When Old Testament Miracles Give Life to the World

Bible story lovers can often recite the details of many of the miracles reported in the Old Testament – Noah and the flood, Moses and the burning bush, etc.  For many centuries, really from the beginning of Christianity, much of the Old Testament including its miracles were often interpreted as prefiguring Christ or were prophecies of Christ.  Take for example what use Jesus Himself makes of the story of the Prophet Jonah being swallowed by a whale:

 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.   (Matthew 12:38-41)

Jesus doesn’t discount the historicity of the story of Jonah, but sees it completely as a prophecy of his death and resurrection.  The Jonah “miracle” is actually seen by Christ as something of small importance as a historical event.  But as a prophecy of the resurrection it looks forward to its fulfillment in Christ, both in this world and on judgment day.

So, too, in 1 Peter 3:18-22, we see how the story of Noah and the flood are not viewed as events of great historical importance but rather are a prefiguring of baptism and salvation in Christ:

 For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.
Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him. 

St. Photius the Great (9th Century) gave a sermon for the Annunciation  in which he shows a typically Patristic interpretation of some Old Testament miracles.  All three miracles were interpreted by the early Church as prophecies of the Virgin birth.  The three events are miracles in their own right, but Photius notes that by themselves these miracles are really rather minor events that actually did not contribute in any meaningful way to the life of the world.  By themselves the “miracles” really don’t show the glory of God because they are rather nondescript.  It is only when they understood as prophecies of the Virgin Birth that their real importance is understood.  In the quote below, Photius has the Archangel Gabriel talking to the Virgin.

Gabriel tells her that it is not his job to interpret what God is doing or how God can accomplish the miracle of the incarnation of the Word of God.  However, God gave hints in the three Old Testament miracles which were given to help her and all of us understand the real miracle of the incarnation of God.  The three Old Testament miracles turn out to be rather small events but they both confirm the current big miracle of Christ and also help break it down into smaller events which we humans are better able to digest and comprehend.  When we bring together the three smaller events we begin to understand the real significance of the incarnation of God.  So the Archangel says these words to Mary:

“One thing I know, one thing I have been taught, one thing I have been sent to tell.  This I say: the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee (Luke 35:1).  It is that which shall teach thee how thou shalt be pregnant.  It shall interpret how thou shalt conceive.  It is a participant in the Lord’s wish, since they are enthroned together, while I am a slave.  I am a messenger of the Lord’s commands, not the interpreter of this particular command.  I am the servant of His will, not the expounder of His intent.  The Spirit shall set everything in order, for it searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God (1 Cor 2:10).  I cry out, ‘Hail, much-graced one,’ and I praise the miracle in song, and worship the birth, but I am at a loss to tell the manner of the conception.  But if thou wishest to accept credence of my tidings by means of examples, inferring great things from small ones, and confirming the things to come by things past, — thou shalt conceive in thy womb and bring forth a son in the same manner as Aaron’s rod was budded without cultivation, acting like a rooted plant (Num 17:23).  As the rain borned down from heaven on the fleece watered that alone but did not refresh the earth (Judges 6:37), thus thou too shalt conceive in thy womb and bring forth the Lord.  This thy ancestor also, David, announces in advance, inspired by God of thy pregnancy: “He shall come down like rain upon a fleece, lie a drop falling upon the earth’ (Ps 71:6).  As the bush received the fire, and feeding the flames was not consumed (Exod 3:2), thus shalt thou conceive a son, lending Him thy flesh, providing nourishment to the immaterial fire, and drawing incorruptibility in return.  These things prefigured thy conception, announced in advance thy delivery, represented from afar thy pregnancy.  Those strange things have been wrought that they might confirm thy child’s ineffable birth.  They happened beforehand that they might delineate the incomprehensibility of the mystery: for the flaming bush, and the bedewed fleece, and the rod bearing leaves would not have contributed anything useful to life, nor would they have incited man to praise the Wonder-worker, nay, the miracle would have fallen to no purpose, unless they had been set down as prefigurations of thy giving birth, and been, as it were, the advance proclamations of the Lord’s coming. “ (THE HOMILIES OF PHOTIUS PATRIARCH OF CONSTANTINOPLE , Tr. Cyril Mango, p 119-120).

