Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra offers a thought about how we can prepare ourselves to read Scripture. The Scriptures are spiritual, so we have to prepare our hearts spiritually to receive the Word contained in them:
“…it requires desire, exile, interest and lack of interest. What does that mean? Can you fill up a glass that’s already full? For divine meaning to enter your mind, for divine grace to enter into you, you have to empty your heart of its passions, of your self-centeredness, your selfishness, your hate, envy, and negative feelings; you have to purify your heart of these things, and fill it with virtues.
The passions are like static. You turn on the radio to listen to a station, and all you hear is static. You don’t understand a thing the announcer is saying. If you want to hear, you’ve got to eliminate the static. And how can you hear the voice of God, when the passions are booming away and growling loudly within you? You’ve got to free yourself, because if you don’t, you’ll remain a fleshly, carnal person, and a ‘carnal person cannot receive,’ does not understand, ‘the Spirit of God‘ (1 Cor 2.14).” (The Church at Prayer, p. 109)
Illumine our hearts, O Lord and lover of all humanity, with the light of Your divine knowledge, and open the eyes of our understanding, so that we may comprehend the message of Your Gospel. Instill in us also reverence for your blessed commandments, so that having conquered sinful desires, we may pursue a spiritual life, thinking and doing all things that are pleasing to You.
For You are the illumination of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God, and unto You we render glory, together with Your eternal Father and Your all holy, life giving Spirit. Amen.
Now when the magi had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.” When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.” Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead.” Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee. And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:13-23)
In the long history of Christian interpretation of the Scriptures, the Church has been blessed by the many meanings which have been derived from the texts. From the earliest days of Christianity (and in ancient Jewish interpretations of the Scriptures as well), commentators noted how the texts can guide and influence our behavior.. Inspiration is thus not only found in the authors of the texts, but also is in those who read the texts. For example, year after year, we read the Christmas narrative in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, but we don’t exhaust the meaning of the texts. Obviously, insight into the literal meaning may be more limited because that has been explored for 2000 years – that stone has been turned over countless times. But the text also is capable of giving us insight into our lives today, and to give us further revelation about God’s purposes in unfolding history. So we know the magi leave the newborn Christ and return to their own country by a route different than the one that brought them to Jerusalem. This literal reading of the text, provides us insight into our own spiritual sojourn to Christ at the Nativity.
“The Magi, divinely warned in a dream, return to their country by another road. They must avoid Herod. In the spiritual sense, he whom God has led to the crib can certainly go back home, to his own country, to his house; but it will be by another road. That is to say, the motives, the attitudes, the manner of existing, the means used, can no longer be the same. When one has gone to Bethlehem, a radical change takes place.” (Jesus: A Dialogue with the Savior by a Monk of the Eastern Church, pp. 8-9)
Then His disciples asked Him, saying, “What does this parable mean?” Jesus said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but for others they are in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.” (Luke 8:10)
In the 4 Gospel accounts, the word “Kingdom” (of heaven or of God) appears some 115 times. The Evangelist Matthew uses “Kingdom” the most – 52 times, while the Evangelist John only mentions it twice. Depending how you count the sayings, Matthew uses parables, metaphors or pithy statements thirteen times (25%) to compare the Kingdom of Heaven to something more familiar to his listeners: a sower of seeds, good seeds, a grain of mustard seed, leaven, a treasure, a merchant in search of fine pearls, a fishing net, a householder and his treasure, a king settling accounts with his servants, a householder hiring laborers for his fields, a king and the marriage feast for his son, wise and foolish maidens and their lamps, a man entrusting his property to variously talented servants, and the separating of sheep from goats.
These comparisons give us a sense that the Kingdom may be different than we imagine – for all parables require some interpretation, but Jesus does not tell us exactly how the Kingdom is like these many different common scenarios. The Lord leaves their interpretation open ended, for his disciples to hear and and grasp the hidden meaning. Yet, He says the secrets of the Kingdom are given to them. The meaning of the ambiguous parables and enigmatic aphorisms are the secrets of the Kingdom of God which Christ is gifting to us. The parables, metaphors and apothegms often defy common logic or our sense of “justice” causing us to have to lay aside an earthly sense of correctness in order to see or hear the hidden meaning. They are like photos of a common object, taken from an unusual perspective – it can take us a long time before we realize what we are looking at, if we ever figure it out.
