The Hospitality of Abraham: From Christ to Trinity

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Mosaic from the Papal basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, c. 5th century

In our previous post, we found that the earliest understanding of the story of the Hospitality of Abraham was that the three visitors were angels. It didn’t take long for interpretation of this story to develop.

Saint Justin expresses an alternative view in his Dialog with Trypho. Trypho believes, as do his contemporary Jewish brethren, that God spoke to Abraham immediately prior to the appearance of the three visitors and that the visitors were merely angels. Justin argues directly from the Scriptures “that one of the three, who is both God and Lord, and ministers to Him who is in the heavens, is Lord of the two angels.”1 Justin understands the central figure of the triad to be the Son of God and those accompanying him to be angels. Saint Irenaeus corroborates Justin’s position, asserting that “two of the three were angels; but one was the Son of God…”2

Though Novatian apostatized, he provides witness to the fact that Justin’s view on Abraham’s visitation persisted in the third century. In his Treatise on the Trinity he writes, “It was not the Father, then, who was a guest with Abraham, but Christ. Nor was it the Father who was seen then, but the Son; and Christ was seen.”3

Saint Ephraim the Syrian provides fourth century confirmation of the Christological understanding of the three persons. In his commentary on Genesis he explains, “Therefore, the Lord, who had just appeared to him at the door of the tent, now appeared to Abraham clearly in one of the three.”4

While the earliest view may have been purely angelological, the bulk of the patristic witness up to this point seems to have been consistently Christological. The Church’s understanding of this theophany seems to begin evolving later in the fourth century as both Saints Ambrose and Augustine begin to see this triad as a type of the Holy Trinity.

Saint Ambrose explicitly recognizes that the appearance of the three is a type. He also perceives Trinitarian significance in the cardinalities of both the sacrifice and the gifts offered to the three.

Abraham… saw the Trinity in a type… beholding Three he worshipped One, and preserving the distinction of the Persons, yet addressed one Lord, he offered to Three the honour of his gift, while acknowledging one Power… and so he sees Three, but worships the Unity. He brings forth three measures of fine meal, and slays one victim, considering that one sacrifice is sufficient, but a triple gift; one victim, an offering of three.5

Saint Augustine followed his mentor in a similar vein, asserting more resolutely that the presence of God in the three visitors was typological. Justin had earlier argued that one of the three was Christ as evidenced by the fact that Abraham addressed the three as one. Augustine argues, specifically countering Justin’s argument, that no particular person of the three was Christ, but all three were angels. He observes that the same phenomenon occurred when Lot addressed only two as one while the third remained with Abraham. Augustine supports an iconic presence, arguing that:

This makes it much more credible that both Abraham in the three men and Lot in the two recognized the Lord, addressing Him in the singular number, even when they were addressing men… Yet there was about them something so excellent, that those who showed them hospitality as men could not doubt that God was in them as He was wont to be in the prophets…6

In our next post, we will examine a more refined expression of this understanding in the writings of Saints Cyril and Maximus.


1 Justin Martyr, ‘Dialog with Trypho’, trans. Messrs. Dods and Reith, in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.viii.iv.lvi.html) , ed. Philip Schaff, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Calvin College, ch. 56.

2 Peter Kirby. “A Discourse in Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching,” in Early Christian Writings (http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/demonstrationapostolic.html) .

3 Novatian, ‘A Treatise of Novatian Concerning the Trinity,’ trans. Rev. Robert Ernest Wallis, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf05.vi.iii.xix.html) , ed. Philip Schaff, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Calvin College, ch. 18.

4 Saint Ephraim the Syrian, ‘Selected Prose Works,’ trans. Edward G. Matthews, Jr. and Joseph P. Amar, in The Fathers of the Church, ed. Kathleen McVey (Catholic Univ of Amer Pr 1994), v. 91, s. 15, pars. 1, p. 158.

5 Saint Ambrose of Milan, ‘Selected Works and Letters,’ trans. The Rev. H. De Romestin, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, volume 10, (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf210.iv.iii.iii.html#iv.iii.iii-p203) , ed. Philip Schaff, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Calvin College,  pars. 96.

6 Saint Augustine, ‘The City of God,’ trans. Rev. Marcus Dods, D.D., in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 1, Volume 2 (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf102.iv.XVI.29.html) , ed. Philip Schaff, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Calvin College, Book 16, ch. 29.