Photius was unimpressed by the three Old Testament miracles – one could easily imagine God doing greater things than these.  He feels no one who was told of these three Old Testament miracles would be over awed.  But when the events are read in the light of the incarnation of God in Christ, suddenly the importance of the three events is made clear – and that they are events significant to the life of the world is suddenly made known in the Virgin birth of the incarnate God.   In Christ, the events help explain what God is doing and how it is possible for God to enter into the human condition.  Mary does not need  long theological explanations about the incarnation – Gabriel tells her to think rather about the three stories, the three Old Testament miracles, and she will understand the significance for the entire world of her pregnancy.  The prophecies are fulfilled as well as given historical importance and cosmic meaning in Christ.  The incarnation of God the Word in the Virgin is made comprehensible by the events which prefigured and prophesied it.

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Jesus, the Wisdom of God

Icon of Christ the Wisdom of God

“If we proceed further into the Sacred Scriptures – not in the historical order that the books have been arranged, but in a more spiritual manner – we shall discover the name of Wisdom, which is mystically ascribed to Christ. And thus Solomon cries to the Father: Give me the Wisdom that sits by Your throne (Wis 9.4). And who sits next to God, at the right hand of the Father (cf. Heb 1.3; 10.12; 12.2), exalted above all created things, if not the Lord Jesus Christ? For He is indeed the Power and the Wisdom of God (1 Cor 1.24). Elsewhere Solomon says: I determined to take Wisdom to live with me, knowing that She would be a counselor for me (Wis 8.9).

Wisdom, then, is clearly a Person, and not simply an attribute. It is the Son of God, who is also God’s Word; His Wise Word, as the Fathers say. From ancient times, Solomon points beyond time, and reveals the Person of the Son, Who sits by the throne of the Father, a situation which expresses their inseparable relationship, since there can be no Father without a Son, and no Son without a Father. Each one, at all times, points to the other. In this way we have a common, mutual revelation, which is, in essence, a self-revelation.”  (Archimandrite Aimillianos, The Way of the Spirit, pp. 271-272).

Christ Removes All Barriers to God

Since having Christmas in July (sales!) is popular these days, we can think what this means for us Christians.

“He did not change place, nor did He penetrate or pass over a wall, but, as He Himself showed, He left no barrier standing which could separate us from Him. Since God occupies every place He was not separated from man by place, but by man’s variance with Him. Our nature separated itself from God by being contrary to Him in everything that it possessed and by having nothing in common with Him. God remained Himself alone; our nature was human, and no more.

When, however, flesh was deified and human nature gained possession of God Himself by hypostatic union, the former barrier opposed to God became joined to the Chrism. The difference gave way when God became man, thus removing the separation between Godhead and manhood. So chrism represents Christ as the point of contact between both natures; there could be no point of contact were they still separate.”  (St. Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, pp. 104-105)

It is not living on earth which separates us from God – it is our own freely chosen sins which separate God from us.  Christ in the incarnation shows divinity is united to our humanity.  We are capable of bearing God in our selves, our bodies, our lives!  We are not separated from God by space or distance, but only by our wills.  God stands at the door of our hearts and knocks waiting for each of us to invite Him into our lives, our hearts and our homes.

“Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten; so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.”  (Revelation 3:19-21)

 

(I) Whom Do You Seek?

I seek not what is yours but you”

(2 Corinthians 12:14)

Then Jesus, knowing all that was to befall him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?” They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said to them, “I am he.” (J0hn 18:4-5)

Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal.” (J0hn 6:26-27)

“For the early Christians, the Body of Christ is on the altar because He is among them. For the contemporary Christians, Christ is here because His Body is on the altar. It seems to be analogous, but in fact, there is an essential difference between the early Christians and us. For them, everything is in knowing Christ, loving Him. For us, everything is in the desire to be enlightened. The early Christians came to Communion to follow Christ, whereas now Christ is not the unique reason for partaking of Communion.” (Fr. Alexander Schmemman, The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemman, p. 31)

It is possible that we are far more interested in the gifts that we will personally receive than we are in the Giver of the gifts.  We come to church for what we can get out of it.  We lose interest in Christ, but want miracles in our lives.  We crave contact with the divine but don’t want there to be a Lord over  us.

“You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:39-40)

Mary Magdalene turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (John 20:14-16)

Next:  (II)  Whom Do You Seek?

