Saintly Feminism & Martyrdom

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”  (Genesis 1:27-28)

“… there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  (Galatians 3:28 )

The Martyr Julitta at Cesarea (ca 304AD) is remembered on July 31.

Julitta was a wealthy woman and because of the on going persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, secretly a Christian.  Her life and martyrdom were written by St Basil the Great who offered this account of her martyrdom:

A wealthy man trying to take advantage of the fact that she was a woman wrongfully seized a good deal of her property.  When Julitta took  him to court to regain rightful possession of her property, the man exposed to the court that Julitta was a Christian.  The judge told her if she wanted to regain her property she would have to deny Christ and offer incense to an idol.  Julitta refused and was sentenced to be burned to death.  According to St Basil the Great, the Martry offered her final words to some other women standing nearby: “We are made of the same stuff as men.  We are made in the likeness of God just as they are.  The woman is made by the Creator to be just as capable of virtue as men.  How is this so?  Are we not related in every way?  For not only was the woman made by taking flesh from the man, but also bone from his bone.  Do we not then have the same obligation to the Lord as men, to be as constant in courage and patience?

St Basil concludes with this exhortation:  “I say to you men: Do not fall short of the example of this woman in your piety!  And women: Do not prove yourselves weaker than her example, but hold fast to your piety without excuses, through hearing her story.  Do not permit a soft nature to hinder anyone from doing good.”

(St Basil the Great, ON FASTING AND FEASTS, pp 110-111)

Finishing the Race

 Better is the end of a thing than its beginning; and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.  (Ecclesiastes 7:8)

But he who endures to the end will be saved.   (Matthew 24:13)

Jerome said:

‘Christians will not be asked how they began but rather how they finished. St. Paul began badly but finished well. Judas’s beginning was praiseworthy but his end was despicable.”

‘Many start the climb but few reach the summit.’

Gregory said:

‘The value of good work depends on perseverance.

‘You live a good life in vain if you do not continue it until you die.’

Isadore said:
‘Our behavior is only acceptable to God if we have the strength of purpose to complete any work we have undertaken.

‘Virtue is not a matter of starting well but of carrying on to the very end.

‘The reward is not promised to the one who begins, but rather to the one who perseveres.’”

(Defensor Grammaticus, Drinking from the Hidden Fountain, p. 171)

The Ascension of Humanity to Divinity

The Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ completes  cycle of salvation in which God became  human in the incarnation of the Word (John 1: ) and then the incarnate Word ascended bodily into heaven.  Thus all that divided humanity from divinity came to an end (see my post The Ascension: No Barrier to Heaven Ever Again).  God who always wished to dwell with and in us humans, whom God created in His own image and likeness, dwells with us in the incarnation and brings us to dwell with God in the ascension.  Salvation is thus by definition the elimination of all barriers to God’s unity with us and the establishment of this eternal communion between humanity and divinity. This definition of salvation was expressed in various ways from the earliest days of Christianity.  Norman Russell in his book, FELLOW WORKERS WITH GOD: ORTHODOX THINKING ON THEOSIS (pp 38-39) offers a collection of quotes from early church fathers which repeat this truth.

The Son of God ‘became what we are in order to make us what he is himself’ (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5, pref.).

‘The Word of God became man so that you too may learn from a man how it is even possible for a man to become a god’ (Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks 1.8.4).

‘He became human that we might become divine’ (Athanasius, On the Incarnation 54).

‘He gave us divinity, we gave him humanity’ (Ephrem, Hymns on Faith 5.7).

‘Let us become as Christ is, since Christ became as we are; let us become gods for his sake, since he became man for our sake’ (Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 1.5)

The Word became incarnate ‘so that by becoming as we are, he might make us as he is’ (Gregory of Nyssa, Refutations 11).

‘The Son of God became the Son of Man that he might make the sons of men sons of God’ (Augustine, Mainz sermons 13.1).

‘He became like us, a human being, that we might become like him, I mean gods and sons.  On the one hand he accepts what belongs to us, taking it to himself as his own, and on the other he gives us in exchange what belongs to him’ (Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John 12:1)

‘God and man are paradigms of one another, that as much as God is humanized to man through love for mankind, so much has man been able to deify himself to God through love’ (Maximus the Confessor, Amgibua, 10).