By describing the Kingdom in terms of parables, Christ moves us away from thinking about the Kingdom purely in terms of commandments, rules, regulations, or rubrics. Christ uses the comparisons paradoxically – the Kingdom of heaven is like… – to give us a sense that it is like nothing we can imagine. The parables and metaphors of the Kingdom turn out to be an apophatic way of thinking about the Kingdom exactly because Christ doesn’t explain how the things mentioned are able to enlighten us about the Kingdom.
The parables of the Kingdom have been proclaimed by Christians for nearly 2000 years. They are the true teachings of Christ, timely in every generation and situation, for the Kingdom of Heaven is not itself changing. Whether the Faith is prospering or being persecuted, whether the listener is rejoicing in blessings or surviving through suffering, the Kingdom of God remains the same. It is a reality not affected by our times or by our mental state.
St. Paul whom God chooses to proclaim the Kingdom, discovers that being faithful to God can leave one in perplexing circumstances. If one believes faithfulness to God is going to automatically yield prosperity, just read 2 Corinthians 11:31-12:9, in which Paul describes soldiers hunting him down to arrest and kill him, and then also suffering personally some “thorn in the flesh” – an affliction he attributes to Satan, perhaps a serious, disfiguring illness which God will not take away from him. Despite these setbacks, he remains faithful to that Kingdom which can be compared to seeds and sowers, talented servants as well as sheep and goats.
Even in the face of such terrible recent disasters – hurricanes in Texas and Florida, earthquakes in Mexico, wild fires in California, and a mass shooting in Las Vegas – the Kingdom of God remains the same reality revealed to us in the Gospel lessons. Despite our worries about health care, and divisive politics, policy turmoil, soaring drug related deaths, the Church calls us to remember the Kingdom of Heaven, so that we can remain properly oriented in an uncertain world. The mystery of the Kingdom, helps us to keep our feet on firm ground, even as the sands shift and the water rises against the house.
The Gospel does give us an answer to current worries – it gives us a vision of the Kingdom of God. It is just that this insight is not necessarily the answer we think we need to solve all our problems.
The Lord Jesus taught this parable: “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trampled down, and the birds of the air devoured it. Some fell on rock; and as soon as it sprang up, it withered away because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it and choked it. But others fell on good ground, sprang up, and yielded a crop a hundredfold.” When He had said these things He cried, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Luke 8:5-9)
Bible story lovers can often recite the details of many of the miracles reported in the Old Testament – Noah and the flood, Moses and the burning bush, etc. For many centuries, really from the beginning of Christianity, much of the Old Testament including its miracles were often interpreted as prefiguring Christ or were prophecies of Christ. Take for example what use Jesus Himself makes of the story of the Prophet Jonah being swallowed by a whale:
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. (Matthew 12:38-41)
Jesus doesn’t discount the historicity of the story of Jonah, but sees it completely as a prophecy of his death and resurrection. The Jonah “miracle” is actually seen by Christ as something of small importance as a historical event. But as a prophecy of the resurrection it looks forward to its fulfillment in Christ, both in this world and on judgment day.
So, too, in 1 Peter 3:18-22, we see how the story of Noah and the flood are not viewed as events of great historical importance but rather are a prefiguring of baptism and salvation in Christ:
For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.
St. Photius the Great (9th Century) gave a sermon for the Annunciation in which he shows a typically Patristic interpretation of some Old Testament miracles. All three miracles were interpreted by the early Church as prophecies of the Virgin birth. The three events are miracles in their own right, but Photius notes that by themselves these miracles are really rather minor events that actually did not contribute in any meaningful way to the life of the world. By themselves the “miracles” really don’t show the glory of God because they are rather nondescript. It is only when they understood as prophecies of the Virgin Birth that their real importance is understood. In the quote below, Photius has the Archangel Gabriel talking to the Virgin.
