You Have Seen Abraham?

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.

The Ancestors of Christ (2014)

“… have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham…? He is God not of the dead, but of the living.”  (Matthew 22:31-32)

Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”   (John 8:53)

Patriarch Abraham

On the Sunday before Christmas we read the Gospel lesson of the birth of Jesus Christ according to St. Matthew.  That same Gospel lesson has St. Matthew’s recorded ancestry of Christ, tracing the Messiah’s ancestral roots back to the Patriarch Abraham and his wife Sarah.   It is with Abraham that God makes a covenant and a promise, giving both Abraham and Sarah new names reflecting their new relationship with God.

“Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you.”   (Genesis 17:4-7)

Abraham and Sarah

And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her; I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”  (Genesis 17:15-16)

The Holy Apostle Paul connects God’s promise to Abraham to Jesus Christ, who fulfills the promise.

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many; but, referring to one, “And to your offspring,” which is Christ.  (Galatians 3:16)

Abraham, Sarah, Moses and St. Paul

While Jesus Christ fulfills God’s promise to Abraham, St. Paul also points out that it is not to Abraham alone that God reckoned righteousness through faith, but to all of us who believe.  Thus from Abraham to the Church today there is a continuous and organic faith shared by all.

“… the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants—not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of us all, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations” —in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations; as he had been told, “So shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead because he was about a hundred years old, or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “reckoned to him as righteousness.”  But the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him that raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”  (Romans 4:16-25)

From the time of the Patriarch Abraham (about 2000BC) until now, 2000 years after the time of Christ, there have been a succession of men and women who shared Abraham’s faith in God.   On the Sunday before the Nativity of Christ, in the Orthodox Church we honor all of those faithful men and women who are in the ancestry of Christ.  They believed before the Messiah, remaining faithful to the prophecies and promises of God.  So we read in Hebrews 11:9-40:

By faith Abraham sojourned in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, “In Isaac your seed shall be called,” accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense.

By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come. By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and worshiped, leaning on the top of his staff. By faith Joseph, when he was dying, made mention of the departure of the children of Israel, and gave instructions concerning his bones. By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden three months by his parents, because they saw he was a beautiful child; and they were not afraid of the king’s command. And what more shall I say? For the time would fail me to tell of Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah, also of David and Samuel and the prophets: who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again. And others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mocking and scourging, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented; of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.

The Hospitality of Abraham and Sarah

Abraham, the man whose faith is reckoned as righteousness, is thus connected to Jesus who brings righteousness to all the faithful.  The Nativity of Christ is the celebration of the fulfillment of the faith and righteousness of Father Abraham.  We proclaim in the Gospel of St. MATTHEW 1:1-25:

 The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram, and Ram the father of Amminadab, and Amminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asa, and Asa the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon. And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel, and Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor,  and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud,  and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ. So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations. Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.

At Christmas we celebrate the faith of Abraham, the birth of the Messiah, and life in the Kingdom which is to come.

On the Lenten Road

Two hymns from the 4th Wednesday of Great Lent for us to consider as we continue our Lenten sojourn.

In the first hymn we encounter from Tradition the practice of  interpreting passages of the Old Testament using Christ as the key to to understanding the text.    Abraham’s story of his taking his own son to offer as a sacrifice to God is understood in the light of the resurrection of Christ.   In the hymn we experience that use of non-linear time as the way in which we encounter the eternal God. The hymn makes reference to the resurrection of Christ and yet says Abraham saw that day of Christ’s resurrection. How is that possible that Abraham could see an event that occurred more than 1000 years after he died? The hymn uses figurative language, for when Abraham saw his son’s life spared, he had an experience – a type of the resurrection – in which he received figuratively his son back from death.   As it says in Hebrews 11:19 –

Abraham considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead; hence, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

So our hymn reflects this theology and its non-linear understanding of time:


The hymn expresses the wish that we might see the day which Abraham saw! The hymn has Abraham seeing the resurrection and asks that we might receive the same blessing and see the resurrection of Christ which happened 2000 years ago in our celebration of Pascha which comes three weeks from now. The hymns do not keep us in “real” time, but carry us and Abraham to the same event of Christ’s resurrection. Abraham experiences that resurrection centuries before it happens and we experience it centuries after it happens. Pure historical literalism does not help us understand the eternal, timeless Christ.

