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Three's Company

If the idea of the Trinity ties you in knots, there are some simple cultural clues why - and how it may be approached again.

Consider the following sets of numbers:


2, 4, 6, 8, 10


1, 3, 5, 7, 9


Which of the two lines do you prefer looking at? Most people have an in-built preference for even numbers, not odd numbers. This may be one reason why we have problems getting to grips with the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.


Basically there is a bit of prejudice against the number three. We say ‘two’s company, three’s a crowd’. We talk darkly of there being three people in some marriages and of eternal triangles which would be solved if only one corner would go away. We say bad things come in threes. Three is an unlucky number in fairy stories: the three blind mice, the three little pigs. Hitler pioneered the Third Reich. Perhaps we find it difficult to think in threes because we have two eyes, two ears, two arms, two legs. Three is considered odd, almost an offence against nature. Some people even suffer from triskaphobia: fear of the number three.


Well, that’s one way of looking at it. But there is another. Three isn’t always dangerous, bad or weird. It can also be exciting, amusing, adventurous, exciting. We give people three wishes; the English wear three lions on their chest; we aspire to a hat-trick in sport, deeming it somehow better than two or four. We talk about third time lucky - but why not two or four or five? The Bible is full of fruitful references to the number three. Three gifts were brought to Jesus by what we assume were three wise men. Jesus restored Peter after he had denied him three times with three questions about how much Peter really loved him. Paul ends his anthem to love in 1 Corinthians 13 by saying that three things endure: faith, hope and love. Jesus was raised on the third day.


In culture, good stories have three parts to them, especially fairy stories or folk tales. The best jokes have three dimensions: there was an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman. Tricolours are popular in national flags. Three expresses revolutionary ideas like the French Republic’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and the American commitment to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Preachers tend to use three points. We talk about the three R’s (even though only one begins with R). We say: ‘on the count of three’. Books and films include Three Men in a Boat, The Three Musketeers, Three Men and a Baby, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.


I checked the Time Out Film Guide and there are more films with three in the title than any other number. And this excludes the franchises that come routinely in threes: Lord of the Rings, X Men, Spiderman etc.


So there are examples which give a different perspective on the old idea that two is right and three is wrong. Three people often produce more adventure, more excitement, better friendship than two can.


The problem with a group of three is that one usually gets forgotten. People remember the first two men on the moon: Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, but who recalls the name of the bloke who orbited the moon while they had all the fun? (Michael Collins, if you really want to know.) In the Christian faith, one of the Father, the Son or the Holy Spirit often gets overlooked in practice - and it’s often the Holy Spirit because people kind of know who the Father is and who Jesus is, but look a bit vague when asked to explain the Holy Spirit. This is crazy when you realise that we are talking about the Spirit of Jesus whom the New Testament says fills the heart of every fruitful Christian. The Holy Spirit has residence within us – yet some act like he’s the freaky relative who lives in the attic that no-one sees or talks about.


People also have a problem understanding how you can have three persons in one. We think of ourselves as separate from others. I am me and you are someone else. We like to keep our space. Stop and think for a moment, then, about the times when you really connect with someone else. Your mood is just the same as theirs, or you’re thinking exactly the same things they are. For a moment it can feel like you’re one and the same person, like the distance between you has been reduced to nothing. In those moments we get the shadow of an idea of what it must be like to be in the Trinity. The reason we feel separate from each other is because self-absorption gets in the way and creates distance between us. There is no self-absorption in God - just perfect oneness. We should be able to get a grip on the idea of three being one, because we say marriage is two being one. We have the clues we need.


I ought to stop. You may have seen the film: The Number 23, starring Jim Carrey as a man who becomes obsessed with the number 23 after reading it in a book and then seeing it everywhere he looks until he loses his mind. I’d hate the same to happen to you over the number three – because it is the source of the deepest spiritual blessing to the human race: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.


Perhaps it’s time to reinterpret the old saying ‘two’s company, three’s a crowd’ because at the heart of the Christian faith three is perfect community.



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