Some Historical Background from the Old Testament

Some Historical Background from the Old Testament

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Listen Now. We will now be including the daily reading of Epistle and Gospel with The Prayer Team.

For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and one by a free woman.  But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, the son of the free woman through promise.  Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants.  One is form Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar.  Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.  But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.  For it is written, “Rejoice O barren one who does not bear; break forth and shout, you who are not in travail; for the children of the desolate one are many more than the children of her that is married.”  Galatians 4: 22-27 (Epistle from Feast of Conception of St. John the Baptist)

Good morning Prayer Team!

The Scripture Readings on Sundays (and most other days) in the Orthodox Church are not randomly selected.  We have what is called a lectionary, a listing of prescribed readings that are done each Sunday and each weekday.  From the time of Pentecost until just before Holy Cross Day (September 14) we read from the Gospel of Matthew.  From after the Holy Cross Day until almost the Nativity, we read from the Gospel of Luke.  The Epistles, on the other hand, are selected based on how many weeks it has been since Pentecost.  Thus, during the summer, the Epistle and Gospel pairing are similar.  After Holy Cross Day, they may pair differently each year, depending on when Pascha was.  That being said, on Sundays, when there is a major feastday, both the Epistle and Gospel lesson are suppressed in favor of the Scripture readings from the major feastday.  When it is a minor feastday that falls on a Sunday, often the Epistle reading would be displaced but the Gospel lesson would still be read.

Such is the case this weekend, as Sunday is September 23, the feast of the Conception of St. John the Baptist.  The Epistle lesson is for the feastday, while the Gospel lesson is the First Sunday of St. Luke.

The Epistle lesson, taken from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, refers to the Old Testament.  In the book of Genesis, we read that Abraham and his wife Sarah, were not able to conceive children.  In Genesis 16, we read that Sarah (at the time called Sarai) told Abraham (at that time called Abram) that he should be with her maid, Hagar, since she could not give him children.  So, Abram went with Hagar and she conceived an illegitimate son, whom she named Ishmael.  It was told by an angel that Ishmael “shall be a wild ass of a man, his hand against every man and every man’s hand against him.  (Genesis 16:12)

Later, after God made a covenant with Abraham, He promised that Sarah would conceive in her old age.  So, now Abraham ended up with two sons, one illegitimate and one the product of his union with Sarah.

Saint Paul refers to these two sons, comparing the two women to two allegories.  Hagar represents the Old Covenant, given on Mount Sinai in the Ten Commandments.  This covenant gave order, just like the conception by Hagar gave Abram a son.  But neither was an ending.  Ishmael did not play out to a good ending and neither did the Old Covenant.

A New Covenant came through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. The New Covenant is perfect and permanent.  It has replaced the Old Covenant.  Our hope is not found in keeping good order but in the sacrificial love that Christ showed to us.  We are descended from Abraham, but not from the line of Ishmael but through the line of Isaac, Jacob, then to David and ultimately to Jesus.

Before the Incarnation of Christ was the birth of His forerunner, John the Baptist.  Before John was born, while Elizabeth was pregnant, this is when the Annunciation took place.  Like Sarah, Elizabeth was an older woman when she conceived.  John was the product of a miracle made by God and the faith of his parents, Zacharias and Elizabeth.  So, if we were to mark the real beginning of the New Testament and the advent of the New Covenant, in terms of events, the first event would be the conception of John the Baptist, followed by the Annunciation, the Nativity of John the Baptist and the Nativity of Christ.

Sing now, o barren one who did not bear before, for you have indeed conceived the burning lamp of the Sun; and he will illuminate all the world afflicted with spiritual blindness.  Dance, O Zacharias, and now openly cry out: “The one who is to be born is a Prophet of the Most High God.” (Apolytikion, Feast of the Conception of St. John the Baptist, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)

Knowing our history helps us know where we come from and how we came to be where we are.  We are reminded today that we are descendants of Abraham through Isaac and not Ishmael, and that we are followers now of the New Covenant and not the Old Covenant.  The change begins formally with the Conception of St. John the Baptist, which we commemorate on September 23.

+Fr. Stavros

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Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis

Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015, has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0