You don’t expect to see an icon of the trinity on an airplane, at least not on a really small commuter plane at 6:30 in the morning when it is still dark outside and the temperature is near minus 30 degrees celsius and you are waiting on the airport runway in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. But God is a God of the unexpected, and so these things happen.
I had boarded a very tiny airplane on a particularly frigid morning, during an especially awful winter to fly to Calgary so I could board a bigger plane which would take me to Los Angeles where I was scheduled to speak at a conference that, to my good fortune, had the convention center at Disneyland as its venue. God can be good, at times.
I took my seat across the aisle from a young mother and her preschool-aged daughter. They were silent, as we all were, waiting for everyone to board the plane so we could take off.
Then, just as the captain was announcing the particulars about our flight, the mother and the daughter turned to each other and I am not sure I can describe what exactly transpired between them, but it was a mystical moment: The child looked at her mother, smiled briefly, and moved her whole body in a way that said: “We are really doing this! It’s finally here! We’ve talked about this for a long time and now it’s finally happening!” Her body literally quivered with delight.
Later, since we were on the same planes all the way to Disneyland, I learned the cause of her joy. They were off to Disneyland, she and her whole family. For her, it was a day of firsts: The first time on an airplane, the first time on a long trip, and the first time on a journey big enough to match the fantasies of a fertile young mind. She was happy and her body might well have been a musical instrument.
But it wasn’t just her delight that I noticed and palpably felt. It was also the delight of her mother. If the daughter was overjoyed and basking in a special moment, even more so was the mother. Her body too quivered with delight – delight in her daughter’s joy, delight in a child’s anticipation, and delight in being able, as a mother, to provide this for her daughter. Her joy not only matched her child’s, it surpassed it. It was deeper, far deeper. Hers was the delight of being able to give delight, the joy of giving joy, the unique gladness of providing, of being source. To do these things is to do what God does and so to feel what God feels. That is what she must have felt.
And their exchange, that glance towards each other that made them both quiver with delight, is an icon of the trinity, as surely as is Andrew Rublev’s masterpiece. Like Rublev’s icon, it too captures a little of the river of life and love and gratitude that flows between the Father and the Son and creates a fire, an energy, called the Holy Spirit. To have that flow go through you is to know God.
Like all authentic icons, it reveals something about the inner life of God. What does it reveal?
When a mother and daughter exchange a look that makes each of them quiver with delight, what is revealed not, in the end, something about God’s gender, namely, that God is mother as well as father, female as well as male, that God also loves us with the instincts of a mother. That is true, of course, but it is not the central point.
What is centrally revealed is the heart of God, the flow of life and gratitude that makes the Father and Son quiver in each other’s presence. What is revealed too, quintessentially, is how God, as creator and parent, blesses us and takes delight in us. Just as God, after creating each element in creation, stood back, beamed, and said, “This is good”, and just as God looked down upon Jesus at his baptism and said: “This is my beloved child in whom I take delight”, so is God still looking at us as we embark on our various fantasy journeys, so is God’s heart swelling still in sharing our anticipation, and so is God quivering with delight when we receive creation’s delight. God is enjoying the joy of a mother who can provide, just as God must surely suffer sometimes the pain of the mother who cannot.
On a very cold morning, in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, I was shown an icon of the trinity which has helped me to understand somewhat more those early pages of Scripture which tell us that God looked at the first creation, young and immature though it was, and saw that it was good, indeed it was very good.