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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St. Photius: On the Essence of Icons

St. Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople, preached a sermon on the day the icon of the Theotokos was dedicated in Hagia Sophia, 29 March 867.  In the notes introducing the English translation of the sermon, we find this comment:

“In the eyes of Photius, painting is the most direct form of instruction, for a picture that is in agreement with religious truth contains the eidos, or essence, of the prototype, which is in turn apprehended by the faculty of sight and indelibly imprinted upon the mind. A painter is guided by divine inspiration, so that his work is not merely mimetic, but contains an actual share of the prototype. One would look in vain for a better expression of Byzantine art theory.”  (Cyril Mango, THE HOMILIES OF PHOTIUS PATRIARCH OF CONSTANTINOPLE, pp 282-283)

For the Byzantine Christians, the icon was even more powerful/truthful than the written texts because the icon shares in the prototype.  It is hard for us to imagine a time when the presuppositions and perspective of the people are different than our own.  There was a time when people heard the phrase, “the word of God”, it was not the Bible that came to mind,  instead they would have thought, Jesus Christ.

Living in the literary culture of the 21st Century, and being shaped by the literary tradition of recent centuries, it is hard to imagine that at one time Christians, like Photius, thought the pictured icon to be “truer” than the written text – a more certain witness to the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Our modern penchant for scholarship has increased this idolization of the text, which, when combined with cultural literalism, proves to be deadly, as St. Paul says. Just read 2 Corinthians 3 in the light of Photius’ idea that the painted text shares in the prototype. Christian don’t have to rely only on a printed text, we have icons – we are icons of God, created in God’s image!

2 Corinthians 3 –

You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men; and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.  . . .  God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life.

St. Paul says the Christian, the disciple is the true scripture because God’s Holy Spirit has written on our hearts.  In the beginning, humans were created in God’s image and likeness – we were created in the image and likeness of the Word of God.  Now God’s spirit writes on our heart, making us visible images of the Word.

Now if the dispensation of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such splendor that the Israelites could not look at Moses’ face because of its brightness, fading as this was, will not the dispensation of the Spirit be attended with greater splendor?  . . .  Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not see the end of the fading splendor. But their minds were hardened; for to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds; but when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

When we turn to the Lord . . . . which we can really do when we turn to look at an icon, we see the splendor of God.  Most miraculous of all is that we can look upon Christ in an icon and we do not have to put on a veil, as Moses did to protect the Israelites from the glory of God shining forth in his face.  And, we are changed by looking at the icon of Christ into His likeness.  This is how the icon serves a better purpose than the scriptures themselves.  The incarnation of Christ our God has changed the very nature of the world.