The Hospitality of Abraham

The Bible Study notes by Peter Hall included with last Sunday’s issue of The Lance were, as always, both informative and thought provoking. They considered Genesis 18:6-8, part of the Old Testament Reading for the First Sunday after Trinity. The complete reading tells how The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, and describes how he saw three men standing near him. Abraham at once provides unstinting hospitality to his guests, washing their feet and supervising the preparation and personally serving them a fine and plentiful meal. Abraham is told that even though he and his wife Sarah are advanced in age, she will have a son.

The three men are not described. On meeting them Abraham says “My Lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant.” Their words to him are sometimes spoken by all three – “They said to him …”, but also by one alone – “Then one said …”, a mixture of plural and singular.

In a fascinating book, The Dwelling of the Light by Rowan Williams he describes and explains the imagery in early icons of Christ created in the Orthodox Christian tradition. One of these is the fifteenth-century iconographer Andrei Rublev’s portrayal of “The Hospitality of Abraham”, sometimes referred to as “The Old Testament Trinity”. Rowan Williams notes that it is obviously stretching things rather to approach this as an icon of Christ, but he continues with a carefully considered and revealing commentary.

In the very early Christian Church, this passage in Genesis 18 was taken as a foreshadowing of the revelation of God in three persons – the Trinity. As Rowan Williams notes, the central figure is wearing a tunic of dark red or mulberry and a blue mantle. Over his right shoulder is a vertical stripe, which resembles a deacon’s stole. The figure is therefore dressed as Christ is almost invariably portrayed throughout the centuries of Eastern Christian art. The right hand, held over what appears to be a chalice, has the first two fingers extended in the classical gesture meant to command attention, but is also a gesture identifying someone engaged in teaching.

What is also significant is that none of the figures looks directly forwards at the viewer. The central figure looks towards the figure on the left, who in turn looks across at the figure on the right. The figure on the left looks towards the central figure. As frequently encountered in icons, the eye of the viewer is constantly drawn from one figure to another, connecting them and giving them a distinct unity.

This led me to ponder on the nature of the Trinity in its time before the Incarnation. There is the remarkable passage in John 8: 56-58. Jesus speaking in the temple says, “Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he could see my day; he saw it and was glad.” Then the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” Significantly, Rowan Williams concludes his consideration of this icon by noting that what Rublev does by clothing the central figure with the garments of the incarnate Christ may suggest a particular theological point. Nothing is known of God the Trinity that does not come through the Word incarnate, he states, yet here is the clothing of the historical redeemer worn by a figure more than historical. Is there here, Rowan Williams asks, a reminder of some kind of which we lose a dimension of full understanding if we simply identify the action of the Word with what we know of the historical Jesus?

All this complex theological questioning diverted me from the points that Peter was making in his notes, which concentrated on the very generous nature of Abraham’s hospitality and concluded with three very searching questions:

1. After the lockdown, who will you invite round for a meal? My immediate thought was of my family with whom, before lockdown, we frequently shared meals. A meal with them would restore something of what we’ve missed over recent months. But then I wondered, is there someone we know for whom lockdown has been a far more testing time? – such an invitation could provide something much more restorative.

2. Is it more important to serve or be served? The answer is surely to serve, but are there not times when we need to accept what is generously offered to us by others? At the Last Supper, Jesus prepared to wash the feet of his disciples; Simon Peter could not at first accept this – “You will never wash my feet” he protested. Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” At this Simon Peter relented – “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” (John 13: 8-9).

3. If you were making a meal for God, what would you make? For me, this was the most difficult question of all. The meal would have to be of the very best, but this is unlikely to be the case if I made it myself; my culinary skills are rudimentary – “not so much cordon bleu as cordoned off”, as Les Dawson would have said! The most satisfactory way for me to provide a meal of quality would be to order a take-away! But this would not be offering something I had prepared myself. Perhaps I would need to choose something very simple and have a couple of trial runs ahead of the actual meal. It wouldn’t be haut cuisine, but it would be the best I could provide on my own. I feel that perhaps God would understand this and accept graciously what I had to offer.

Andrew Mayes

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