Asceticism: For the Love of God

Cassian John“’Fasts and vigils, the study of Scripture, renouncing possessions and everything worldly are not in themselves perfection, as we have said; they are its tools. For perfection is not to be found in them; it is acquired through them. It is useless, therefore, to boast of our fasting, vigils, poverty, and reading of Scripture when we have not achieved the love of God and our fellow men. Whoever has achieved love has God within himself and his intellect is always with God.’”   (St John Cassian, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 2490-94)

Renouncing the Passions

The patristic tradition, as well as contemporary psychology, has identified the restraints to perfect love. From an Orthodox perspective, if love is union with God, and the pursuit of love is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit then those things that separate us from God – sin, the passions, death, and the devil all represent restraints to perfect love.

Our own self centered, egocentric orientation, our fallen nature represent the biggest restraints to love. “When we speak of all the passions together, we call them ‘the world.’ So when Christians speak of renouncing the world, they mean renouncing the passions.”

(Philip Mamalakis, “The Spiritual Life and How to be Married in it,” Raising Lazarus, p. 223)

New Year Blessings

The Year of our Lord, 2019. 

May God bless you throughout the New Year!

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From the 4th Century comes this prayer of blessing:

Now, God who alone is unbegotten, and the Maker of the whole world, unite you all through His peace, in the Holy Spirit; perfect you unto every good work, immoveable, unblameable, and unreprovable; and vouchsafe to you eternal life with us, through the mediation of His beloved Son Jesus Christ our God and Saviour; with whom glory be to You, the God over all, and the Father, in the Holy Spirit the Comforter, now and always, and for ever and ever.  Amen.    (The Apostolic Constitutions, Kindle Loc. 4903-6)

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The Christian biblical commentator Origen, writing in the early 3rd Century, offered some explanation about what “blessing” means.

“’Bless and do not curse‘ (Romans 12:14).

The word “blessing” is used in different ways in the Scriptures.  God is said to bless humans or the other created things, while humans and other creatures are commanded to bless God. God’s blessing always bestows some gift on those whom God blesses. When humans are said to bless God, it means to give God praise and thanksgiving. When the Apostle says here, bless and do not curse, he is warning that when we are provoked by enemies or upset by insults, we should not return curses for curses but do what he writes about himself, when reviled, we bless (1 Cor 4:12).”  (Romans: Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators, Kindle Location 6068-71)

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May the blessing of the Lord be with you always.  Remember the wisdom: “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

The Genealogy of Jesus Christ

On the Sunday Before the Nativity, we read Matthew’s Gospel of the Genealogy of Christ – Matthew 1:1-25.  Jacob of Serugh (d. 519AD) composed a poem giving us an interesting insight into the genealogy and incarnation of Christ our God.

Jacob accepts the teaching of many Church Fathers that Jesus is the person in whose image Adam was originally made.  Thus Adam in his own person becomes a revelation of the Word of God.  In Adam we already see the Christ.  Adam is made as the icon of the pre-Incarnate Christ.  Adam in his person prophetically reveals Christ, and Christ shows us in the incarnation Adam the first formed human.  In every succeeding generation from Adam, the icon of God was preserved in this lineage.  The genealogy of Matthew’s Gospel is helping us to trace the lineage of God’s image found in humanity.

“You were hidden in Your Father, and He revealed You in Adam

when He created him:

He depicted in him the likeness of Your bodily existence and

Your revelation

The depiction of the King traveled down all generations,

transmitted mysteriously over the lineages,

so that God Himself might be mingled amongst humanity.

He gave His image from the very beginning of Creation so that

human being might be made in it,

for He was preparing to send His Son, the Only-Begotten;

and in the same fashion He came into the open, in bodily form:

for in the likeness of the Only-Begotten of the Godhead

He depicted Adam when He fashioned him, in a great mystery.

Christ our God creating Adam
Christ our God creating Adam

He (then) came back and took the likeness of His servant from

within the womb,

and became like him while He was delivering him from the

Rebel.

He came to His nativity, He took up His likeness, He delivered

His image.

He commenced and He completed in accordance with

His will in great love.

The upright throughout the generations held His likeness in

honour,

and for this reason the remembrance of them became

resplendent.

The fair Seth, who resembles his father, delineated

Him,

so that the world might see that the Son of God resembled him.

[According to Genesis 5:3, as God created Adam in God’s image, so Seth was in Adam’s image:  “When Adam had lived a hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.”  Thus the image of God was continued in the human race.   Jesus thus could be seen in both Adam and Seth and they in Him.]

Noah the just in that Ark which performed mysteries

depicted an image for Him, in that he was rescued from the

Flood.

To Abraham the Father spoke in

revelation,

saying that all the people would be blessed in his elect seed.