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The Hospitality of Abraham: Intro

rublev_troitsaHaving wrapped up my diatribe on the Ark of the Covenant and its typology, I thought it might be worth a short series focusing on the typology attached to the story of Abraham’s hospitality. The typology follows a pattern similar to that of the Ark and might help to deepen our understanding of how typology develops within the Church.

What Orthodox person has not experienced Saint Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity? This icon is a depiction of the three visitors in the Genesis 18 story of Abraham’s hospitality, but to the nominal Orthodox person the icon itself may be the sole witness to Abraham’s encounter with God at Mamre. And yet, Saint Constantine considered the event to be so important that he ordered a temple to be erected near the famous oak tree at Mamre.1

While the icon may be the strongest witness experienced during the course of life in the church, a long patristic tradition witnesses to an image of God in the threefold visitation of Abraham. A prominent, though subtle, witness exists in the liturgical cycle of the church. The bulk of this short study will focus on the ‘Great Conversation’ of the Fathers, moving on to a short overview of the liturgical expression, and a brief analysis of Rublev’s icon and the related tradition.

Perhaps the earliest Christian understanding of Genesis 18 is that all three of the visitors in the story were angels. Saint Paul suggests this in his Letter to the Hebrews when he admonishes, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2 KJV).2

In the next post in this series we will follow a shift from this angelological understanding to a more Christocentric understanding.


1 Sozomen, ‘The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen,’ revised by Chester D. Hartranft, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, Volume 2 (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf202.iii.vii.iv.html) , ed. Philip Schaff, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Calvin College, Book 2, ch. 4.

2 Gabriel Bunge, “The Rublev Trinity,” trans. Andrew Louth, (Yonkers: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press 2007), p. 46.

Judith: Chapter 6 Commentary

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Achior liberated by the Israelites (c. 1430), Azor Masters

I have finished translating chapter 6 of the commentary on the Book of Judith by the Blessed Rabanus Maurus.

In chapter 6, Achior, the pagan who told Holofernes about Israel’s God in the previous chapter, is taken by Holofernes’ men to be delivered to the Children of Israel at the town of Bethulia. During their approach the Israelites send out slingers to drive away Holofernes’ men. The men, concerned for their own safety, elect not to deliver Achior directly to the Israelites and instead tie him to a tree and escape.

Abp. Rabanus interprets this allegorically as usual, explaining it this way:

The servants of Holofernes lead the apprehended Achior through the plains, whereas the persecutors of the Catholic Faith desire to drag the confessor of Christ to illicit desires and to the wide and spacious way of the age, which leads to death (cf. Mt 7:13); but when they come near the mountains, the slingers, having come out against them, put the terrified to flight with darts; because men of virtue, who more frequently adhere to contemplation of the supernal, confound the malevolent ones with arrows of the divine testimonies.

Rabanus draws parallels between very simple elements of the story and practical elements of our ordinary lives. The picture of a man being dragged by soldiers across a broad plain is likened to the temptation to succumb to sinful desires, while the slingers are likened to one who is very familiar with the Scriptures, and, like Christ in the wilderness, is ready to quote Scripture to the devil.

Furthermore, because these men are unable to lead Achior into sin, they seek, metaphorically, to cause him physical suffering.

But those, while they are unable to bring their commitment to completion, determine to tie the captive to a tree hand and foot; because they are unable to seduce the soldier of Christ through depraved persuasion, they contend to make him a participant in His cross and death, and themselves return to their master, because they are not corrected, but through an increase of wicked deeds they return even more depraved into the service of their original master.

The last part of the chapter speaks of the freeing of Achior and the hospitality of the town of Bethulia, a topic left to the reader.

The Ark: Conclusions

This is our final post in the series about how the Church views the Ark of the Covenant. In our previous post, we did some analysis on how the typology developed over time. Here I will share some thoughts on the implications of the fully developed typology. What does it mean?

As Robert Pirsig notes in the popular treatment of philosophy, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,

all you’ve got to work with is what you know. So your definition is made up of what you know. It’s an analogue to what you already know. It has to be. It can’t be anything else. And the mythos grows this way. By analogies to what is known before. The mythos is a building of analogues upon analogues upon analogues. These fill the collective consciousness of all communicating mankind. Every last bit of it.1

This mythos underlies the fabric of human consciousness. In the case of the nation of Israel, the relics and stories of the Old Testament formed a large component of the mythos that was woven into the collective consciousness. God, as the author of history, often writes history in such a way that it develops within the mythos the things that will be necessary to help understand and articulate what is to come. This mythos, as the collection of what early Jewish Christians knew, formed the basis of new definitions and a deepening articulation of the gospel in the patristic age.

