A Life-giving Myth (II)

This is the 2nd post in this series based on the short story, “A Life-giving Myth, ” by Fr John Breck from his book, THE LONG JOURNEY HOME.  The first post is A Life-giving Myth (I).  The story is basically a lecture given by a college professor which offers some profound insights into the nature of Christian thinking and theology.  Breck argues in the story that there is a good and proper understanding of “myth” which is helpful for the Christian to know when reading Scripture.  Myth doesn’t mean fantasy or fiction, but is rather offering theology in narrative to help reveal the mystery of God.  “Myth” opens our heart and mind and the Scriptures to the truth which is being revealed to us in a language which helps get us beyond human limitations – which is made possible through art (icons), poetry (hymns), symbol and ritual.  So in the story, the professor lectures:

“People usually read the Bible as though it were a history book or a scientific account that details how God created the world (‘in six days,’ as bad exegesis would have it); how he chose and delivered the Hebrew people from an implacably hostile world; sent his Son from heaven to dwell as a man among men; tolerated his Son’s crucifixion as a vicarious death that frees us from the consequences of our personal sin, and by his ‘descent into hell’ destroyed the power of death; then raised his Son from the tomb and exalted him into heaven, a location conceived as somewhere ‘up there’ or ‘out there.’  These are the basic elements of God’s saving work, presented in Scripture and interpreted in various ways of preachers and teachers in our churches and seminaries.  The faith of most of us is shaped by these traditional elements, whether or not we accept them as ‘fact.'”  (pp 219-220)

The story’s professor says if we want to understand Scripture we have to be prepared to understand myth – how the narrative takes us to a deeper level and meaning.  For example, Old Testament narratives reveal Christ to us.  If we read the Old Testament only as history, we miss its point.  The texts are pointing beyond their literal meaning to the Kingdom of God, to Christ, to the Holy Trinity and to the eschaton in which Christ is revealed to all.  A purely literal reading of the text will cause us to miss the depths of what God is revealing about history and about creation and about what it means to be human.  Genesis is not trying to offer a scientific explanation of creation since in the modern understanding of “science” since science really only considers materialism whereas Genesis is offering a spiritual understanding of the empirical universe.

The story’s lecturer continues:

“This kind of perspective has also influenced – and deformed – our understanding of miracles.  Rather than receive them as ‘signs’ of the presence of the Kingdom of God within the world, we see them as exceptional occurrences that suspend or otherwise defy natural law.  In working miracles, we think, God breaks the rules to perform some extraordinary exploit that we request or that  he sees as necessary for the spiritual progress and enlightenment of his people.” (p 220)

Scriptural miracles are showing us that our world has an interface with the transcendent, with the divine, with all that is holy and glorious, with all that God is revealing to us.  If we only seek out the “magic” of the miraculous (defying nature), we fail to see the miracles are revealing God to us.  We end up caring more about the gift than the Giver of every good and perfect gift.  Miracles are a potential window into heaven, into paradise, where we can see God.  For Breck’s professor, what we need is to have revived in our hearts and minds a godly sense of myth, to help us see beyond the literal.  The empirical world can be studied by science because of its predictability and the laws of nature which govern the physical world.  The miraculous is not mostly a breaking of the laws of science as it is the breaking into the empirical world by transcendence.  We come to realize something more than the material world actually exists.  That’s what miracles do, but sadly and too often we try to change them into magic, a way in which we believe we can control these mysterious powers.  Just as quantum mechanics has revealed the empirical world is not fully grasped by Newtonian physics, so too Christianity points out there is mystery fully present in the empirical world.  And for many scientifically trained people the very problem with miracles is it leads people to want to practice magic to control things, and for them that reduces miracles to mere superstition as they don’t believe nature can be controlled by magic.

