17 April 2009

The Prophet Moses & the Precious Cross'—The 2nd Lecture of Fr Justin Sinaites

In the Irmos of Ode 1 of the Canon from Matins for the 1st Sunday of Lent, we sang, ‘In ancient times Israel walked dry-shod across the Red Sea, and Moses, lifting his hands in the form of the Cross, put the power of Amalek to flight in the desert.’ We sang it again last night as the first Irmos for the Canon of the Service of Holy Unction, and when I saw those words on the page, I thought, ‘At last!’ The time has come for the long-awaited post on the second lecture I was able to attend by Fr Justin of Sinai, the librarian of St Catherine’s Monastery (see the post on the first lecture here, and my original announcement of the forthcoming second post here). I’m afraid this post won’t be as glorious as I had hoped, as I don’t have all of the materials I was hoping to have to work from, but hey, it is what it is.

The title of the lecture was ‘The Hermit City of Pharan: The Biblical Rephidim’, a title which naturally suggested to me a lecture on biblical archæology. Well, my friends, there was indeed a bit of that, but there was much, much more as well. Fr Justin began by identifying the site of ‘Rephidim’, where the Israelites fought the Amalekites during their march from Egypt to Sinai (Ex. 17:1, 8), with an oasis called Wadi Feiran, a ‘broad valley’ some 25 miles from Mt Sinai. It seems that at some point during the Christian era, anchorites began to settle there, and by the end of the fourth century it had become a veritable city of monks (thus ‘Hermit City of Pharan’). Fr Justin spent no little time showing slides of various ruined cells and especially the churches there, complete with floorplans and even pieces of an altar.

But then he pointed out that rather than having to rely on ruins to get an idea of where these monks were worshipping, we could look at St Catherine’s itself, which has been well preserved. Fr Justin indicated a number of similarities in layout and design between the ruins and the surviving katholikon at Sinai, right down to the altar fragment, which was very nearly identical to the holy table at St Catherine’s. Fr Justin further added that by exploring St Catherine’s we could learn more than just the sort of settings in which the monks at Pharan were worshipping, we could learn more about the meaning of their life there itself.

It was at this point that Fr Justin introduced one of his specialties—manuscripts. In this case it was something called the ‘Sinai Greek 2’. This MS is a partial Pentateuch (covering Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus) once dated to the 11th or 12th centuries, but recently suggested as belonging to the 10th. The striking thing about it (for it is nowhere near as beautiful or lavish as the Sinai Codex Theodosianus), is the patristic commentary surrounding the main body of text. The comments are taken from a wide range of authors, with Eusebius of Emesa, St Cyril of Alexandria, and Theodoret of Cyrrhus predominating (I noted that it was interesting that the last author actually wrote against St Cyril at one point!). When one reaches the final portions of each book, however, they begin to be reduced to Theodoret only, leading Fr Justin to mention that this gradual diminution of scope is quite common and to suggest that the copyist of the commentary simply ran out of steam.

From there, Fr Justin got more to the point, and began to refer to various specific comments from patristic authors, first on the Prophet Moses himself (e.g., his preservation in the ark and his flight to Midian, both seen as types of Christ), and then on the account in Exodus directly relevant to the events at Rephidim (Exodus 17:8-13). Of course, I would love to be able to cite all of the particular passages from the Fathers that Fr Justin used, but it seems to me that one rather representative commentary will do just as nicely. I shall quote St John Chrysostom’s comments—apparently among those given in the MS—concerning this passage in his Homily 14 on the Gospel of St John (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament III: Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, ed. Joseph T. Lienhard [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001], p. 92; also available online here):

See how the type was given through Moses but the truth came through Jesus Christ. And again, on Mt Sinai, when the Amalekites were waging war on the Hebrews, the hands of Moses were propped up, held by Aaron and Hur standing on either side. But Christ, when he came, himself held his hands extended on the cross by his own power. Do you see how the type ‘was given’ and ‘the truth came’?

Although I do not recall whether Fr Justin mentioned them, other very similar interpretations are given of this passage by various Fathers in the ACCS, OT III (pp. 91-3), and indeed, when he was still with ROCOR, Fr Michael Azkoul wrote, ‘Moses on the hillside with his hands outstretched is everywhere taught by the Fathers to be a type of the Cross’ (The Teachings of the Holy Orthodox Church, Vol. I: God, Creation, Old Israel, Christ [Buena Vista, CO: Dormition Skete, 1986], p. 133). He points out that such an interpretation goes back at least as far as St Barnabas, the companion of St Paul (Epistle of Barnabas 12:2; The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed., trans. J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, ed. and rev. Michael W. Holmes [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996], p. 178), and cites similar passages from St Justin Martyr and St Cyprian of Carthage (pp. 133-4).

