Worship and Doubt
The icon of the Holy Trinity painted by Andrei Rublev sometime in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century represents a high water mark in medieval Russian art. Of course, icons are not merely works of art, but rather visual representations of deep theological and spiritual reflection. As one commentator puts it, an icon “is a window out of the obvious realities of everyday life into the realm of God. Every paint-stroke has a meaning hallowed by centuries of prayer” (Sacred Heart Parish, “Explanation,” n.p.).
In his icon Rublev depicts the Trinity as the three angels in Genesis 18 who converse with Abraham under the oaks of Mamre. The three persons of the Trinity have the golden wings of angels and bear staffs as though they have been walking, as the angels do in the Genesis account. The three sit at one table, sharing one bowl, which holds a bit of roasted lamb, an obvious reference to the Eucharist, in which God invites us to partake of the body and blood of the Lamb of God.
In the background of the painting are a hill, a tree, and a house. The hill probably represents the rocky road of discipleship, full of trials. It rises behind the angel on the right who represents the Holy Spirit, the Counselor and Comforter who accompanies us pilgrims on that difficult road. Behind the Son in the center is a tree, which clearly refers to the cross. But this tree is alive and in full leaf; the tree of death has been transformed into the tree of eternal life. And behind the figure on the left who represents the Father stands a house—the house of God in which Jesus promises to prepare us a room—its windows and doors open to welcome home all wandering prodigals.
Even the colors of the icon hold important meanings. The Spirit is clothed in blue and green—sky and earth. This is the very Spirit we find hovering over the waters of chaos in Genesis 1, bringing forth order and creating life. The Son wears a blue cloak over a robe of reddish-brown; Jesus is the one who unites earth and heaven, divinity and humanity. The Father is dressed in iridescent clothing that contains all colors and seems to shift with the light—Rublev’s way of saying that God is beyond all description or comprehension.
The commentator I quoted earlier also says, “Icons are religious images that hover between two worlds, putting into colors and shapes what cannot be grasped by the intellect. Rendering the invisible visible.” (“Explanation,” n.p.). In this sense, Jesus can be said to be an “icon” of God. The letter to the Colossians declares Jesus to be “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). In the original Greek, the word translated as “image” is literally eikon. Jesus is indeed the icon of God, the one who renders the invisible visible.
Another way of putting it is that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. At the very beginning of his gospel, Matthew cites a passage from the prophet Isaiah in the context of Jesus’s birth: “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us’” (Matt 1:23). And here at the end of the gospel—the very last verse, in fact—we see it again. Jesus tells the disciples, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (v. 20). Jesus is the one who bridges the gap between heaven and earth, who brings the presence of God into our midst, who “enfleshes” God. Like an icon, he hovers between two worlds, putting into colors and shapes what cannot be grasped by the intellect. He renders the invisible visible.
Our gospel reading today finds Jesus occupying that in-between place bridging the two worlds. This is the resurrected Christ, one who is no longer fully part of this world but not entirely absorbed into the other. It’s no accident that he meets with the disciples on a mountain, what in Celtic spirituality would be called a “thin place.” That’s the notion that there are certain locations, such as rivers, groves of trees, or mountains where the veil or membrane between earth and heaven is especially thin and the presence of the sacred is particularly palpable. Jesus stands on this mountain at a thin place, the junction of heaven and earth.
On this mountain he gives his eleven remaining apostles what has come to be known as the Great Commission. He tells them to make disciples of all nations, to baptize them and teach them everything he taught them. He also provides the justification for this commission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (v. 18). Once again we hear the echoes of the creation story: Jesus as the icon of God brings together heaven and earth. In the beginning God created heaven and earth through the power and agency of the Spirit, and now the Son of God has been invested with all authority in creation.
That’s why it’s all the more surprising to read what sounds like a note of dissonance. Matthew says of the eleven apostles, “When they saw [Jesus], they worshiped him, but some doubted” (v. 17). That’s the way the NRSV and most other English versions of the Bible translate that verse, but it could also be translated not to imply that a few of the disciples worshiped and a few others doubted, but rather that each of them came with a mixture of worship and doubt.
We’re like that, aren’t we? I have met few people in my life who, when pressed, will not admit to some times of doubt when it comes to the truth claims of Christianity. Or any other religion, for that matter. Those who do not evince any doubt, whose certainty in their relationship with God or their interpretation of the Scriptures or the rightness of their worldview is unshakable, really scare me. In the soil of that kind of certainty lie the seeds of inquisitions, jihad, and genocide.
For the vast majority of us, thankfully, our faith is leavened with the humbling yeast of doubt. We know the chastening experience of uncertainty in the face of the perplexities of the life of the spirit. We want to give ourselves over wholeheartedly to God in worship, but the moments when that happens are relatively few and far between, and the moments when instead we keep our fingers crossed, theologically speaking, are unsettlingly frequent. Or am I the only one who sometimes feels that way? I suspect I’m not.
That’s why I find it strangely comforting that these eleven disciples who supposedly know Jesus better than anyone else; who have traveled the roads with him; who have witnessed the power of his teaching, his healings, and the way he so resolutely stands up to the powers; and who now have a front-row seat for a peek at the resurrected Christ—I find it comforting somehow to think that even their worship is mingled with doubt. And I find more comforting still that Jesus neither condemns them nor refuses to accept their worship on account of their doubts. As the one who has lived this altogether strange experience most intimately, he must know better than anyone how hard it is to believe.
