On the second Sunday of Pentecost, the Maronite Liturgy is devoted to the Holy Trinity. We sing in our opening hymn:
“Who can fully comprehend God as Holy Trinity?
So great is this mystery far beyond our scrutiny!
The Father, before all time, begot the Son,
the Eternal Word.
The Begotten Son took flesh from the holy Virgin’s womb.
The Spirit was sent to give courage and perfect.
All creation worships him, the Lord of all,
in three persons, one true God.”
In those eight lines is contained the totality of the theology of the Trinity. The Syriac writers recognised that the primary and most effective way of teaching was within the Liturgy. St Ephrem, being a Deacon, was committed to that task and wrote many hymns and homilies.
Over the centuries many have used symbols to explain the Trinity. Throughout his writings St Ephrem refers to symbols in nature and in the scriptures to reference the Trinity. Hymn 40 on Faith is devoted completely to explaining the Trinity. The hymn has been beautifully translated by Sebastian Brock and is worthy of some closer attention.
St Ephrem explains the Holy Trinity through the sun which contains the elements of fire (God), light (Christ) and heat (the Holy Spirit). In Syriac thought everything is created as a revelation to lead us to know and understand God. Here the sun is not merely a symbol that St Ephrem uses to teach about the Trinity, but God created the sun to reveal to us his own nature and the Trinity. On a side note, a deeper recognition of the ecological significance in Syriac thought would perhaps lead us all to take more seriously the way we treat creation. The Syriac writers also draw the link between Creation and Scripture.
The three elements representing God, Jesus and the Spirit are also emphasised in the Scriptures.
God and Fire
There are many references to God as fire in the Scriptures. These include in Exodus where Moses recognised God as the ‘burning bush’. God is also explicitly referred to as fire in the following verses:
“And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night.” Exodus 13:21
“Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly.” Exodus 19:18
There are also other references throughout scripture referring to God as fire.
Christ and Light
Christ is often described as the Light in Scriptures, in particular in St John:
Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.” John 8:12
“While I am in the world, I am the Light of the world.” John 9:5
In his letters, St John describes that those who had been with Our Lord heard from him directly that God is Light. St Ephrem’s use of the sun, fire, light and heat to describe the Trinity is no accident, it is how God intended us to understand it.
‘This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.’ 1 John 1: 5-7
The Holy Spirit and Heat
When referred to in the scriptures the Holy Spirit is like a fire. This is an important distinction to God being described as fire in the Old Testament. The Holy Spirit brings God’s presence and it is like fire and resides where it is rests as a Spirit, filling a person with the heat of the Spirit and filling the Eucharist with the presence of God. We see this both at the Epiphany and at Pentecost where the Spirit is sent forth:
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Acts 2:2-4
The Holy Spirit, the heat of the fire, resides in all of us when we are baptised and of course as is demonstrated in the hymn, within the Eucharist.
Hymn 40 on Faith
For St Ephrem, each of the elements of the sun – fire, light and heat – are separate, yet they all combine as a single entity. We can see in the hymn a sense of awe and wonder which has clearly been adopted in the opening hymn of the Maronite Liturgy referred to above.
The hymn begins by telling us that the sun is the way we see, but we cannot actually see what it is like. It serves as our source of illumination but we cannot actually see it. Similairily, we can’t grasp the nature of God.
The light (representing Jesus) is not subsequent to the sun and there wasn’t a time when the Light did not exist, but the light is considered as second element and the heat (Holy Spirit) is the third. None of those things are separate from the sun, yet neither is identical to it either. The elements all resemble each other and are mingled with each other, yet they are distinct. (Note how this is goes beyond the often given example of the three leafed clover to explain the Trinity in which each leaf is identical)
St Ephrem tells us to look at the sun in the sky where it just seems as one, but if we lower our gaze, we can see the light and feel the heat, giving us a complete experience of the Trinity. St Ephrem beautifully describes the elements within the sun:
“One resides in the other in a balanced way, ungrudgingly, mixed together,
But not confused, commingled, yet not bound,
joined together, but not under constraint, at the same time free, but not divergent.
Let dictatorial people be silenced by what is quite patent, for here we have one in three and three in one, commingled, but not fixedly so, distinct, yet not totally separate. There is marvel in all this which makes us keep silent.”