But typology is more than just a method of definition. I suggest that typology is akin to what C. S. Lewis calls myth. Lewis believed that myth is somewhere between the intellectual and the purely experiential. In traditional usage, memory and imagination are aspects of abstract intellectual thought. Unseen Warfare explains that “imagination is a power of the soul such that, by its very nature, it has no capacity for entering the realm of union with God.”2 It follows that purely intellectual endeavors have no capacity for entrance into a direct experience of God. On the other hand, pure experience does not bring understanding. Lewis advocated myth as a partial solution to this problem. He posited that, “In the enjoyment of a great myth we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction.”3 In a sense myth, and perhaps typology, can be seen to bridge the spiritual and the intellectual.

This way of defining what the Holy Virgin is is a tool to help us understand, not only on an intellectual level, but on a spiritual level as well. Likewise, though the Church emphasizes it less, talking about the Ark as a type of Christ teaches us certain things about Christ on both a spiritual and intellectual level. Neither typology is wrong per se, but the Church, in her wisdom, has chosen to emphasize the Ark as a type of the Theotokos.

The understanding conveyed by typology cannot be obtained through an intellectual discourse such is this. We can certainly discuss aspects of its meaning, but it must be experienced. Perhaps the best place to begin an experience of this typology is participation in the feasts of the Church. As Saint Jerome extended the metaphor of the Ark to the monastic life, the late Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko extended the metaphor to everyone.  In his discussion of the feasts he explains:

Thus, the feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple is the feast which celebrates the end of the physical temple in Jerusalem as the dwelling place of God. When the child Mary enters the temple, the time of the temple comes to an end and the “preview of the good will of God” is shown forth. On this feast we celebrate-in the person of Christ’s mother-that we too are the house and tabernacle of the Lord.4


1 Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, (New York, NY: HarperTorch, 2006), Ch. 28.

2Lorenzo Scupoli, ‘Unseen Warfare,’ trans. E. Kadloubovsky & G. E. H. Palmer (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1987), p. 148.

3 S. Lewis, ‘Myth Became Fact’.

4 Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko, The Orthodox Faith, volume 2, (https://oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/worship/the-church-year/entrance-of-the-theotokos-to-the-temple).

Blessing the Waters

20170116_113258Given my general focus on typology on this blog, I thought it apropos to say something about the typology evident in the Orthodox feast of Holy Theophany (our parish’s patronal feast), or Christ’s baptism. Today our family made the trek with many others from our parish to the continental divide at Monarch Pass to participate in the blessing of the waters that traditionally follows the feast. It was rather cold and blustery, but a blessing that extends to both sides of the continent. The water blessing typically takes place on the day of the feast, but we delayed this particular event to make it easier for more to attend.

A glimpse of the magnitude interdependence between the two Testaments can be experienced through even a cursory examination of the feast of Holy Theophany, since so many Old Testament types foreshadow baptism. Saint Mark’s account of Christ’s baptism sets the stage for the blessing of the waters following the Divine Liturgy. Leading up to the blessing, prophecies from the book of Isaiah proclaim the coming of the Messianic age, repeatedly employing the imagery of water satiating the thirst of that which is dry, transforming deserts into oases.

Immediately before the enactment of the blessing, we encounter four Old Testament types prefiguring the baptism of our Lord.

You are our God, who drowned sin in the waters at the time of Noah.

You are our God, who in the sea, and at the hands of Moses, delivered the Hebrews from the bondage of Pharaoh.

You are our God who cleaved the rock in the wilderness, so that the waters gushed out, and the streams overflowed, and your thirsty people were satisfied.

You are our God who, with fire and water and at the hands of Elijah, delivered Israel from the errors of Baal.1

These verses awaken the memory of the previous night’s services (usually) incorporating Old Testament passages that illustrate some of these and other types in detail. For instance, excerpts from Exodus 14 portray the miraculous Israelite crossing of the sea and the devastating destruction of their Egyptian pursuers in the waters of the sea, clearly in agreement with Saint Gregory’s typology in The Life of Moses. The story of the Prophet Elias defeating the prophets of Baal is conveyed through the reading of 1 Kings 18:30-39.2

screen-shot-2017-01-16-at-3-00-54-pmDuring these evening services, the reality of Theophany is explicitly connected with the events described in these ancient Scriptures by the Apostle Paul:

Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; And did all eat the same spiritual meat; And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ (1 Corinthians 10:14).

