Journey through salvation history to understand the pre-lenten seasons.
For Judeo-Christians of the first centuries, all salvation history hinged upon Jesus’s identity as
“Angel of Great Counsel” (LXX Isaiah 9:6). The Emmanuel Moleben celebrated in Byzantine churches takes its biblical inspiration from readings in the Byzantine lectionary (i.e. “the Apostlic reading” and Gospel). Byzantine Christians have an advantage of using the ancient Greek translation of Old Testament called “the Septuagint” (abbreviated LXX). This text is essential for understanding nearly every New Testament citation from the Jewish Bible. Even Jesus’s Nativity is the fulfillment of the terms of prophecy from the Greek Bible.
To start, LXX Gen 3:15 mentioned the relatively strange prophecy that one day a woman would produce from her own seed (not Adam’s!) a child who would crush the head of the serpent: “[o Satan,] I will put enmity between ‘the woman’ and her seed; He (the fruit of her loins) will watch [to strike] your head and you his heel.” Otherwise, both Testaments are generally concerned with “male seed” or children of patriarchs’ loins. In preparation for the Great Fast, I would like to journey with you through salvation history to understand the Pre-Lenten seasons
as a dramatic anticipation of the Great and Holy Week and Pascha.
I warmly challenge my readers to pick up the Bible to accompany me down the prophetic journey that the Byzantine lectionary and hymns of the Divine Praises, preserving authentic interpretations of the olden prophecies of Jesus’s coming.
Firstly, I recount the role of “the Angel of Lord” in the Old Testament. Before the Incarnation, Jesus was not yet flesh. However, after he had already come, he instructed the people that he’d already been around for eternity. Recall that “Angel of the Lord” is almost always ‘code’ for saying God-appearing-in-disguise. At creation, in Genesis 1:2–3, the Word of the Lord and his Spirit descended into a vault filled with water. By touching water, life came out. Note the Father “sending” out his Word and his Spirit cooperating with the Father’s Word. This vault is strangely like a womb. In fact, Mary’s womb admits two divine beings similarly to descend there to bring
about a miraculous kind of life never before seen. Additionally, the Word of the Lord came to Noah (Genesis, chapters 5 to 6) in a command to him, like Yahweh commanding that creation be made earlier in Genesis. At God’s word, Noah was inspired to send out a dove over water to confirm the beginning of a new creation. Once we see Yahweh’s pattern is to send his Word, which in turns sends his Spirit, then we see the entire pattern of God’s action in the universe and in the sacraments, especially as noticed by the holy Fathers.
For today, this pattern allows us to arrive at Abraham’s anticipation of a miraculous birth of some kind of angelic or heavenly being to save God’s people. We begin at Genesis chapter 18. Abraham, as in Rublev’s famous icon of the Trinity, encounters three humanlike angels, or are they? The sacred writer switches from referring to the angels in the singular, as Yahweh, then in the plural. Here, God hints at his incomprehensibility. Abraham sees three beings, Father, Son, and Spirit, anticipating the Story of St. Paul’s Christian initiation, or process of baptism in Acts chapters 8 to 9.
When Abraham saw the Lord (three angels), he fell down prostrate, just like the conversion of Paul at the divine light of Jesus on the road to Damascus. Next, like the ceremony of Jesus at the Last Supper — signifying the baptism of the Apostles — Abraham washes the feet of the angels, for Jesus was himself baptized and ate the Last Supper. Finally, Abraham brings the angels three loaves of bread. So, too, Paul’s conversion includes ritual washing and eating immediately following. We should notice that Jesus actually claimed that Abraham had actually seen Jesus “and was glad” (John 8:56). Jesus was quite serious.
Recall, Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to Abraham’s Sarah who made three loaves (for the Father, Son, and Spirit): “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened” (Matthew 13:33). However, to understand Sarah’s prefiguring of Mary and the Angel of Good Counsel born of her, we’ll have to pick up on Genesis chapter 18 in the next installment!
by Father Christiaan Kappes,
Director of Intellectual Formation/
Academic Dean, Byzantine Catholic
Seminary of SS. Cyril and Methodius