Having thus directed our attention from the Prophet Moses to the Precious Cross, Fr Justin showed a slide of a cross decorating the capitals of some of the columns in the katholikon at Sinai. Below each arm of the cross were the Greek letters Α and Ω (alpha and omega), which of course is how Christ refers to Himself in Revelation 1:8, 21:6, and 22:13 (I don’t have an image of the capital at Sinai, but it is a device that has been used elsewhere as well; see for example the coat of arms of the Principality of Asturias, Spain, here).

But, said Fr Justin as he went to his next slide, Α and Ω are also the first letters of the names of the Prophets Aaron (Ἀαρὼν) and Hur (Ὢρ) in Greek, and he then showed a slide of a beautiful icon kept in a chapel near Pharan showing the Prophets Aaron and Hur supporting the Prophet Moses’s arms like the Α and Ω under the arms of the Cross. (At this point the audience at Dallas Theological Seminary gasped in surprise and started looking around at each other!) Fr Justin then referred to the hymnography for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Precious Cross. Consider, for example, the first stanza of Ode I of the Canon in Tone 8 for the Feast (The Festal Menaion, trans. Mother Mary and Archim. Kallistos [Ware] [South Canaan, PA: St Tikhon’s Seminary, 1998], p. 144):

In times past Moses, standing between the two men of God, prefigured in his person the undefiled Passion. Forming a cross with his outstretched hands, he raised a standard of victory and overthrew the power of all-destroying Amalek. Therefore let us sing to Christ our God, for He has been glorified.

If we then consider the words of a 6th-c. abbot of Sinai, St John Climacus, we shall better understand the full significance of the establishment of monastic life in the valley of Pharan (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, rev. ed. trans. Archim. Lazarus [Moore] [Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1991], p. 5 [Ladder 1:7 in the HTM ed.; 1:14 in the Greek]):

Those of us who wish to go out of Egypt, and to fly from Pharaoh, certainly need some Moses as a mediator with God and from God, who, standing between action and divine vision, will raise hands of prayer for us to God, so that guided by him we may cross the sea of sin and rout the Amalek of the passions.

Thus, Fr Justin concluded, for the monks of Pharan, the Prophet Moses had a special significance, tied not only with the nearby Mt Sinai, but with Pharan itself. The God-seer was a type of our Lord Jesus Christ, and also of the spiritual life of the individual Christian. For what else are the fundamentals of the Christian life but the taking up of the Cross and the routing of the passions? For this struggle, proximity to the scene of the historical events that prefigured our salvation would have been a powerful aid to the monks of Pharan.

Well there you have it. But I ask that if Fr Justin or anyone else who was present at the lecture and recalls the details better than I have reads this post, by all means supplement or correct me! Unfortunately, this is the best I can do from my scanty notes, and I know I have not done it justice. Thank you to Fr Justin for the image of the icon!

Addendum: I just found the following lines in Fr Ephrem's translation of Matins for the Sunday before Nativity (here):

Aaron with Hor depicts Christ’s suffering,
Both raising Moses arms up like a Cross.


Andrea Elizabeth said...

It was worth the wait. Thank you so much for telling it so well. How wonderful that Fr. Justin sent you the image of the icon! I love how it prefigures Christ, and how timely your sharing it is with the Passion commemorations during Holy Week.

Thank you.

p.s. thanks also for the Pasternak posts. I appreciate your Saint commemorations, but enjoy your literary ones too.

aaronandbrighid said...

Glad you liked it, Andrea Elizabeth! I really do worry that I haven't done it justice or that I've made mistakes.

As for the Pasternak posts, I get a tremendous thrill out of sharing stuff like that. I grew up in a house where we constantly read out loud to each other when we found something we liked. Now I can do that on a larger scale!

George said...

From a fellow attendee, this summary is excellent, and brings back good memories. I'm very glad to have a picture of the icon that Fr. Justin presented. Thank you for the post!

aaronandbrighid said...

Thanks George! It's reassuring to hear from a fellow attendee.

Anonymous said...

That icon is incredible!

aaronandbrighid said...

I know! I was so excited when I saw that!