A deep but dazzling darkness: God’s generous love

Drawing on the lectionary Gospel, John 3.1-17, this week’s blog looks at the way our understanding of God as Trinity holds together the threads of God’s generous and loving intimacy and God’s elusiveness.  It then explores how our understanding of God as Trinity can be a resource for Christian engagement with other faiths.  Illustrating this week’s blog has been a challenge! Perhaps by definition it is very difficult to portray the trinitarian nature of God in art. I am afraid that some attempts simply make me laugh!  Though I cherish Rublev’s icon of the Hospitality of Abraham – for its beauty, its subtlety and its symbolism, it is perhaps overused, but in any case did not exactly link to the focus of this reflection. . I have therefore drawn on a painting by the Indian artist Jyoti Sahi, which echoes the theme of darkness in the Gospel passage. The blog concludes with a prayer I wrote a number of years ago, which takes John 3.1-17 as its starting point.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

Clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

 

Jyoti Sahi, ‘The Trinity in the burning bush’ . For more examples of the depiction of the Trinity by Jyoti Sahi, probably the most influential Indian Christian artist today, see Global Christian Worship – Trinity Art (India, Jyoti Sahi) (tumblr.com)

There is in God, some say,

A deep but dazzling darkness; as men here

Say it is late and dusky, because they

             See not all clear.

    O for that night! where I in Him

    Might live invisible and dim! (Henry Vaughan)

I have long loved the famous line from Henry Vaughan which speaks of God’s ‘deep but dazzling darkness’, but until I was working on this blog I had not in fact realised that the line comes from a poem by Vaughan, called ‘The Night’ which focuses on the story of Nicodemus. The Night by Henry Vaughan | Poetry Foundation It is interesting, because often the metaphor of ‘night’ in John 3.1-16 is seen in negative terms, as a symbol of Nicodemus’ ignorance and unbelief. Vaughan however catches something important in his suggestion that darkness can lead us into the heart of God. (There’s a lovely hymn by Brian Wren ‘Joyful is the dark’ which conveys much the same idea. Joyful Is the Dark – Hope Publishing Company)

In Year B of the three lectionary years (the year that we are ‘in’ at the moment) there are a number of Sundays where the same or overlapping Gospel reading is used on more than one occasion. This coming Sunday – Trinity Sunday – is one example.  Back on the fourth Sunday of Lent, the selected Gospel reading was John 3.14-21, for the coming Sunday, Trinity Sunday, John 3.1-17 is chosen. I don’t think it is a deliberate ploy to create difficulties for people like me, who blog on the coming Sunday lectionary passages, but it can provide a bit of a challenge! I won’t exactly repeat what I explored back last March, but you might be interested to (re-)read it to complement what I say below. You can find it at God so loved… (faithineurope.net).The thought I shared last March – that John 3.16 is the first time that the word ‘love’ appears in the Gospel of John – is however something that I do feel is explicitly worth repeating. Not least because it is a reminder that ‘love’ is at the heart of the life of the Holy Trinity.

It is fairly obvious why John 3.1-17 has been selected for Trinity Sunday – it is one of the most overtly trinitarian sections of any of the Gospels, with its focus on the Spirit, (3.5-8), as well as the Father and the Son (3.16-17). My reflections this week are offered in this light.

It has been widely noticed that the story of Nicodemus (John 3) is intended to be ‘paired’ and perhaps even contrasted with the story of Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman (John 4). I am sure this is correct. There are a number of obvious contrasts : man/woman; night/middle of the day; Jewish insider/Samaritan outsider. There are also less obvious contrasts such as that between the mention of wind and light in John 3 and water and earth in John 4. But I think there is also another ‘similarity yet contrast’ between the two stories. Both are some of the most overtly trinitarian parts of John’s Gospel, both mentioning both ‘Father’ and ‘Spirit’ as well as, directly or by implication, the ‘Son’. But I would suggest that they offer us also contrasting understandings of what it means to speak of God in this way. In Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus we experience the elusiveness, the unpinnable-downness of God, ‘the wind blows where it wills’ (John 3.8); in his encounter with the Samaritan woman the focus is rather on knowledge (John 4.22), ‘truth’ (John 4.24) and revelation. In technical language John 3 refers to God in ‘apophatic’ terms, and John 4 in ‘kataphatic’ idiom. God as Trinity encompasses both, and our Christian life, worship and mission is grounded in this reality. I want below to explore one aspect of this ‘mission’ in the light of this reality.

