, like an altar, there is a chalice containing the good and tender young calf prepared by Abraham for his heavenly visitors. We immediately recognize this meal as the Eucharist, and the slain calf as the Lamb sacrificed on Calvary. It is Jesus, who died for us, who shared our pain and suffering so that we may be where he is and what he is, partakers in the divine nature, in a place where there is no more mourning or crying or pain, where these three loving Persons wipe away every tear from our eyes, where death will be no more. God becomes the Host, and we are invited to this banquet of joy that will never end, this circle of divine love. We are graced with their own life, united in heart and soul not only with divinity, but reunited with each another. No matter how many come to sit in this open place, there is always room for more. We enter into the divine dance, the heavenly opera, with hearts unburdened, lightened and radiant with glory, enjoying and spreading the happiness we receive.
The icon of Rublev’s Trinity is not only about our future. It also tells us about God’s presence in our lives here and now. Each of the three heavenly Visitors holds a staff, showing that they are on this journey with us. Moses asked the Lord, “Do come along in our company.” And they have. They are a hidden Presence accompanying us through all our hardships and tribulations. When Dan Bockenstedt pedaled along South Grandview Avenue at summer’s end he didn’t know he was about to share in the dreadful mystery of suffering and death that another Beloved Son, close to the same age, endured for us two thousand years ago. By his passion, Jesus revealed that God suffers with us. In all the tragedies of life, when struck down by fatal accidents, when drowning in the waters of overwhelming cyclones, when buried in crushing earthquakes, when suffering infection by ravaging diseases — three divine Persons suffer these crucifixions with us because we have become one body with Jesus. But death cannot hold Jesus or his members. He dies with us, and we rise with him.
Like Jesus, Dan Bockenstedt even shared his own body and blood with others: his heart and lungs, his liver and kidneys, his bone tissue and the corneas of his eyes, were given to help many people. He does not need those parts anymore. For he has won the race. He has crossed the finish line and is enjoying all the wonders of creation and the even greater wonders of the uncreated, infinite existence and love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They are dancing, running, jumping and racing together in happiness forever. That is what we celebrate in today’s feast of the Holy Trinity, the love that three Divine Persons have for us, who want us to be with them forever.