Monday of the First Week in Ordinary Time (Year I)
Hebrews 1:1-6; Psalm 97
In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word.Hebrews 1:1-3a
From words to the Word, and from prophets to the very Son of God, the anonymous author of Hebrews sweeps us into the “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God” that the Nicene Creed epitomized in the maturing Christian consciousness of the fourth century.
Christ is the radiance, brightness, or refulgence (apaugasma, ἀπαύγασμα) of the Father’s glory. The Father is identified in this passage as simply “God” (theos, θεός). “I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God,” Jesus told Mary Magdalene (John 20:17). God is not a vague, impersonal being, but a Father from whom the Son is eternally begotten, and from whom the Spirit eternally proceeds.
The Father never speaks alone, but always through the Son and in the Spirit. The indivisible Trinity was present in the theophany of the burning bush to Moses (Exodus 3:1-22). “Before Abraham came to be, I AM,” Jesus told the Jews, identifying himself with God (John 8:58). The Son speaks and acts only in union with the Father (John 5:19; 12:49).
In the third century, Origen reflected at length on the first sentence of Hebrews in his work, In Principiis (On the First Principles) during heated controversies concerning the humanity and divinity of Christ, and the Trinity of persons. The inadequacy of words challenged the Fathers as they sought to grasp realities exceeding the concepts received from pagan philosophy.
Hebrews declares that Christ is “the very imprint,” seal, stamp, impression, or image (charakter, χαρακτήρ) of the Father’s hupostasis (ὑπόστασις), which has been variously translated as being, nature, essence, substance, or person. Greek philosophy had no conception of person, and thus the original word in this context vaguely denotes the transcendent being or nature of God.
Concepts evolve as understanding grows. Neither the Old Testament nor Greek philosophy ever conceived God as simultaneously One and Three. Thus no word or thought existed to express the revelation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit given by Christ. The meaning of “person” is far from clear, writes Origen in his perplexity:
“But since He is called by the apostle not only the brightness of His glory, but also the express figure of His person or subsistence, it does not seem idle to inquire how there can be said to be another figure of that person besides the person of God Himself, whatever be the meaning of person and subsistence.”1
In a work battling the Arian heresy that denied the divinity of Christ, St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, Origen’s contemporary, writes: “For He is the brightness of His glory, the express image of His Father’s person.”2
The wrestlings of Origen and St. Gregory Thaumaturgus would have been novel to the author of Hebrews, but the same could be said of David’s Psalms and most of the Old Testament when they were first interpreted in the light of Christ.3
The Son is truly God from God, according to Hebrews, but the text does not go so far as to disentangle the theological distinctions between the nature (being) and persons of the Trinity. In fact, the statements of Origen and St. Gregory Thaumaturgus actually conflate nature and person. For if the Son is the imprint of the “Father’s person,” the absolute distinction of Father and Son seems to be compromised. However, the effort of these Fathers to go beyond the limitations of words to the heart of who God is, represents a step forward in Christian reflection. Another way to express their thought is that the Son is the image of God the Father who is personal.
Material experience causes the human mind to reify or delineate realities that are uncircumscribed. Thus changing “person” to “personal,” or noun to adjective, softens the hard lines drawn by the mind between nouns. However, these grammatical subtleties only suggest and point to what is beyond linguistic expression.
The concept of perichoresis or circumincession (mutual indwelling) was developed over time to overcome the barriers and borders set up by the intellect between the three divine persons and the two natures of Christ. Concepts divide the indivisible reality, but in truth, One (divine nature) and Three (persons) interpenetrate without division. The divine and human natures of Christ also interpenetrate without mixture or confusion. Thus, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus said, offering no explanation of how he and the Father are both one and distinct (John 14:9). Over the centuries, the Holy Spirit guided the Church to deepen her contemplation of the Most Holy Trinity who is “divided indivisibly.”
When he had accomplished purification from sins, he took his seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high, as far superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.Hebrews 1:3b-4
In Hebrew cosmology, myriads upon myriads of angels served as mediators between humanity and a distant God. Thus it became necessary to demonstrate the absolute superiority of the Son over the angels, the “mediator of a new covenant” (Hebrews 9:15; 12:24).
For to which of the angels did God ever say: “You are my son; this day I have begotten you”? Or again: “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me”? And again, when he leads the first-born into the world, he says: “Let all the angels of God worship him.”Hebrews 1:5-6
Angelic worship of a human being was unthinkable until Mary said, “Yes!” to the invitation of the angel Gabriel.
The heavens proclaim his justice,Responsorial Psalm from 97:6 and 7c
and all peoples see his glory.
Let all his angels worship him.
1 Origen, In Principiis, Book I, Chapter 2, 8.
2 St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, Epistles on the Arian Heresy and the Deposition of Arius, To Alexander of Alexandria, 12.
3 See the post, Who is the “Son of David”?