Sermon preached by the Vice-Provost on 31st May 2015


Through that pure Virgin-shrine,
That sacred veil drawn o’er thy glorious noon
That men might look and live as glow-worms shine,
And face the moon:
Wise Nicodemus saw such light
As made him know his God by night.

This is how Henry Vaughan’s poem, The Night, begins. It is a reflection on today’s Gospel and gives us a rather different angle on that nocturnal meeting. Far from being an act of one afraid for his reputation and thus choosing only to meet this radical teacher under the cover of darkness, Nicodemus is shown as one who is able to tell us something very important about the nature of the God he meets in Jesus by night. The heart of the poem for me is this stanza:

God’s silent, searching flight:
When my Lord’s head is filled with dew, and all
His locks are wet with the clear drops of night;
His still, soft call;
His knocking-time; the soul’s dumb watch,
When Spirits their fair kindred catch.

These words are a reference to verses from the Song of Songs 5:2 where the beloved seeks his soul’s desire in a garden by night. Nicodemus is there, in the dark, looking for Jesus because God has called him there, God has sought him out in restless, searching, divine desire. This language seems strange, powerful and intimate, perhaps even inappropriate to our modern ears, used, as they are, to speaking of God in rather cooler terms. But there is a very long tradition of using this highly charged language as a most apt metaphor for the deeply felt intuition that, when we respond to God, we are responding to one who has sought us out in love. A century before Henry Vaughan, St John of the Cross used exactly the same metaphors of night and of desire to talk of the Divine Lover:

Upon a gloomy night,
With all my cares to loving ardours flushed,
(O venture of delight!)
With nobody in sight
I went abroad when all my house was hushed.
Oh night that was my guide!
Oh darkness dearer than the morning’s pride,
Oh night that joined the lover to the beloved bride
Transfiguring them each into the other.

Their language is so close that it seems more than a coincidence. At the very least, these two poets, drawing on the same biblical sources, have found a way of expressing exactly the same spiritual experience of being found by God who desires to draw us to himself in love, an experience which is so overwhelming as to demand the language of night, of darkened senses. I’ll come back to this aspect later.

If all of this seems like a way of avoiding questions about God as Trinity, it is anything but. This insight offers us the key to understanding this fundamental Christian understanding about God. Put simply, it is this: It is in the very nature of God to reach out in desire to us because desire is, itself, at the heart of who God is. When we talk about God as Trinity, we are expressing an understanding of a God who is neither supremely and majestically alone, nor a God who is radically separate from his world, but a God who exists as constantly creative, constantly going out from himself in love because that self-transcending love is already dynamically operating between the three persons of the Trinity.

So if we are made in the image of God, we are not made to be alone. St Augustine put it well: ‘You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.’ So when Christians talk about God as Trinity, they are also saying something fundamental about their understanding of what it means to be human. God’s nature is self-transcending love, and our true nature is exactly the same. God’s identity is communal, and so is ours. But there is also a crucial aspect of this identity that is bound up with the ‘threeness’ of God. God is not a binary reality – me over against you – but a Trinitarian reality – a constant exchange between equal persons. This is very important. How often do we think of our human reality in binary terms: male-female; us-them; for us – against us; good-bad; slave-free; in-out. These oppositions do not speak helpfully of our nature which, if it is truly fulfilled by being drawn in love into the Trinitarian God, is not oppositional, not dualistic but communal.

There are, I think, two dangers in our contemporary Western assumptions about human nature. One is the danger of thinking that we are completely autonomous individuals (this can lead to selfishness and pride) and the other is the danger of seeing everything in polar opposition (which can lead to competitive, dominating power). God, who is Trinity, fundamentally challenges both of these understandings with an image based on generous, self-transcending love which passionately desires the thriving life of all. Vaughan described this desire as a ‘still, soft call’. We are never coerced by God, only ever wooed, drawn, invited.

I said I would come back to the question of this language of night, of darkened senses. When we speak of God as Trinity in this way, we are conscious that we are also speaking of a great mystery which, although we should strive to make sense of it in terms of our own lived experience, remains something of which we can only speak in metaphor. That is why I have chosen some poetry today as a way in to our reflections on the Trinity. But this darkness is not a problem for Vaughan or for St John of the Cross. There is one final, crucial aspect of any talk about the nature of God, and that is that we can only really give ourselves over to this darkness in trust. It is, if you like, the final piece of self-transcendence we need in order to know ourselves drawn into the dance of divine love. We call it faith. It’s not a kind of thinking but a kind of loving. Here is how Vaughan concludes his poem:

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.