Additionally, the hymn prays that saved from death and sin, we might share in the Mystical Supper of Christ which we will celebrate at the Vespers-Liturgy on Holy Thursday evening. We share in and experience Christ and all His saving deeds in our life in the Church.

In the second hymn we will consider, we are reminded about how we are to keep the strict discipline of the fast – in secret. We are forbidden from proclaiming our fasting discipline in public but rather the fasting discipline is something we do in secret so that only God knows how we are keeping the fast. Fasting is not meant to be a way to witness publicly to Christ, nor are we to be paying attention to how others keep the fast. Our fellow Orthodox are Christ’s servants and they answer to Him, not to us. The hymn reminds us fasting is about our relationship to God and should never be used as a basis to judge anyone else but ourselves.


Abraham and Simeon

The Feast of the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple commemorates the events recorded in the Gospel according to St. Luke 2:22-40.

Now when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the LORD”),  and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”  And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was just and devout, waiting for the Consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. So he came by the Spirit into the temple.

And when the parents brought in the Child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the law, he took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said: Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, According to Your word; For my eyes have seen Your salvation Which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, And the glory of Your people Israel.” And Joseph and His mother marveled at those things which were spoken of Him. Then Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. Now there was one, Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, and had lived with a husband seven years from her virginity; and this woman was a widow of about eighty-four years, who did not depart from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. And coming in that instant she gave thanks to the Lord, and spoke of Him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem. So when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth. And the Child grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons  (d. 202AD) compared Father Abraham of the Old Testament with Simeon the Elder who held the infant Christ child in his arms.  St. Irenaeus says correctly that both Abraham and Simeon knew God only through the Word of God, who is Jesus Christ.   Abraham was told of the coming of the Christ, whom he longed to see, and Simeon actually gets to see the One whom Abraham knew about in prophecy.  St. Irenaeus writes: 

Therefore Abraham also, knowing the Father through the Word, who made heaven and earth, confessed Him to be God; and having learned, by an announcement [made to him], that the Son of God would be a man among men, by whose advent his seed should be as the stars of heaven, he desired to see that day, so that he might himself also embrace Christ; and, seeing it through the spirit of prophecy, he rejoiced.

Wherefore Simeon also, one of his descendants, carried fully out the rejoicing of the patriarch, and said: ‘Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace. For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people: a light for the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of the people Israel.'”   (Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle 5406-11)

The Faith of Jesus Christ (II)

“Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.”  (Galatians 2:16, KJV, emphasis mine)

In my blog, The Faith of Jesus Christ, I mentioned an idea that apparently has gained some traction among biblical scholars that St. Paul in Galatians and Romans speaks about the faith of Jesus rather our faith in Jesus.   St. Paul talks extensively about the faith of Abraham which reckoned him righteous in God’s assessment.  Abraham is the prototype of the man of faith and the basis for Paul’s understanding of universal salvation in Jesus Christ.  St. Paul  speaks about the faith OF Jesus in several passages which nowadays get translated in English as faith IN Christ, an idea which is more in line with a Protestant emphasis on “faith alone”  (see the RSV: Romans 3:22, 26  and Galatians 2:16 for examples, Jesus is referred to  in the Greek in the Genitive).   So Galatians 2:16, quoted above from the King James English text gets rendered in the New King James Version as:

“…knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.”  (Galatians 2:16, NKJV, emphasis mine)

THE INTERPRETER’S BIBLE (published in 1957) comments on this text saying the text is ambiguous and could be rendered either way though the “faith OF Christ” would be the more literal, normal reading of the text.