Recalling the day’s Liturgical Epistle reading of Titus 2:11-14, we learn of the consequences of Theophany. God came to earth so “that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.” It seems that the Old Testament foretells the event, the Gospel narrates the event itself, while the Epistle exposes the outcome.3

Finally, when the celebrant enacts the blessing upon the water, he immerses the Cross into the water three times (ok, ours was snow), evoking the reading of Exodus 15 from the previous evening telling the story of the waters of Marah. The wood that sweetened the waters of Marah clearly foreshadows the wood of the cross and the cleansing of the water in Christ’s baptism. But the act also typifies Christ’s baptism and unites the types and their antetype into a single physical action, immersing the participants in a direct experiential encounter with the reality.

The Church, in the troparion of the feast and in the icon of the feast, elucidates the ultimate revelation of Theophany. The Trinity, which we saw foreshadowed in Elijah’s threefold baptism of his sacrifice, is fully apprehended in both the icon and the Troparion, clearly portraying the Gospel event. The icon depicts the glory of the Father sending down the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove to Christ who stands in the Jordan, the river parted so many times by Christ himself. The troparion makes the understanding explicit:

When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan the worship of the Trinity was made manifest! For the voice of the Father bare witness to Thee, calling Thee his Beloved Son. And the Spirit, in the form of a dove, confirmed the truthfulness of his Word. O Christ our God, who hast revealed Thyself and hast enlightened the world, glory to Thee.4

In this feast Old Testament passages are used in multiple ways. We experience prophecy or promise, as in the Prophecies of Isaiah, pointing to the fulfillment in the Baptism of Christ and in our own baptisms in Christ. We also experience the antetype through a rich portrayal of Old Testament types, partly in the words of the blessing itself, but more fully in the prior evening’s services. Gospel passages portray the antetype itself and Epistle readings explicitly connect the types with their antetype in order to provide clarity. The Epistle readings also help to explain the consequences of Theophany. Finally, all are united experientially in the liturgical action of the blessing of the waters and in the depiction of the event in the Holy Icon.

The Gospel seems to be the vortex around which all other scriptures swirl. The event of Theophany impacts both the past and the future, sending ripples in all directions through the fabric of space-time. The experience of the feast itself is outside of time and we experience it through direct participation.


1 John Sanidopoulos, “The Theophany Sanctification Prayer of St. Sophronios of Jerusalem”, Mystagogy: The Weblog of John Sanidopoulos (http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2011/01/theophany-sanctification-prayer-of-st.html) .

2 “Readings for Theophany – January 6”, Byzantine Catholic Church in America (http://www.byzcath.org/etc/Theophany_Readings.pdf) .

3 Fr. Thomas Hopko, “Epiphany”, in The Orthodox Faith: Volume II – Worship (http://oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/worship/the-church-year/epiphany) .

4 Ibid.

The Ark: Typological Development

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Iconography in the Apse of Holy Theophany Church in Colorado Springs.

We are beginning to wrap up our ongoing discussion of how the Church views the Ark of the Covenant. We have covered many concrete examples and are now embarking on some analysis of what we have learned.

We have traced how the people of God have understood the ark from its very beginning to its contemporary expression within the Church. We have examined how the Ark was built and we followed its life in Israel up until its disappearance. Subsequently, we examined possible midrashic traditions latent in Scripture that typologically identify the Ark with the Holy Virgin. We examined so-called apocryphal literature that provides useful clues. We traced the great conversation of the Holy Fathers on this topic through the first seven centuries. And finally, we examined the expression of the Ark’s typology in the life of the Church: its iconography, services, and hymnology.

In this particular case study, and perhaps others, we find a distinct pattern. First, the subject of typological interest comes into existence. In our case, the Ark is explicitly “spec’d out” by God himself and is then constructed under the guidance of the Prophet Moses. The Ark gains a certain mystique throughout its developing life among the people of Israel, becoming a key emblem or meme in the mythos of the nation of Israel. Whether we are talking about a physical artifact such as the Ark or a story such as Abraham’s hospitality to his three visitors (a topic for an upcoming series of posts), the type follows this same path.

