The Genesis of Christmas, part 1: Hosting God (First Sunday of Advent 2022)

“Abraham entertaining the three angels,” oil painting by Jan Victors (c. 1640s)

“Sometimes it has seemed to me that life is a series of punishments for such moments of unawareness, that one forges one’s own destiny by what one doesn’t notice or feel compassion for; that what you don’t know and don’t make the effort to understand will become the very thing you are forced into knowledge of.”

-Rachel Cusk, Outline

A common and therapeutically charged phrase I hear among younger Christians is “feeling seen.” Inside faith circles, it is typically used in reference to the experience of a church. When the pastor makes a reference to depression and anxiety or the person doing announcements mentions a news story from the same algorithm, one might say they “felt so seen” by that action. At its best, it is a term of connection and compassion, showing a leader’s ability to “read the room” and care for it. But at its worst, saying you “felt seen” is a self-centered and conceited thought used to harbor disappointment. To expect that a community will always (or ever) acknowledge your inconsistent interior experience is not only arrogant, it’s unbearable. The task is impossible for anyone to regularly guess what will make you feel “seen” on any certain day and what would make you feel singled out and spotlighted on another. You lose nine out of ten times.

Advent involves an invitation not to “be seen,” but to see. “That which was from the beginning,” writes John, “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes…the life was made manifest, and we have seen it” (1 John 1:1–2). The famous Christmas passage in Isaiah tells us “the people walking in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2). John says that as the Word, Christ, became flesh, “we have seen his glory” (John 1:14). We are told in Christmas hymns to “Come and behold Him,” that “shepherds quake at the sight” of the Messiah, and that we, too, with those very vagrants, can “see” as well, to “come, adore on bended knee.” Advent is all about seeing.

Through the incarnate Son of God, we both look back on the sight of Bethlehem and forward to his glorious return and reign as King over all creation. As John says, we both “have seen” Jesus (1 John 1:1) and “shall see him as he is” at the end of the age, or at the end of our life (1 John 3:2). Advent is a vision: to direct our eyes backwards and forwards to Jesus’ once and future coming. We ask during this season: where are my eyes pointed? Are they directed back at myself? Or, are they pointed towards Christ — his presence that spans the ages? Do I long to be seen or do I long to see?

Scripture is full of people who lacked the ability to see God, even when he was right in front of them. Adam and Eve famously hide from God as he walks through the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:6–8), Jacob rests his head on a rock and dreams only to wake and exclaim, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16), and of course the theme of the Messiah’s ministry is that, for all those who saw him, only a few truly perceived (Matthew 13:13, c.f. Deuteronomy 29:4, Isaiah 42:19–20, Jeremiah 5:21, Ezekiel 12:2). How, during Advent, can we turn our eyes to truly see and perceive God with the eyes of faith?

The story of Abraham and his three guests (Genesis 18) is worth reflecting upon as we expect the arrival of Jesus. This is a story about seeing God — or at least understanding his presence in unexpected ways. This scene is a classic example of what theologians call a “theophany,” where God appears to his creation in a created object. He comes in a burning bush (Exodus 3), a still whisper (1 Kings 19), and, here in Genesis 18, as a man—or three men, depending who you ask.

Early church theologians like Origen and John Chrysostom saw this story of Abraham near the Oaks of Mamre as richly connected to the incarnation, when God came in Christ at Christmas. Both Origen and Chrysostom see this story as, according to the theologian Hans Boersma, giving expression “to a basic truth of the incarnation: Origen bowing to the divinity of our Lord, Chrysostom praising his humanity; the two are complementary expressions of the mystery of God’s ultimate [condescension] in Jesus Christ” (Boersma, Scripture as Real Presence, pg. 61). These Church Fathers spend time on the first two verses in the Hebrew and Greek, as we are told, “[T]he LORD appears to [Abraham] by the Oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him” (Genesis 18:1–2).

One only gets a small sense of this in the English, but when you hear the Hebrew read aloud, you see a wordplay on the word “sight/see” happening everywhere. The “oaks of Mamre” is a disputed location, but its physical geography pales in comparison to its theological significance. The Hebrew for sight or vision is mar’eh, which is the word most definitely being played with when we hear about this oaky area called “Mamre.” Each time “the oaks of Mamre” is mentioned, Abraham either worships the Lord or encounters him in a significant way (he builds an altar in Genesis 13:18 and is blessed there by the priest Melchizedek in Genesis 14:13–24). Here, in chapter 18, Abraham does not go looking for God, but God comes looking for him in the visitation of the three “men.” And he sees.

