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)
Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.”
Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” (Matthew 13:8-10)
“This tension is present as well in Jesus’ use of conventional proverbial sayings, using ambiguity to involve hearers and reader-learners in interpreting their meaning and to evoke something radically new. For example, Jesus used a familiar farming image of planting seeds that grow: “When the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come” (Mark 4:29).
The farmer does not make the seed grow but must use his judgment to discern when it is ripe, a judgement learned from his own farmer-father and his previous experience. But here the image is applied to the coming of the Kingdom! The reader-learner is invited to see the kingdom as growing seeds and ripening plants, but how does one judge that a kingdom is ripe?
If it is ripe, a harvest requires cutting down and threshing. What does that expect of reader-learners?” (Charles F. Melchert, Wise Teaching, p. 244)
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)
“The issue is not that we are taught by the advent of Christ to read the Scriptures retrospectively, but that the Christ in whom Christians place their trust and now worship is the same Christ who long ago revealed the ways of God in the Scriptures. The Venerable Bede, commenting on 1 Peter 1:12 early in the eighth century, put it this way:
He had said previously that the Spirit of Christ had foretold his sufferings and subsequent glories to the prophets, and now he says that the apostles are proclaiming the same things to them by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven.
Hence it is evident that the same spirit of Christ was formerly in the prophets as was afterwards in the apostles, and therefore each was preaching the same faith in the suffering and subsequent glory of Christ to the peoples, the (prophets) that it was still to come, the (apostles) that it had already come; and because of this (they preached) that there is one Church, part of which preceded the bodily coming of the Lord, part of which followed (it). Interpretively, then, Israel’s Scriptures testify to the Christ (and no other) who first inspired them.”
The take-away is that the entire Bible – both the Old and New Testaments – bear witness to the same Lord Jesus Christ. It is the same Holy Spirit who inspires the authors of both covenants.
“You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me . . . If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me.” (John 5:39, 46)
The recent blog series reflecting on the relationship between Jesus who is the incarnate Word of God and the Scriptures which are the written Word of God is now available in one PDF document. You can view the document at Jesus Christ, The Word of God, and Scriptures (PDF).
In this blog series we explored the relationship between Jesus the incarnate Word of God and the Scriptures as the written Word of God. Whereas Protestant Christians treat their Bibles as The Word of God, the history and Tradition of Orthodoxy Christianity shows the Church as celebrating Jesus Christ as the incarnate Word of God, to whom the written texts of the Scriptures bear witness. Indeed, Christ is found clothed or hidden in the texts of the Scriptures, even in the Old Testament. This is what makes the Scriptures so beautiful. They are essential for the revelation which occurs through those texts which clothe and hide the Christ. One could say they are the majesty with which Christ clothes himself (Psalm 93:1). Yet, we come to Christ the personal Word, and realize the Scriptures point beyond themselves to Him – as Jesus Himself taught in John 5:39.
The Word of God is divine, but is not a book. The Scriptures bear witness to whom the Word is -the Second Person of the Holy Trinity who became incarnate as human. Jesus is the living Word, by whom all things visible and invisible were created. The Word of God is not a thing but a person who acts in all creation and throughout history. It is He who entered into history in the incarnation of the Word.
For the Creator of the world is truly the Word of God: and this is our Lord, who in the last times was made man, existing in this world, and who in an invisible manner contains all things created, and is inherent in the entire creation, since the Word of God governs and arranges all things; and therefore He came to His own in a visible manner, and was made flesh, and hung upon the tree, that He might sum up all things in Himself. (St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle 8134-37)
The Scriptures are indeed a type of incarnation of the Word – they make visible to us words about God. They make visible to us in printed form the words which God speaks. Yet, still they are bearing witness to Christ and not coterminous with Him. The Scriptures witness to Christ, and Christ reveals God the Father to us. The physical world is thus revealed as capable not only of bearing witness to God but of bearing God and being the very means by which we encounter God. The material world is not that which separates us from God or prevents us from encountering Him. The material world ever more miraculously is capable of union with God and of being the means for us to attain theosis. The written manuscripts of Scriptures can convey us all the way to the divine Persons of the Holy Trinity.
