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The Holy Trinity

“My hope is the Father, my refuge the Son, my shelter the Holy Spirit O Holy Trinity, glory be to Thee.”
— St. Ioannikios/Service of Compline

This icon is the traditional depiction of the Holy Trinity in the Orthodox Church. It symbolically represents the Trinity as the three mysterious visitors to Abraham and Sarah described in Genesis, Chapter 18.

This Chapter opens by saying that the Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. When Abraham looked up, he saw three men and immediately offered them rest and nourishment. Hospitality was not denied to these three, even though they were strangers.

In the icon, the three visitors are depicted as angels, signifying that they belong to heaven rather than to earth. The faces of each angel are essentially identical, representing the equality of the three persons of the Holy Trinity.

The angel on the left (Father) is wearing a pale pink inner garment symbolic of the impossibility of portraying God in visible form. The angel in the center (Son) is wearing a dark reddish or burgundy tunic and a dark blue cloak, which are the customary garments for Christ in most icons. The red tone reminds us of Christ’s human nature. By taking on human flesh and spilling his blood, humanity was saved. The blue signifies the mystery of His divine nature which He shares with His Father. The angel on the right (Holy Spirit) is dressed in a green tunic, traditionally the color of life and renewal, and a gold cloak representing the exceeding purity of holiness.

On the table there appears a single dish prepared by Sarah for her guests. The meal also includes a bottle of wine and bread with some other food. This presentation represents the communal life of the Trinity. In addition, it clearly conveys the concept of the Eucharistic banquet. This unique meal, which is manifested to us in the Divine Liturgy, has become the cornerstone of Orthodox liturgical celebrations. Each person of God is an invited guest to this wonderful and unique royal banquet (Luke 14:15-24.) For one to be spiritual nourished, one must eat of this meal provided to us by God.

Other icons, such as the one depicting the Trinity as an old man sitting on a throne with his son and a dove hovering over them, are beyond Orthodox tradition and are non-Canonical. God the Father has not revealed Himself in human history as an old gray bearded man. Likewise, the Holy Spirit appeared in the form of a dove only at the baptism of Christ. The Orthodox depict Christ and the Holy Spirit only as they were revealed to us by God. So depicting the Holy Spirit as a dove apart from the baptism of Christ or as tongues of fire apart from Pentecost is, at least for the Orthodox, peculiar and disingenuous.

Lastly, the traditional icon of the Trinity reminds the Christian of our duty to be hospitable to all people. For by showing hospitality to others, we extend to them our mercy and love. Christ told a parable that describes our duty to offer hospitality. In the parable, a rich man dined sumptuously while a poor man, named Lazarus, lay nearby starving. At the death of each, the rich man was cast into Hades and Lazarus came to rest in the bosom of Abraham. Lazarus was shown no hospitality in this world but now receives it from the one who entertained the three angels. The rich man made it clear while he lived in this world that there was no place in his life for hospitality. He was selfish and unwilling to give of himself. This wretched man never raised a finger to help Lazarus in his distress. Because he showed no hospitality in this life, he received no hospitality in the here-after. As he ignored the pleas of help from Lazarus, his pleas for help were ignored by Abraham. In a twist of irony, the parable teaches us that the rich man can become poor and needy but those who trust in the Lord shall never want anything for they shall be comforted by Him.

The Orthodox icon of the Holy Trinity is a strong reminder for us to be welcoming and generous to all people. We are to “let brotherly love abide within us and never forget hospitality, for by this some individuals even entertained angels unaware” (Hebrew 13:1-2.)