Gabriel tells her that it is not his job to interpret what God is doing or how God can accomplish the miracle of the incarnation of the Word of God. However, God gave hints in the three Old Testament miracles which were given to help her and all of us understand the real miracle of the incarnation of God. The three Old Testament miracles turn out to be rather small events but they both confirm the current big miracle of Christ and also help break it down into smaller events which we humans are better able to digest and comprehend. When we bring together the three smaller events we begin to understand the real significance of the incarnation of God. So the Archangel says these words to Mary:
“One thing I know, one thing I have been taught, one thing I have been sent to tell. This I say: the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee (Luke 35:1). It is that which shall teach thee how thou shalt be pregnant. It shall interpret how thou shalt conceive. It is a participant in the Lord’s wish, since they are enthroned together, while I am a slave. I am a messenger of the Lord’s commands, not the interpreter of this particular command. I am the servant of His will, not the expounder of His intent. The Spirit shall set everything in order, for it searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God (1 Cor 2:10). I cry out, ‘Hail, much-graced one,’ and I praise the miracle in song, and worship the birth, but I am at a loss to tell the manner of the conception. But if thou wishest to accept credence of my tidings by means of examples, inferring great things from small ones, and confirming the things to come by things past, — thou shalt conceive in thy womb and bring forth a son in the same manner as Aaron’s rod was budded without cultivation, acting like a rooted plant (Num 17:23). As the rain borned down from heaven on the fleece watered that alone but did not refresh the earth (Judges 6:37), thus thou too shalt conceive in thy womb and bring forth the Lord. This thy ancestor also, David, announces in advance, inspired by God of thy pregnancy: “He shall come down like rain upon a fleece, lie a drop falling upon the earth’ (Ps 71:6). As the bush received the fire, and feeding the flames was not consumed (Exod 3:2), thus shalt thou conceive a son, lending Him thy flesh, providing nourishment to the immaterial fire, and drawing incorruptibility in return. These things prefigured thy conception, announced in advance thy delivery, represented from afar thy pregnancy. Those strange things have been wrought that they might confirm thy child’s ineffable birth. They happened beforehand that they might delineate the incomprehensibility of the mystery: for the flaming bush, and the bedewed fleece, and the rod bearing leaves would not have contributed anything useful to life, nor would they have incited man to praise the Wonder-worker, nay, the miracle would have fallen to no purpose, unless they had been set down as prefigurations of thy giving birth, and been, as it were, the advance proclamations of the Lord’s coming. “ (THE HOMILIES OF PHOTIUS PATRIARCH OF CONSTANTINOPLE , Tr. Cyril Mango, p 119-120).
Photius was unimpressed by the three Old Testament miracles – one could easily imagine God doing greater things than these. He feels no one who was told of these three Old Testament miracles would be over awed. But when the events are read in the light of the incarnation of God in Christ, suddenly the importance of the three events is made clear – and that they are events significant to the life of the world is suddenly made known in the Virgin birth of the incarnate God. In Christ, the events help explain what God is doing and how it is possible for God to enter into the human condition. Mary does not need long theological explanations about the incarnation – Gabriel tells her to think rather about the three stories, the three Old Testament miracles, and she will understand the significance for the entire world of her pregnancy. The prophecies are fulfilled as well as given historical importance and cosmic meaning in Christ. The incarnation of God the Word in the Virgin is made comprehensible by the events which prefigured and prophesied it.
Hide me under the shadow of Your wings, From the wicked who oppress me, From my deadly enemies who surround me. . . . As a lion is eager to tear his prey, And like a young lion lurking in secret places. Arise, O LORD, Confront him, cast him down; Deliver my life from the wicked with Your sword, With Your hand from men, O LORD, From men of the world who have their portion in this life,
The Psalms are filled with appeals to God asking for protection from enemies, for overthrowing adversaries and requesting justice in dealing with oppressors. While they have a “literal” meaning, and sometimes the inscriptions at the beginning of each Psalm tell us a little bit about the circumstances in which they were written, the Psalms don’t always tell us how we are to pray them, use them or understand them.