The next step is the Gospel. Saint Paul alludes to the application of forward looking typology to the Old Testament, saying, “For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect” (Hebrews 10:1). In our specific case, it is affirmed by Saint John Damascene as noted earlier. The Gospel becomes the lens that we use to interpret the ancient types, but the interpretation does not necessarily become clear immediately, as in our case.

Clearly, given the fact that accounts of the Gospel and other contemporaneous events were recorded significantly later, either an oral tradition or long lost documents carry the stories forward in time until they are written down. Interpretations may grow organically within this mix, as hypothesized by Laurentin and others, influencing the recording of Scripture and other writings.

We begin to truly see the application of typology surface in the writings of the Holy Fathers, where it develops through the centuries. As the present author might observe from a similar study of the typology attached to the story of the Hospitality of Abraham, a turning point in the application of the typology seems to sometimes occur during the third or fourth centuries. It is probably not coincidental that this was a time of great upheaval and development within the church, owing to the occurrence of many heresies and the refining of doctrinal articulation that was carried out by the great ecumenical councils. In our case we see a transition from a clearly Christocentric typology of the Ark to its identification with the Holy Virgin Mary (the shift seems to happen somewhere between Saint Dionysius and Saint Athanasius). While both typological traditions may have coexisted from very early times, the Church shifted emphasis from one to the other as its understanding deepened.

The title Theotokos is not truly rooted in Mariology, but in Christology. It does honor to the Theotokos by recognizing her role in the incarnation, but she is called the God Bearer not due to her own nature, but because of the nature of her son. The ecumenical councils sought to clarify the nature of Jesus Christ and this clarification shone light also upon the role of Mary, which may have influenced how the Church viewed the typology of Mary and of the Ark.

After the conciliar age, the typology seems to stabilize and we see it becoming part of Orthodox praxis in the services of the Church as described above. Iconography finally incorporates the typology and we not only hear it in the hymnology, but see it on the walls of the church. In the end, lex orandi, lex credendi: the law of praying is the law of believing.

Here we have discussed the implications of theological/typological development within the church. In our next post in this series, we will discussion the implications of the fully developed typology.

The Ark: Iconography

In our ongoing discussion of how the Church treats the Ark of the Covenant, we have covered a lot of ground. We have examined the Old and New Testaments, apocryphal works, the writings of the Holy Fathers, and Liturgical treatment of the Ark. In this installment, we will discuss how the Ark is portrayed in the iconography of the Church. This will be the final installment in which we explore concrete examples. Subsequent posts will focus on a discussion of the impact of what we have learned.

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screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-9-36-39-amIconography depicting the Ark almost universally incorporates an emblem of the Theotokos upon the Ark itself. In the 16th century icon of the exaltation of the Ark by Master Theophane of Crete above, you see a circular emblem depicting the Theotokos both on the end of the Ark and at the end of the table upon which the Ark rests. You can see a closeup of the emblem on the Ark at right.

In the icon below depicting Uzzah dying, you can again see the emblem of the Theotokos on the end of the Ark. Uzzah is lying on the ground off to the side of the Ark after he incorrectly touched the Ark. To the left, King David dances before the Ark.

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In a much clearer illustration of the typology, the French icon by Agnes Glichitch of David dancing before the ark on the right portrays the Theotokos very prominentldaviddansant-08y over the center of the Ark.

In the apse above the altar of Holy Theophany Orthodox Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado (my home parish), is an icon of the Most Holy Theotokos depicted in her role as Ark. Portrayed in the photo below, you can see the angels on either side, just as they were in the Mosaic Ark, along with the Mother of God in the center. Just as in Moses’ time God’s presence rested on the mercy seat above the Ark, His presence sits upon His mother. The icon is located immediately above the high place in the sanctuary just as the Old Testament Ark resided in the most holy place of the temple.

 

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screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-9-55-12-amThe photo on the right from the Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church in Chicago quite stunningly and very unambiguously illustrates this typology, representing the divine presence as the radiant circle in the heart of the virgin, just as she bore and bears the Word of God within her. This circle is where the Holy Eucharist is reserved.

In our next installment in this series, we will discuss the development of the typology of the Ark of the Covenant from its beginning to today and the implications of how it has developed.