John 3:1-17 (NRSV). 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.[c] 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You[d] must be born from above.’[e] 8 The wind[f] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
With Trinity Sunday coming up this week, I really ought to be blogging on the Holy Trinity. After all, it’s the subject of one of my favorite hymns — no, let’s make that my all-time favorite hymn. It’s called St. Patrick’s Breastplate; it’s embedded at the top of this post, and I’ve blogged about it HERE and HERE. I’m pretty sure it was sung at my confirmation, a good 50 years ago, and at odd times I’ve carried a photocopy in my billfold as something between a prayer and a good luck charm. It’s a Victorian Anglo-Irlsh translation of an old Irish poem attributed to St. Patrick since the 11th century. It begins:
I bind unto myself today
the strong name of the Trinity
by invocation of the same,
the Three in One and One in Three.
The “Breastplate” part is a verse that goes like this:
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
There’s also a lovely English translation by Kuno Myer, called “The Deer’s Cry,” set to music by Irish composer Shuan Davey and often performed (as it is in this video) by his wife, Rita Connolly. It’s called that because it’s associated with the legend that St. Patrick and his band escaped from ambush by a pagan high king of Tara by singing it while disguised as deer. In other words the song was their shield, or breastplate. Legendary or not, it breathes the spirit of Celtic spirituality.
But I’m going to talk about something else instead.
For one thing, the Trinity is kind of a heresy trap. Anything you say about it is going to fall short, and it’s likely to get you in trouble. (The legends of the deer’s cry and St. Patrick and the shamrock notwithstanding.) For another, this year’s gospel reading for Trinity Sunday doesn’t come out and mention the Trinity, let alone St. Patrick or shamrocks.
Instead it’s a fairly lengthy passage from the Gospel of St. John that includes a couple of well-known bible verses — the one that says ye must be born again to enter the kingdom of God and John 3:16, “For God so loved the world …” (you know the rest) — that frankly I thought were pretty shopworn until I discussed the reading in a congregational bible study session over Zoom at midweek.
And, as so often happens in these Zoom sessions, I came away with a new way of looking at it.
As the story goes in John, a high-ranking Pharisee named Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night seeking instruction. (Apparently he’s a good learner. Later he will argue on Jesus’ behalf before the Sanhedrin, and still later he will bring myrrh and aloes to anoint Jesus’ body after the crucifixion. His name in Greek means something like “victory of the people.”) He says he’s heard of Jesus’ miracles, or signs, and asks how a person can be born again or from above — a crucial difference, in my book — without going back in the womb.
The article on Nicodemus in Wikipedia, my go-to spiritual guide when I’m reading scripture, suggests the ensuing conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus follows “the method of Rabbinic dialogue,” and I think I see an echo — or foreshadowing — of the disputes between rabbis and sages in the Talmud that was just beginning to be compiled about the same time as the Gospel of John. Anyway, I see Nicodemus as one of the good guys and his colloquy with Jesus as a sincere conversation between two rabbis.
And the poetry is magnificant. Raymond E. Brown of Union Theological Seminary and the Roman Pontifical Biblical Commission, my go-to source on John, says Jesus’ image of being born of water and the Spirit would have special resonance for Nicodemus, “for he knows that the spirit of breath given by God is responsible for natural life, and that in messianic times God would sprinkle clean water on people and give them a new spirit, i.e., a new form of life.”
Just before John quotes a kind of back-and-forth between Jesus and Nicodemus that I think I recognize from Jewish authors like Chaim Potok and Sholem Asch — “Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?'” — Jesus says:
Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.[c] Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You[d] must be born from above.’[e] The wind[f] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
And reading this, I am — if you will forgive the pun — blown away.
The footnotes, which I decided to leave in as I copied the passage so you can check them out if you want, explain that the words for wind and spirit in New Testament Greek are the same. They’re also the same in Hebrew, adds Raymond Brown.
Do I hear echoes here of the first chapter of John — “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God …” — and the first chapter of Genesis? “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”
That wind from God can also be the breath of God. Something more to think about.
A couple of days ago, I think I felt the breath of God when I was out walking in our neighborhood. It was a nice spring afternoon, breezy, blue sky, little white clouds overhead, the first time I’d been outside after several days of rainshowers. Nothing spectacular — just nice to be out in the breeze and the sunshine. My spiritual director, a wonderfully patient Dominican sister who passed away last fall, taught me to look for the presence of God in ordinary moments. She called them moments of grace, and I’ve blogged about them on occasion.
Anyway, this was one of those moments. Peonies in bloom. White clover, too, where we’ve overseeded our lawn for the rabbits, the bees and the butterflies. Debi and I walked up to the street corner — our daily exercise route in good weather — and a little gust of wind lifted up my hat and sent it spinning to the ground. I’d been thinking about the presence of God on a nice spring day and, as if on cue, God had a playful moment and blew my hat off. Does God have a dry Norwegian sense of humor? I realize my concept of God may be created in my own image, but I’m tempted to say God does.
Don’t we all do that? When I try to imagine myself face-to-face with Jesus, he turns out to embody my best aspirations for myself — for humanity — in a first-century Palestinian context as nearly as I can reconstruct it. A rabbi, a teacher (I taught for 20 years), an embodiment of his teaching, of the Beatitudes. Love God and love thy neighbor … this is the first and greatest commandment and the second like unto it. Do unto others … For me, Jesus lives in his teachings. And his stories, some of which are downright funny. A mustard plant, a common weed that grows into a tree so big that the birds nest in his branches? Really?
So I’m sure my Jesus would have a dry, playful, Norwegian sense of humor, too. And the spirit, the breath of God? The spirit bloweth where it listeth, as I first learned it, and we cannot tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth. So if the omnipotent triune God wants to flip my hat off in a playful moment on a nice spring day, who am I to question it?
But when I try to think about God, really think about the nature of God, I’m most comfortable with the stories of Jesus — the incarnation — or the ancient Israeli Yahweh (whose name is the sound of breath, come to think of it) who appeared in a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night, in desert thunderstorms and to the prophet Elijah in a still, small voice. God is unknowable.
The wind, the breath of God, bloweth where it listeth, blows where it chooses, and we hear the sound of it but we don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. I’m OK with that.
And with that, I’m back to the Holy Trinity, to St. Patrick and the 11th-century Irish hymn that he and his companions sang on the way to Tara. I think it breathes the spirit of Celtic spirituality, especially the third verse in the confirmation hymn I grew up with. It goes like this:
I bind unto myself today
the virtues of the starlit heaven,
the glorious sun’s life-giving ray,
the whiteness of the moon at even,
the flashing of the lightning free,
the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
the stable earth, the deep salt sea
around the old eternal rocks.
This. This is how I experience the presence of God. (It’s not the only way, of course. I also experience God’s presence in my neighbor, who is also part of God’s creation, but that’s another thought for another day.) And if God wants to lift my hat off on a glorious spring day, well, in the words of another hymn, “God moves in a mysterious way [God’s] wonders to perform.” Who am I to question it?
[May 27, 2021]