The Sound of One God Laughing

The Trinity is not so much a concept that we can explain as much as it is an experience in which we can participate. Every moment of every day we are invited to become part of the Trinitarian flow and to join in the perichoresis, which means what? Circle Dance! One of the most famous icons in Church History depicts this circle gathering of the Triune God. The icon is generally attributed to the 15th century Russian artist Andrei Rublev. The three persons are not so much dancing as they are sitting and gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes around a table. The Father is on the left, dressed in gold, representing heavenly perfection. The Son, in the middle, is clothed in blue, the color of divinity, and brown, the color of the earth, and is holding out two fingers representing the divinity and humanity that coexist in him. On the right is the Spirit, draped in green, representing fertility and fecundity. The 12th century female mystic Hildegard of Bingen expressed the healing power of the Spirit in plants and vegetation, by using the word veriditas, a poetic combination of the Latin words for “green” and “truth.”

If you look at the front of the table, you see a rectangular hole. “Art historians say that the remaining glue on the original icon (which is in Moscow) indicates that there was perhaps once a mirror glued to the front of the table,” inviting the observer to join the circle. We are invited to sit at the table with the Trinity, as beloved sons and daughters, as brothers and sisters of Christ. We are invited to be nourished and refreshed and transformed by sitting and resting in this circle of love. I sometimes like to imagine the three of them all turning their gaze towards me and you with tender love, bringing us into their fold and transforming us into one of them, because they see the divine in us. They see themselves in you and me.

For some of us, this might feel wonderful as well as slightly awkward. Sometimes we can feel somewhat uncomfortable when someone gazes at us for a long time, especially someone we might not know too well. We might even find it challenging to gaze for several minutes into the eyes of someone that we do know well. We might get a little uneasy and want to look away and maybe we laugh nervously. Or when it comes to imagining the Triune God gazing at us in love, we might even laugh in disbelief at the idea that we are inherently lovable, that the divine dwells within us, that God wants to make Godself known in us and through us.

This laughter of disbelief is similar to Sarah’s laughter in our reading from Genesis; a laughter of disbelief in the radical and seemingly impossible love and fecundity of God, laughter in response to something profoundly absurd, in response to a promise that does not make sense and that refuses to remain confined by our limited knowledge of reality.  Like the Trinity, many of the promises of God are not so much concepts to be explained as they are experiences in which we are invited to participate through faith.

Another name for Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Trinity is The Hospitality of Abraham. This scene portrays the three visitors whom Abraham hosts by the Oaks of Mamre: the three angels that prefigure the three-personed God. As the text says, Abraham stands beside them, under the Mamre tree, waiting on them as a generous host to his guests. But the visitors invite him into their circle by engaging him in conversation. They ask, “Where is your wife, Sarah?” thus inviting her into the circle as well.

In Sarah, they see a generous, loving and powerful woman in whom they seek to channel and embody their divine power. As they enjoy the delicious cakes that Sarah made in record time, they promise that Sarah will soon be a mother and not just any mother, but the mother of the whole nation of Israel. How could she, an elderly woman, not laugh in disbelief at such an absurd statement? It would be like me saying that Church of the Redeemer will soon become the biggest church in the diocese. [Yeah, right.] The three-personed God says to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh? Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?”

When you gaze at this icon and imagine God gazing back at you in love, what promises do you hear him say to you? Are they hard to believe? Do they make you laugh? If so, I ask you, “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?”

Sarah is so endearing to me as she seems so embarrassed about her laughter that she denies laughing at all. And God says to her, “Oh yes, you did laugh.” But in these words I do not hear judgement or condemnation. I don’t hear God saying, “Guess what? You can’t lie to me. I’m God. I know everything. You laughed.” I hear God doing something that he often does in the Hebrew Bible and that is play with words. In fact, this whole passage can be seen as one long pun on the word “laughter.” I hear God saying to Sarah, “Oh yes, you did laugh. And I’m going to teach you the true meaning of laughter. I am going to convert that laughter of disbelief and isolation into a laughter of communal joy and delight and ecstasy. I am going to teach you about the laughter that flows eternally within the divine circle dance.” 14th century German mystic Meister Eckhart wrote these words:

Do you want to know

What goes on in the core of the Trinity?

I will tell you.

In the core of the Trinity

The Father laughs

And gives birth to the Son.

The Son laughs back at the Father

And gives birth to the Spirit.

The whole Trinity laughs

And gives birth to us.[1]

 

Sarah no longer tried to understand or explain God’s impossible promise. Instead, she stepped into the circle dance and experienced the laughter that flows endlessly between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. “God has brought laughter for me,” she says, “Everyone who hears will laugh with me.” We all know the difference between laughing at someone and laughing with someone. Here that difference is underscored in the text, which describes Sarah as initially laughing to herself, in isolation, in disbelief, in resistance to the promise. After her encounter with the Triune God, she laughs with everyone, everyone who knows her and hears about her. Her God-given laughter deepens and expands her community. And just as the Holy Trinity laughs and gives birth to us, as Meister Eckhart says, so too does Sarah laugh and give birth to her son, Isaac, Yitzhak, whose name in Hebrew means, “laughter.” God-given laughter brings new life while deepening and widening the community.

Scientists who have studied laughter have concluded that the main reason we laugh is actually not in response to jokes or comedy. Only about 10% of our laughter is in response to jokes. The rest of our laughter comes from interacting in a seemingly mundane way with those whom we love and whom we feel loved by. We laugh at each other’s beautiful and vulnerable humanity. This communal laughter is the God-given laughter that Sarah experienced, the laughter of the Trinitarian flow, the divine circle dance. The laughter we experience when we see a friend whom we haven’t seen for a while.

Former Episcopal Priest Alan Watts said, “A priest once quoted to me the Roman saying that a religion is dead when the priests laugh at each other across the altar. I always laugh at the altar, be it Christian, Hindu, or Buddhist, because real religion is the transformation of anxiety into laughter.”[2] Real religion is about reconnecting with God and participating in the Trinity, who transforms our anxious, isolated, and nervous laughter of disbelief into the fruitful and joyful laughter of the beloved community, the kingdom of God. This is what Jesus called his disciples to proclaim in Matthew’s Gospel and what Paul boasts about in his letter to the Romans: this open invitation to participate in the divine circle dance. It is true that many may respond to this invitation with disbelief and condescension. In some ways, we are still indeed sheep among wolves. But the invitation remains for everyone to have their laughter of derision converted into the laughter of the dancing Triune God.  “In the core of the Trinity, The Father laughs And gives birth to the Son. The Son laughs back at the Father And gives birth to the Spirit. The whole Trinity laughs and gives birth to us.” As we experience holy and Trinitarian laughter together here, what will we give birth to? Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?

[1] Matthew Fox, trans. and ed., Meditations with Meister Eckhart (Rochester VT: Bear and Company, 1983), 129.

[2] Alan Watts, In My Own Way: An Autobiography (New World Library: Novato CA, 1972), 57.

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