Friday, June 30, 2006

Theophanies

Our liturgical typikon offers an option for a cycle of readings from the Syro-Antiochean tradition, to be used at Vespers every Saturday evening. Sometimes they seem to be a more or less random selection, but recently we hit the jackpot with three readings, all of which described important theophanies of the Old Testament.

The recipients of these divine manifestations were Abraham, Moses, and Isaiah. The first occurs in Genesis 18. This has often been interpreted as a prefiguration of the mystery of the Holy Trinity: “The Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre… behold, three men stood in front of him.” So the Lord appeared as three men. This passage is the inspiration for Andre Rublev’s famous symbolic icon of the Trinity. There were no stunning manifestations here, only a prophecy that was fulfilled in Sarah’s giving birth to Isaac.

The next theophany was more mysterious; it was that of Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush on Mt Sinai (Exodus 3). Here God appeared not in the form of men but in the form of fire. During this encounter Moses received his mission to be God’s instrument for delivering his people from bondage. The fathers of the Church have also seen in this theophany a foreshadowing of the mystery of the Mother of God: as the bush burned with divine fire but was not consumed, so Mary received the Fire of the incarnate God into her womb—and lived to tell the tale!

The theophany that Isaiah experienced was a vision of heavenly glory (Isaiah 6). He saw the Lord exalted upon his throne and surrounded by six-winged seraphim singing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts…” This is the most stunning and explicit of all these theophanies, for the vision of God was not veiled or presented in an image like fire, but Isaiah could exclaim: “My eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” This theophany, like the one to Moses, also communicated a mission: “Go, and say to this people…”

What can all this mean to us who rarely, if ever, have visions of God? First of all, it may tell us that we might be having experiences of God without even being fully aware of it. Abraham didn’t realize that it was the Lord who had visited him until the prophecy came true. So it is wise to be welcoming to strangers! “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2).

We should also realize that God’s manifestations are not granted simply to dazzle us (though sometimes they do anyway), but to communicate his will to us. Abraham, Moses, and Isaiah were called to important roles in God’s unfolding plan of revelation and salvation, and so they were given special experiences to strengthen them to fulfill their callings.

The entire New Testament should be a kind of theophany for us. God manifests Himself through his Word made flesh, and through his Holy Spirit his will is made known to us. The accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are revealed to us. And we learn, among other things, that God “chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. He destined us in love to be his children through Jesus Christ…” (Ephesians 1:4-5). To be chosen and loved by God from all eternity, and adopted as his own children, is better than seeing a burning bush! The sacraments are meant to be theophanies as well, manifesting the presence and communicating the grace of God to us. Much has been given to us, and much more awaits us if we persevere in seeking the face of God.

So let us not complain if we don’t have powerful visions of God like Moses or Isaiah. Let us rather realize that the glory of God is all around us and even within us, as we walk in faith, receive Jesus’ word and his body and blood. With open eyes, ears, and hearts, let us go forth in peace in the name of the Lord. There’s so much He wants to show us!