ANDREW RUBLEV, THE THEOPHANY TO ABRAHAM, AND HOSPITALITY by Henry C. Anthony Karlson III

rublevOne of the most important, if not the most important, artistic representations of the Holy Trinity is St. Andrew Rublev’s icon of the Hospitality of Abraham. [The Greek φιλοξενία means the love of strangers, love of foreigners.] Just as Tradition suggests that the three angels who visited Abraham are understood to represent the Trinity, so that Abraham is said to have met with God at Mamre, Rublev’s icon allows us to having a meeting with God. In the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, he explains to us how symbols of God in Scripture point to and reveal God to us, so that through symbols we can meditate upon and experience the Kingdom of God. This is why Rublev’s icon, representing an important symbol of God in Scripture, directs us to an encounter with God.

We experience the glory of the Trinity through Rublev’s depiction of the three angels: the first, holding his hand over a chalice, his face looking upon the second; the second, looking upon the third; and the third, facing the first. The circle which can be observed being formed by the way that the angels interact with each other demonstrates the loving communion found between the Persons of the Trinity, where they are distinct and yet work together and are united as one. Nonetheless, the circle is not closed; it is welcoming, as the first angel holding his hand out over the chalice can be seen to be welcoming us in to partake with him and share with him the communion of love which the divine Persons have with each other.

While Rublev’s icon represents the mystical height of Abraham’s experience of God, an experience which he received because of his hospitality (showing us how love opens our awareness and elevates us to understand better the unitive dimensions of communion), it can be said that this is only a part of the greater revelation of the Trinity contained in the Old Testament story of Abraham. Whether or not we take the angels as the trinitarian Persons themselves (as some commentators do), or as angels sent to represent the three Persons, they came to Abraham to reveal the truth of God to him. Abraham, with his holiness, was elevated to great heights.

We see the fruit of his mystical encounter in Rublev’s icon, but it does not show all that they came to reveal to Abraham. They also came to explain to Abraham what was about to occur in Sodom and Gomorrah. Our God is a consuming fire, and He comes to judge and purify with His love. The wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah according to Ezekiel was found in their lack of charity: “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ez 16:49). If charitable hospitality reveals the Kingdom of God, rejection of charity, rejection of love, reveals its inversion—that is, hell.

Abraham, upon hearing the judgment to come, pleaded for the salvation of those in Sodom and Gomorrah. In part, he knew his nephew was there, and he desired his nephew’s salvation. But his heart went beyond family concerns and he wanted the people of Sodom and Gomorrah to have a chance to escape perdition. Lot, we know, was saved, but it is interesting to note how he was saved. Two of the angels went to Lot and saved him even as they finalized their judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham’s pleading was effective, and so Lot was saved; but Lot was also saved because of his imitation of the hospitality of Abraham, how he welcomed and desired to protect the angels from harm within the city.

When exploring the trinitarian nature of the story, the fact that it was two angels who came to rescue Lot as well as to judge the city is key. Here, we can find that the representation of the Trinity in Genesis is more complex and incarnational than in the heavenly vision of Abraham at Mamre. As St. Irenaeus suggests, the Son and the Spirit can be said to be the two revealing hands of the Father in creation. To get to the Father, we are lifted up by the Son and the Spirit working together. The Son and the Spirit are sent out into the world to reveal the truth of God, to bring deifying grace into the world; so likewise, it is telling that two angels go to Sodom and Gomorrah, enter the world defiled by sin, and lift out of it those who welcome them with hospitality. The revelation of God at Mamre continued with the revelation of the economic Trinity saving Lot and his family, and the two are best seen together as one demonstration of the Trinity. The Trinity invites us into divine life, but when we are encased with sin and our love falters, the Son and Spirit come down to us, reveal themselves to us, work for us, and save us so that then we can leave the defiled state (as Lot left Sodom behind), and slowly climb upon the holy mountain to find peace with God.

St. Andrew Rublev’s icon reveals to us the Kingdom of God, the glory of God in symbolic form, the truth which is hidden from us due to our sin; that is, due to our failing to act upon the image and likeness of God hidden in us, to act always in and through love. God invites us into the Kingdom of God, to partake of divine life itself. We are called to the Chalice and to partake of the divine nature. But when we are so far away, stuck in our own Sodom, God will not leave us alone; the Son and the Spirit come to us and ask us to follow out of our sin and back on the path of love.

Will we follow, or will we remain behind in Sodom, and find ourselves frozen in our lack of charity?

Henry Karlson is an independent Byzantine Catholic scholar and author who holds an MA in Theology from Xavier University in Cincinnati. He blogs at A Little Bit of Nothing on the Patheos website. 

In the coming weeks we will publish the author’s summary of his most recent book, The Eschatological Judgment of Christ: The Hope of Eternal Salvation and the Fear of Perdition in the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2017).
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