Recreating the Blind Man

Fr. John Behr notes that St Irenaeus of Lyons sees in the healing of the man born blind (John 9), Christ by whom all things were made, bringing to completion that which was lacking in this creature – his eyes were unformed.  Jesus shows Himself to be the Creator in giving sight to the blind man by recreating His eyes.

“That this is indeed the work of God is shown, for Irenaeus, by the manner in which Christ healed the man blind from birth (John 9). It was not merely by a word that he was healed, but ‘by an outward action, doing this not without purpose or by chance, but that he might show forth the Hand of God that had at the beginning moulded the human being’ (haer. 5.15.2). So, just as ‘the Lord took mud from the earth and formed the human being’ (Gen. 2:7), Christ spat on the ground and made mud, smeared it upon his eyes, ‘pointing out the original fashioning, how it was effected, and manifesting the Hand of God to those who can understand by what [Hand] the human being was formed out of the dust’ (haer. 5.15.2). As, in Christ’s words, the man was born blind not because of his own sin or that of his parents, ‘but that the works of God should be manifest in him’ (John 9:3), so Irenaeus sets this particular work within the intentionality of the economy as a whole:

‘For that which the artificer, the Word, had omitted to form in the womb, he then supplied in public that the works of God might be manifested in him, in order that we might not seek out another hand by which the human being is fashioned, nor another Father, knowing that this Hand of God which formed us in the beginning, and which does form us in the womb, has in the last times sought us out who were lost, winning us back to his own, and taking up the lost sheep upon his shoulders, and with joy, restoring it to the fold of life. (haer. 5.15.2; cf. Luke 19:10, 15:4-6).’

If all of this was done so that ‘the works of God should be manifest in him’, Irenaus concludes that ‘the work of God is fashioning the human being’. (Irenaeus of Lyons: Identifying Christianity, pp. 162-163

Christ the Stranger

Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra reflects on Christ as the stranger, a theme we encounter in the Gospel lesson of the Samaritan Woman (John 4:5-42).

“Christ was a stranger on the earth, because even though the world was made through Him, the world knew Him not. Indeed he was a stranger even among His own brethren, for He came to his own home; and his own people received him not Jn. 1.11-12). But, as St. Makarios suggests, it is not simply in this sense that Christ agreed to become a stranger, but in the deeper sense that Christ has rejected all rights.

In one glance, the eyes of Christ can encompass the universe. In a single gesture, He can embrace and contain all things, both in heaven and on earth: His heavenly Father, the Holy Spirit, the angels the stars the planets, everything in an instant. But He did not account equality with God a thing to be grasped at, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, a stranger (Phil. 2.7). It’s as if he said: ‘I refuse every place of rest other than your soul, so that you will know that I, Christ, empty Myself in order to be filled by you. Though you be a worm and not a man (Ps. 21.6), I will honor you in this way, so that you can become My bride, My bridal chamber, My completion, My perfection. And though you are but a wretched earth-worm, I will make you the most beautiful thing there is: I will make you God. And because I am God, I lack nothing: I am in need of nothing. Whatever I have done, whatever I have become, has all been on account of you. My self-abasement, My exile, My hunger, My thirst, my loneliness, are things that I have voluntarily chosen and which can only be satisfied by you; for you are My food, and My clothing, shelter and place of rest.’

This is how far God has abased Himself! In order to fill us with His plentitude, He has voluntarily emptied Himself. This is what He means when He says: I was a stranger, and I was hungry and thirsty, and so on, namely: that He has rejected everything in order to embrace everything. He abandoned the bosom of the Father (cf. Jn 1.18) to make His home in our hearts. Though He was rich, for your sake He became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich (2 Cor 8.9).

‘Let us therefore,”’St. Makarios concludes, ‘welcome Him into our hearts’ –and here he reverses what he has just said– ‘for he is our food and drink and eternal life.’” (The Way of the Spirit, pp. 246-247).

Christ who hungers and thirsts in His life on earth, hungers and thirsts for our salvation by becoming the food and drink of eternal life.

