The Shadow of Good Things to Come: Intertexts from Exodus in Gregory of Nyssa’s Homilies on the Lord’s Prayer

Judith L. Kovacs, Associate Professor of Religious Studies Emerita, University of Virginia, USA

In each of his five Homilies on the Lord’s Prayer, Gregory makes use of intertexts from the Old Testament: in Homily 1 a collection of verses from the Psalms and prophetsExodus 19-20 in Homily 2, Exodus 28 in Homily 3, and Genesis 3 in Homilies 4 and 5. This paper focuses on Gregory’s use of Exodus 19-20 in Homily 2, where he employs the story of Moses’ purification of the people of Israel before the theophany on Mount Sinai to impress on his audience how their uttering the words of the Lord’s Prayer involves both an astounding privilege and a real danger, if the prayer is spoken without diligent preparation and reverence. Addressing God as ‘our Father’, Gregory argues, is nothing less than an ascent to the awesome presence of the living God — an ascent no longer restricted to a leader like Moses but graciously offered to all of God’s people. Introducing the regulations for the high priest’s vestments (Exodus 28) in Homily 3, he describes the Old Testament as a whole in words borrowed from Saint Paul: ‘the Law is the shadow of good things to come’ (Heb 10:1) which ‘foretold the truth in types (cf. Hebrews 8:5; 1 Cor 10:6, 11) by various hidden teachings’, and his use of Exodus 19-20 in Homily 2 is informed by the earlier adaptation of this text in Hebrews 12:18-28. Other interpretations of Exodus 19-20 are found in Gregory’s Life of Moses (I 42-56, II 152-169) and his Homilies on the Song of Songs (In Cant. 1, GNO 6:25-26; In Cant. 3, GNO 6:71-72). This narrative was also chosen by Gregory of Nazianzus to begin his second Theological Oration (Or. 28.2-3). Each of these interpretations emphasizes different features of the striking imagery in Exodus  — the terrifying thunder, lightning, earthquake, smoke, and fire, the trumpet blasts that grow louder and louder, the need for washing of clothes, sexual abstinence, and fencing off of the mountain to prepare for the awesome appearance of God, the threat of destruction of any creature that violates the boundary, and the report that Moses alone is allowed to ascend to meet God in the ‘thick darkness’. Together, these adaptations of Exodus 19-20 illustrate the power of images from this ancient foundational text to make vivid the new realities of the Christian life.