“A good example of mythological imagery is provided by the Exodus tradition.  This foundational experience in Israel’s history is recounted in different versions by the author of the book of Exodus and by the psalmist.  In both, cases, the Exodus from Egypt can be fully understood only as a typological myth, a pre-figuration of the deliverance of God’s people from captivity and death to freedom and eternal life.  As a literary trope it unites the two Testaments – Old and New, First and Second – so thoroughly that the Church Fathers could only conceive of the Bible as a diptych: two complementary panels that are self-referential and completely interdependent.  The major bond between the two Testaments is precisely ‘myth’: the unifying story of Israel’s call and saving vocation, fulfilled in the incarnation and saving mission of the Son of God.”  (p 222)

The Old Testament reveals the New, and the New  Testament is foreshadowed in the Old.  The narrative of the Old Testament prepares us from the events of the New, and the New Testament reveals the meaning of the Old.  “Myth” here is not fiction, but the narrative which ties together not only the two Covenants, Old and New, but also heaven and earth, the spiritual and physical, the living and the dead, Creator and creation, humanity and the world, sentience and inanimate, consciousness and existence.

“This explains the reason why the first chapter of Genesis must be read symbolically.  Its purpose is not to reveal historical fact.  It is to affirm that the one true God is Creator and Lord of all things in heaven and on earth, things he has delivered into the hands of those created in his own ‘image’ and ‘likeness.’  It’s pointless, therefore, to look for scientific confirmation of the creation events as Genesis describes them.  If for example, the account declares that the sun and the moon were created after the earth and its vegetation, it is primarily to counter worship of the sun by Israel’s pagan neighbors.  The author of the account never intended for it to be read as a scientific recital of actual events in their historical sequence.  The first eleven chapters of Genesis and much else in the Hebrew Scriptures can only be properly read and understood as ‘myth’ in the sense that I have defined it.  It is an example of ‘sacred history’ whose purpose is to draw mind and heart to recognition of the God of Israel as the one and only Lord of the universe, and to worship him accordingly.  Biblical myth thus unites history and eternity, and its ultimate purpose is to lead us beyond the limits of space and time, to open our eyes and hearts to transcendent reality and ultimate Truth.”  (p 223)

The purpose of the Old Testament is not mostly to give us history or science, rather its very purpose is to help us see God and to recognize God’s own activity in this world.  To look to the Bible for science and history is to lose sight that it is revealing God to us, it is using history to reveal transcendence to us, to open our eyes to the Kingdom of God, not to teach us material science.  This is how understanding myth and poetry can uplift us to see the transcendent God in the words of Scripture.

Science has tried to carve out its role as studying the empirical universe and thus limiting its study to materialism.  The fight between science and religion is between those who won’t accept the limits science imposes on itself and those who want to impose on science a narrative that is beyond what science is claiming for itself.  Some want the Bible to be “science” but it can never be that by the very definition that modern science imposes on itself.   The very nature of the Bible – a revelation from, about and of the transcendent – is outside anything science can deal with.  It is a narrative that guides believers in their understanding of the empirical universe (that which is the limit of scientific study).  Science is trying to reveal all the mysteries which are found in the empirical universe.  If science embraces an overarching narrative, it is a narrative that is limited to the empirical order which science studies.  Its conclusions can’t be beyond what the physical world can reveal.   Science cannot offer that narrative which guides believers in understanding the created order, though scientific discovery can cause believers to have to re-imagine their narrative because of the marvels it discovers.

“This was the approach adopted by the early Church Fathers, and it needs to be our approach today as well.  It means also that the Christian narrative, from the call of Israel to the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of the Son of God, needs to be conceived as myth in the true sense: a narrative that opens eyes of faith to the presence of eternity within our time and space, and to the working out within that framework of our salvation.” (p 233)

The Bible does not limit itself to speaking about space and time, but rather its context is God and how space and time occur within the God in whom we live and move and have our being.  Creation speak about the Creator.  Science can and does teach us about creation, but it cannot speak to that truth of the transcendent reality to which creation is a witness.  The Bible speaks to us about the transcendent God who is ever attempting to reveal Himself in ways we can comprehend – which means in and through the created order.  We can marvel when science reveals some hidden truth which helps us know the Creator, but we can also marvel when science simple reveals something about material creation, when science unlocks some mystery about the empirical universe.  Believers may be able to use scientific insight to better understand God’s revelation, but science will never be able to do that.