Holy Saturday (2017)

“The logic of the primitive Paschal Vigil is that a new age dawned with the appearance, death and resurrection of Christ. In preparation for the annual commemoration of that cosmic event, the liturgy revisited the pre-incarnational age through a rereading of key Old Testament passages that prefigure events of Christ’s incarnation.” (Paul Magdalino, The Old Testament in Byzantium, p. 71)

Holy Saturday is a day on which we contemplate the whole plan of God for our salvation from the beginning of creation.  The Old Testament is read as prophecy of the New with each narrative not only foreshadowing and prefiguring the events in Christ’s own life but also being a typology of our own spiritual sojourn in Christ and into His Kingdom.  There are 15 Old Testament lessons read during the Vespers-Liturgy which was originally part of the Paschal celebration.  The words, events and prophecies of the Old Testament find both their fulfillment and full meaning in Christ’s own life, death and resurrection.

“The Old Testament gave us an eschatological interpretation of the Exodus, showing it to us as a type of the Messianic age. The New Testament proclaims that this typology has been fulfilled in Christ, who achieved the New Exodus foretold by the Prophets, by freeing men from the power of the Devil. The Fathers of the Church, while they uphold these two interpretations, are chiefly concerned to show that the Exodus is the type of those major factors in the life of the Church day by day, that is, the Sacraments through which the power of God continues to achieve man’s redemption, typified by the Exodus, and accomplished by Jesus Christ. The Fathers first of all show that the passage of the Red Sea and the eating of the manna are the type of Baptism and the Eucharist received on the anniversary day of the departure from Egypt, and then go on to show how this interpretation widens to include all the events of the Exodus.

It is one of the most important themes of early typology that the crossing of the Red Sea is a type of Baptism, and this will be more easily understood when it is remembered that Baptism was administered during the night of Holy Saturday, in the framework, that is, of the Jewish feast which recalled the departure from Egypt. The parallel between the historical event of the departure from Egypt and the mystical rejection of sin by the passing through the baptismal font forces itself upon us. The Liturgical connection between the water of Baptism and the water of the Red Sea is not just fortuitous: we can only insist once more on what was said of the Flood; the significance of the baptismal water lies not in it being a rite of purification, but a rite of initiation. In any rite of initiation there is always a certain ritual imitation of the historical event. Such was the case with Jewish baptism, which in the Christian era took the place of circumcision as the initiatory rite of proselytes to the Jewish faith. G. Foot-Moore writes: “this baptism was neither a real nor merely a symbolic purification: it was essentially a rite of initiation.” And the purpose of this initiation was to bring the proselyte through the same stages that the people of Israel had passed through at the time of the Exodus from Egypt. Even Jewish baptism them was an imitation of the crossing of the Red Sea and the baptism of the desert (Ex. 14:30).

We have seen that the New Testament certainly sees in the departure from Egypt a type of Baptism. St. Paul tells the Jews that their fathers “were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea. And all in Moses were baptized in the cloud and the sea” (1 Cor. 10:2-11), and the Gospel of St. John shows us how the great events of the Exodus were types of the Christian sacraments.”   (Jean Danielou, S.J., From Shadows to Reality, pp. 175-176).

As in every liturgical celebration in the Church – both sacraments and Feast days – we enter into Christ’s life and experience the world in Christ. We understand the Old Testament in Christ. We live our spiritual lives whether fasting or feasting in Christ. We are saved by His faith, for He is God’s faithful servant, chosen to give life to the world.

The Unveiling in the Temple

In the Old Testament, the idea of The Temple is a place where the invisible God might meet His people.   Many believe the creation story of Genesis 1 and 2 is really God laying out the design for His Temple – which was supposed to be creation itself.  Humans however in wanting a life apart from God forced God to abandon His plans and to expel us out of Paradise, the intended Temple, and put us on earth where we could lives separated from God as we had chosen.

Temple

The Temple in Jerusalem was built based upon the original design which God revealed to Moses.  It was still designed to be the place where God met His people, however events on earth made it difficult for this to be realized.  God’s people were not always faithful, the Temple as an earthly building became a target for destruction.

In the Orthodox Church on February 2 we celebrate the Feast of the Meeting of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, in the Temple.  At last the Temple became the place where humans encountered God.  So we read in Luke 2:25-40 –

Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking 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 should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And inspired by the Spirit he came 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 lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.” And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.”  And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher; she was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years from her virginity, and as a widow till she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she gave thanks to God, and spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. And when they had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Simeon the Righteous meets God in stages: 1) He had been told he wouldn’t die until He saw the Lord’s Christ.  He was looking for someone but he didn’t know who or what he looked like.  2)  He is inspired by the Spirit to come to the temple – he whom he had been looking for was now present and could be seen.  3)  He sees Christ as a child.  He sees what the child, the Messiah, is to be and so is able to prophecy about Him.