*****

Nearly 20 years ago, on 11 September 2001, I was at the first meeting of what was then a ‘new round’ of the membership the Church of England’s Interfaith Consultative Group. The residential meeting at Launde Abbey was organised by Revd Dr Michael Ipgrave, then national Church of England interfaith officer, now (via other stopping points on his life journey) the Bishop of Lichfield. It was before the days when mobile phones became so prevalent, and in any case Launde Abbey is (or used to be) in a ‘blind spot’ for mobile phone coverage. We had been discussing the future agenda and plans for the group through the first half of the afternoon, when about 4.00pm the Warden of the Abbey knocked at the door, saying that he thought we would want to know about what was currently being pictured on the TV news – which was of course the horrific attacks of 9/11 in New York and Washington. It was one of the crux moments that people remember, such as, ‘Where were you when you heard that President Kennedy had died?’

I think that all of us at that meeting that day, who were there precisely because we were perceived to be interested in interfaith/interreligious concerns, knew that the theme that had brought us together had entered a new, different and extraordinarily challenging era. And so it has proved to be. There is a fairly direct line that can be drawn between 9/11 and many current difficult realities not only of the Middle East, but of other parts of our world as well.

For myself, one of the consequences was that I was invited to become the Coordinator of the Anglican Communion’s Network for Interfaith Concerns (NIFCON). I held that role for 10 years, and then continued working in interfaith engagement for the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

Why am I telling you this now? Because one of the insights I have gained during my years of working intentionally in this field is that the Christian understanding of the trinitarian nature of God can offer a vital resource for Christian engagement with other faiths and religions.  Some previous generations of interfaith specialists would seek to ‘play down’ the Christian distinctives that spoke of incarnation and Trinity, for example. Yet trinitarian reflection on God enables us to explore God’s unity in diversity, to hold together the elusiveness yet also the intimacy of the divine, to celebrate the scandal of particularity interwoven with the generous expansiveness of God’s grace towards the whole of creation.

Drawing on the wisdom and support of a number of those present that day at Launde Abbey NIFCON published, in February 2008, ‘Generous Love: the truth of the Gospel and the call to dialogue – an Anglican theology of inter faith relations’.Generous Love, caught the imagination of many working in this area (I have to say that the title ‘Generous Love’ probably helped!). Its particular insight has been to explore the way that the dynamic life of God the Holy Trinity can offer vital patterns for the life and mission of Anglican churches when they commit themselves to presence among and engagement with other faith communities. The basis that Generous Love sets out for interreligious engagement is threefold:

  • We seek to mirror the Father’s generous love
  • We proclaim Jesus Christ as the one who shows us God’s face
  • We celebrate the work of the Holy Spirit made known through the fruit of the Spirit.

It goes on to suggest there are three dynamic patterns at work in such engagement and explores each of these in some detail. The three patterns are:

  • Celebrating the presence of Christ’s body: when we maintain our presence among communities of faiths, perhaps particularly in situations in which Christians are a minority, we are abiding as signs of the body of Christ in each place.
  • Communicating the energy of the Spirit: as we engage our energies with other groups for the transformation of society we are being sent in the power of the Spirit. We also acknowledge that the Spirit may choose to work within the hearts of individuals to bring them to faith in Christ, and when that happens we will rejoice.
  • Practising the embassy and hospitality of God: we believe that there need to be two poles in our relationship with people of other faiths, a movement ‘going out’ and a presence ‘welcoming in’, that these are indivisible and mutually complementary, and that our mission practice must include both.

Generous Love concludes by noting that taken together these three patterns reflect the reality of the God who is Trinity. It suggests both that in our encounters with people of other faiths we are called to mirror the life of the Trinity, and also that through such encounters we find ourselves led deeper into the very heart of God. Such themes are, I believe, hinted at in our Gospel reading, John 3.1-17.

I commend Generous Love to those of you who wish to reflect more deeply on these insights for this coming Trinity Sunday and for the time beyond. You can access it here.

Clare Amos

Prayer of thanksgiving linked to John 3.1-16
Holy One, we hear your music in the roar of the sea,
In the song of a people,
In the quiet breeze rustling through the trees.
We thank you God: that you so love our world.

Holy One, we sense your power in the flickering of fire,
In the yearning of our spirits,
In the dispelling of shadows.
We thank you God: that you so love our world.

Holy One, we feel your caress in the gift of our humanity,
In our desire to be whole,
In the blessing of peace.
We thank you God: that you so love our world.

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