When we read Patristic commentary on the Psalms, we find that the Fathers made a wide variety of uses of the texts, interpreting them in various ways, depending on their purpose of their writing. The Psalms could be read as prophecy about Christ, as well as expressing the mind of Christ and His understanding of the world. The Fathers found in the Psalms defense for dogma and doctrine. They found in Christ the meaning of the Psalms and the revelation of God and pure theology.
Various Psalms made it into the fixed portions of the Church’s liturgies, Vespers and Matins. The Psalms were seen as expressing the spiritual warfare which all Christians found themselves in – during every epoch and in each geographical place on the planet.
The Fathers often saw in the more warmonger Psalms a call to greater spiritual struggle against Satan and all his demonic hosts.
In the earliest days of Christianity and in other times when Christians found themselves being oppressed, the Psalms appealing to God for justice against oppressive forces were comforting. They offered the hope that one day, perhaps only in the Kingdom, evildoers would be overthrown, the workers of iniquity would get their comeuppance while the poor, oppressed and downtrodden would find themselves being lifted up by God and given the blessings of which they had been denied on earth.
Two Psalms which made it into Matins focus on the troubles a Christian might face in the world. If we look at some verses from two such Psalms –
Lord, how they have increased who trouble me! Many are they who rise up against me. Many are they who say of me, “There is no help for him in God.”
But You, O LORD, are a shield for me, My glory and the One who lifts up my head. I cried to the LORD with my voice, And He heard me from His holy hill.
I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people Who have set themselves against me all around. Arise, O LORD; Save me, O my God! For You have struck all my enemies on the cheekbone; You have broken the teeth of the ungodly. Salvation belongs to the LORD.
Your right hand upholds me. But those who seek my life, to destroy it, Shall go into the lower parts of the earth. They shall fall by the sword; They shall be a portion for jackals.
There is an interpretive question which can be raised. While these Psalms quoted above might be an appeal for justice as well as mercy for one who is being oppressed, or perhaps for an entire people who are being cruelly coerced, what happens to the meaning of these Psalms if one is in the ruling class, in the majority, with those who are in power? What happens when the troublemakers and wicked are in the minority? They can be a plague, even if they the few. Sinners and malcontents, people who hold minority viewpoints or who adhere to other religious beliefs might all be a nuisance at best but totally undesirable in a society.
So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets. (Matthew 7:12)
The early Christians, being persecuted because of their faith in Christ would certainly have prayed these Psalms in a particular why, asking God to help them against their more powerful oppressors and enemies. They are a prayer asking for justice and deliverance. The Psalms are being prayed because of a belief in God’s mercy, compassion and loving kindness.
However, when the Christians ceased to be in the minority, among the oppressed, but now were in positions of power and able to determine the fates of not only themselves but of others, these same Psalms can be turned away from a cry for mercy and help into a demand for punishment, domination, brutality and persecution of others – not just the criminals, but anyone deemed undesirable. These same Psalms which are appealing for God’s mercy against evil oppressors can be turned into justification for pogroms, ethnic cleansing, apartheid, and forcing people into exile.
If we pray for mercy and justice for ourselves, we need to work for mercy and justice for all. We are to interpret the Psalms through Christ’s Gospel commandments:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)
“So, for Irenaeus, both the true apostolic tradition maintained by the churches, and the apostolic writings themselves, derive from the same apostles, and have one and the same content, the Gospel, which is itself, as we have seen, ‘according to the Scripture.’ ‘Tradition‘ for the early Church is, as Florovsky puts it, ‘Scripture, rightly understood.’ Irenaeus’ appeal to tradition is thus fundamentally different to that of his opponents. While they appealed to tradition precisely for that which was not in Scripture, or for principals which would legitimize their interpretation of Scripture, Irenaeus, in his appeal to tradition, was not appealing to anything else that was not also in Scripture. Thus Irenaeus can appeal to tradition, to establish his case, and at the same time maintain that Scripture itself, using its own hypothesis and canon.” (John Behr, Formation of Christian Theology: The Way to Nicea, p. 45)
The question I would ask tells a great deal about my relationship to Him, who I imagine He is, what role He plays in my life.
