Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Sabaoth. Heaven and earth are full of your glory!
– Prophet Isaiah’s “Thrice-Holy” Hymn
The Holy Trinity is at the centre of all the Church’s worship, and the Holy Scriptures, the Church Fathers, the Hymns and Liturgy are all full of the confession that God is Three Persons sharing One, divine, Nature. The visible seal on all of this teaching is the Icon of the Holy Trinity.
Yet the Icon should not be seen as a visible culmination of centuries of philosophizing, debating, and theological contemplation. It is nothing less than the image of divine revelation concerning the nature of God.
The Old Testament Scriptures are replete with images, symbols, and shadows of the true nature of God. The prophet Isaiah’s curious three-times holy praise of the Lord is just one of many examples in which the divinely-inspired writers of the Bible “let slip” God’s tri-unity.
A crowning example of this is the description in Genesis of God’s appearance to Abraham and Sarah by the oaks of Mamre. As Abraham sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day…
…he looked up and saw three angels standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them and bowed down to the ground.
He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought and wash your feet. Rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.”
So they said, “Do as you have said.”
And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah and said, Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it and make cakes. Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
– Book of Genesis, Chapter 18
Cast in the light of Christ’s revelation, this appearance of the Lord – called the “Hospitality of Abraham” – has always been understood as a manifestation of the Holy Trinity. The ineffable nature of God cannot be comprehended by man, yet God can reveal Himself – His triune nature – in ways which we can grasp, and record. What Scriptures recorded first, Christians recorded later, and the earliest images of the Hospitality of Abraham which survive are preserved in the catacombs of Italy (the 4th century).
Such a profound revelation of the Holy Trinity could not but move the Church, so it is unsurprising that over time, whilst the understanding of the Hospitality of Abraham remained the same, the imaging of it changed. It would be more correct to say that the image given to us by God was “purified”, showing forth the spiritual truth which lay behind the physical vision. In these Icons, dating from around 1000A.D onwards, the three “men” are explicitly shown as angels – with wings and halos. The focus is upon Them, seated around a table, their hands held up as in a blessing. The dwelling of Abraham is shown, as a tower (though it was, in reality, a tent), as is the oak of Mamre, with a rocky outcrop completing the scene. Abraham and Sarah are still shown, but smaller than the Trinity.
The pinnacle and definitive Icon of the Holy Trinity was revealed in the 15th century, at the hand of St Andrei Rublev. In this icon, Abraham and Sarah are completely absent. The Three Angels lean toward each other in mutual love, their hands held in a blessing directed toward the centre. The table is now unmistakably an altar, with even a small recess shown in which traditionally relics are placed. The various fruits, breads and meat shown on other icons are replaced with just a single chalice, representing the Holy Eucharist.
Each of the Three hold rods of divine authority, and sit elevated so that their feet do not touch the earth.
The simplicity of the Icon is captivating. The Three Angels, whilst distinct persons, possess a striking similarity to each other, producing a harmony between Them. As They lean toward each other, we follow Their gaze from One, to the Other, and back again. As we witness the intimate conversation between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are invited to participate: not only in contemplation of the Icon, but in all aspects of our life.
All-Holy Trinity, have mercy on us.
Lord, cleanse us from our sins.
Master, pardon our iniquities.
Holy God, visit and heal us
For Thy Name’s sake.