“So long as we only see the Logos of God as embodied multifariously in symbols in the letter of Holy Scripture, we have not yet achieved spiritual insight into the incorporeal, simple, single and unique Father as He exists in the incorporeal, simple, single and unique Son, according to the saying, ‘He who has seen Me has seen the Father . . . and I am in the Father and the Father in Me’ (John 14:9-10). We need much knowledge so that, having first penetrated the veils of the sayings which cover the Logos, we may with a naked intellect see – in so far as men can – the pure Logos, as He exists in Himself, clearly showing us the Father in Himself. Hence a person who seeks God with true devotion should not be dominated by the literal text, lest he unwittingly receives not God but things appertaining to God; that is, lest he feel a dangerous affection for the words of Scripture instead of for the Logos. For the Logos eludes the intellect which supposes that it has grasped the incorporeal Logos by means of His outer garments, like the Egyptian woman who seized hold of Joseph’s garments instead of Joseph himself (cf. Gen. 39:7-13), or like the ancients who were content merely with the beauty of visible things and mistakenly worshiped the creation instead of the Creator (cf. Rom. 1:25).” (St. Maximos, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15419-32)
The written Word of God is a gift to us, however, the Giver of the gift makes Himself fully accessible to us. The gifts don’t stand between us and God but are the very means by which we enter into communion with God. We are in the spiritual life moving from the visible to the incomprehensible, from the texts of the bible to the ineffable God. However beautiful the words and expressions and texts of the Bible are, their Creator is even more so. Those written texts lead us to beyond themselves to the Truth. They are but signs of the reality of God.
St Paul most accurately and lucidly revealed to every believing soul the perfect mystery of the Christian faith, showing to all how to attain experience of it through divine grace. This mystery is the effulgence of celestial light in the vision and power of the Spirit. He did not want anyone to think that the illumination of the Spirit consists simply in enlightening us through conceptual knowledge, and so to risk falling short of the perfect mystery of grace through ignorance and laziness. To indicate the true character of spiritual knowledge St Paul therefore gives as an example the glory of the Holy Spirit that shone from the face of Moses. ‘If the ministry of death,‘ he says, ‘engraved in letters on stone, was accompanied by such glory that the sons of Israel could not bear to gaze at the face of Moses because of the glory, transitory though it was, that shone from it, then how much greater must the glory be that accompanies the ministry of the Spirit? If the ministry of condemnation is glorious, the ministry of righteousness must greatly excel it in glory. Indeed, what once seemed full of glory now seems to have no glory at all, because it is outshone by a glory that is so much greater. If what was transitory came with glory, what endures will be far more glorious’(2 Cor. 3:7-11). He says ‘transitory’ because it was Moses’ mortal body that shone with the glory of light. And he continues: ‘Having such hope as this, we can proceed with great confidence’(2 Cor. 3:12). A little later he affirms that this everlasting and immortal glory of the Spirit shines even now with immortal and indestructible power in the immortal inner being of the saints: ‘With unveiled face we all’– all, that is to say, who through perfect faith are born in the Spirit – ‘reflect as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, and are transfigured into the same image from glory to glory through the Lord who is the Spirit’(2 Cor. 3:18). The words ‘with unveiled face’ indicate the soul; he adds that when one turns back to the Lord the veil is taken off, and that the Lord is the Spirit (cf. 2 Cor. 3:16-17). By this he dearly shows that from the time of Adam‘s transgression a veil of darkness has encroached upon mankind and has covered the soul. But we believe that through the illumination of the Spirit this veil is now removed from truly faithful and saintly souls. It was for this reason that Christ came; and to those who truly believe in Him God has given the grace to attain this measure of holiness. As we said, the effulgence of the Holy Spirit is not merely some kind of revelation on the level of conceptual images, or merely an illumination of grace. It is the true and unceasing effulgence of God’s own light in the soul: ‘The God who said, “Out of darkness let light shine”, has made His light shine in our hearts, to give us the illumination of the knowledge of Christ’s glory’(2 Cor. 4:6). (St Symeon Metaphrastis, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 34467-506)
We come to Christ, not just to the words about Him. In Him we find life. The scriptures point to Him and thus show us the way beyond this world to life in the world to come.
“According to St John’s Gospel, all things were made through the Logos, or Word of God (John 1.3). The term logos is in Greek a key term, difficult to translate into other languages, because it has such a wide range of connotations: it can mean word, reason, meaning, principle, definition. So the Logos of God, through whom the universe has been created, is both the word, utterance, of God the Father, and also the meaning of the universe, and the meaning of everything in the universe. To say that the cosmos was created by the Logos of the Father is not just to say that it was created by God, but also to suggest that the meaning of the cosmos is to be found in the Logos.” (Andrew Louth , Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, Kindle Loc. 886-91)
The Word of God does not merely inform us about God. The Word encounters us and engages us and gives us full experience of God the Trinity. The Word of God forms us in God’s image. The Word of God reforms us when we are fallen in sin and conforms us to God’s will. The Word of God does all of this because of Who the Word is.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. (John 1:1-4, 14)