St. Patrick's Breastplate being sung at the Matriculation ceremony at General Seminary. The song starts at 0:44.
Each fall at General Seminary there is a ceremony in the chapel called Matriculation. Even though it takes place close to a month after students have already started classes, it’s considered the moment when you officially become part of the seminary community. There is an Evensong liturgy, the dean asks if you will subscribe to the duties and character benefiting the ministries of the church, and you sign your name in a book that goes back to the seminary’s founding in 1817. As each new student comes forward to sign that book the organist breaks out into St. Patrick’s Breastplate, that great prayer of the 4th century Irish bishop, which most Episcopal parishes were singing last weekend for Trinity Sunday. St. Patrick’s Breastplate is long, maybe the longest song in our whole hymnal, and at Matriculation it would often get stretched out to 20 minutes to cover all of those students coming up to sign. Still, it was at that ceremony in the fall of 2009, when I signed that same book while surrounded by my classmates and my mother, who was making her first ever trip to New York City, that I first fell in love with that song, which was played at both of my ordinations and will be played at my wedding this Saturday.
What is it about that song that gets me every time I hear it? It’s not so much the music—because, let’s face it, it’s kind of a tough song to sing—but it’s the words of Patrick's prayer. I bind unto myself today the strong Name of the Trinity. I bind unto myself the virtues of the starlit heaven. I bind unto myself the power of the great love of cherubim. I bind unto myself the power of God to hold and lead. Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me. Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger. That is a powerful, powerful prayer. It is the prayer of someone who longs for one thing: relationship with the living God, by which he may be bound together with God through the wonder of creation, the redemption of that creation by Christ, and the grace of the Creator Spirit to sanctify and sustain. The reason I fell in love with St. Patrick’s Breastplate was because that’s what I wanted, what I still want, to bind unto myself the strong name of God in Trinity, to be in relationship with God, just as God is in relationship with Godself.
That is the beauty of the Trinity, of a God existing in relationship with Godself, and very truly, we see it everywhere we look. The German astronomer Johannes Kepler looked at the very solar system and saw the Trinity—comparing the sun to God the Father, the planets to the God the Son, and the stars and space between them to the Holy Spirit. In our daily lives we see it in the relationship between the flowers, the wind that carry the flowers’ seeds, and the soil that bears those seeds and gives the flowers new birth. We even see it on a subatomic level, in the relationship between protons, neutrons, and electrons. The very building blocks of all life in the universe is this three-way relationship! Gregory of Nazianzus called it perichoresis, a divine dance between the three persons of the Trinity. But it’s really just God existing the way God always does: in relationship. The prayer of St. Patrick that we pray when we sing that song is our own desire to be in that kind of relationship, not only with God but with each other.
William P. Young was not a scholar or theologian when he wrote the novel The Shack; in fact, he was just a ordinary person who had been through some excruciating times. His own relationships had been beaten up pretty badly, but he wrote his book as a gift to his family, as a means of trying to explain who God was in his life through the story of a man who spends a weekend in a shack with the three persons of the Trinity. (It's a story every seminary should require its students to read!) The crux of his own personal theology can be summed up in a scene in the book (and later film) in which the protagonist Mack is standing with God the Father—portrayed as a curvy black woman—and they are watching God the Son—Jesus—and the Holy Spirit—a young Asian woman—interact in the back yard. Mack notes how they help each other, move with each other, almost dance with each other, asking or expecting nothing in return from the other. “Is that what you meant for us?” he asks God. God smiles and says, "Yes!" That was the plan, that humanity would be in relationship with each other in the same way that God is.
(Left to Right) Jesus, Mack, God, and the Holy Spirit from the film version of The Shack.
Thist is what we bind unto ourselves, my brothers and sisters. We bind unto ourselves the very possibility that we might love one another as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit love one another. We bind unto ourselves the hope that such a love can change the world. On Saturday, June 2 my fiancee Kristen and I will stand before God, our families, our friends, and many of you, and we will bind unto each other the promises that we will make to love and support one another, to dance with one another, and to let our relationship with each other find its meaning and purpose in the relationship of God, so that our relationship may be a reminder of that, a beacon of hope to a world that has forgotten love.
Kristen and me before a round of Star Wars Trivia at our local brewery. (Note the Trinity shirt!)
You see, that is the power of love. The love that you have with your partner, with your family, or with your friends is merely a reflection of God’s love for Godself and for God’s world. Imagine what it would be like if we all could look at each other and see the relationship between Godeself in one another. That is the kind of love that is as strong as death, the kind that can never be destroyed, the kind that can, in fact, change the world if we let it. This, brothers and sisters, is the love unto which we all bind ourselves.
The bulletin for our Trinity Sunday celebration at Good Shepherd this past weekend featured this picture on the cover:
You can see the three persons, but you may also notice that there are four sides to the table and one spot that is empty. That’s your spot! Because the Trinity is not some theological rubix cube for us to solve. It is a relationship in which we are invited to participate with God and with each other because, simply put, God loves us. When I sang St. Patrick’s Breastplate at General Seminary in the fall of 2009 I knew that fact in a way that I never had before. Today I hope you know that. I hope your own relationships are strengthened by the One who is the very embodiment of relationship. May you bind unto yourself that strong name of Trinity, that strong love of God, the power to hold and lead you. May you seek relationship with one another, dancing with one another and creating a world where love truly is the way. This is what Kristen and I will pledge ourselves to on Saturday. This is the relationship I pray we will all pledge ourselves to as partners with God in this divine dance of the Three in One and One in Three.