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Laying the Groundwork for the Salvation of Mankind

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.

Greek Orthodox icon of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac.
Abra­ham pre­pares the sac­ri­fice of Isaac

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
Orthodox icon of Moses at the Burning Bush.
God appears to Moses in the Burn­ing Bush

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.