The three elements are not divided and each is individually entirely perfect, just as all of them are perfect as one.
“The glory is one, yet it is not one. It is a wondrous entity which generates all by itself,
Which gathers itself in collectively, and spreads itself out in threefold form.”
The fire (God) is self-contained, the light (Jesus) is separate, coming of its own will and the heat (the Spirit) is abundantly sent forth. Each element is neither commanded or gives command because they are entirely in accord and are acting in what St Ephrem so simply, yet so beautifully, terms a “unison of love”
St Ephrem ends the hymn by explaining how the three elements comingle in the Eucharist. Below is the full text of this wonderful Hymn, take some time to read it for yourself
St. Ephrem’s Hymn on Faith No. 40: On the Trinity
The sun serves as our source of illumination and
none can grasp what it is like;
How much more is this the case if we are talking
about human kind and even more so,
If about God.
The light of the sun is not subsequent to the sun,
nor is there any time when it was not;
The sun’s light my be considered as second, and
its heat as third:
They are neither separate from it or identical with it.
REFRAIN: PRAISE TO HIM WHO SENT YOU
FROM ALL WHO BELIEVE IN YOU.
Look at the sun in the sky: it is thought of as one;
lower you gaze and see its light,
A second element; then try it out, experience and
feel its warmth, a third.
They resemble one another, and at the same time,
they do not: the second element is commingled in
the sun, yet it is distinct from it; the third element is
mixed with it,
Yet separate at the same time as being
commingled and mixed.
Fire and the sun are individual entities, they
consist each of three things,
Mingled in three-fold fashion: fire itself, then
heat, and third, light.
One resides in the other in a balanced way,
ungrudgingly, mixed together,
But not confused, commingled, yet not bound,
joined together, but not under constraint, at the same
time free, but not divergent.
Let dictatorial people be silenced by what is quite
patent, for here we have one in three
And three in one, commingled, but not fixedly so,
distinct, yet not totally separate.
There is marvel in all this which makes us keep silent.
The human person too, is established in threefold
form, and arise at the Resurrection entirely perfect.
The sun is but one, a single entity, yet three things
are therein commingled, separate,
But not divided; each individually is entirely
perfect, and all of them are perfect as one;
The glory is one, yet it is not one. It is a wondrous
entity which generates all by itself,
Which gathers itself in collectively, and spreads
itself out in threefold form.
If someone rashly supposed that fire too is not
threefold, who would be led into error by him and
attach himself to stupidity, agreeing with his
For he denies the three elements which can be
seen to be both equal and distinct,
One glorious and full of awe, another hidden and
potent, another joyful and serene.
The first is entirely self-contained, the next is
separate, coming of its own will, while the third is
abundantly sent forth; in the fire there reigns a quality
whereby each element is neither commanded nor gives
a command, for they are all entirely in accord,
Acting in a unison of love.
Three names are thus to be seen in the fire, each
has its own authority, each exists individually, each
acts by itself and appears distinct:
Individual qualities which are commingled
together—fire wondrously, heat distinctly, and light
gloriously, each dwelling in harmony with the others.
If fire then has that wonderful nature, generating
and not diminishing, in a state of
Balance and not becoming cold, with its heat
quite distinct, but not cut off from it,
Passing through all things in ungrudging fashion,
winging itself into bread,
Mingling with water, residing in all things, while
all things reside in it.
Then in it is a symbol of the Spirit, a type of the
Holy Spirit, who is mingled in the baptism water so
that it may bring forgiveness, who is commingled in
The Eucharistic Bread so that it becomes the Offering.
The Spirit seems to be entirely in all of them, yet
He is also quite removed,
For it is not possible to depict the threefold
mysteries which have never been depicted.
If fire overwhelms us when we try to examine it,
to see how it is both one and at the same time three,
now the three elements live in one another, how its heat is distinct,
But not cut off; if fire has this effect, when fire is
just a natural entity which we have lovingly received
in threefold form, and with which we have no divisive dispute-
How much more, then, is it right that we should
accept in simplicity those Three Persons, receiving
them with love, and not with questions. Their nature should
Not have to chase after us and become like unto
us—for they are like only themselves in all respects.
Created beings are distinct and unlike one
another, so how much more is that Being,
Great beyond all, distinct from everything else.