Rorate Caeli

Saints of the Old Testament: St. Abraham, patriarch

On this day the traditional Roman Martyrology commemorates the preeminent saint of the Old Testament. Heading the Martyrology on "This Day, the Ninth Day of October" is the feast of the holy martyrs St. Denis of Paris, bishop, and his companions, the priest Rusticus and the deacon Eleutherius. But immediately after them, the Martyrology lists:

"The same day, the commemoration of the holy patriarch Abraham, father of all believers."

The titles that the Martyrology gives to Abraham -- "holy patriarch" and "father of all believers -- echo what the Canon of the Mass calls him: Patriarchae nostri Abrahae, "our Patriarch Abraham." These titles remind us that Abraham is revered as "the father of the faithful." The life of Abraham is told in the Book of Genesis, which informs us that he was a Chaldean chieftain in Mesopotomia who lived in the 2000s B.C. (some 11 centuries after Noah's Flood according to the Greek Septuagint text) when God called him to leave his idolatrous nation and migrate to Canaan. In the Book of Genesis, Moses tells us that God blessed Abraham with innumerable descendants in the biological, genealogical sense, making him not only the ancestor of the nation of Israel but also of various Middle Eastern peoples such as the Edomites, Ishmaelites, and Midianites. But while many Catholics today have ethnic origins that trace back to Jews and their Abrahamite cousins, it is not because they can trace their genealogies back to Abraham that Catholics acknowledge him as Patriarchae nostri -- for we remember the teaching of the last Old Testament prophet, St. John the Baptist, who warned his fellow Jews:

"And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham for our father. For I tell you that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham." (Matt. 3:9)

A person's salvation is not dependent in any way on whether or not he can trace his genealogy back to Abraham. When God promised Abraham, "I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth: if any man be able to number the dust of the earth" (Gen. 13:16), it was not only a promise of innumerable biological progeny, but even more a declaration from the Almighty that everyone who receives the grace of supernatural faith becomes a spiritual descendant of faithful Abraham. This is why St. Paul affirms that the promises God made to Abraham belong not merely to his genealogical descendants, but chiefly to everyone who has faith, who are Abraham's spiritual descendants. As St. Paul told the Roman Church:

"Therefore is it of faith, that according to grace the promise might be firm to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, (As it is written: I have made thee a father of many nations,) before God, whom he believed, who quickeneth the dead; and calleth those things that are not, as those that are." (Rom. 4:16-17)

St. Paul also reminds us that the promises made to Abraham were Messianic promises, and therefore we know that Abraham's faith was essentially faith in the promised Messiah who would save mankind from sin and death. St. Paul explains this in his Epistle to the Galatians:

"For you are all the children of God by faith, in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you be Christ's, then are you the seed of Abraham, heirs according to the promise." (Gal. 3:26-29)

It is specifically God's promises to Abraham, that in him and in his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed, that Our Lady recalls at the Annunciation, when the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. In her Magnificat, the Blessed Virgin plainly declares that her conception of the Messiah was the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham: "He hath received Israel his servant, being mindful of his mercy: As he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed for ever." (Luke 2:54-55)  This is reiterated even more explicitly by St. Zacharias, father of St. John the Baptist, who prayed in his Benedictus:

"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; because he hath visited and wrought the redemption of his people: And hath raised up an horn of salvation to us, in the house of David his servant: As he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets, who are from the beginning: Salvation from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us: To perform mercy to our fathers, and to remember his holy testament, The oath, which he swore to Abraham our father, that he would grant to us, That being delivered from the hand of our enemies, we may serve him without fear, In holiness and righteousness before him, all our days. . . ." (Luke 2:68-75)

The Abrahamic promises were an eternal and unconditional covenant that God made, a covenant that, as St. John Paul II observed, has never been and never can be revoked, being founded on God's oath that faithful Abraham would be the ancestor of the Messiah, the Savior of the world. This is why St. Matthew went to such pains to show that Jesus is "the son of David, the son of Abraham" (Matt. 1:1), beginning his Gospel with a lineage headed by the Patriarch Abraham and coming down through King David and concluding with Jesus Christ. It is evident, then, a person's salvation does not depend on his genealogical descent from Abraham, but on Christ's genealogical descent from Abraham, whose life allegorically foreshadowed that of his seed Jesus. It was this Messianic faith of Abraham -- trusting that, even though he had no legitimate son and heir, it nevertheless would be from his own offspring that God would send the Messiah, the promised "Seed" who would crush the Serpent's head -- that merited him the exalted title of "father of the faithful." The promises to Abraham are the "better promises" on which the New Covenant itself is based (Heb. 8:6), and therefore in the Sacrifice of the Mass, when the Church offers the Blood of the New and Everlasting Covenant, the Mystery of Faith, she recalls the sacrifice that our Patriarch Abraham offered to God.

The very hope of salvation for our fathers of old was founded on Abraham's Messianic faith, and that is why, as St. Thomas Aquinas explains, the Jews gave the name "Bosom of Abraham" (Luke 16:22) to the Limbus Patrum -- the Limbo of the Fathers, that "precinct" of hell where all of the departed souls of the Old Testament saints awaited the coming of the Messiah. All of those who died in the hope of the promised Messiah went to Abraham's bosom, being kept secure in his faithful heart, as it were, unto the coming of the Lord Jesus, who brought them their long-awaited salvation when He descended into hell and transferred them to heaven. We too, like the fathers, should base our faith and our hope firmly upon the faith of Abraham, prototype and spiritual father of the faithful, and seek to follow in his footsteps. As St. Paul told the Hebrews:

"By faith Abraham, being called, obeyed to go out into a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he abode in the land, dwelling in tabernacles, with Isaac and Jacob, the co-heirs of the same promise. For he looked for a city that hath foundations; whose builder and maker is God. By faith also Sara herself, being barren, received strength to conceive seed, even past the time of age; because she believed that he was faithful who had promised, For which cause there sprung even from one (and him as good as dead) as the stars of heaven in multitude, and as the sand which is by the sea shore innumerable. All these died according to faith, not having received the promises, but beholding them afar off, and saluting them, and confessing that they are pilgrims and strangers on the earth. For they that say these things, do signify that they seek a country. And truly if they had been mindful of that from whence they came out, they had doubtless time to return. But now they desire a better, that is to say, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for he hath prepared for them a city. By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered Isaac: and he that had received the promises, offered up his only begotten son; (To whom it was said: In Isaac shall thy seed be called.) Accounting that God is able to raise up even from the dead. Whereupon also he received him for a parable." (Heb. 7:8-19)
May the intercession and merits of our Patriarch Abraham bring us to the heavenly country.

All ye holy patriarchs and prophets,

Pray for us!

All ye holy patriarchs and prophets,

Pray for us!