“Galatians 2:16b,c.   Here we have Paul’s affirmation: But by faith.  How does the Christian know that God forgives and accepts him?  Paul answers, dia pisteos Xristos Iesou, which the KJV brings literally into English, by the faith of Jesus Christ, leaving the reader to decide whether it means Christ’s own faith in God, which he breathed into his disciples and transmitted to all succeeding generations of believers, or the disciples’ faith in Christ as their dying and rising Savior who gives himself for their sins and made new men of them.  By faith in Christ removes the ambiguity; but the reader must remember that Paul’s faith in Christ was created by Christ’s faith in God and by Christ’s faith in Paul.

In Paul’s life pistis was more than ‘belief’…  The Greek noun means ‘faith’ and ‘faithfulness,’ ‘trust’  and ‘trustworthiness.’”   (Vol 10, pp 216-217)

THE INTERPRETER’S BIBLE sees Galatians 2:16 as being ambiguous, but today, increasingly, scholars do not see the text as ambiguous but believe St. Paul meant to say the faith OF Jesus not our faith IN Jesus.  Jesus is reckoned righteous by God because of His faith/ faithfulness, just as Abraham had been reckoned righteous.  That is the comparison St. Paul is making.

“The bold proclamation of God’s faithfulness (‘righteousness’) in these verses (Romans 3:21-26) stands against the dismal portrayal of humanity’s faithlessness in 1:18-3:20. . . .  If we follow the majority of the most recent interpretations of Paul, which understand God’s righteousness as God’s saving covenant faithfulness, and which render phrases normally translated ‘faith in Christ’ as ‘the faith/faithfulness of Christ (Romans 3:22,25), then the faith/faithfulness of God, Christ and those who respond are all named in this text.  This appears most succinctly in 3:22:

1)    What is manifested: God’s righteousness (= saving covenant faithfulness).

2)    Where or how it is manifested: in Christ’s faith/faithfulness.

3)    For whom it is manifested: all who respond in faith.

. . . Christ’s death, then, says Paul, is God’s faithful and merciful gift (3:24, 25) as well as Christ’s faithful act.  This death accomplishes two things: forgiveness for sins and redemption from sin.  God ‘put forward’ Christ as ‘a sacrifice of atonement,’ referring to the Jewish system of sacrifices for sins (3:25).  But this was also an act of ‘redemption’ (3:24) or liberation – the language of deliverance from bondage to Egypt or any other slave master.  In other words, Christ’s death deal both with sins (the deeds) and with sin (the power) – just as Paul’s analysis of the human predicament in 1:18-3:20 requires.”    (Michael Gorman, APOSTLE OF THE CRUCIFIED LORD,  pp 358-359)

Abraham’s righteousness: he believed God

Part of St. Paul’s argument in Galatians and Romans might be summarized as follows:  God looks for someone in the world to be faithful to Him in order for God to save the world (= restore the world to a right relationship with Him).  Abraham of all the people in the world responds in faith to God.  Fr. Paul Tarazi comments:

“‘Abraham believed (put his trust in) God, and it (this trust) was reckoned to him as righteousness’ (Romans 4:3; Genesis 15:6). . . . this reckoning unto righteousness took place before Abraham was circumcised, that is, when he was, scripturally speaking, a mere Gentile – not yet a ‘Jew.’ . . .  That is why… (according to St. Paul) the divine promise was established before the law and required one’s trust (ek pisteos) in that promise.  In this way, the promise stems exclusively from God’s gracefulness (kata kharin) and thus depends on God’s faithfulness rather than on the faith of our undependable selves (Rom 3:3). . . .    Thus, the rigtheousness of God is revealed in scripture ek pisteos eis pistin (beginning with trust [as described in the Law] and ending in trust [as required in the Prophets]) (Rom 1:17).”  (Paul Tarazi, THE CHRYSOSTOM BIBLE: ROMANS, pp 93, 94, 100, 103)

Abraham trusts God and his faith is rewarded by God’s promise to remain faithful to Abraham through his seed/ offspring.  Paul speaks extensively about the faith of Abraham and then offers the natural comparison to the faith OF Jesus.   Jesus has the same faith as Abraham – He demonstrates the same trust/faith/faithfulness which Abraham exhibited and which won Abraham God’s favor.  Abraham’s faith led to God’s choosing of the one people through whom the Messiah would come.  God was not just choosing one people but in Paul’s thinking, the one seed, the one person who is Jesus.   Christ is the fruit of Abraham’s faith; He is according to St. Paul that promised seed.  And the fruit of this faith brings salvation/ justification to all the world, not just to the one people, the Jews.   Now all of Abraham’s children are recognized – not just those according to the flesh, but all who share Abraham’s faith.  It is the faith OF Jesus, His trust in His Father’s will, that brings righteousness to all the world thus to all of the children of Abraham.

