By Archbishop Nathaniel (Lvov)
This coming Sunday (Dec 12/25), the second preceding the great feast of our Lord’s Nativity, will be the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers — when the Church commemorates all the righteous ones of the Old Testament who prepared Israel for the coming of the Messiah. Here, we offer this reflection on three of these figures in particular: the Righteous Abraham and the Prophets Moses and Elijah. This article first appeared in English in Orthodox Life Vol. 66.5 as – An Orthodox Life staff translation from: Homilies and Discourses on Holy Scripture, on Faith and on the Church. by Archbishop Nathaniel (Lvov). Vol.1. Published in Russian by the Russian Orthodox Youth Committee, Baldwin Place, New York, 1991.
It is possible to trace mankind’s gradual development and preparedness for salvation by sequentially considering three historical epochs, each associated with a significant personage of the Old Testament: Patriarch Abraham, the God-seer Moses and the Prophet Elijah.
The Patriarch Abraham
St Basil the Great relates that he could never view the depiction of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac without shedding tears. Truly, the soul cannot help but be filled with great admiration when it contemplates the moral image of the righteous Abraham in this scene.
By a single word of the Lord, Abraham leaves his native city, Ur in Chaldea, a blossoming cultural center, full of all matter of earthly comforts and everything which should provide enjoyment in life. He travels to a far, wild country which the Lord promises to give to him and his progeny. And in thee shall all the tribes of the earth be blessed (Gen. 12:3, LXX). Abraham, still childless, answers God with some bitterness: Master and Lord, what wilt Thou give me? Whereas I am departing without a child, but the son of Masek my home-born female slave, this Eliezer of Damascus is mine heir. I am grieved that since Thou hast given me no seed, but my home-born servant shall succeed me. (Gen. 15:2–3, LXX). Abraham undertakes this feat exclusively out of love and obedience to God.
What fervent and infinite love for his long awaited legitimate son Isaac fills this powerfully righteous patriarch! This love is all-encompassing: it is not merely the natural attachment of a father to his son, but also the joyful, triumphant contemplation of the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s promises which were to be realized through this son. Thus, in Abraham’s love toward Isaac we see the origin of the elements of the most perfect love which can be engendered on this earth, which will manifest itself two thousand years after Abraham’s time through his most blessed granddaughter, with respect to her own Son and God.
It is this son, whom he loves so completely, that Abraham leads to sacrifice, ready to give up to the Lord God the one whom he loves more than anything else in the universe. Moreover, this determination to sacrifice him according to God’s command is not simply a passing flight of emotion, a brief firing up of the imagination. Abraham and Isaac walk three days to the place of sacrifice; the father’s agony and his readiness for this terrible feat lasts seventy-two hours! Surely there can be no heart so stony that it does not tremble when carefully reading this Biblical account.
Abraham is destined for the greatest glory possible to man through this sacrifice. According to the view of the Church, he becomes the prefiguration of the Almighty God the Father, Who vouchsafes to sacrifice His only Begotten Son for the salvation of mankind. And the meek Isaac, carrying the pile of firewood on his back upon which he is to be sacrificed, who humbly questions his father and allows himself to be tied without murmuring, becomes the prefiguration of Christ the Savior.
The first humans sinned through disobedience; this great feat of Abraham and Isaac gloriously and powerfully conquers disobedience. Mankind rises to the highest step of obedience dictated out of pure love for God—this characteristic which the Lord had intended to develop in man when He gave him the initial commandments. For He created man for growth in obedience and love—the God-like qualities which Jesus Christ would so fruitfully exhibit on earth at a time which was yet to come.
Truly our salvation is not wrought by the Lord without us, but makes those faithful to Him participants in His providence.
However, we have the right to ask: if Abraham’s sacrifice drew him to such spiritual heights, why was he only a prefiguration of the Lord; why was he not a witness of the Incarnation and actual salvation of mankind? Why did the Lord not hasten to the mountain of Moriah where this sacrifice took place, as He later descended upon the room at Nazareth and the cave of Bethlehem? Why did people have to wait painstakingly for His actual coming for over two thousand years?
To our sorrow, in order to answer this question we must acknowledge how Patriarch Abraham, despite his ascent to such heights, was prone to slip ups and weaknesses. We see that even before the birth of Isaac, on two occasions, Abraham hides behind his wife Sarah because of his fear of the Egyptians and Abimelech. His fear is so great that he is ready to give her up, the one who shares in his greatest and holiest of struggles. He is likewise ready to lead his entire nation into dire sin and subject them all to the wrath of God (Gen XII, 11–12 and XX). We see Abraham after the death of his wife taking pleasure with his second wife, Keturah.
May no pen or tongue accuse this, the greatest and holiest of patriarchs. Yet we understand that it is on account of these moral slips and human weaknesses that the Lord was unable to fully unite with him and make him a co-sharer of Divine life. We see that the human essence within Abraham had not yet matured enough to perceive Godliness. Yet Abraham more than anyone participated in the preparation of mankind for the acceptance of the Lord, in the process of growth toward the possibility of the Divine becoming incarnate. Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day; and he saw it, and was glad, said Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham (John 8:56 and Matthew 1:1).
The Prophet Moses
The Lord spoke to Abraham in a vision at night (Gen XV, 1) and appeared to him in the form of Three Strangers. Meanwhile, before the fall, men were able to speak to God face to face. They knew Him as an individual because man’s very purpose was to love and obey Him. So it was necessary that prior to the coming of the Lord into the world the possibility of knowing, seeing and recognizing God be returned to them.
For this purpose the Lord calls one of the descendants of Abraham, the righteous Moses, who is filled with such love for his kinsfolk, the coinheritors of the promise, that he forsakes the earthly glorious position of an adopted son of the princess, daughter of Pharaoh, as something contemptible, undeserving of any attention. He intercedes for an offended kindred Israelite and flees from Egypt. If in Abraham we see the height of Old Testament love for God, then in Moses we note an equal love for Him, along with the incarnation of the second half of God’s basic commandment: the height of love towards neighbor as to oneself.