COMMEMORATION OF ABRAHAM,
"OUR FATHER IN FAITH"
A spiritual pilgrimage
1. In his Letter Concerning Pilgrimage to the Places Linked to the History of Salvation (29 June 1999), His Holiness Pope John Paul II expressed his personal desire to make "a special Jubilee pilgrimage, to visit some of the places which are closely linked to the Incarnation of the Word of God, the event which the Holy Year of 2000 directly recalls" (No. 1).
These places are above all those associated with the birth, life, preaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In order to appreciate more fully the meaning of a history which stretches back to the distant past but which has marked our own geography, the Pope expressed his desire to "follow the traces of the history of salvation in the land in which it took place". The necessary starting-point: certain key places of the Old Testament, beginning with those linked to the revelation and the promise made to Abraham (Gen 12:13; 14:15).
The Holy Father expressed his ardent desire in these words: "In this way I wish to express the Churchs awareness of her irrevocable links with the ancient people of the Covenant. For us too Abraham is our father in faith par excellence (cf. Rom 4; Gal 3:6-9; Heb 11:8-9). In the Gospel of John we read the words which one day Christ said of him: Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad (8:56)" (No. 5).
2. For various reasons it has not yet been possible for the Holy Father to set out upon the first stage of this greatly desired pilgrimage: a visit to Ur of the Chaldees, present-day Tal al Muqayyar in southern Iraq, the place where the great journey of the People of God began when, in fidelity to the Lords command, Abram went forth from his city and his homeland towards the promised land (cf. Gen 12:13).
Nevertheless, on the eve of his visit to another place associated with salvation history Egypt, and in particular Mount Sinai, the site of Gods revelation to Moses and one month in advance of his planned visit to the Holy Land, Pope John Paul II has wished to honour the memory of Abraham, "our father in faith", and the beginning of the sacred history which hearkens back to him.
Therefore the Pope has decided to celebrate this moment of the Jubilee pilgrimage in the footsteps of Abraham with a special celebration marked by a fitting proclamation of the word of God and in a spirit of intense meditation and prayer. This highly significant event takes place today in the Paul VI Audience Hall, in the presence of the People of God.
Todays liturgical commemoration thus enables the Holy Father, and with him the whole Church in union with her Pastor, to embark in spirit upon this first stage of the Jubilee pilgrimage to the places linked to the history of salvation.
This first stage is clearly of immense ecumenical and interreligious importance, since, as the Pope points out in his Letter: "It is not only those who boast physical descent from Abraham who look to him, but also those, and they are countless, who regard themselves as his spiritual offspring, because they share his faith and unreserved abandonment to the saving initiative of the Almighty" (No. 5).
Such is the meaning and purpose of this unique event which we are about to celebrate in communion of prayer with the Holy Father.
Elements of the celebration
3. Certain aspects of the celebration have been carefully prepared in order to suggest the atmosphere of a spiritual pilgrimage. As a way of evoking some of the places where Abraham lived his faith in the Eternal One, several special elements have been highlighted, including a life-sized reproduction of the icon of the Trinity by A. Rublëv. Known as the icon of "Philoxenía" (hospitality to strangers) or the Trinity of the Old Testament, it represents the three angels who appeared to Abraham (cf. Gen 18). There is also the presence of several oak trees which recall the oaks of Mamre and a rock which recalls the rock-altar of the sacrifice of Isaac.
The commemoration of "Abraham, our father in faith" basically consists of the Word of God in the Old and New Testaments. This is echoed by the prayer of the assembly and by certain signs and gestures such as the procession with the Gospel Book and the incensation of the icon of the Trinity.
A few moments of meditation follow the proclamation of the first reading and the Holy Fathers homily. These are accompanied by pictures of Ur of the Chaldees and of other places where Abraham lived and by artistic representations of the life of Abraham, from the catacombs to the present. In addition to the words of Scripture, the pictures are also illustrated by texts drawn from the Jewish and Islamic spiritual traditions.
The structure of the celebration
4. The celebration is in the form of a Liturgy of the Word.
The introductory rites consist of the procession with the Gospel Book, the primary symbol of the Churchs Holy Year pilgrimage; the invocation of the Blessed Trinity by the Holy Father and his introduction to the celebration.
The proclamation of the Word presents the mystery of Abraham as it appears in the pages of the Old and the New Testaments. A selection of pertinent biblical texts will be read.
The first reading, proclaimed by three lectors, consists of selections from the Book of Genesis: the genealogy of Abraham (Gen 11:27-30), Abrahams call (Gen 12:1-4, 5b-8) and the covenant with Abraham (Gen 15:1-2, 4-10, 17-18).
A moment of meditation follows, accompanied by pictures of places where Abraham lived.
The second reading recalls Abrahams offering of Isaac, his only son, to God (Gen 22:1-18).
A song then punctuates the readings: inspired by the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 11:8-10, 11-12, 17-18), it celebrates with praise the faith of Abraham.
The third reading, taken from the Letter to the Romans (4:1, 3, 13, 16-22), speaks of Abrahams faith in the context of the faith of the people of the New Covenant.
The Gospel song with its Alleluia is inspired by the words of the Virgin Mary in Magnificat: "God who is mighty has remembered his mercy ... the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his descendants for ever" (Lk 1:54b-55).
The Liturgy of the Word culminates in the proclamation of the Gospel of John (8:51-58): "Abraham rejoiced in hope to see my day".
The Holy Fathers homily then follows.
The homily is extended by a moment of mediation accompanied by works of art representing Abrahams life and pilgrimage of faith: frescoes from the Roman catacombs, mosaics from San Vitale in Ravenna, the icon of the Trinity by A. Rublëv (XV c.) and ceramics by the contemporary Jewish artist M. Chagall.
A prayer of praise and intercession directed to the Blessed Trinity follows, accompanied by the offering of incense on the stone-altar.
The celebration concludes with the Holy Fathers blessing.
A travelling companion
5. The commemoration of Abraham "our father in faith" is an invitation made to the whole Church to experience what the Holy Father pointed out in his Letter Concerning Pilgrimage to the Places Linked to the History of Salvation: "To go in a spirit of prayer from one place to another, from one city to another, in the area marked especially by Gods intervention, helps us not only to live our life as a journey, but also gives us a vivid sense of a God who has gone before us and leads us on, who himself set out on mans path, a God who does not look down on us from on high, but who became our travelling companion" (No. 10).
Vatican City, 8 February 2000
Titular Bishop of Martirano
Master of the Liturgical Celebrations
of the Supreme Pontiff