When the Son of God put on humanity and became the Son of Man, he was inviting us to participate in the relationship – the dance – that he shares as Father, Son and Spirit.
Cheryl and I love to dance, in particular to waltz or slow dance. Good dancing is fluid – it is two individuals becoming one on the dance floor. Dancing is more than moving to the beat—it is following the rhythm and flowing with the music. It is being in communion with the music and with your dance partner. Good dancers almost glide across the floor as they move together with one purpose. I don’t dance as well as I’d like to, but I love the experience of Cheryl and I moving in unison, sharing in the joy of the dance and the company of each other.
Is it any wonder several have described the Trinity in similar terms? Perhaps because of my love for dancing, the first time I read the Trinity described as a circle dance (some call this perichoresis, which we will explain), I had an immediate image in my mind and became intrigued to learn more.
I was in a class on leadership and was reading George Cladis’ book, Leading the Team-Based Church. In the book he suggested we set up our leadership team based on the model of the Trinity, which he termed, “The circle dance of God.” Cladis got this term from the seventh-century writer, John of Damascus, a Greek theologian, who described the relationship the Father, Son and Spirit share as a “circle dance.” Cladis writes:
John depicted the three persons of the Trinity in a circle. A perichoretic image of the Trinity is that of the three persons of God in constant movement in a circle that implies intimacy, equality, unity yet distinction, and love. (p. 4)
John of Damascus didn’t invent the term. Fourth-century church father Gregory of Nazianzus used the term to describe the relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ. Other theologians add words such as co-indwelling, co-inhering, and mutual interpenetration as they try to describe the relationship of the Father, Son and Spirit. The Greek term is perichoresis; the Latin term is circumincession.
There is a “happy mistake” in connecting perichoresis with a dance. The word was originally created from the prefix peri and the verb chōreo, meaning to “contain,” “hold,” or “make space.” The idea is that the members of the Trinity contain each other, or penetrate or permeate each other. However, a similar Greek word, choreuō, means “to dance,” and some people therefore thought that perichōresis means “to dance around.” The connection is more of a pun, not a literal definition. Although the real meaning is mutual indwelling, not dancing, Christian writer Paul Fiddes points out, “The play on words does illustrate well the dynamic sense of perichoresis…” (Participating in God: A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity [Westminster John Knox, 2001], 72; see also the Journal of Theological Studies, 1928, pages 242-254).
I like the visual image of a dance because it not only helps me understand the relationship shared by Father, Son and Spirit, it also helps me understand what I have been invited into. (In addition, it helps me explain the idea of team-based ministry, but that is a topic for another time.) For the purpose of this article, let’s think about perichoresis and the incarnation.
When the Son of God entered Mary’s womb, he came to assume humanity. He didn’t just come alongside of us to walk with us, he came to become us. He became the second Adam, the new beginning. The Creator became the created. And because he is eternally in the perichoretic relationship with Father and Spirit, he brought that relationship to us and invited us to participate in that relationship. God is in us and we are in God. Paul reminds us that in Christ we are new creations – we become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:17-21). But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Jesus assumed all of humanity – even the process of being formed in a womb. Think about that for a moment. God in a womb?! The idea that God gave up his (metaphorical) robe of light to enter the womb as a zygote, then an embryo, then a fetus, all to develop toward his birth, is mind-boggling. We know part of the story of his birth. We know little about his infancy, toddlerhood, and preteen years, and it’s hard to imagine God learning to crawl and walk, and write, and talk. We have a brief story of when he was 12 and spent time talking to leaders in the temple, but we know little about his life until he entered his ministry at about 30 years of age (Luke 3:23). We can only speculate on why there is so little about him before he started his ministry, but it is evidently not important. What is important is to know why he came – and that was to restore us, redeem us, forgive us, include us, reconcile us; to show us we are loved, and to invite us to the dance, a never-ending relationship with God.
One of the marvelous truths about Jesus is that he lived a life without sin. The author of Hebrews tells us he was tempted in every way we are tempted, yet he lived without sin. I believe this is because he never forgot who he was, and he never forgot whose he was. Jesus knew he was the Son of Man, but he also knew he was the Son of God. He was in an intimate relationship with the Father and the Spirit. He never stopped participating in the dance. Further, he wanted his disciples to know and experience the unity he shared as part of the Triune God. Remember what he said in his prayer after the Lord’s Supper?
As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. (John 17:21-24 NRSV)
I submit that one of the greatest gifts of the incarnation is the invitation to participate in the relationship of the Trinity, to be in Jesus as he is in the Father and the Father is in him. It is vital to know who we are, and to know whose we are. I believe that when we realize we’ve been invited to join Jesus in what he is doing, it makes sharing his love and life with others a great joy. I believe when we join the dance, we will learn to glide across the floor (ministry and mission) in rhythm with him. I believe we will fall in love with the experience of Jesus and us moving in unison, sharing in the joy of the dance and the company of each other.