Lazarus and the Rich Man

Luke 16:19-31 –

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

St. John Chrysostom wrote:

“Just as, when God expelled Adam from paradise, he settled him opposite the garden in order that the continual sight might renew his suffering and give him a clearer awareness of his fall from the good, so also He settled the rich man opposite Lazarus in order that he might see the good of which he had deprived himself. ‘I sent,’ he says, ‘the poor man Lazarus to your gate to teach you virtue and to receive your love; you ignored this benefit and declined to use his assistance toward your salvation. Hereafter you shall use him to bring yourself a greater punishment and retribution.’ From the poor man we learn that all who suffer curses and injustice among us will stand before us in that other life.

Indeed Lazarus suffered no injustice from the rich man; for the rich man did not take Lazarus’ money, but failed to share his own. If he is accused by the man he failed to pity because he did not share his own wealth, what pardon will the man receive who has stolen others’ goods, when he is surrounded by those whom he has wronged? In that world there is no need of witnesses, accusers, evidence, or proof; the deeds themselves just as we have done them appear before our eyes. ‘See the man,’ He says, ‘and his works: indeed this also is theft, not to share one’s possessions.’ “ (Daily Readings from the Writings of St. John Chrysostom, pg.43)

Reading the Scriptures with the Early Church: In Christ

This is the 3rd Blog in this series which began with Reading Scripture: the Old Testament, the Torah and Prophecy.   The immediate preceding blog is Reading the Scriptures in the Earliest Christian Communities.  In this Blog Fr. John McGuckin offers a glimpse at how early Christians read the Scriptures – and read them differently from how we read them today.

 “A modern reader, used to interpreting the Bible according to its sequential narrative content, and its historical or ethical significances, is singularly ill-equipped to realize that throughout the vast majority of Christian history this is not how the bible was generally read.  In earlier Christian ages (and the style still applies predominantly to most of the bible as it appears in Church in the form of liturgical poetry) the scripture was read in fragmented pericopes, each one turning around a Type (tupos): namely a figure or symbol or story from the old text that was reworked symbolically in line with the evangelical mystery. 

So, for example, the old story of Abraham and Isaac’s sacrifice becomes, by reference to the inherent symbols of the ‘Beloved Son’ carrying ‘the wood’ (the Cross) of his own sacrifice ‘up the hill’ (Calvary), for the establishment of ‘a new covenant’ of grace (the foundation of New Israel) … Type, in this case, means that this reference to the passion-covenant theology is ‘really’ what the Abrahamic story is all about.  Its ‘other meaning’ (what one might call the literal or first-sight meaning, as something to do with the patriarchs and the establishment of the covenant with Israel) was understood as a level of revelation on the surface, meant to be passed through by the enlightened reader (the one who had been given the key to the mystical interpretation through the acceptance of the Gospel story).

Our Father among the Saints: John Chrysostom

The mechanism of this form of interpretation was based upon three central notions common among the Fathers of the Church namely: that (a) all scripture was a single inter-related text telling the same story of the Incarnate Word; (b) that all scripture had superficial levels of meaning that deepened in a mystical significance made visible according to the initiation possessed by the disciple of Christ; and (c) that there were clues within the text, at surface level, that gave signs to the initiate reader who would read the old story (the Old Testament) ‘back from the new,’ not forward as if reading historically.*  Like the ‘type’ of an old machine-press, which was reversed so that its impression on the paper would render the letters in their correct readable alignment, so too the biblical ‘type’ was an enigmatic symbol, or story, hidden in the Old Testament whose ‘real meaning’ became apparent to the careful (initiated) observer only in the light of the Gospel, and only according to the degree of the illumination which the Divine Spirit of God gave to the heart of the faithful reading it ‘In Christ.**’”

[Notes:  *”Mar Theodore of Mopsuestia, described the issue succinctly in his argument that if the scripture is a sacred literature that transcends historicity, being of the eschatological moment, then it cannot be exegeted solely by linear historical methods of interpretation.”


