Jesus, the Wisdom of God

Icon of Christ the Wisdom of God

“If we proceed further into the Sacred Scriptures – not in the historical order that the books have been arranged, but in a more spiritual manner – we shall discover the name of Wisdom, which is mystically ascribed to Christ. And thus Solomon cries to the Father: Give me the Wisdom that sits by Your throne (Wis 9.4). And who sits next to God, at the right hand of the Father (cf. Heb 1.3; 10.12; 12.2), exalted above all created things, if not the Lord Jesus Christ? For He is indeed the Power and the Wisdom of God (1 Cor 1.24). Elsewhere Solomon says: I determined to take Wisdom to live with me, knowing that She would be a counselor for me (Wis 8.9).

Wisdom, then, is clearly a Person, and not simply an attribute. It is the Son of God, who is also God’s Word; His Wise Word, as the Fathers say. From ancient times, Solomon points beyond time, and reveals the Person of the Son, Who sits by the throne of the Father, a situation which expresses their inseparable relationship, since there can be no Father without a Son, and no Son without a Father. Each one, at all times, points to the other. In this way we have a common, mutual revelation, which is, in essence, a self-revelation.”  (Archimandrite Aimillianos, The Way of the Spirit, pp. 271-272).

Hidden Meanings

In the previous blog, Textual Variations, we saw that there is a parallel between the incarnation of God the Word in Jesus Christ and the idea that the Scriptures are also considered the Word of God.  Just at Jesus’ human body hides His divinity and yet reveals the self-emptying nature of God, so in the written words of the Scriptures is hidden the revelation of God in the letters and words on the pages and yet in them we can encounter God.  For example, Origen in the 3rd Century says of the Scriptures:

“The treasure of divine wisdom is hidden in the baser and rude vessel of words. “  (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 1892-93)

The letters and words written on a page of Scripture use the same alphabet and grammar as any other written document.  The same words that are found in secular or profane writings are also used in the Bible.  It is not the written letters or words themselves which are holy, but rather the written word is made holy by the message conveyed through “the baser and rude vessel of words.”  The holiness is hidden in the text, and revealed to the one who reads the text or hears it proclaimed.  This is the synergy between God and us humans.  It is in our reading of the Scriptures that the meaning becomes manifest.

 

Thus we see that the incarnation of God’s Word is experienced in many ways in our lives – not only in the holy Scriptures but also including through the sacraments as well as all the life in the Church.  We physically experience divinity in and through the material world of the written text, in the material elements of the sacraments, and in the life of the Church which is the Body of Christ.

The texts of Scriptures are full of hidden meanings – if one delves into the Scripture getting beyond their literal reading, one encounters layers of meaning which speak to us about God’s revealing Himself to us.  We see this thinking already in the New Testament’s reading of the Old Testament in which the obvious literal meaning of a text is superseded by a spiritual reading of the text.

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 12:39-41)

The Evangelist Matthew understands Jesus to teach that the very point of the story of Jonah is not so much a history lesson as is it is a prophecy of the death and resurrection of the Messiah. [Which is also why Jonah’s prophecy is read on Holy Saturday in the Orthodox Church.]  Thus we see in prophecy the incarnation of the Word of God is hidden yet also revealed in Christ.  St. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444AD) writes:

“The word of the holy prophets is always obscure. It is filled with hidden meanings and is in travail with the predictions of divine mysteries. ”  (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. Loc. 4960-61)

The early Christians took their cue from the New Testament’s interpretation of the Old Testament to see there are hidden meanings in the most obvious of texts. St Paul proclaims to the Christians at Corinth:

For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of a share in the crop. If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits?   (1 Corinthians 9:9-11)

Such a Scriptural interpretation of older scriptures led the Patristic authors to conclude that the reading of the Old Testament needs to be done in Christ or the meaning hidden in the text will never be revealed.