And because of this the Son of God was expected,

for the world had become aware that He would come in a

mysterious way. “

(Treasure-house of Mysteries: Explorations of the Sacred Text Through Poetry in the Syriac Tradition, pp 88-89)

 

The Living Word, Not Literalism

Previous post in the series:  Reading the Word of God, Becoming Scripture.  First post in the series: Jesus Christ, The Word of God and Scriptures.

In Orthodox Tradition, one way we enter into a relationship with the living Word of God is through the Scriptures.   Jesus Christ who is the Word of God is found hidden and then revealed in these written texts.  The Word of God, Jesus Christ, then lives in us and the Word becomes written on our hearts.  Because of the living nature of the Word, the Tradition of the Church has various warnings against an overly literalist reading of the Scriptures.  In this post we will look at a few comments that we find in our Tradition which address the issue of biblical literalism.

The Jewish biblical scholar, Geza Vermes, notes:

“Neither in the inter-Testamental period, nor in earlier biblical times, was the recording of history as we understand it a strong point among the Jews. Chroniclers are concerned not with factual information about bygone events, but with their religious significance. In Scripture, the ‘secular’ past is viewed and interpreted by the prophets as revealing God’s pleasure or displeasure. Victory or defeat in war, peace or social unrest, abundance of harvest or famine, serve to demonstrate the virtue or sinfulness of the nation and to forecast its future destiny.“  (The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, Kindle Loc. 1344-48)

The fact that Christians did not read the Scriptures first and foremost for historical/factual information is a hermeneutic already found in Judaism.  Scripture is less concerned about bygone events than it is about where God is to be found today and where God is leading us.  Limiting Scripture to its most basic, literal meaning, meant for the Church Fathers not comprehending the God who is outside of human history and not bound by it.  So Tertullian says in the late Second Century:

First of all, in Genesis, it says: “Adam and Eve heard the voice of God walking in the garden in the cool of the evening. And Adam and his wife hid from the face of the Lord God in the midst of the trees in the garden” (Gen 3.8). To those who are unwilling to enter the treasury of the passage, who will not even knock at its door, will I put this question: can they demonstrate that the Lord God, who fills the heaven and the earth, who uses heaven as a throne (in a material sense, they must presume) and the earth as a footstool for his feet (Is 66.1), is contained by a place which, by comparison with the heaven and the earth, is so narrow, and yet that this garden (which they must suppose to be corporeal) is not filled with God but is so much greater in its size than he that it can contain him walking in it, so that the sound of his footfalls is audible?

It is yet more absurd that, on this interpretation, Adam and Eve should, out of fear of God through their transgression, hide themselves “from the face of God in the midst of the trees in the garden.” For it does not say that they simply wished to hide, but that they actually hid. How then is it, according to their view, that God speaks to Adam and asks: “Where are you?”  (On The Lord’s Prayer, Kindle Loc. 3286-96)

Tertullian says even logic tells us we cannot read the Scriptures completely literally, the anthropomorphic images of God simply are inconsistent with what we know about God.  We have to adjust our thinking and imagination in order to make sense of these passages.  The text doesn’t make literal sense, but we can make sense of the text and accept its truthfulness when we adopt the proper interpretative framework.

St. John of Damascus considering the many passages in the Bible which ascribe to God physical body parts (the hand of God or God’s eyes) writes:

Since we find many terms used symbolically in the Scriptures concerning God which are more applicable to that which has body, we should recognize that it is quite impossible for us men clothed about with this dense covering of flesh to understand or speak of the divine and lofty and immaterial energies of the Godhead, except by the use of images and types and symbols derived from our own life. So then all the statements concerning God, that imply body, are symbols, but have a higher meaning: for the Deity is simple and formless.

Hence by God’s eyes and eyelids and sight we are to understand His power of overseeing all things and His knowledge, that nothing can escape: for in the case of us this sense makes our knowledge more complete and more full of certainty. By God’s ears and hearing is meant His readiness to be propitiated and to receive our petitions: for it is this sense that renders us also kind to suppliants, inclining our ear to them more graciously. God’s mouth and speech are His means of indicating His will; for it is by the mouth and speech that we make clear the thoughts that are in the heart: God’s food and drink are our concurrence to His will, for we, too, satisfy the necessities of our natural appetite through the sense of taste. And God’s sense of smell is His appreciation of our thoughts of and good will towards Him, for it is through this sense that we appreciate sweet fragrance. . .  His anger and fury are His hatred of and aversion to all wickedness, for we, too, hate that which is contrary to our mind and become enraged thereat. His forgetfulness and sleep and slumbering are His delay in taking vengeance on His enemies and the postponement of the accustomed help to His own. And to put it shortly, all the statements made about God that imply body have some hidden meaning and teach us what is above us by means of something familiar to ourselves, with the exception of any statement concerning the bodily sojourn of the God-Word. For He for our safety took upon Himself the whole nature of man, the thinking spirit, the body, and all the properties of human nature, even the natural and blameless passions.  (Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Kindle Loc 464-74, 481-85)

