This year (2019), Sunday, December 15 is dedicated to the Sunday of the Forefathers – commemorating all of the Holy Fathers and Mothers of the Old Testament beginning with Abraham and Sarah. In the early Church Abraham and Sarah are two people who saw the pre-Incarnate Christ as described in Genesis 18.
And the LORD appeared to him [Abraham] by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, “My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. (Genesis 18:1-3)
Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad.” The Jews then said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:56-58)
In the earliest Church Tradition, it is the pre-incarnate Christ who appears to Abraham as Lord. Christ appears with two angels. In the narrative there is an interesting dynamic that the text switches back and forth, sometimes with the three men speaking in one voice, the Lord’s and sometimes in the plural ‘they’. Likewise Abraham speaks to the three as if they are one – speaks in the singular addressing the Lord. Vassilios Papavassiliou notes the comments of some early church fathers on the appearance of the three men to Abraham:
St. Justin is referring to the three men who appeared to Abraham at the Oak of Mamre (Gen. 18). Many consider these three men (commonly understood as angels) to be a type of the Trinity (a patristic exegesis that has been popularized by St. Andrei Rublev’s famous icon of the Trinity). However, in the earliest patristic commentaries and hymns of the Church, they are described as the Preincarnate Christ accompanied by two angels. This is clearly the exegesis of the first ode of the Canon of the Sunday before the Nativity: “Of old the sacred Abraham received One of the three persons of the Godhead.” This may be what our Lord was referring to when He said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). (Meditations for Advent: Preparing for Christ’s Birth, Kindle Loc. 504-9)
As Papavassiliou remarks, the older Tradition is that Abraham encounters the pre-incarnate Christ with two angels. By the time of St Andrei Rublev (d. 1430AD) Orthodox reinterpreted the story more as an appearance of the Holy Trinity with the three angels each symbolizing one of the persons of the Trinity. In any case, we see in the Genesis account the high esteem in which the Lord holds Abraham.
Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. The LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice; so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” . . . Abraham still stood before the LORD. (Genesis 18:16-22)
God says He will not hide from Abraham what He is about to do. While this comment is connected immediately with the city of Sodom, it is also why Christ can speak about Abraham rejoicing in seeing Christ. Abraham is able to stand before the Lord – before the pre-incarnate Christ. Papavassiliou continues:
That the Son of God, and not the Father, is the one who is manifest throughout the Old Testament is well expressed in the oldest synodal statement on Old Testament Christology—that of the Synod of Antioch in ad 268/9: The Son was not just a spectator nor was he merely present, but . . . came down and appeared to Abraham “at the oak of Mamre,” [as] one of the three, with whom the patriarch conversed as Lord and Judge. . . . This is who, fulfilling the Father’s will, appears to and converses with the patriarchs . . . sometimes as an Angel, at other times as Lord, and at other times being testified to as God. Truly it is impious to suppose that one can call the God of all an angel; however the Angel of the Father is the Son, he is Lord and God, for it is written: “His name will be called the Angel of Great Counsel”. . . . And concerning Jacob: “‘the Angel of God’,” [Jacob] says, “spoke to me in a dream, saying . . . “I am the God who appeared to you at the ‘Place-of-God’, where you anointed the pillar and made a vow to Me”. . . . “So Jacob called the name of that place ‘The Form of God’; ‘For I saw God face to face, and my soul was saved’”
. . . But we are also taught these things by Moses: “Then the Angel appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of the bush”. . . . This is who, speaking the truth, says: “Not that anyone has seen the Father, except He who is from the Father; He has seen the Father.” And in the same Gospel: “You have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His form,” and: “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” The Apostle says of Him: “He is the image of the invisible God”. . . . The Son however, being with the Father, is indeed God and Lord of all things made, yet he was sent by the Father from the heavens, and was made flesh, becoming man. (Vassilios Papavassiliou, Meditations for Advent: Preparing for Christ’s Birth, Kindle Loc. 519-33}
In commemorating the Forefathers of Christ we are reminding ourselves that Christ did appear to the Holy Mothers and Fathers in the Old Testament. They were all indeed looking for Christ. As we prepare for the Nativity Feast, we honor those who were looking for Christ and those who saw Him even if only from afar or as a shadow of what was to come.