One life skill that I definitely don’t have - as my wife will gladly attest - is the ability to dance. Alison’s had her feet trodden on often enough to know not to bother trying to educate me in that department. But I remember in primary school dancing was a big thing. We seemed to have folk dancing once a week or so, and the main thing I remember about that was the Durham Reel. I couldn’t get the hang of the Durham Reel, though I could see that if it did work out as the teacher insisted it was supposed to, it would be kind of fun. So when I came across this description of the Holy Trinity as sort of cosmic folk dance with three people - well, I can admire it, but can’t quite see myself doing it.
The main thing about the Trinity is that all the technical terms are in Greek, which you might think makes sense. Technical terms like homoousius which sounds like something you might eat and indeed means “one substance”, and hypostasis which sounds like something from Dr Who but means a distinct “Person”. So forget all that except perichoresis, which means to dance, specifically, partners who dance around each other, because this is the word the serious-minded Greek theologians of the 4th and 5th centuries settled on to describe how the divine Persons of the Trinity relate to each other. A big, complicated, Durham Reel with three partners swirling around each other, holding hands, twirling each other around, releasing hands, weaving in and out, swinging and twirling, embracing and releasing, holding on and letting go without anybody getting confused. Moving so fast that to the onlooker you can’t see where one partner begins and the other ends, the important thing is the dance, never standing still, the same pattern repeated in a new variation, the dance itself is the life and the partners live for the dance and for each other. One dance of infinite creativity, shared purpose, three partners whose attention is focussed on the dance and on each other. It’s a beautiful image that helps to make sense of the three-in-one thing, but maybe it raises more questions than it answers. Where are we while the dance is going on? What do we do when the divine partners link up for an eternity of perichoresis - are we supposed to join in? What’s it got to do with us?
Or to phrase the questions more theologically: what sort of God does the metaphor of the Trinity reveal? What sort of human life grows out of baptism into the life of the triune God, the Three-in-One perichoretic God? What does this image of God tell us about how our own lives are meant to be?
We meet in our first reading from the Old Testament Book of Proverbs a remarkable, mysterious and attractive figure called Wisdom. Stepping out of the pages of the fiercely monotheistic Hebrew Bible, Wisdom resists theological classification except that she is definitely and powerfully female. Wisdom, the Bible tells us, is the first of God’s works, God’s right hand girl in the drama of creation, and the word the Hebrew text uses, amon, is delightfully ambiguous, meaning both a skilled worker and a darling child. Scholars argue over whether Lady Wisdom might contain some echo of an ancient goddess figure, seeing her in different lights as perhaps the principle of order in creation, the personification of Torah, the divine law, or of an aspect of God. Christian scholars point out the ways Wisdom is associated in the New Testament with both Jesus and the Holy Spirit. But first we need to get to know her on her own terms.
This girl is no shrinking violet. Lady Wisdom takes the microphone and introduces herself, standing in the most public place of ancient city life, in the town gates where men and women met to conduct business deals and argue legal cases. The central business district, a congested place where everyone entering or leaving the city converges. And she says, ‘I’m talking to all of you’. Not just church-goers, not just the initiated, Wisdom is interested in real life. And then she introduces herself, the one present with God from the very beginning, helping as a master worker or architect in the very act of creation itself, in on the rightness and the elegance and purpose of all God’s works.
The fact that Wisdom is female leads us into a rare and wonderful reflection, as the Hebrew poet uses words that describe the creation of the world in terms that suggest childbirth, like ‘bringing forth’. Wisdom gives us some inclusive imagery of God as both Father and Mother - but there’s also a downside, as in the next chapter of Proverbs we meet the shadowy figure contrasted with Lady Wisdom, the seductive and dangerous figure of Lady Folly. You might think of this one as Lady Wisdom’s evil twin. Where Wisdom beckons us with her hospitality, Lady Folly lures us with our own desires. Biblical scholar Carole Fontaine points out that where Woman Wisdom represents all the positive roles played by wives and mothers in ancient society, Woman Folly personifies male fears of female temptation. In terms of our own spirituality, we might reflect that our own desires, properly acknowledged and appropriately expressed, lead us into relationship with God in loving community - our own desires, allowed to become an object in themselves, can also make us inappropriately self-centred, using other people as objects and obsessed with the ownership of things.