“For there are many mysteries hidden in the divine Scriptures, and we do not know God’s meaning in what is said there. ‘Do not be contemptuous of our frankness’, says St Gregory the Theologian, ‘and find fault with our words, when we adroit our ignorance.’ It is stupid and uncouth, declares St Dionysios the Areopagite, to give attention not to the meaning intended but only to the words.’ But he who seeks with holy grief will find. This is a task to be undertaken in fear, for through fear things hidden are revealed to us.”  (St Peter of Damaskos, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 29489-502)

The Patristic writers realized one could easily misread the Old Testament text if one only literally read the words and didn’t seek the Christological meaning of the text.  Even St. Paul reads the Scripture seeking its hidden meaning:

Tell me, you who desire to be under law, do you not hear the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, the son of the free woman through promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.     (Galatians 4:21-25)

So St Peter of Damaskos says:

“Let him who understands take note. For the Logos wishes to transmit things to us in a way that is neither too clear nor too obscure, but is in our best interests. St John Chrysostom says that it is a great blessing from God that some parts of the Scriptures are clear while others are not. By means of the first we acquire faith and ardor and do not fall into disbelief and laziness because of our utter inability to grasp what is said. By means of the second we are roused to enquiry and effort, thus both strengthening our understanding and learning humility from the fact that everything is not intelligible to us. Hence, if we take stock of the gifts conferred on us, we will reap humility and longing for God from both what we understand and what we do not.”  (THE PHILOKALIA,  Kindle Loc. 31210-16)

Some of the texts in Scripture are easy to understand – they are written to help bring us to faith in God and love for the Creator.  Other texts are hard to understand, and intentionally so to make us stop and read and reread a text in order to reflect on it to see its real meaning.

But there are some things about God which remain a mystery for us – things which are too great and too marvelous for us.

If, therefore, even with respect to creation, there are some things [the knowledge of] Which belongs only to God, and others which come within the range of our own knowledge, what ground is there for complaint, if, in regard to those things which we investigate in the Scriptures (which are throughout spiritual), we are able by the grace of God to explain some of them, while we must leave others in the hands of God, and that not only in the present world, but also in that which is to come, so that God should forever teach, and man should for ever learn the things taught him by God?  . . .  If, for instance, any one asks, “What was God doing before He made the world?” we reply that the answer to such a question lies with God Himself. For that this world was formed perfect by God, receiving a beginning in time, the Scriptures teach us; but no Scripture reveals to us what God was employed about before this event. The answer therefore to that question remains with God, and it is not proper for us to aim at bringing forward foolish, rash, and blasphemous suppositions [in reply to it]; so, as by one’s imagining that he has discovered the origin of matter, he should in reality set aside God Himself who made all things.    (St. Irenaeus of LyonsAgainst Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 3153-57, 3164-69)

Additionally, while the Scriptural texts themselves can be clear in their meaning, or might contain a hidden meaning, the spiritual life of the reader of the text also affects what the person will be able to understand from the text.  The 11th Century monk Nikitas Stithatos points out:

The reading of the Scriptures means one thing for those who have but recently embraced the life of holiness, another for those who have attained the middle state, and another for those who are moving rapidly towards perfection. For the first, the Scriptures are bread from God’s table, strengthening their hearts (cf. Ps. 104:15) in the holy struggle for virtue and filling them with forcefulness, power and courage in their battle against the spirits that activate the passions, so that they can say, ‘For me Thou hast prepared a table with food against my enemies’ (Ps. 23:5). For the second, the Scriptures are wine from God’s chalice, gladdening their hearts (cf. Ps. 104:15) and transforming them through the power of the inner meaning, so that their intellect is raised above the letter that kills and led searchingly into the depths of the Spirit (cf. 2 Cor. 3:6; 1 Cor. 2:10), In this way they are enabled to discover and give birth to the inner meaning, so that fittingly they can exclaim, ‘Thy chalice makes me drunk as the strongest wine’ (Ps. 23:5. LXX). Finally, for those approaching perfection the Scriptures are the oil of the Holy Spirit (cf. Ps. 104:15), anointing the soul, making it gentle and humble through the excess of the divine illumination they bestow, and raising it wholly above the lowliness of the body, so that in its glory it may cry, ‘Thou hast anointed my head with oil’ (Ps. 23:5) and ‘Thy mercy shall follow me all the days of my life‘ (Ps. 23:6).    (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle 38302-38331)

Thus it is not only the text which has meaning – the reader interacts with the text and then based upon the reader’s own spiritual maturity is able to draw meaning from the text.  People who have progressed further in the faith might also receive greater enlightenment from any one text.  So St Peter of Damaskos notes:

This is especially true of the person who has made some progress in the practice of the moral virtues, for this teaches the intellect many things related to its association with the passions. Nevertheless, he does not know all the mysteries hidden by God in each verse of Scripture, but only as much as the purity of his intellect is able to comprehend through God’s grace. This is clear from the fact that we often understand a certain passage in the course of our contemplation, grasping one or two of the senses in which it was written; then after a while our intellect may increase in purity and be allowed to perceive other meanings, superior to the first. As a result, in bewilderment and wonder at God’s grace and His ineffable wisdom, we are overcome with awe before ‘the God of knowledge’, as the prophetess Hannah calls Him (cf. 1 Sam. 2:3).”   (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 31791-801)

Any text of Scripture has meaning, but not all meanings are accessible by any one reader.  God gives to each reader as they are capable of understanding.  Thus our spiritual growth and progress shapes what we are capable of learning from the scriptural text.  Scriptures are the living Word of God and do interact with the reader.  The synergy between the reader and the text opens meanings to the reader, each given the meaning according to their ability just as each person in the parable received the talent from the Master  (Matthew 25:15).

Next:   Interpreting the Scripture (I)

How God Speaks to Us in Scripture

EphremSt. Ephrem of Syria offers us some insight regarding how Scriptures might be the Word of God.  The question is how can God who is invisible, incomprehensible, inconceivable and ineffable still be able to communicate with us creatures? Isn’t God so transcendent as to be beyond our capabilities for communicating with the Divine?  For Ephrem the answer is that “God speaks to humanity through the biblical text, allowing himself, as it were, to become incarnated into human language.”  As the Evangelist John tells, “The Word became flesh” (J0hn 1:14). The incarnation of God is the key – creation is capable of bearing God, thus God can become incarnate in ways which make divinity accessible to us.  The biblical text is one such way in which God chooses to reveal Himself to us.

“God, stirred by love for his creation, has himself crossed this gap and entered the created world, allowing himself to be described in human terms and in human language in the Bible. Thus, before becoming incarnate in the human body, he first became incarnate in human language, or, in Ephrem’s own homely metaphor or clothing, God put on names.’ or metaphors, in the Old Testament, just as subsequently he ‘put on a body’ at the incarnation. Of great importance for Ephrem in all this is the fact that God is not forcing himself on humanity; rather, he is deliberately encouraging the use of his gift to humanity of free will. …

Christ the Wisdom of God

The very fact that the biblical text moves from on metaphor for God to another should be a sufficient warning against any such misconception. Thus, instead of fixing one’s mind on the literal meaning of the metaphors, one should allow these metaphors to act as pointers upwards, as it were, towards the hiddenness of God, whose true nature cannot be described by, let alone contained in, human language.” (Sebastian Brock & George A. Kiraz, Ephrem the Syrian: Select Poems, pp 16-17) 

 

St. Innocent Enlightener of America

St. Innocent (d. 1879AD), the Apostle to the Americas, is honored also as enlightener of God’s people in North America.  He wrote:

“My Christ loving readers and brethren!  By the Word of God was all created;

by the power of the Word of God is all that was created sustained.

The Word of God is food for man; it nourishes his soul.

The Word of God is water to quench his thirsty soul.

The Word of God is a lamp to lighten the darkness of man’s heart until daylight finally dawns.

The Word of God is also Light itself;

that is, the Word of God shows in man’s heart clearly and vividly all of God’s works – and even God Himself.

Without the Word of God man is spiritually hungry, thirsty, blind and dead.”

(St. Innocent Apostle to America by Paul Garrett, pp. 119-120)

You evangelized the northern people of America and Asia,
Proclaiming the Gospel of Christ to the natives in their own tongues.
O holy hierarch Father Innocent,
Enlightener of Alaska and all America, whose ways were ordered by the Lord,
Pray to Him for the salvation of our souls in His Heavenly Kingdom!

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The Word of God: Not merely a Book

“For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword,

piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow,

and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do.”

(Hebrews 4:12-13)

Christ was Born that You might Live

“O man, for thy sake was Christ born, and the Son of God came that He might make thee to live; He became a babe, He became a child, and He became a man, being (at the same time) God in His Nature, and the Son of God. He Who was the Lawgiver became a reader, and He took the Book in the synagogue, and read, saying, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, and therefore He hath anointed Me, and hath sent Me to preach the Gospel to the poor ’ (St. Luke 4:18).”  (The Paradise of the Holy Fathers, Volume 2, pg. 243)

When the Fullness of Time had Come

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law,  in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”    (Galatians 4:4-5)

One of the beauties of Orthodox hymnography and theological reflection is the sense of time or perhaps better one might say sense of timelessness.  Beginning with the Feast of Christmas, the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, Orthodox greet each other with the words “Christ IS born!”  The greeting is not past tense, but represents an eternal truth into which we enter.  For the birth of Christ, or more theologically said – the nativity according to the flesh of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ – is the time of the incarnation.  God has entered into time and transforms it into something capable of bearing divinity.