The Word of God

**”Reading the text, en christo (1 Cor 4:10; 2 Cor 5:17; Eph 1:9) or with the ‘mind of Christ’ phronema Christou, (cf. 1 Cor 2:13-16), it passes from simple textual reading to become a sacrament of divine revelation.  The Church Fathers, then, believed that the Scripture really only became ‘sacred revelation’ when it fulfilled that function in Christ, and through Christ.  His was the presence that sanctified the literature and made it revelatory for the purpose of salvation.  It was in this sense that Origen called the scripture, the ‘sacrament’ of the body of the Logos….”] 

(John McGuckin,  HARP OF GLORY, pp14-15)

 Next: Reading the Scriptures with St. John Cassian

The Faith of Abraham

 Hebrews 11:9-10

Patriarch Abraham

By faith Abraham dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.  By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, “In Isaac your seed shall be called,” concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense.  By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come. 

The faith and faithfulness of Abraham was noted by ancient Jews and Christians alike.

“Third century Christian writer Origin, commenting on Abraham’s faith which caused him to obey to the extreme, noted that remaining faithful to God is easier for Christians than for Abraham—we have knowledge of Christ and the resurrection.

Origin aligns Abraham’s temptation with that of the Christian facing possible martyrdom.  The Christian has faith not only in the future resurrection of Isaac but also in the (past) resurrection of Christ; he or she should have it easier than Abraham did.  Is it possible, Origin implies, that Abraham’s faith is greater than our own, for we (he notes later in the homily) not only are reluctant to follow Christ’s injunction not to value family ties over the gospel, but also grieve when our children die, despite our faith?  Origin the homilist brilliantly evokes the Christian hearer’s own experience as a locus for understanding the text, and for letting the text, in the person of Abraham’s faith, challenge the hearer.  He will later note, commenting on God’s concluding words in the story (For now I know you fear God, “ Gen 22”12):  ‘But these things are written on account of you, because you too indeed have believed in God, but unless you shall fulfill “the works of faith” (2Thess 1:11)you will not know that you fear God nor will it be said of you:  “Now I know that you fear God.”‘”     (Blowes, P M, Christman, A R, Hunter, D G, Young, R D, IN DOMINICO ELOQUIO/IN LORDLY ELOQUENCE, p 41)

God Questions His Creation: Genesis 11:10-32 (d)

See: God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 11:10-32 (c)

Genesis 11:10 These are the descendants of Shem. When Shem was a hundred years old, he became the father of Arpach’shad two years after the flood; 11 and Shem lived after the birth of Arpach’shad five hundred years, and had other sons and daughters.  …  26 When Terah had lived seventy years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran. 27 Now these are the descendants of Terah. Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot. 28 Haran died before his father Terah in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chalde’ans. 29 And Abram and Nahor took wives; the name of Abram’s wife was Sar’ai, and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah. 30 Now Sar’ai was barren; she had no child. 31 Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sar’ai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chalde’ans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there.

With the birth of Abram the Bible begins its clear focus on one particular people on earth.  That the Bible was moving in this direction becomes all the more obvious in the chapters that follow in Genesis.  Just as a Christocentric reading of the Old Testament reveals how the entirety of the Scriptures was moving toward Christ and in Christ finds its full meaning, so too with Abram the direction of the early chapters of Genesis becomes clear and pointed.  God’s plan for the salvation of His fallen creation is being put into motion and revealed.  This becomes clear in the genealogy Matthew placed at the very beginning of his Gospel (Matthew 1:1-25).   Matthew does not trace Christ back to Adam, the first human, but rather he traces back the genealogy to Abraham, God’s chosen servant, who is the father of Israel, the man with whom God makes an eternal covenant that is to be traced through his descendents, or more properly through a particular descendent: “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many; but, referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ which is Christ” (Galatians 3:16).  In Orthodoxy we read Matthew’s genealogy on the Sunday before Christmas because we do believe that Jesus Christ is the eternal fulfillment of the promise to Abraham.   Immediately after Abraham had shown himself willing to sacrifice his son, the God-promised heir for whom Abraham had so hoped, the Lord said, “By myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice” (Genesis 22:16-18).  Jesus is believed by Christians to be the fulfillment of God’s promises and prophecy.  All the nations of the world are blessed through Jesus Christ, not just the nation of Israel.  