For St. John of Damascus any anthropomorphizing of God – mentioning God’s body parts or human emotions – automatically tells us that text is to be read in some symbolic or mystical fashion.  Those texts are referring exactly to some hidden meaning about God.  The anthropomorphic images are used to help us understand God, but they in no way give us a actual portrayal of God.  To read them literally would be to misunderstand the text completely.  The only exception to this rule for St. John is when reading about Jesus Christ in the Gospel for there God is truly incarnate and that truth is expressed precisely in the Christ’s human body and human behavior.

St Maximos the Confessor in two passages offers us the same teaching.

When a man sticks to the mere letter of Scripture, his nature is governed by the senses alone, in this way proving his soul’s attachment to the flesh. For if the letter is not understood in a spiritual way, its significance is restricted to the level of the senses, which do not allow its full meaning to pass over into the intellect. When the letter is appropriated by his senses alone, he receives it Judaic-wise merely in the literal sense, and so lives according to the flesh, spiritually dying each day the death of sin on account of his forceful senses; for he cannot put his body’s pursuits to death by the Spirit in order to live the life of bliss in the Spirit. ‘For if you live according to the flesh, you will die,’ says St Paul, ‘but if through the Spirit you put to death the body’s pursuits, you will live’ (Rom. 8:13).”   (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 19141-51)

For St. Maximos to read the Scriptures purely literally is to live according to the flesh, not the spirit.  It is the way of death.

“Everyone who does not apply himself to the spiritual contemplation of Holy Scripture has, Judaic-wise, also rejected both the natural and the written law; and he is ignorant of the law of grace which confers deification on those who are obedient to it. He who understands the written law in a literal manner does not nourish his soul with the virtues. He who does not grasp the inner principles of created beings fails to feast his intellect on the manifold wisdom of God. And he who is ignorant of the great mystery of the new grace does not rejoice in the hope of future deification. Thus failure to contemplate the written law spiritually results in a dearth of the divine wisdom to be apprehended in the natural law; and this in its turn is followed by a complete ignorance of the deification given by grace according to the new mystery.”    (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 19567-75)

Reading the Scriptures purely literally explains for Maximos exactly why the Jews misunderstood Christ and did not recognize him as Messiah or as God.  The literal reading of Scripture fails to lead a person to Christ or the Kingdom of God.

A person who does not penetrate with his intellect towards the divine and spiritual beauty contained within the letter of the Law develops a propensity for pleasure – that is, an attachment to the world and a love of worldly things; for his knowledge derives merely from the literal expression of the Law.   (St. Maximos, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 19489-91)

It is not only a failure to see the incarnate Word that results from an overly literal reading of Scripture.  Such a literal reading of Scripture has an impact on daily life and behavior.  So we see in the desert fathers this story  of misreading the Scriptures because of being overly literal.

A certain brother went to Abba Poemen on the second Sunday in the Fast of Forty Days and repeated unto him his thoughts, and sighing over what the old man had told him, he said unto him, “I had almost kept myself from coming here today”; and the old man said, ” Why?” Then the brother said, ” I said in my mind, peradventure during the fast the “door will be closed against thee“; and Abba Poemen said unto him, ” We do not learn to shut a door made of wood, but to close the door of the tongue.”  (The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers, Kindle Loc. 80-83)

Next:   Literalism: The Word of God vs. Scriptures

Reading the Word of God, Becoming Scripture

Previous post in series:  Christ in the Old Testament

“When you read Holy Scripture, perceive its hidden meanings. ‘For whatever was written in past times was written for our instruction’ (Rom. 15:4).”    (St. Mark the Ascetic, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 2997-98)

