According to the Seventh Ecumenical Council, “An icon does with color what the Scriptures do with words.” It is a very simple, straightforward explanation of icons – but it holds within it a world of theological understanding. This morning I had opportunity with a visitor of the Church to fall into conversation about the Scriptures. The discussion turned towards the relationship between the Old and New Testament. My point was to underscore the fact that Christians have a radically different understanding of the Old Testament because of Christ. We should believe that He is the meaning of all of the Old Testament Scriptures, and that they cannot be rightly read apart from Him. Further, we believe that the God who makes Himself known in the Old Testament, is indeed the same as the God of the New Testament. The Old Testament is not about “God the Father,” with the New Testament being about “God the Son.” Rather, “No one knows the Father, except the Son.” The manifestation of God in the Old Testament is through His Logos, just as much as it is in the New Testament.
The discussion, for me, finally went beyond what I could say. Instead I took my visitor into the narthex of the Church. On one wall of the narthex at St. Anne’s, there is a large icon of the “Hospitality of Abraham,” which pictures the visit of the three angels to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18. The icon said it all: the central angel’s nimbus (halo) was inscribed with the cross and the traditional “ho on” with the IC XC on the outside – all of which are the traditional identifications of Christ in an icon. Only here was an Old Testament scene.
The “ho on,” itself is a revelation. In the Greek Old Testament, when God reveals His name to Moses He says, “Ego eimi, ho on,” (I am He Who Is). All icons of Christ identify Him with this revelation (as does the frequent use of Ego eimi, “I am”) in the Gospel of John.
But in this Old Testament scene, the Fathers have seen a prefiguring of the Holy Trinity, but not an embodiment of the Father and the Spirit. Simply an angelic visitation that presents Abraham with the Logos of God. There is a strange movement between the language of the three and the language of one. The inference towards Trinity was inescapable for Christians:
And the LORD appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; And he lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground, And said, My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant: Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree: And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and comfort ye your hearts; after that ye shall pass on: for therefore are ye come to your servant. And they said, So do, as thou hast said. And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said, Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes upon the hearth. And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetcht a calf tender and good, and gave it unto a young man; and he hasted to dress it. And he took butter, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat. And they said unto him, Where is Sarah thy wife? And he said, Behold, in the tent. And he said, I will certainly return unto thee according to the time of life; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son. And Sarah heard it in the tent door, which was behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old and well stricken in age; and it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also? And the LORD said unto Abraham, Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying, Shall I of a surety bear a child, which am old? Is any thing too hard for the LORD? At the time appointed I will return unto thee, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son. Then Sarah denied, saying, I laughed not; for she was afraid. And he said, Nay; but thou didst laugh. And the men rose up from thence, and looked toward Sodom: and Abraham went with them to bring them on the way. And the LORD said, Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do; Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment; that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him.
After explaining the meaning of the various items in the icon, my visitor stood quiet for a minute or two. It was clear that he understood it all. “They never told us this,” was his comment. Now they have.