“Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three.” – Brother Maynard (Michael Palin) in Monty Python and the Holy Grail
There’s something significant about the number three, isn’t there?
In geometry, you need to connect at least three points to make any sort of shape. You need at least three pillars to support a free-standing structure like a stool or a tripod (at least in this three-dimensional universe).
Three is the minimum number of musicians required to constitute a credible rock band (and some of those power trios were the Cream of the crop, a Triumph of musicianship capable of producing a Rush of adrenalin in audiences. Hmm, can’t think of any more. Can I have a little hELP?)
Hockey, the best game in the world, has three periods. Football, when played properly, has three downs. Each dart player throws three darts each turn. Baseball has three outs, three strikes and three bases.
Three is also the ‘sweet spot’ for a lot of movie franchises. The Lord of the Rings, Back to the Future, Toy Story and both Star Wars trilogies confirm this notion – and so do the lacklustre fourth instalments in the Pirates of the Caribbean and Indiana Jones series. (Take note and quit while you’re ahead, Batman and Iron Man!)
And as Sting sang in the 1980s, “Three, three. Set them three.”
So when people point out how many times the tertiary integer occurs in significant moments in the Bible, I suggest you resist the temptation to dismiss it as coincidence. These threes are pointing to something.
* * *
Holy, holy, holy.
In Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8, angels use that phrase in worship of God.
Notice they don’t say ‘holy, holy’ or ‘holy, holy, holy, holy’.
Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three.
“In sacred Scripture the number three represents that which is solid, real, substantial, and something in its completeness,” according to the Agape Bible Study I stumbled upon while researching this topic this week. “This number usually indicates something of importance or significance in God’s plan of salvation by identifying an important event in Salvation History. This number operates as a ‘sign-post’ in Scripture study for the reader to “pay attention” to the significance of the next event.”
We think of this trimania as a New Testament phenomenon, but there are plenty of examples in the Old Testament as well:
- There were three Patriarchs of the children of Israel: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
- Three “men” announced to Abraham that his barren wife would bear a son [Genesis 18:1-15].
- Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son after a three-day journey to Mt. Moriah [Genesis 22:1-4].
- There were three divisions of the desert Tabernacle and later the Temple in Jerusalem: the Outer Court, the Holy Place, and the Holy of Holies
- God is mentioned three times in the priestly blessing [Numbers 6:24-26].
- Jonah spent three days in the belly of the great fish [Jonah 1:17]; Jonah took three days to journey across the city of Nineveh [Jonah 3:3]
Here’s a small sample of the New Testament threes:
- Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months [Luke 1:56]
- Jesus was missing for three days when He was 12 years old [Luke 2:46]
- Jesus’ ministry lasted three years.
- The wedding in Cana where Jesus turned water into wine took place on the third day (the third day after what is not clearly identified) [John 2:1].
- Jesus took Peter, James, and John up on the Mount of Transfiguration [Matthew 17]
- Jesus arose from the dead on the third day [Luke 24:7]
- Saul was blinded for three days [Acts 9:9] after meeting Jesus on the Road to Damascus
- The heavenly Jerusalem has three gates on each of its four sides [Revelation 21:13]
All of these threes – from Genesis to Toy Story, I would argue – point to the ultimate three: the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
We’re a couple of days away from Trinity Sunday – that annual feast day where we’re invited to celebrate and ponder the reality; the wondrous paradox that is the Trinity. One God, three ‘persons’. And once again, I find myself a little uncomfortable about it.
Should Deuteronomy 6:4 read, ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is three’? Should Christian versions of Exodus 3:14 be revised to have God tell Moses, ‘We are who we are’?
As I whined two years ago in Trininny, the tripartite nature of God is a difficult concept to grasp. Christianity is a monotheistic faith, and yet we view God as having three ‘persons’, each of Whom blesses us in a different way.
Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful and in awe of the fact that we have a Father who creates, a Son who redeems and a Spirit who indwells and inspires. Just the kind of God we need, right when and where we need Him.
But I don’t ‘get’ how it works.
These ‘persons’ are separate, yet inseparable. United, yet distinct. Individual, yet indivisible. Each person of the Trinity is fully God, but all three are crucial to a full understanding of God.
A full understanding of God.
Perhaps that’s the source of my struggle with Trinity Sunday: I think a full understanding of God is something I ought to be able to obtain.
I feel like it’s my duty to depart from Trinity Sunday with a fuller intellectual grasp of God’s trinitarian nature. I usually end up being reminded that I’m no smarter about this concept than last year, so I feel like I’m flunking out.
But perhaps that’s the point.
Maybe the purpose of Trinity Sunday is to remind us that we can’t fully understand the nature of God; that we’re not meant to.
Yes, we’re made in His image. Yes, He’s our daddy, our friend, our advocate and our confidant. Our king, our rabbi and our judge. But we can’t afford to limit Him to these categories (or others), or we risk limiting what we allow Him to do in our hearts and our lives. We do that, and we end up making God in our image – and when His actions don’t line up with our expectations, we risk turning away from Him.
There’s a quote from Frederick Buechner that goes something like this: “True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying ‘I’m sorry’ than it spends looking at the future and saying, ‘Wow!'”
Similarly, maybe pondering the Trinity (on Trinity Sunday and hopefully, many other times of the year as well) is less about finally saying ‘I understand!’ than it is about repeatedly saying ‘Wow!’
When I remember to set my head on straight, Trinity Sunday reminds me that God is God and I am not. And that’s a good thing.
Peace be with you.
Gretzky Image Source: http://www.legendsofhockey.net/LegendsOfHockey/jsp/LegendsMember.jsp?mem=p199901