Easter 2024

11 June 2006
Trinity - as perpetual birthing

The Trinity, El GrecoLast year I started thinking about the Trinity as a dance, and that's a nice, 1960s sort of image. One can imagine God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit in white linen robes, adorned with garlands, dancing on a hill somewhere.

"Hey guys," says Jesus, "let's go over here!"

"Oh Jesus," says God, "you always want to dance on the water."

But I digress.

This year, thanks to an excellent sermon I heard and the "born from above" comment in John, I've started thinking about the Trinity as an entity that is "dancing" by perpetually giving birth to itself.

Giving birth to itself. It's weird, I know. But it's seems to me that if one of the key attributes of God is his ability to create, could not one conceive of God as a force always engaged in creation? as the act of creation itself?

The idea of three-in-one is a bit much. Heck, the idea of two-in-one is a bit much, as Mitch Hedberg would remind us at this point.

It was a two-in-one shampoo and two-in-one is a bullsh*t term because one isn't big enough to hold two. That's why two was created. If it was two-in-one, it would be overflowing. The bottle would be all sticky and sh*t . . .

They say that Jesus was fully God and fully man. Expressed numerically he was 100% God and 100% man. So that means he was 200%, um, what, exactly?

So if it's difficult to conceive of a shampoo/conditioner, or a fully-God, fully-human Jesus, how much more difficult is it to conceive of a God/Jesus/Holy Spirit?

Something has to give, or the "bottle" will explode. That's why I think I like this imagery of constant motion (dance) or creation (birth): it helps me wrap my mind around the Trinity.

A similar image to this perpetual birthing idea might be God making himself present in the burning bush. The bush is on fire (with God's holiness), and yet doesn't burn up (protected by God's quintessential creativity).

Looking a little more closely at Exodus 3 (the King James version, because I'm feeling snarky), we see God announcing his holiness/creativity:

And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.
Moreover he said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God.

Exodus 3:5-6

God relates a genealogy beginning with Moses's father, but then leaps backward to narrate the creative force with which God has guided his people: Abraham (God makes Sarah laugh with a child in her old age), Isaac (God spares Isaac with a ram caught in a bush--though this one is not on fire; Rebekah is barren but gives birth to twins), Jacob (the father of Israel). God is essentially explaining why it is that the Bush isn't burning up: it's because he's cool creative.

OuroborosThe generative perpetual-birth image is the polar opposite of the consuming Ouroboros, the serpent eating its own tail (perpetual-survival bordering on perpetual-death hinting at perpetual-motion).

And while the concept Ouroboros doesn't really make sense, it is something that can be represented graphically. Perpetual birthing, however, takes a little more imagination, and a lot more graphic skill (perhaps Mr. Escher would like to give this a try?).

We at, however, do not preach in the art library, we preach from the organ bench, so we need not graphic skill, but musical references.

Escher drawingThe final movement of Olivier Messiaen's Les Corps Glorieux (1939) is about the Trinity (full disclosure: Messiaen was the organist at La Trinité in Paris for over 60 years). In my initial encounter with it, I was amazed how Messiaen was able to create an effect reminiscent of descending Shepard tones. In the descending Shepard scale, as in Messiaen's composition, by low octaves that fade away and quietly give birth to higher pitches which are descending. The trick of the illusion is to have their introduction be so subtle, and so much a part of the texture, that the listener assumes that they were always there and have been descending for some time.

It's interesting that Messiaen chooses this rhetorical device of catabasis, one with which Bach was also acquainted. In Bach's usage, descending devices had to do particularly with Jesus and his descent/birth.

The "St. Anne" Fugue in E-Flat Major, BWV 552b from the Third Part of the Clavierübung is often regarded as Bach's Trinitarian composition par excellence. With a key signature of three flats, the "St. Anne" is a triple fugue consisting of three large sections (Father, Son, and do I really need to tell you?).

The first section is large creative gesture, like the exposition of any fugue. Starting from a single line, the slow moving fugue subject gradually expands to two, then three, four, and ultimately five voices (no Trinitarian symbolism here, just some "compositional chest thumping"). The second theme moves much more quickly. This section is customarily performed on another manual with a slightly smaller sound. Usually this is the Rückpositiv, the part of the organ closest to the congregation, thereby symbolizing Jesus' descent. This is a kind of surround-sound catabasis, if you will. The final theme is a spirited dance that sweeps up the other two themes, usually played on the original manual with the second one coupled (combined) into it. This final section, when played by a theologically inclined organist, will combine all the themes and the two sound schemes used in the previous two sections.

All this talk of birth seems to place emphasis on the second figure of the Trinity. Even Messiaen's scoring of the last movement of Les Corps Glorieux seems to place a lot of emphasis on Jesus, the middle voice. Jesus was actually born on earth and he is the one who speaks of being "born from above" in today's gospel. And so, we see that this creative self-birthing Trinity wants to include us in the dance; the Trinitarian God wants to give birth to us. We are invited into the dance through the Rückpositiv and then swept up into the Hauptwerk.

Birth is messy, sort of like the overflowing 2-in-1 shampoo bottle. In an episode of the Gilmore Girls--you know you watch it too--Lorelai Gilmore is describing the miracle of birth to a soon-to-be mother. Lorelai cautions her not to look at the baby until they clean it off a little or she'll think she's "given birth to phlegm".

Births are also miraculous, and it's no wonder that we experience a sense of the divine when we encounter God's creative, life-giving nature this way.

We also encounter God in the holy burning bush. We don't understand it, but we are strangely compelled to turn aside.

And so, the Trinity is not just a mystery, it's a messy miracle which, like the bush, invites us to take off our shoes and join the dance.

Trinitarian death tangent: They say that deaths often come in threes. Did you know that the three deaths on November 22, 1963 led to a novel?



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