The Ethos of Orthodox Catechesis: The Mind of the Orthodox Church (Part 5)


By Fr. George Morelli

The People of the Old Covenant

Abraham about to Sacrifice IsaacAbraham about to Sacrifice IsaacThe people of the Old Covenant, the Hebrews,  from the time of Abraham up to the present day, take very seriously that they are the "Chosen People". God's words to Abraham were quite specific:

When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly." Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, "Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. (Gen.17: 1-7)

The First Chosen People

The Hebrew people since the time of Abraham have had a sense that they have a singular distinctive relationship with God and that it could extend to all mankind. Consider God's words to Abram: "Now the Lord said to Abram, "... I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves." (Gen 12: 1-3). This is confirmed by God, to His people exiting Egypt into their Passover into the Promised Land: "Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel."(Ex 19: 5-6). Moses explicitly confirms this distinctiveness in his words to the people of the Covenant for all times: "For you are a people holy to the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth. (Dt 14: 2).

Moses before the Pharaoh prior to the Passover to the Promised LandMoses before the Pharaoh prior to the Passover to the Promised Land

Isaiah the ProphetIsaiah the ProphetIsaiah the Prophet (44: 1-6) goes on to explain in detail the meaning of God's commitment to His people, and their corresponding obligation to be faithful to Him:

But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen! Thus says the Lord who made you, who formed you from the womb and will help you: Fear not, O Jacob my servant, Jeshu'run whom I have chosen. For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring. They shall spring up like grass amid waters, like willows by flowing streams. This one will say, `I am the Lord's,' another will call himself by the name of Jacob, and another will write on his hand, `The Lord's,' and surname himself by the name of Israel." Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: "I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.

One of the most explicit affirmations of the sense of distinctiveness of the Chosen People can be seen in a prayer from a contemporary Hebrew service. The Encyclopedia of Judaism (Wigoder, 1989) informs us: "The most succinct expression of the rabbinic view of election is to be found in the text of the holiday liturgy, "You have chosen us from all peoples; You have loved us and taken pleasure in us, and have exalted us above all tongues; You have sanctified us by Your commandments and brought us near unto Your service, our King; You have called us by Your great and holy Name."

As long as being chosen is imbedded in humility, that is that it is considered as an undeserved blessing, a gift from God, then, indeed, it is a great blessing.  In no way do I want to disparage this gift from God to the Hebrew people, that is to say their being chosen by God as 'His People." In fact,  the sense that many Jewish people have up to and including the present day, that they are an elected people of God is quite praiseworthy and merits emulation.

The Promise of a Messiah and the heralding of the New Covenant

Ezekiel's VisionEzekiel's VisionBut God further revealed, in His own words, that He would send a Messiah, and thus a New and Eternal Covenant would be initiated. Recall God's promise given to the Prophet Ezra (4Ezr 7: 28-29): "For my son the Messiah shall be revealed with those who are with him, and those who remain shall rejoice four hundred years. And after these years my son the Messiah shall die, and all who draw human breath.  In fact the medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides considered the coming of the Messiah one of the 13 basic 'Principles of Faith' of Judaism. (Wigoder, 1989). The righteous prophets of the Old Covenant  tells us that the Messiah will come from the house of David. Ezekiel, during the days of the fall of Jerusalem, spoke of the abiding presence of God. He tells of the coming of the Messiah to protect His people for all ages:  "And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken." (Ezr 34: 23-24). Ezekiel (37: 24) goes on to say: "My servant David shall be king over them; and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall follow my ordinances and be careful to observe my statutes." Several hundred years later Ezra prophesizes: "this is the Messiah whom the Most High has kept until the end of days, who will arise from the posterity of David, and will come and speak to them; he will denounce them for their ungodliness and for their wickedness, and will cast up before them their contemptuous dealings." (4 Ezra 12: 32). 

The Septuagint (LXX): The Old Testament Version used by ChristThe Septuagint (LXX): The Old Testament Version used by Christ

The Prophet Isaiah (7: 13-15 LXX), quoted above, over 700 years before the birth of Christ, told the Hebrew Tribe of Judah of a new anointed one, a new Messiah to come: "And he said: Hear ye therefore, O house of David: Is it a small thing for you to be grievous to men, that you are grievous to my God also? Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel. He shall eat butter and honey, that he may know to refuse the evil, and to choose the good." This same passage is quoted by the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Matthew (1:23) in announcing the birth of Christ.

Connecting Christ with the Old Covenant

The Tree of JesseThe Tree of JesseIt is no accident that the Gospel of St. Matthew starts off with the genealogy of Christ, starting from Abraham and identifying Him as "Son of David": "The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham." (Mt 1:1). The historical connection leads to: "So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations. Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way." (Mt 1: 17-18). In the Orthros Service of the Nativity of Christ we pray: " O praised Christ, a stem hath come out of Jesse, and from it hast sprouted a Flower from a dense and shadowed mountain, O immaterial God, coming incarnate from the Virgin that hath not known man. Glory, therefore, to Thy might, O Lord."

As the holy Apostle and Evangelist John (1: 0-41) records the action and word of his fellow Apostle Andrew: "One of the two who heard John speak, and followed him, was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. He first found his brother Simon, and said to him, "We have found the Messiah" (which means Christ)." Then most of all we have the affirmation of the Messiah-ship of Our Lord God and Savior, Jesus Christ from the Divinity Himself. St. John (4: 24-26) tells us of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan Woman:  "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." The woman said to him, "I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ); when he comes, he will show us all things." Jesus said to her, "I who speak to you am He. [emphasis mine]"