Each person’s doubts are different. For some, intellectual questions make worship and discipleship difficult. Some people simply can’t wrap their minds around the idea of a Supreme Being, or of a person who embodies that Supreme Being in human form. Some can’t accept the notion of an afterlife, and many reject out of hand the possibility of resurrection. When it comes to the Trinity, well … the notion of a God who is three, yet one, is hard for even the most devout to swallow.
But other doubts, if it’s even accurate to call them by that name, come from a different place. The difficulty many people have in believing in the Christian story and walking the path of Christian discipleship comes from a place of protest. If God is all we have been taught to believe God is—all-powerful and all-knowing, for instance—then God has some serious explaining to do.
In the poem “Rublev,” Rowan Williams imagines the icon painter expressing these concerns directly to God, who appears as a weary traveler seeking shelter from the wind of the steppe. This pale God asks the painter to “colour me, breathe your blood into my mouth” (Williams, n.p.). Rublev agrees to do so, but in an almost vindictive way meant to punish God for God’s failings.
I said, Here is the blood of all our people,
these are their bruises, blue and purple,
gold, brown, and pale green wash of death.
He paints his icon of the Trinity in the colors of suffering; the blood and bruises of his people.
Then he explains to God what he is doing and why:
These (god) are the chromatic pains of flesh,
I said, I trust I shall make you blush,
O I shall stain you with the scars of birth
For ever, I shall root you in the wood,
under the sun shall bake you bread
of beechmast, never to let you forth
To the white desert, to the starving sand.
Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel tells the story of how some prisoners in Auschwitz put God on trial and found God guilty. In an interview with the Jewish Chronicle in 2008, he says, “It happened at night; there were just three people. At the end of the trial they used the word chayav, rather than ‘guilty.’ It means ‘He owes us something.’ Then we went to pray” (Frazer 2008, n.p.).
The Rublev of Williams’s poem does the same thing. As he paints the icon, which is a process steeped in prayer from start to finish, he imagines what he would say to God if he had God there in the room with him. The words he speaks in his head to the Trinity are words of protest. Words that echo the complaints and cries of suffering people from his own time and from time immemorial. Words that spring from the same source of pain and anger that led a handful of emaciated Jewish prisoners to try God for crimes against humanity. And Rublev comes to the same conclusion as they do: God, you owe us something.
Williams only gives us one side of the conversation. We do not hear God’s response to Rublev’s complaint. So let us engage in a little conjecture. How would this pale and weary trinitarian God answer the painter’s charges? How would God the defendant respond to the the verdict of chayav, You owe us something, from that prison barracks in Auschwitz?
Your answer may differ from mine, but here is how I imagine God answering these charges. God says, I asked you for color, and you have given it. You have painted me with the blood of your people and you have heaped on my head blame for their bruises and their death. But why am I weary? Why am I pale? Why am I so colorless that I had to come to you to ask you to breathe your blood into my mouth?
I am weary from the many sleepless nights in the cancer ward, from sitting up with the dying and the grieving, gently guiding the former to the gate of the world and holding the latter through their anguish and calumny. I am pale from my nights in the alley, hunching alongside the junkies shooting up and the mad trying to quiet the voices and still the demons with doses of gin or glue administered from a paper sack. I am scarred from my time in the rubble of the war zone, the aftermath of the drone strike, the blast radius of the suicide bomber. I am gaunt from my days among the starving, the malarial, the AIDS-afflicted. I have wandered in here for a new splash of color so I can return to the refugee camp and the abusive household, the halfway house and the food desert, and be drained of color once again.
What I imagine God saying to Rublev, in other words, is what Jesus reminds his disciples here at the end of the gospel of Matthew: “I am with you. Always. To the end of the age I am with you. I am Emmanuel, and that means more than you can fathom. The good news is that you don’t have to fathom it. You don’t even have to believe it. I will be with you regardless.”
To me, the hopeful element of Williams’s poem is that Rublev brings his complaint while he is engaged in painting the icon, a deeply spiritual exercise bathed in prayer and devotion. Like the inmates of the concentration camp who declare that God is guilty or owes them something and then go to pray, Rublev mingles protest and prayer. Like the disciples on the mountain, he worships and doubts. Like many of us, he has deep faith and grave objections, and they live side-by-side in the same mind and heart.
The other element of hope, of gospel, is the conclusion of the poem. Williams presents it as coming from Rublev, but the same invitation can and does come to us from God:
But we shall sit and speak around
one table, share one food, one earth.
Take another look at the icon. Look especially at the hands. It’s kind of subtle, but you can see, going from left to right, the Father points toward the Son; the Son points toward the Spirit; and the Spirit points toward … the empty space at the table. The picture is incomplete. Orthodoxy tells us the Holy Trinity is a complete and all-sufficient community of mutual love. But that empty space at the table suggests that there is more to the story. God may be complete and all-sufficient, but then what led God to create the heavens and the earth? What led God to create humanity? What led God to enter creation and human history and become vulnerable, even to die a violent death?
The answer, I think, is love. The mutual love among the persons of the Trinity overflows to bring about creation, and opens a space for other partners to join the eternal dance of love. The empty space at the table is for us. Emmanuel, God-with-us, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of all things, calls us to fill that empty space. Let us sit and speak around one table, God says; let us share one food, one earth.
Frazer, Jenni. 2008. “Wiesel: Yes, we really did put God on trial.” The Jewish Chronicle. Online: https://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/wiesel-yes-we-really-did-put-god-on-trial-1.5056
Sacred Heart Parish, Pullman, WA. N.D. “Explanation of Andrei Rublev’s Icon of the Trinity.” Online: http://www.sacredheartpullman.org/Icon%20explanation.htm
Williams, Rowan. 1994. “Rublev.” After Silent Centuries. Oxford: The Perpetua Press.