With Faith and Love Draw Near
Reflections by Teva Regule on the Hospitality of Abraham and Sarah for Antiochian Women’s Month on March 26, 2017
These are the words of the celebrant inviting us to communion with God at every Divine Liturgy. In our communal celebration, we offer the symbols of our life to God—bread and wine—and they become for us a means of encountering the risen Christ. It is through the agency of the Holy Spirit that they become icons of Christ, making Christ present to us and allowing us to encounter, and in the spirit of St. John Climacus who we remember today, journey and ascend to the Triune God.
Throughout this month we have been exploring the icons of some of the Feasts of our Lord—His Nativity, Transfiguration and Resurrection. We have seen how icons can tell the story of a Christian event—proclaiming the Gospel in visual form, how they can invite us into prayer, and how they can draw us, and all of creation, into communion with the Triune God. Today, we will conclude our series by exploring one of the icons of Pentecost, variously known as the “Hospitality of Abraham (and Sarah)” or the “Holy Trinity.”
In the early Church, the feast of Pentecost referred to the 50-day period after Pascha of rejoicing in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This period was marked with festivity—singing resurrectional hymns and feasting. There was no fasting or even kneeling in worship. Most of this is still the case today. Even today, the book of hymns for this season is known as the Pentecostarion. It was not until the late 4th – early 5th c. that the fiftieth day—Pentecost Sunday—came to be more associated with the gift of the Holy Spirit. This fulfilled the promise of Jesus that the Father would send a Comforter in His name—the Spirit—who will be with us until the end of the age (Jn. 14:26, Mt. 28:20). Pentecost became the occasion to celebrate the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church and the culmination of the revelation of the Holy Trinity. This revelation is prefigured in the story of the Hospitality of Abraham and Sarah.
Hospitality of Abraham and Sarah
The story of the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah is found in the book of Genesis (18:1–15). In the narrative, three mysterious strangers appear to Abraham at Oak of Mamre. Curiously, however, for most of the encounter they speak with only one voice. Abraham addresses them as one as well, bowing before them and saying, “My Lord….” He offers them water to wash their feet, a place of rest under the tree, and a meal—some bread for refreshment and food from a calf sacrificed for the occasion. In return they reveal to him that God is going to give Abraham and his wife a son, though Sarah was far past childbearing age. This would fulfill the promise that God gave to Abraham—that he would be the father to a great nation—and that the covenant God made with him would an everlasting one, extending through his descendants. (This promise is also mentioned in the Epistle reading for today—Hb. 6:13–20.) From the Christian perspective, this covenant is fulfilled in Jesus Christ and extended through the agency of the Holy Spirit. In the mind of the Church, the presence of the three figures came to be seen as a “type” of Trinity. (In theological terms, a “type” is a pattern or example that foreshadows something that will be fully revealed at another stage.) This story is seen as a type of theophany or a manifestation of God in Trinity to Abraham.
This story and its theological meaning was famously rendered by the late 14th – early 15th c Russian iconographer, Andrei Rublev (~1360–1430), a printed copy of which you have in front of you. (I want to thank Fr. Antony for the use of the icon from which these cards were made.) Ironically, Rublev does not show Abraham and Sarah in the icon, only the three visitors. He depicts them under a tree, sitting around a table with a cup placed before them. Although earlier icons had depicted this scene, Rublev’s decision to present the three figures in the story as a metaphor for the Trinity solidified this interpretation. He depicts the one God as three-persons. It is important to note that this is not a pictorial representation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (As we learned earlier in this series, only the Son can be rendered in human form in the Tradition of the Church.) Rublev’s work can be thought of as an “icon within an icon.” Properly, it is an icon of the three visitors (or, as depicted in the icon, three angels) to Abraham and Sarah. However, through the eyes of faith, it is also a window into the Trinitarian nature of God.
As we see in the icon, Rublev draws each figure, representing each person of the Trinity, similarly. Each is of equal size and shape and they each carry a staff, often a sign of authority, of equal length. The figures are arranged in a triangular manner; an equilateral triangle with its angles extending from the head of the middle figure to the mid-section of each of the other two, showing the equality of their relationship. However, the most prominent geometric shape used in the icon, is the circle. It is used to form the halos around the heads of the figures and, most importantly, to circumscribe them. This form directs our attention more particularly to their unity in community. Their inter-relatedness within this unity is emphasized by the directionality of their eyes; each set is directed toward the other in a counter-clockwise movement. It is as if they are offering themselves to each other, a unity-in-relationship held together by self-offering and shared love. Within this oneness, Rublev uses color to mark the diversity of persons. In addition to being clothed in blue, a color often used to depict divinity, each figure is wearing a distinctive color. The figure on the right is clothed in green, a color of life and regeneration. It can be seen as a type of Holy Spirit. The figure on the left is wearing a robe of (faded) purple, associated with royalty, a type of Father. And the middle figure is clothed in two colors with a stripe of (faded) gold on his shoulder. The stripe echoes the prophecy of Isaiah, referring to the Son, “and the government shall be upon his shoulders” (Isa. 9:6). He is pointing to the cup containing the calf killed by Abraham for his visitors, both drawing our attention to this sacrifice and foreshadowing His own. Moreover, if one traces the interior lines between the figures, one can see that this cup is the center of a larger cup or chalice, the vessel of Christ’s sacrificial love and communion offered to us.
The house over the head of the Father figure has been transformed from the humble tent of Abraham and Sarah to the “Father’s House,” a majestic dwelling with open doors inviting all inside. This invitation is extended to us more boldly at the heart of the icon. We notice that at the center of table there is blank space. This is the spot for us. Rublev uses inverse proportion to invite us to fill this space and join the circle. This is the nature of Divine Life—it both offers and invites communion. In the words of John Baggley, a prominent iconologist, “[T]he unfolding of the Triune nature of God… is a process that enfolds humanity with the divine life.” We are drawn into this circle, the circle of shared love, especially through our participation in the Eucharist. As we can see, this icon is present over the Holy Doors in our church. The table, once a place of Abraham’s hospitality, becomes a place of God’s hospitality to us. Like Abraham, we offer the gifts of our life to God and in return, God, in the words of the Liturgy of Basil, “shows” or reveals them to be, through the power and agency of the Holy Spirit, Life for us. God invites us to share in this Life, the Life of the Trinity—a life of inter-communion and shared love. Let us accept this invitation and with faith and love, draw near.
 John Baggley, Festival Icons for the Christian Year, (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000), 141.