Saturday, July 10, 2010

Abraham and the Triune God

(I wrote this little piece for a parish newsletter. It's a slight piece, but I hope it contributes to a better understanding and appreciation of the wonderful biblical exegesis of the Fathers.) 

The Old Testament reading (Gen. 18: 1-3) that I took as my material for today's little meditation offers me an opportunity to sketch out a Christ-ological (a fancy theological word; it just means 'things having to do with Christ') reading of the Old Testament. Theology exists, or ought to exist, solely for the purpose of worship. If theological reflection does not lead us to prayer, it has failed in its purpose and should be cast aside as useless, and perhaps even dangerous. But now to the text itself!

“And the LORD appeared unto Abraham in the plains of Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; And he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, behold, three men stood by him. And when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground. And Abraham said, My LORD, if now I have found favor in your sight, pass not away, I pray you, from your servant.”

I suspect that this little drama has largely been passed over in many an individual's reading of Genesis; it's not nearly as well known as the events that follow. But this episode in the life of Abraham is what ancient Christian writers called a 'type.' A 'type' is an event in the Old Testament that foreshadows Christian doctrine. St. Paul uses this kind of interpretation in his letters. For instance, in his Epistle to the Galatians (4:21-31) he adopts Hagar and Sarah as 'types' or symbols of the synagogue and church; early Christians, following the Apostle's lead, enthusiastically adopted his method. Two brief examples: Cyprian, a 3rd century bishop, interpreted Noah's Ark to be a 'type' of the Church (St. Peter in his First Epistle [3:20-21] adopts the Ark as a 'type' of baptism), and Ambrose of Milan, a 4th century bishop and theologian, interpreted the marriage of Rebecca and Isaac as a 'type' of Christ's mystical union with His spouse, the Church. If it helps, you might think of this kind of interpretation as an ancient counterpart to C.S. Lewis' allegorical re-telling of the Christian story in the Chronicles of Narnia. In those wonderful stories, Lewis re-imagines events in the life of Christ and dresses them up in new clothes: he allegor-izes the Christian story, using Aslan and his sacrificial death on the Stone Table to represent the death and resurrection of Christ. For his storytelling, Lewis is beloved of modern Christians. For ancient Christians, the Old Testament was similarly beloved and beloved for similar reasons. There, Christ was always peering out in veiled disguise, preparing the world for his Incarnation.

At Mamre, Abraham, as the Scriptures say, met the Lord. This passage must indeed be puzzling to Jews, but for Christians, it allows but for one interpretation. The Lord, appearing in the guise of three angels, is a 'type' of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. To Abraham, God was One (as He is to millions of Jews and Muslims), but for Christians, that's only true insofar as we believe that God is One in Three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When God revealed Himself to Abraham, He revealed Himself as the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe. But revelation doesn't stop there. It continues with Moses who officiates at God's covenant with Israel, and with her judges, prophets, and priests. But like lightning from a clear sky, the New Testament, the record of Christ's incarnation, earthly ministry, death, and resurrection, reveals that God is not simply and only One; He is a mystery, a communion of three persons, and wonder of wonders, one of those divine persons, the Word, has taken flesh. Furthermore, his Crucifixion and Resurrection have reconciled us to the Father; and His gift of the Holy Spirit ensures the perpetuation of His grace and love in our midst until the end of the world.

Gregory of Nazianzen, a theologian of the 4th century, writes of God's revelation: “It was necessary to proceed by successive perfectings, by 'degrees'; it was necessary to advance from radiance to radiance, through ever more luminous movements of advance, in order that the light of the Trinity might finally be seen to shine forth.” And a modern theologian, Jean Danielou, writes, “The whole history of salvation may be considered as a gradual unveiling of the Trinity.”

When the Lord appeared to Abraham at Mamre, under the guise of three angels, He foreshadows his own revelation of Himself as Three-in-One. But preeminently, we ought to reflect, in this little episode, on Abraham's response: he runs to the Lord, bows down, and does worship. And he asks the Lord to stop with him and feast with him. Not even to Abraham did God confide his entire plan for the salvation of humanity, or the mystery of His own Triune nature, but it is our incomparable gift that we, so much the lesser than Abraham, should worship in spirit and truth the Lord Jesus Christ, the God-Man and the Revealer of God's mysteries. But this knowledge of the Triune God is a gift; we only possess it by virtue of God's own magnanimity, and we only possess it perfectly insofar as we make a gift of it ourselves. Let us too run forth to meet the Lord and bow down.

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