How do we know this is God that Abraham sees? Many of the Church Fathers interpret this passage with slight differentiations, but agree that either one or all three persons of the Trinity came to see Abraham at midday near Mamre (see Origen’s Homily 3–5, Justin Martyr’s commentary on Genesis, Tuertullian, and John Chrysostom’s Homilies on Genesis, especially sermons 41–43). Abraham saw God and invited him in to his home. Where did they get this?

First, Abraham’s bizarre, over-the-top hospitality is noticeable after the men arrive at his house. This is not a story about “how to show hospitality,” because his actions are less like a house guest and more like worship. He runs from his tent door and “bowed himself to the earth,” telling these seeming strangers that he (Abraham) is their “servant” (Genesis 18:3). Nowhere else does Abraham refer to himself as “servant” in all of Genesis. He then addresses one (or all?) of them by invoking the address, “My Lord,” and says, “if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant”—another linguistic rarity: Abraham only speaks that way to Yahweh. Not to mention, the phrase to “pass by” carries some major Exodus energy that Mark’s gospel picks up (c.f. Exodus 15:16, 33:22; Mark 6:48).

Next, Abraham brashly commands his wife to make up a strangely specific meal: cakes made of “fine flour,” a calf “tender and good,” and some milk. Why the specificity? This meal makes no sense unless taken into the whole of the Torah. In Exodus 29, inside the very early in the liturgical laws of God’s people, we are told that priests will need to prepare a special meal for themselves to consecrate themselves as worship leaders. What do they make? They are to take “fine flour” to make “cakes” along with a calf (Exodus 29:1–4). The meal Abraham makes is a priestly meal of worship. Abraham is consecrating himself and his guests because he knows he is in the presence of the Living Lord. Hospitality is required, but so is worship. These guests are welcomed in a way that supports the gravitas of what this moment really is: a divine arrival.

Finally, later in the chapter, after the guests are about to leave, we are told “the men turned from there and went towards Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the LORD” (Genesis 18:22). The men leave, but the LORD stays. It is from there that Abraham intercedes for Sodom. How can the LORD both leave and stay?

This gets at the heart of a theophany: God appears present in one space/time/object to remind us he is always present apart from all space/time/objects. We see God so as to see Him again and always. God shows up to bring our attention to the fact that he is always showing up, that his presence pervades this planet and there is nowhere we can escape his majesty (Psalm 139:7). The whole earth is full of his glory (Isaiah 6:3). When God shows up it is to prove he has always been here.

Abraham sees this theophany and worships God through his hospitality. And after this encounter, he changes. No longer is he asking these visitors about his circumstances (as he does in the middle of Genesis 18), the text says that the men leave and he inquires of Yahweh himself. Abraham asks God after the visitation from God is over. After this sight, Abraham sees differently: he knows God doesn’t come and go like the visitors, but rather that God came and went to prove that he doesn’t. After the Lord’s remarkable appearing in space and time, Abraham sees space and time differently. God is right here.

And now you might see why so many of the Church Fathers link this story to the Christmas narratives of the New Testament. Jesus Christ is not a theophany. He’s something altogether better: God incarnate. But the mystery of the incarnation remains linked to the theophanies of the Old Testament. Because God has come in Jesus Christ, we have proof of his constant presence. He came as the “exact imprint” of God’s nature (Hebrews 1:3), where “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). But unlike the theophanies, Jesus did not appear and disappear; he died, rose, and ascended to the right hand of the Father where he lives and reigns (Luke 22:69, Hebrews 1:3). Crysostom says in his sermon on Genesis 18,

“[Jesus] came in human form as the good man’s guest in the company of the angels, giving us a premonition from on high at the beginning that he would one day take human form to liberate all human nature…and lead us to salvation…he donned our flesh, not in appearance or in seeming [like with Abraham], but in reality.”

-John Crysostom, Homilies on Genesis 46–47, 58.12–13 (FC 87:159–60)

During Advent, we look to Jesus, who himself was hosted like the three men in Genesis 18. If we can see him, it will become apparent that seeing him is far better than being seen by anyone. Jesus story is the story of a man who was seen, but never received; he was looked upon, but unnoticed. An innkeeper provided him a space to be born and a wealthy man gave him a grave. In between, he was celebrated and hated, received and rejected, all to remind us of the profound truth that the Creator God is nearer to us than we ever dared imagined. We just need the eyes to see it.

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Chris Nye

Living in Portland, Oregon with my wife and son. Doctoral candidate at Duke University. Author of a few books: chrisnye.co/books