So Wisdom calls to us, spreading a banquet and inviting all who are hungry and thirsty to refresh themselves and live. Wisdom also represents herself as the prize for those who seek her earnestly, the prize of self-discipline and learning. Here we start to see the relationship between Wisdom and human life - because the capacity to desire wisdom or, as the Hebrew Bible puts it, to enter into lifelong relationship with her, is ultimately what makes us human. Wisdom represents the aim of human life to orient ourselves to what is worthwhile, to turn away from morally vacuous consumerism and self-pampering. Wisdom also orients us towards the life lived in community, in the market-place of ideas and human traffic, and in the Hebrew Bible Wisdom is also concerned with non-human life, finding food for hungry ravens and badgers, delighting in the flight of eagles.
But ultimately Wisdom is God’s messenger, the one who delights in the goodness of creation and is present to all that live, urging us to participate in her divine life. In the Book of Sirach, we see Wisdom living in the highest heaven but desiring to live among human beings. She travels throughout the heavens and the earth until God instructs her to pitch a tent in Jerusalem. There she makes her home, and she invites the passers-by to come and eat of her fruit. This is the basic idea of Wisdom spirituality - Wisdom revealed in creation makes her home among human beings and transforms human life by connecting us to God’s own life. In Sirach, Wisdom is also associated with the Word of God, both the Torah and the Word by which God speaks creation into being.
So you can see why New Testament writers wrote about Jesus as the Wisdom and Word of God, you can see also why Lady Wisdom also underlies reflection on the Holy Spirit, who leads us into right relationship with God and with one another. You can see perhaps how the figure of Wisdom underlies Christian reflection on God as a community of Persons in loving relation, the God not confined to heaven who pitches a tent, as the Gospel of John reminds us, in our midst.
But how does that help us to dance? How does that invite us into the perichoresis of God’s own life? Firstly and quite simply, because Wisdom invites us into a spirituality that is joyful and even playful. Wisdom wants a relationship with human beings that reflects her own relationship with the Creator, as Proverbs puts it, Wisdom is God’s daily delight and she plays before God and in creation, she delights in human life and she invites human beings into relationships of blessedness and happiness. This is not a pale, dutiful, love but an active, exuberant delight, a perichoresis in which God’s own life is interwoven with our own, in which we are invited to reflect in our own relationships, in our own love for what is good and life-giving, the goodness of God who is the source of all life. Secondly, because Wisdom reflects the basic orientation of God’s life which is not inward-looking and self-centred, but outward-looking and seeks the good for others. The perichoresis of God draws our attention because in the mutual love between the Father, Word and Spirit, we see the underlying character of God to be poured out in love that doesn’t stop there but spills over into the life of creation. The Durham Reel of perichoresis draws us in because we actually are made in God’s image so deep down we desire also to live like that, not just as spectators but as participants. Like God’s life, our own lives are intended to be relational, oriented towards others, delighting in the dance, laughing it off when we occasionally tread on one another’s toes. The metaphor of God as a divine dance reminds us that our lives are complete only when they are lived in the context of relationship.
Lastly, because Wisdom is universal. Wisdom reveals a God not of the sanctuary but of the market-place, a God who is active in the commerce and the hustle and bustle of everyday life and a God who calls to all that live. It’s a dance that takes us all the way down the aisle of the church and out into the streets, into our homes and places of work, and demands that we live as a blessing to others. Wisdom tells us the mission of the Church is to be out there, not stuck in here, concerned with the structures of society, with asylum seekers and all who suffer disadvantage, with justice and climate change and the welfare of God’s creation.