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Trinity and Hospitality

Most of us have seen Rublev’s ikon of the Hospitality of Abraham in which the Trinity is portrayed as three angelic persons in communion around a table.  Now, of course many of us are predisposed to immediately point out the theological problems with the ikon, the most glaring of which is its seeming portrayal of the persons of the Trinity as three separate individuals.  However, to enforce such theological specificity into an ikonic witness to the Trinity is to make a distinctly Western theological mistake, namely the mistake of thinking that we can univocally represent God in any form whatsoever, be it verbal or pictorial.  What I find more illuminating and provocative about this ikon is actually its name.  This is not simply an ikon of the immanent Trinity (how I think it is usually read), but of “the hospitality of Abraham.”  I find a couple of insights in that.

First, the ikon is making a statement about how we encounter the fellowship of the triune God.  In the ikon, we encounter the persons of the Trinity in and through the practice of hospitality to the stranger.  Abraham’s encounter with God as recounted in Genesis 18 takes place in the context of the extension of table fellowship.  The ikon seems here to be making a profound statement about where and how we are going to experience the life of triune communion.  It seems to be implied that it is in extending hospitality to the stranger, opening up one’s life to the outsider that we commune with the triune persons.

Second, the table as portrayed in the ikon is clearly eucharistic in nature.  This seems to say something about the eucharist and about hospitality.  First, it seems to say that something central about the eucharist is the reality of hosting and being hosted by the triune God.  The eucharist is an event of divine and human hospitality.  While the ikon is of Abraham’s hospitality to the three strangers, the presentation of the ikon has the front end of the table open to the reader of the ikon, beckoning the reader to see himself as being invited to the table.  The eucharist, then is simultaneously the act of God’s hospitality, of welcoming created persons into fellowship with God’s triune life and the church’s act of opening our lives to God, offering him our gifts and begging him to remain with us.  Conversely, the ikon also seems to be saying that hospitality is eucharistic.  It seems to intimate that the offer of hospitality to the stranger is itself a sacramental and eucharistic reality in which the triune God comes to meet us.  In and through the offer of hospitality and the act of eating together in peace, the reality of the Trinity is present among us in and as our koinonial and agapeic fellowship. 

What I find most compelling about the Rublev ikon is the way in which it rightly portrays the relationship of giving and receiving hospitality to the fullness of the Christian mystery.  For us to know the life of the Trinity in our midst is to live a life that embodies the traversal between the giving and the receiving of hospitality.

8 Comments

  1. Ben wrote:

    Interesting.

    I’ve explained this idea to my CCE students before as the double-movement of our friendship with Christ: his movement towards us in the Eucharist, and our movement towards him in our eucharistic hospitality towards “the least of these”.

    I can’t wait to use the icon now, I never have before because I’m very careful about what images I use, even good ones, lest they be misunderstood by the kids.

    Friday, February 15, 2008 at 10:40 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Yes, I must admit that I have something of an iconoclastic bent myself. Not literally for smashing ikons, but wanting to do theology in a “style” that is all about having our self-images and god-images deconstructed by the Word of God in Christ.

    However, I think creative readings such as this one can be a form of healthy iconoclasm perhaps?

    Friday, February 15, 2008 at 10:57 am | Permalink
  3. John santic wrote:

    great analysis, thanks. The mystery is glaring and beautiful and the way you explain it opens a door to help us experience the reality of God with us.

    Friday, February 15, 2008 at 12:14 pm | Permalink
  4. Ben wrote:

    “healthy form of iconoclam”

    Yes, I think that there is a healthy way to be “iconoclastic”, Balthasar discusses this in the first volume of The Glory of the Lord (somewhere near the beginning of the book.)

    I am by no means iconoclastic, I love icons, but I am very picky about them, along Jenson’s lines: NO images of God the Father, and no “portraits”– in other words: all images should be didactic in some way, and should not be purely representational. When we teach our children we should say, “Oh, this icon shows when Jesus went into Jerusalem, etc”, not simply “This icon is Jesus.”

    In a Western mode: the Crucifix, ok. A bust of Jesus, not ok.

    Friday, February 15, 2008 at 2:23 pm | Permalink
  5. vassilip wrote:

    a little bit about the history of that icon:

    the Greek Fathers (after Basil the Great) saw the three angels not as the Trinity, but as Logos escorted by two archangels; for that reason during the whole Byzantine Era the icon had the title of Abraham’s hospitality (and many of them made a clear pictorial distinction between them).
    only after 14th cent. the title Holy Trinity started to appear, as an influence (positive or negative) from the West, and to pass from Greek speaking lands to Russia.

    Monday, February 18, 2008 at 1:04 am | Permalink
  6. dangreeson wrote:

    Thanks Vassilip, I was about to make that note too.

    Monday, February 18, 2008 at 7:47 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Thanks for the clarifications, however, Rublev was defnitely intending to portray the Trinity here and insofar as such a reading of this ikon yeilds orthodox doctrine, I think it helpful, especially on this issue of eucharist and hospitality.

    Monday, February 18, 2008 at 8:06 pm | Permalink
  8. rick tobias wrote:

    Where did this image of the Trinity come from? Whose work is it. This is not a copy of the original Reblev. I like it a lot and would liek to track down a copy…Thanks Rick

    Monday, March 3, 2008 at 10:00 am | Permalink

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