The truth we proclaim at Christmas is not merely a past historical event (Christ WAS born) but rather is the union of God with humanity, God becoming what we are, which was His plan from all eternity.  Christ is born is a truth that does not change with time – the Word of God has become flesh and dwells among us.  The incarnation is not a truth of the past, but a theological truth  which is still vibrant and active in the world.  Salvation like creation is an on-going process, not a one time past event.   Time cannot change what God has done and is doing to unite His creation to Himself.   [Note:  this is also why reading Genesis 1-3 merely as history or science, theologically undervalues the richness of the Scriptures.   As Jesus noted in John 5:17, the Father is working and so the Son is still working too.  Creation is an act  to be celebrated like the birth of Christ:  “Christ IS born” is theologically correct.  Genesis 1-3 introduces us to the dynamic of God’s creation – not a one time event but an on-going reality through which we experience our Creator daily.]

Consider one of the Pre-Feast Hymns of the Nativity (taken from Vespers of December 20):

LET US CELEBRATE, O PEOPLE,

THE PREFEAST OF CHRIST’S NATIVITY!

LET US RAISE OUR MINDS ON HIGH,

IN SPIRIT GOING UP TO BETHLEHEM.

WITH THE EYES OF OUR SOUL, LET US BEHOLD THE VIRGIN

AS SHE HASTENS TO THE CAVE TO GIVE BIRTH TO THE LORD

AND GOD OF ALL.

WHEN JOSEPH FIRST SAW THE MIGHTY WONDER,

HE THOUGHT THAT HE SAW ONLY A HUMAN CHILD WRAPPED IN SWADDLING CLOTHES,

BUT FROM ALL THAT CAME TO PASS HE DISCOVERED THE CHILD

TO BE THE TRUE GOD//

WHO GRANTS THE WORLD GREAT MERCY.

The hymn invites us to the event of Christ’s birth.  We are not asked to remember something that happened 2000 years ago, but rather to enter into the event itself and see the details of the even unfold.  While we will see some human events as they happened historically, we will be lifted up to realize the eternal truth contained in these historical events.  We are to be like Joseph in the hymn who at first sees only the human birth of a child, but then who comes to realize that this child is the incarnate God.   Our celebration of Christmas is not supposed to be just remembering the human events – or having nice warm fuzzies over something we’ve made into nostalgia.   Rather the events are to lift us up to heaven, to the eternal realities they represent, and to the divine dynamics at continuous work in God’s creation.  This is one way that iconography is far superior to a crèche in representing the birth in the flesh of the Son of God.

These same ideas are repeated and reinforced in the next hymn taken from the same Vesper verses:

LET US CELEBRATE, O PEOPLE,

THE PREFEAST OF CHRIST’S NATIVITY;

LET US RAISE OUR MINDS ON HIGH

IN SPIRIT GOING UP TO BETHLEHEM.

LET US BEHOLD THE GREAT MYSTERY IN THE CAVERN,

FOR EDEN IS OPENED ONCE AGAIN,

WHEN GOD COMES FORTH FROM A PURE VIRGIN,

REMAINING THE SAME PERFECT GOD, AND PERFECT MAN.

THEREFORE, LET US CRY ALOUD TO HIM,

HOLY GOD, FATHER WITHOUT BEGINNING,

HOLY MIGHTY, INCARNATE SON,

HOLY IMMORTAL, THE SPIRIT AND COMFORTER,//

HOLY TRINITY, GLORY TO YOU!

Note how we are to raise our minds on high – we are to be heavenly directed not historically directed to the past in contemplating the Christmas story.  This is not an archeological quest in search of the historical Jesus, but a journey of faith we are to make with open eyes to understand the fullness of the event as revealed to us in the Scriptures and through the witness of the disciples.  Historically, yes a human baby was born, but that historical fact shrouds an eternal truth which is also revealed in the Nativity story and in the life of Christ.