God’s universal hope for all of humanity which is established with the creation of the first man Adam (the prototype of all humans) and whose fulfillment is promised through Abraham’s descendent is accomplished in Jesus Christ (the new universal man, the prototype of the resurrected human).  The genealogy of Matthew’s Gospel offers the world the sense of the continuity in God’s plan – the promise and the fulfillment are traceable through one Holy Tradition which is laid out in the Bible.   In the Gospel according to Luke the genealogy (Luke 3:23-38) is traced in the reverse order of Matthew.  St. Luke begins with Jesus, the divine God-man who also is the new universal man and the new Adam, and traces His ancestry through David to Abraham, Shem, Noah, Seth and back to the first Adam who was the first universal man and the son of God.  Thus Christ fulfils what God intended His humans to be from the beginning. The birth of Jesus is not merely the birth of a good or holy man.  The birth of Jesus is the beginning of the universal salvation of all humans, the reunion of God and humanity, and the restoration of humanity to their original and God-given role to be mediator between God and all the rest of creation, and the fulfillment of God’s promises to His chosen people.   The Nativity of Christ is the restoration of humanity to humanity’s God-intended role in the universe.  Finally a human exists who has Godly dominion over the rest of creation.

“For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. It has been testified somewhere, ‘What is man that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels, you crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.’  Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one”  (Hebrews 2:5-9).

“Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death. ‘For God has put all things in subjection under his feet.’ But when it says, ‘All things are put in subjection under him,’ it is plain that he is excepted who put all things under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one”  (1 Corinthians 15:24-28).

Next:  God Questions His Creation: An After Word

God Questions His Creation: Genesis 11:10-32 (c)

See: God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 11:10-32 (b)

Genesis 11:10 These are the descendants of Shem. When Shem was a hundred years old, he became the father of Arpach’shad two years after the flood;  …  26 When Terah had lived seventy years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran. 27 Now these are the descendants of Terah. Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot. 28 Haran died before his father Terah in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chalde’ans. 29 And Abram and Nahor took wives; the name of Abram’s wife was Sar’ai, and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah. 30 Now Sar’ai was barren; she had no child. 31 Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sar’ai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chalde’ans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there.

This section of Genesis brings us to the birth of Abram, whom many consider to be the father of the great monotheistic religions:  Judaism, Christianity and Islam.   Genesis offers that overarching metanarrative which ties all of humanity together.  It is a story that helps define our common human nature.  We are all part of God’s great unfolding narrative, and it is His story which gives our lives and our individual stories meaning.  Many think that at the beginning of the 21st Century, the philosophical outlook which shapes our current understanding of the world is “postmodernism.”  While the ideas of postmodernism are complex, as a philosophy it seems to accept the notion that there is no real way to “measure” the truth or validity of any story, since each person’s life experience is true to them and can’t be measured against any standard or canon as any one story is as true and valid as any other from the point of view of each person.   Postmodernism would say everyone’s story is true and right from some perspective and it would deny there is a shared human nature or shared human story to tie us all together.   This philosophy is a theory of intellectual and moral relativity.  As in the theory of relativity in physics, “truth” is limited to the vantage point of the observer – time and space are all relative to the position, speed and direction of the observer.  “Perception” of an event is completely shaped by one’s position relative to the event.  Any one perception can be true for that observer but others seeing the same event from other positions relative to the event will see the event differently and yet their perception will be true for them.  

