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Praying with Icons: Part 7

With The Rev. Deacon Joe Dzugan

 

November 7th, 2021

Old Testament Trinity

 

The Hospitality of Abraham


The icon called “The Hospitality of Abraham” or “The Old Testament Trinity”, is based on the incident
referred to in Genesis 18: “And the Lord appeared to him (Abraham) by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the
door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front
of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and
said, ‘My Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant’” (Genesis 18:1-3). Abraham
took good care of his guests; he practiced the virtue of hospitality (in Greek ‘philoxenia’) by receiving
strangers in a friendly way. In the letter to the Hebrews, this is commented thus: ‘Do not neglect to show
hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares (Hebrews 13:2).


Sara was told that she should have a son, in spite of her old age. This promise achieved its final
fulfillment in the annunciation of Mary.


According to Orthodox tradition, this event can be interpreted as a prefiguration of the Holy Trinity.
The divine mystery which unfolds in the relationship between the three persons of the Godhead – Father,
Son, and Holy Spirit – was revealed to Abraham in the form of three visitors. In this way, Abraham was given
the privilege of seeing a living image of the Triune God. Man, who was created in the image of the Trinity, is
thus a relational being, created with the ability to go beyond himself and love others.


John of Damascus points out the fundamental difference between God’s being (essence) and his
revealed form (energy) when he says: ‘Abraham did not see the divine nature, for no man has ever seen
God, but he saw an image of God and fell down and worshipped.’


The icon depicts three-winged and richly draped angels who sit at the table. All turn towards three
chalices which are placed in the middle, and they point towards those with their right hands. In their left
hands, they hold pastoral staffs. The central angel sits behind the table so that only the upper part of his
body is visible, while the other two sit on thrones at either side. They rest their feet on a footstool. In
addition to this central group of figures, we see a house, a tree, and a mountain in the background. These
elements are given form which corresponds to the figures in front of them. The figure to the left is
characterized by a vertical posture like the house behind, while the other two bow their bodies lightly and
repeat the curvature of the tree and the mountain. An invisible circle seems to enclose the three figures.


Other versions which emphasize the narrative aspect of the motif, include the servant who kills the
calf and Abraham and Sara who serve the guests. Bodily postures, gestures, and gazes express the continual
and harmonious communication which exists between them. Wings, pastoral staff, and haloes indicate that
Abraham’s guests are heavenly beings. The angel to the left is traditionally identified as the Father – the
source and final goal of all things. The central angel can be identified as the pre-existent Christ because of
the cross in the halo and the conventional inscriptions IC XC. The circular composition enveloping them
symbolizes divine attributes such as what is perfect, absolute, dynamic, self-contained, and infinite.


The depicted event transcends the natural limitations of time and space and contains several levels
of meaning. The gathering around Abraham’s table refers back to a sacred conversation that is thought to
have taken place between the persons in the Trinity once in an unknown, eternal past. The Son points at the
cup of suffering, bends towards the Father, and thus expresses his willingness to be incarnated and restore
mankind. The meal which Abraham prepared for his guests foreshadows the sacrament of the Eucharist,
and the table is the altar where the sacrifice of Christ is commemorated. Furthermore, the event can be seen
as an anticipation of the heavenly meal in the world to come. Historically understood the building behind
the angel to the left is Abraham’s house (or tent). The allegorical meaning of the house can be the body of
Mary which contained God, the appearance of God’s Kingdom through the Church, and the eternal
dwellings Christ has in mind when he says, “In my Father’s house are many rooms” (John 14:2).

 


Likewise, the tree behind Christ can be the oak of Mamre, the tree of the holy cross or the tree of life in
paradise. The mountain can be associated with decisive meetings between God and man both in the Old
and the New Testaments (Sinai, Carmel, Tabor).

Source: The Mystical Language of Icons.


Reflections on the Icon of The Hospitality of Abraham


To most modern Western Christians, probably the best-known and best-loved of all icons is the
fifteenth-century Andrei Rublev’s portrayal of what is often referred to as “The Old Testament Trinity”,
though it is more accurately called by its traditional Eastern name, “The Hospitality of Abraham’. From a
very early date indeed, the story in Genesis 18 of the three angels who visited Abraham by the oaks of
Mamre had been taken by Christians as a foreshadowing of the revelation that God is three agents sharing
one agency, three irreducible “hypostases’ or subsisting realities, and one substance.


The point of all this potentially rather heady vision is, in practical terms, to tell us that the Trinity is
never an object (or a trio of objects!) at a safe distance. Knowing the Trinity is being involved in this circling
movement: drawn by the Son towards the Father, drawn into the Father’s breathing out of the Spirit so that
the Son’s life may be again made real in the world. It is where contemplation and action become
inseparable.
- Rowan Williams, The Dwelling of the Light, pp. 45, 57.


As magnificent as this icon – and this fellowship – is . . . there is something missing.
They’re circling a shared table, and if you look on the front of the table there appears to be a little
rectangular hole painted there. Most people just pass right over it, but art historians say that the remaining
glue on the original icon indicates that there was perhaps once a mirror glued to the front of the table!


If you don’t come from an Orthodox, Catholic, or Anglican background, this might not strike you as
odd, but you should know that this is a most unusual feature of an icon. One would normally not put a real
mirror on the front of a holy icon. If so, it is entirely unique and courageous.


This might have been Rublev’s final design flourish. Or maybe it was added later – we’re not sure.
But can you imagine what its meaning might be?
It’s stunning when you think about it – there was room at this table for a fourth.
The observer. You!
- Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance, pp. 30-31.


If one were to search for a single word to describe the icon, it is the word ‘Love.” The Holy Trinity
itself is a community of love so perfect that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one. All creation is a
manifestation of God’s love. The Incarnation of Christ is an act of love as is every word and action that
follows, even if at times it is what Dostoevsky calls “a harsh and dreadful love.” Christ’s acceptance of
condemnation and execution witnesses to the self-giving nature of love. His Resurrection is a sign of the
power of love to defeat death. Christ invites each of us to participate in the love and mercy of God. “Love is
the measure,” said St. John of the Cross, “according to which we will be judged.”


“Of all the philosophical proofs of the existence of God,” wrote the priest and scientist Pavel
Florensky, who died a martyr’s death in the Stalin era, “that which carries the most conviction is not
mentioned in any textbook. It may be summarized as follows: “Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon exists, therefore
God exists.”
- Jim Forest, Praying with Icons, pp. 99-100.

 

“Praying with Icons”, Deacon Joe Dzugan, St. Francis Episcopal Church, 2021.

Posted by Mark Hamby at 6:30 AM
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