Christmas leads us not to an ornament laden tree with colorfully wrapped gifts underneath nor even to historical Bethlehem in the time of Herod the King.   Rather Christmas is a spiritual sojourn in which we “go up” to the heavenly or spiritual reality that is present on earth.  Christmas opens to us the gates leading to the Paradise of Eden.  The fullness of time becomes transfigured into an experience of the timelessness of God.   So if Christmas leads you no further than your Christmas tree, or even to events of 2000 years ago, you’ve got a much more exciting spiritual sojourn ahead.   Look up to God to see where He is leading you.

Why Did God Become Human?

“Why, the author asked the patriarch, did God become a human being? Cyril’s answer was unambiguous. The Incarnation was necessary for the fair conduct of the Last Judgment. For if God had not identified himself with human flesh, the Devil would be able, at the Last Judgment, to challenge God’s right to condemn the heartless who had failed to show pity on the poor. For as God had never been incarnated, so the Devil would claim, he had never himself felt the hunger and thirst of human beings. Why should human beings be condemned by him for having failed to understand the misery of their fellows, if he had not done so? The rich and powerful were entitled to have lived the way they did, as serenely unruffled by human misery as was God himself. Only a God who, in becoming Christ, had taken into his very being the thirst and hunger of humankind, could with perfect sincerity condemn the rich for lack of fellow feeling for the poor.” (Peter Brown, Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire, pg. 111)

Celebrating Christmas

This is our present Festival; it is this which we are celebrating, the Coming of God to Man, that we might go forth, or rather (for this is the more proper expression) that we might go back to God –  that putting off the old man, we might put on the New; and that as we died in Adam, so we might live in Christ, being born with Christ and crucified with Him and buried with Him and rising with Him. For where sin abounded grace did much more abound; and if a taste condemned us, how much more does the Passion of Christ justify us? Therefore let us keep  the Feast, not after the manner of a heathen festival, but after a godly sort; not after the way of the world, but in a fashion above the world; not as our own, but as belonging to Him Who is ours, or rather as our Master’s; not as of weakness, but as of healing; not as of creation, but of re-creation.  (St. Gregory Nazianzos in “On The Birthday of Christ”, O Logos Publishing, pg. 3)

God Dwells in His Word: The New Revelation of an Ancient Truth

The notion of the incarnation of the Word of God (John 1) is for Christians the revelation of God’s own mystery to the world.  It was at the time of Christ a new and startling revelation, unprecedented in Israel’s history, and yet it has its own prophetic and prototypical  precedence in the Jewish Scriptures (one thinks of Jewish thinking concerning Wisdom and Torah for example or even the city of Jerusalem as God’s dwelling place).  Fr. Paul Tarazi, for example in commenting on the Prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel notes that there is a message to the people of God that they have misunderstood Him when they remain so overly focused on the temple and the city of Jerusalem.  Tarazi writes:

“Moreover, not only are the kings of Jerusalem banned from God’s new abode described in Ezekiel 40-48, but also the name of Jerusalem itself does not appear at all in these chapters.  Since God is essentially a shepherd, his new abode is an open land of pasture, and not a walled city.  His ‘open’ city (Ezek 48:15-48) is wherever he chooses to be: ‘And the name of the city henceforth shall be, The lord is there.’ (Ezek 48:35b)  This God has forsaken Jerusalem and its temple, and established himself in Chebar, not in a new temple building, but within a written scroll.  He is contained within the dabar (= ‘word’)  spoken by the prophet Ezekiel (chs 1-3).  In other words,  God’s prophet becomes himself God’s new chosen residence and is in contradistinction and even opposition to an inimical Jerusalem and Judah, as the book of Jeremiah clearly confirms… (Jer 1:16-19).”  (quoted in SACRED TEXT AND INTERPRETATION, Theodore Stylianopoulos (ed), p 9)

God mysteriously dwells in and is contained in (but not by!) His Word.  God is encountered in and through His Word.  God is not bound to or limited by the temple or the city of Jerusalem.  Rather God transcends time or place and thus both moves the prophet and moves with the prophet.  The prophet and the prophetic voice are much more related to both the notion of shepherd and his flock as well as with the people of God sojourning on earth.

Thus in the Old Testament God is shown to dwell in His Word.  First God dwells in Torah.  Torah travels with the people of God wherever they go.  God is also portrayed as dwelling in the Jerusalem Temple, and in the prophets.

Then comes the new messianic revelation: God dwells in Jesus Christ, His incarnate Word.  Though this is a new revelation, it is also a continuation of what God revealed from the beginning.  Christianity thus receives and continues to remain faithful to the traditional concept of God dwelling in His Word and of God in His word being shepherd to His people.