The Scripture readings for the day also have questions in them. They however suggest wrong questions. St. Paul (Romans 10:1-10) contrasting those who live by faith with those who try to attain righteousness through their own strict adherence to Torah suggests there are questions we should not ask because they are the wrong questions:
. . . But the righteousness of faith speaks in this way, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down from above) or, ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).
The person who believes that they can attain God’s righteousness by their own ability perfectly to keep Torah imagines that he/she can ascend to heaven, and to bring the Christ to earth. Or, they imagine by their own ritual and moral perfection that they could even raise the Messiah from the dead.
St. Paul says the questions are wrong. It is not by our own righteousness that we can accomplish God’s will. We cannot by our good works ascend to heaven, nor would we by our own righteous behavior be able to escape the depth of hell.
The questions are wrong because they reflect a total misunderstanding of the Christ, of who He is, why we need Him, what He does for our salvation. Christ does not come from heaven to earth because of the righteousness of some on earth. Nor does Christ rise from the dead because of the goodness of God’s people. It is while we are sinners and because we are sinners that Christ descends to earth and becomes incarnate and then descends into Hades and rises from the dead.
So, “What is my question for Christ?”
The Gospel lesson for the day is Matthew 8:28-9:1, Christ’s encounter with the Gergesene demoniacs. They too have a question for Christ:
“What have we to do with You, Jesus, You Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time?”
St. John Chrysostom in his commentary on this Gospel notes the real difference between Christ and the demons. The demons are terrified of Christ – they have a real fear of God. But it does them no good, for they aren’t motivated by their fear of God to do good.
Christ, for His part, is not but gentle with the demons. He doesn’t threaten them, though they obviously feel threatened. Christ does not torment them, but actually grants them their request. They want out of His presence. Obviously they don’t even have the power to flee from Christ. They are powerless in His presence. They have to ask His permission to leave. This story is used in the prayers of exorcism at a baptism. We remind Satan, even taunt him, that he has no power when Christ is present and can only do what Christ allows him to do. Satan cannot even flee without asking Christ’s permission!
Christ treats the demons with kindness and respect, as only their creator could do. Christ is not threatened by them and clearly not afraid of them.
The demons might have recognized the even-keeled temperament of their Creator, but they don’t. They don’t ask the right question. They don’t ask Christ if they could serve Him. They may represent some kind of chaotic, uncontrolled power and evil, but they also are shown to be powerless and inconsequential by Christ.
Proverbs tells us that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10; c.f. Psalm 111:10). The demons have the fear of God as is shown in their attitude toward Christ. It does them no good, as it doesn’t lead to wisdom. They want to flee His presence rather than embrace His goodness. Their question for Jesus doesn’t help as it doesn’t put them in a right relationship with Christ. It is no doubt because their relationship to Christ is wrong that they ask the wrong question.
Each of us should think about what is my question for Christ?
If I say something like, “Will He help me?” – that is not a question directed to Christ but a question for our self to answer. I need to change the question and ask it directly to Christ. I need to talk to Him. I need to orient my life so that I can so directly talk to Him.
If I ask, “Can you help me, Jesus?” – the answer is yes, of course He could, but whether the help I want is in accordance with God’s will is another issue. To ask that question seems to reflect some doubt in my heart about his ability/power or about His goodness and love.
To ask the right question, I need to think about who Jesus is, what His will and intention is, what is He capable of? And who am I in relationship to Him? Depending on who I am in relationship to Him determines what I can ask of Him.
If I am His servant, and He really is my Lord, I can ask, “How can I serve You?” “What is your will for me?”
My ability to hear His response will depend on my relationship to Him. I need to know who He is before I can relate to Him, or ask the right question of Him.