What I said this Sunday – Trinity

Trinity Sunday – the day preachers dread because you’re trying to explain the unexplainable. I’ve never understood why in the Western Church we find it so difficult to follow the example of the Eastern church who say “It’s a mystery” and don’t try to rationalise it.

Anyway – this year I decided, as a change from my normal practice of sticking to one of the set readings, to preach on that great hymn Saint Patrick’s Breatsplate.

For those of you who are not familiar with the hymn here it is read in full. I can’t find a version of the hymn sung in full.

Anywhere here’s my sermon:

Last month Radio 4 listeners were asked by the BBC which eight discs we would take with us if we were cast away on the mythical desert island. We’re all, I’m sure, familiar with the concept of Desert Island Discs. 25,000 people submitted their lists and the results have just been published. Favourite track was Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending, with the favourite artists being The Beatles. Suppose for your list for your desert island you were asked for a list of your eight favourite hymns. What would they be?

I’m afraid that top of my list is one of the longest hymns around – and I’m subjecting you to it this morning. Every vicar has their eccentricities – one of mine is subjecting the congregation to this hymn every so often. It’s not the longest hymn, which is believed to be a hymn by Saint Bernard of Cluny written in Latin over eight hundred years ago and which stretches to 3,000 verses, and from which John Mason Neale drew Jerusalem the Golden. The hymn begins, in Neale’s translation, with the words:

The World is very evil,
The times are waxing late,
Be sober and keep vigil,
The Judge is at the gate,

And goes on in much the same vein for another 2,999 verses. So be grateful! But my favourite hymn is long enough for verses to be routinely omitted from our hymn books and it is rarely sung in its entirety today. To make it easier on you I’ve split it into two parts today. We’ve just sung the first part, and will be singing the rest at the offertory. If you don’t like it, please don’t complain. I’m already gearing myself up for a complaint from the priest I live with who is away on retreat this weekend, when she gets home and finds out we’ve sung it in her absence – she shares my love of it.

This wonderful hymn which we know as Saint Patrick’s Breastplate was translated from the Gaelic by Mrs C. F. Alexander. Anyone know what else she wrote? That’s right, she also wrote “All things bright and beautiful” though some of us who preside at weddings and funerals rather wish she hadn’t.  She also wrote “There is a green hill far away.”

St Patrick’s Breastplate, though, is a classic – she really excelled herslf on this occasion. It also has another name – “The Deer’s Cry” – which I’ll explain later. It expresses so clearly St Patrick’s belief in the Trinity – The Three in One and One in Three. But this is no ordinary belief – it is a belief in a God of power, a God who acts, a God who protects – a God who is omnipotent, not impotent – and this is why the hymn speaks to me. It begins, in the translation by Kuno Meyer  (which can also be found here on Wikipedia):

                I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness
Of  the Creator of Creation.

Patrick was born around the year 414, on the west coast of the Roman province of Britannia in what is now Wales. As a young boy of sixteen, Patrick was captured by a raiding party and sold into slavery in Armagh. After six years he escaped and, it is believed, returned home. But during those six years in captivity, as he grew in faith, Ireland began to take hold of him. And when he returned home he became determined to return as a missionary, which he did around the year 455.

David Adam, in his book The Cry of the Deer – a series of meditations on the hymn and well worth reading, it’s only a small book – describes its origin. One year, as Easter approached, Patrick was determined to keep the festival in Tara. Tara was the centre of witchcraft and idolatry in Ireland. As it happened, it coincided with a great pagan festival. All lights were extinguished and all fires put out, and only the king would provide people with light and fire. Providing them was a symbol of his power over the forces of nature and his power over his people. Patrick and his companions pitched their tent, collected wood, and kindled the Paschal fire, still lit of course every Easter at churches across the world, as it is here. They lit it despite the fact that on this festival night no-one was allowed to kindle any lights or fires except the king himself. The king’s wise men warned the king that unless this Paschal fire was extinguished immediately it would flood Ireland with its light and burn until Doomsday.

The king was in no doubt that Patrick had to be stopped, so he sent soldiers to kill him. Patrick and his companions escaped their attackers. As far as the people were concerned Patrick’s escape demonstrated without a doubt that this new faith was far more powerful than the old religion. Legend grew that Patrick was far more powerful than the druids and people believed that he was a “shape-changer” – a bit like Odo in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine for those of you who are Star Trek fanatics. It was said that when the army attacked him Patrick and his companions turned into deer, or at least that was all the army saw. Tradition has it that it was on this occasion the hymn was written, hence its two names “The Deer’s Cry” or “Saint Patrick’s Breastplate”

The hymn as we know it today in fact probably belongs to three centuries after Patrick, though that doesn’t really matter, as it expresses so clearly the early Celtic Christian Faith – a faith in a God involved in everyday things – a living faith for every day that was lost in England with the ascendancy of the Roman Church and which today is being rediscovered.

It is a faith which, as David Adam puts it, is centred in: …the God who surrounds us, the Christ who is with us, and the Spirit within us. In these affirmations, the Divine Glory is woven into all of life like a fine thread; there is a Presence and a Power that pervades everything.

This hymn conveys a belief in a God who is worth believing in. This is no stained-glass window kind of God, simply to be looked at or revered. Neither is it a judgmental God, demanding constant confession and crawling in order that we might be alright on the night. This is the great and powerful Three in One and One in Three – the Triune God – yet also a God who involves himself totally in our daily lives. This is a God who creates – and who is present in his creation. This is a God who loves – and who teaches and guides those whom he loves. This is a God who protects – and who acts as a shield against the attacks of evil. This is a God who is present in all around us – Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger. This is not a God for Sundays and Church – this is a seven-day a week God for church and home and work and play.

Patrick knew the presence of God – Father, Son and Spirit – in his life. He knew his guidance and his protection as he risked his life to preach the good news. He was able to draw on God’s strength as he set out to face the soldiers at Tara. Our God – the Great Three in One – will be with us on our journeys – whether spiritual or physical. His strength is available to us, his protection is there for us, his love is there to support us. He desires to be present in our lives. Patrick expresses this belief in the Presence of God in the recurring words of the hymn “I bind unto myself today…”

Each day when we arise from sleep we arise in God’s presence, and as we face the joys and the challenges and the difficulties of each day we can do so knowing that God is present. We, like Patrick, can “bind unto ourselves each day the Three in One and One in Three”. Because we commune with God daily, we do not just go to visit him on Sunday.

The presence of God in our lives, day by day. The presence of a God who supports, who strengthens, who protects. The knowledge, in our hearts and not just in our minds, that we are immersed at all times in:

The Peace of the Father
The Love of the Son
The Power of the Spirit.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness
Of  the Creator of Creation


  1. Chris Moorey

    Coincidentally, I only found this story yesterday. St. Spyridon (uneducated peasant but wise and good bishop) at the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea held up a broken bit of pottery and pointed out that a single entity (the pot) was composed of three unique and separate entities (water, fire and clay) while remaining one. Does this help with next year’s Trinity Sunday sermon?

  2. Father Jerry

    That’s a really good story and it’s now filed away ready for next year! Thanks, Chris. I’d never heard of St. Spyridon either so I’ve just looked him up. Apparently, after he had spoken, the pottery shard he had been holding burst into flame, water dripped from his hand and he was left clutching a handful of dust!