In postmodernism we may all share the same planet, but our lives relative to one another are not all that connected.  There is no one perspective that is the correct perspective and so truth, right, wrong, good and evil vary from person to person.  A movie which captures this quite well is the 2005 movie, CRASH.  In that movie all of the characters live in the same city and their lives are tied together by a series of otherwise random events.  However, despite being tied together by these events, none of  the characters are aware of their connection to the others – only the viewer of the movie has the perspective of how they are all tied together.  But for the characters, their lives are a series of accidental “crashes” into one another.  The movie suggests that individuals longing for feeling some connection to others – longing to be sprung from the isolation and alienation of extreme individualism  – “crash” into each other, sometimes intentionally just to feel alive or to get some sense that they belong to something greater than themselves.  

In certain ways this postmodern thinking is an intellectual Darwinism where all events that happen are ultimately random not giving direction to life, not serving any purpose, but definitely shaping present experience and the future of humanity.  Like Darwinism, postmodernism, denies teleology (the idea that life purposefully moves toward some conclusion or end).  The Bible certainly accepts teleology – there is a purposeful beginning to humankind and there is a God who is guiding the world and this God has a plan for the world which includes an ending toward which God is guiding things.  The Bible offers the beginnings of the story, shapes the direction we are headed in, and offers some specific thoughts about how it all will end.  In postmodern terms, the Bible offers a meta-narrative, a story that ties together all peoples, all lives, and all human stories.  It is not one person’s story, it is rather the story of everybody,  a story that shows our common humanity and which ties together all the individual stories of humans.  It is a story with a purpose, in which it is possible to discern right and wrong, good and evil, beginning and end.  

Each life is important, not random, and not meaningless.  Even the use of typology or a prototype within the biblical narrative (that one story can somehow foreshadow a later story and help us recognize and understand later stories) argues against pure postmodernism.  Figurative thinking and symbolic thinking help us recognize patterns in life – they help us make sense of past historical events, they help us to recognize the significance of current events.  They help us realize each life is not totally unrelated to all other lives. Each life contributes to the bigger picture, the tapestry or mosaic or narrative.  No one life is self contained, no one life can measure the worth of all other things, because every life is part of a bigger whole, which is purposeful.  Each life and each person’s story will get measured and evaluated in terms of this bigger narrative, and it is this bigger picture which offers meaning to each life, no matter how great, how long, how short. 

The important insight of monotheism is that there is a meta-narrative; there is a way to understand all the individual stories, even if we can’t fully grasp that meta-story yet – even if there is mystery, even if there are unresolved contradictions in the Scriptures which contain the revelation of this one God.  The Bible contains in a written form the known elements of this revelation, and it gives us perspective on life, gives direction to life, gives meaning to life.  The Bible also tells us that the world is confusing, and at times every bit as uncertain as postmodernism would affirm.  The Bible does show us that events do occur which from our limited human perspective do appear to be random, unfair, inexplicable, and ambiguous.  

The Bible does take perspective – it traces history and humanity through particular peoples’ lives, and does not pretend to be neutral or objective, but rather is either biased or ambivalent or both.   Perhaps the most postmodern event in the Bible is when God creates light in Genesis 1:3.   There was light – it had no source, no direction, it simply was.  There existed no perspective in that verse, it is all about simply being.  And since nothing else existed it had no direction, no goal, no purpose, and no movement.  Even Einstein’s relativity didn’t exist in that event for light was all.  

Adam & Eve

The Bible however doesn’t end with this directionless and perspectiveless light.  That light serves to connect and illumine all else that exists.   The Bible says this is the truth of humanity as well – we each are not merely individuals, but we are communal beings.   We are created to be in communion with God and with each other.  We are by nature beings of love (meaning we are by nature oriented toward others).  Genesis tells us in narrative form the story of each of us and any of us and all of us.  It reveals to us our humanness and thus our interdependency on all else that exists.  It helps us realize there is a way, a direction, and it tells us we have lost that way, but it is still available for us to find.  Genesis helps put us on that right path.   Even the ambiguities in the story and the contradictions tell us we need to find a better perspective to understand what is.  That gives us purpose, motivation, and direction – we need to move to that new perspective.  And the Scriptures will help us find that way.

Next: God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 11:10-32 (d)