St. Mark the Ascetic describes a similar three fold encounter with Christ our God:

While we are being strengthened in Christ Jesus and beginning to move forward in steadfast watchfulness.

He at first appears in our intellect like a torch which, carried in the hand of the intellect, guides us along the tracks of the mind;

then He appears like a full moon, circling the heart’s firmament;

then He appears to us like the sun, radiating justice, clearly revealing Himself in the full light of spiritual vision. (The Philokalia,  Kindle Loc. 5707-12)

Seeing the Invisible God: The Need for a Pure Heart

The Gospel Lesson – Luke 18:35-43

At that time, as Jesus was coming near Jericho, that a certain blind man sat by the road begging. And hearing a multitude passing by, he asked what it meant. So they told him that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. And he cried out, saying, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Then those who went before warned him that he should be quiet; but he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” So Jesus stood still and commanded him to be brought to Him. And when he had come near, He asked him, saying, “What do you want Me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, that I may receive my sight.” Then Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he received his sight, and followed Him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.

[Sermon notes, January 2017]

1]  The blind man already knew something of Jesus for although he cannot see what is happening, when he hears Jesus of Nazareth is coming by he begins shouting for Jesus’ attention.   He knows Jesus has no money to give him, but he has obviously heard of the miracles of Jesus.  It is obvious that the blind man could see who Jesus was based on what he knew about Him and what he believed about Him.  The blind beggar not only never saw Jesus before he never saw anything Jesus had done.  But he had the eyes of his heart to see, and there was purity enough in his heart for him to see God!

color-of-paradise2]  The Iranian movie, THE COLOR OF PARADISE, has a scene in it  in which a blind carpenter takes on as an apprentice a blind boy whose poor father sees only as a terrible burden which he wants to be rid of.  The boy explains his sadness to the blind carpenter – God doesn’t love him for He made him blind.  No one wants him, not even his own father.  The blind carpenter points out that God is invisible, eyes will not help you see God.  In fact those with eyes think they can see things about God which they cannot.   Eyes will not help you see God.  To be born blind is a gift from God for those with eyes keep trying to use their eyes to see God, while the blind already know this is not possible and so skip that deception and immediately use the eyes of their heart to seek God.  Seeking God is a matter of faith not sight.  Seeing is believing?  In the Gospel lesson, believing is seeing.

3]  St. Paul reminds us that God is invisible from the day’s Epistle –

“To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”  (1 Timothy 1:17)

This is why Jesus spoke about those with a pure heart seeing God.  You can’t see the invisible God with your physical eyes!  You need to work on your inner self, your soul, the eyes of your heart to see God.  Clearing away all manners of impurities from the heart is needed to see God.  Even if you have 20/20 vision, without purity of heart, you won’t see God.

4]  The blind man already sees that Jesus can give him sight before Jesus does anything!  Jesus gives to the blind man what the blind man already believes.  Jesus doesn’t even claim to heal the man, he tells the blind man, “your faith has made you well.”   The fact that the man could see with the eyes of his heart enabled his eyes to be opened.  As St. Paul says, “for we walk by faith, not by sight”  (2 Corinthians 5:7).

5]  The people in the Gospel lesson are interesting as well, for they see the miracle and praise God.  None of them benefitted from the beggar being given sight and yet they praise God.  They were able to see and rejoice in the good fortune of another even though they themselves did not benefit from what Jesus did.  In fact they had just a few minutes earlier tried to prevent the blind beggar from disturbing Jesus.   But their hearts are good as they were able to see what God is doing.   [I think we Christians don’t always have that ability to rejoice in the good fortune of others.  We are often selfish and self-centered, jealous and envious.  We more often rejoice in the misfortune of others.  What the Germans call Schadenfreude.  We seem more likely to take pleasure in the misfortune of others than to find pleasure in the good fortune  of others from which we don’t personally benefit].  We would do well to learn from this crowd – even if we don’t experience a miracle in our lives, we need to be thankful for every blessing others receive, even the dispised people whom we often want to shun and push aside.