St. Mark, writing in the 5th Century, reflects an attitude common in the ancient Church about reading Scripture.  He calls us to look for its “hidden meanings.”   The obvious, literal meaning is there and is true, there was no question about that.  What was also believed is that because the manuscript really contained a divine meaning, there was more to the text than its most obvious reading.  God is revealing Himself to us through the Scriptures and we need to be aware of this and to look for it.  The “hidden meaning” exactly would not be immediately obvious to us, but if our hearts were pure and prepared we would recognize the revelation hidden in the obvious.  God is the Lord who reveals Himself to us in nature as well as in the Scriptures, but we have to have the heart ready to see in order to become aware of the revelation.  The Patristic writers certainly believed that is how the authors of the New Testament read the Old Testament.  They saw this, for example, in how St. Paul interprets the Jewish scriptures (see 1 Corinthians 9:9-11 or Galatians 4:21-25).   As many of the Fathers understood it, the Transfiguration of Christ (Mark 9 and parallels) is about the apostles being transfigured so that they could see Christ as He always is.  Christ’s divinity remained hidden in His humanity, but in that moment of the transfiguration, their eyes were opened and they saw the revelation of God which had been hidden from them.  The apostle’s eyes were opened, and so can ours be as we read the Bible and move beyond the literal text to the revelation contained in them.

We have to put the effort into fully understanding the Scriptures, which also means understanding how the early Church fathers read the biblical narrative, how they interpreted the text and used them in their own explanations and argumentation.  St. John of Damascus offers this:

“If we read once or twice and do not understand what we read, let us not grow weary, but let us persist, let us talk much, let us enquire. For ask thy Father, he saith, and He will shew thee: thy elders and they will tell thee (Deuteronomy 32:7). For there is not in every man that knowledge. Let us draw of the fountain of the garden perennial and purest waters springing into life eternal. Here let us luxuriate, let us revel insatiate: for the Scriptures possess inexhaustible grace. But if we are able to pluck anything profitable from outside sources, there is nothing to forbid that. Let us become tried money-dealers, heaping up the true and pure gold and discarding the spurious. Let us keep the fairest sayings but let us throw to the dogs absurd gods and strange myths: for we might prevail most mightily against them through themselves.   (Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Kindle Loc. 3199-3204)

In the above quote, I first note the use of the Deuteronomy 32:7 passage.  It gives us a sense how the Fathers made use of all Scriptures sometimes very creatively using what otherwise is a text completely understandable in its original context, to further their own arguments.  They saw the Scriptures as speaking to them and not just historical texts whose meaning was limited to its original use.  St. John is putting into practice what he read in Romans 15:4 that the ancient scriptures were written for our instruction.  The Scripture is not so much history but instruction in how we should live today.  That is part of the hidden message we had to discern in the manuscript.

When we meditate wisely and: continually on the law of God, study psalms and canticles, engage-in fasting and vigils, and always bear in mind what is to come – the kingdom of heaven, the Gehenna of fire and all God’s works — our wicked thoughts diminish and find no place.  (St. John Cassian, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle  Loc. 2530-32)

Cassian reveals another common thought in the Patristic mind – the Scriptures should not be read as ancient texts revealing past history.  They really help prepare us for what is coming – the eschaton, the Kingdom of God and the final judgment.  So to try to milk from the Scriptures ideas about how God created the world, is to read the Bible badly and for the wrong purpose.  Those old texts point to Christ and to the future Kingdom of God.  We should read them accordingly.

We read the Scriptures to come to  know our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate.   When we truly understand the Scriptures, God begins to write on our hearts.  We become His scriptures!

St. Maximos the Confessor proclaims:

“When God comes to dwell in such a heart, He honors it by engraving His own letters on it through the Holy Spirit, just as He did on the Mosaic tablets (cf. Exod. 31:18).”     (Kindle Loc. 15522-24)

As St. Paul has it:

You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men; and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.  (2 Corinthians 3;2-3)

St. Maximos continues:

“A pure heart is perhaps one which has no natural propulsion towards anything in any manner whatsoever. When in its extreme simplicity such a heart has become like a writing-tablet beautifully smoothed and polished. God comes to dwell in it and writes there His own laws.”   (The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15528-30)

The Word of God comes to dwell in us and we become the living Scriptures bearing witness to Christ in us.  The Word becomes written on our hearts, and the printed text of the Bible is superseded by the human fulfilling the role that God always intended for us.  We are created in the image of the Word, created to bear the Word in our hearts.  In the beginning, God did not write Scriptures.  Rather God created us humans to be the living Scriptures.  It was a role in creation which lost through sin.  The written manuscripts became necessary to remind us of what we are to be.

Next:   The Living Word, Not Literalism

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)