Next: The Transcendent Myth

 

A Life-giving Myth (I)

“A Life-giving Myth” is the title of a short story in John Breck’s THE LONG JOURNEY HOME.  It is the last and longest story in the collection.  The stories are OK, but in some of them the “story” is superfluous as  is the case “The Life-giving Myth” where a professor is giving a lecture and the content of the story is the lecture.  It easily could have been presented as an essay.  It was my only favorite in the collection of stories.    In this series of  three posts I want to highlight the things from the “story” which seemed so profound to me.

“… those who have drifted away from the faith under secularizing pressures, or because we in the Church have done a poor job of opening their eyes to transcendent reality, and to the presence in creation and in their lives of an infinitely powerful and all-loving God.” (p 218)

The Church leadership and members should remind themselves constantly that our real goal is to open the eyes of everyone to that transcendent reality who is love and who cares about all of creation, namely our God.  The Church too often reduces itself to defending Tradition, maintaining customs, opposing countless sins and human failures.  The Church sometimes sees the job of leadership as to be police rather than pastors (shepherds)- enforcing rules, disciplining the unruly, imprisoning in hell non-conformists.   The Church gets reduced to law enforcement as well as being involved in judgement and even punishment of sinners, rather than in their salvation.  Another unfortunate development is when the Church is willing  to be the hiding place for anyone who is afraid of the 20th Century (even though we are already in the 21st!).   Clergy can act as if their only real concern is that someone unworthy might try to touch God and the clergy come to think that their main purpose is to make sure that doesn’t happen.  Clergy, canons, iconostases, asceticsm can be used as little more than the tools to keep the unworthy away from God, so that the laity remain forever exiled from God because of their sinfulness.  AND, at times clergy act as if their main message is to make sure the laity are aware that they (the laity) are deservedly exiled from God . In this thinking, Heaven is the goal but it will always be far beyond the people’s reach because they are unworthy.

Breck instead envisions a transcendent God who in Christ is imminent and accessible to humans:

“Eternity in fact is ever-present.  it is not only beyond time and space, beyond the physical universe.  It embraces and penetrates, so to speak, everything that exists, including ourselves.”  (p 232)

The claim of the Gospel is that God is always drawing us to Himself to embrace us, love us, share His divine life with us.  The whole of Orthodoxy is based in one idea that God is the Lord and has revealed Himself to us.  God wants us (especially sinners!) to come to Him.  God came to earth to gather us together, not to cause us to flee from His presence.  The purpose of Liturgy and ritual and Scripture is to make God accessible to us – to make the transcendent break into our lives.

And for this reason Breck tries to rescue the idea of “myth” as a way of seeing how God is making Himself known to us and accessible to us.  Scripture is theology under the guise of narrative as the Fathers said.  Myth in this thinking does not mean “fiction” but provides us a way of gaining insight into reality.  God uses “story” or narrative to convey divine and eternal truths to us even in our sinfulness and despite it.

“Such myths use symbolic metaphorical language to express relationship between heaven and earth, between God and human kind, that ordinary language is incapable of revealing and expressing.”  (220-221)

How often the Patristic writers warned us that our language is inadequate for understanding God, and that if we think too literally, we not only do not understand God but rather turn God into an idol of our our making, in our own image, to suit our own purposes.   Poetry and myth, the languages of Scripture try to lead us beyond the limitations of our own experience and to take us to the unknown, to God as God is and chooses to reveal Himself to us.  Poetry and myth both remind us that God cannot be apprehended by human concepts and language.

“…every aspect of our life, every atom of our physical being, every movement of our heart is directed by him (God) teleologically toward a single goal:  the goal of life beyond the physical existence, with a full participation in his own divine life.  Thus we can affirm that he not only knows ‘about’ our needs, our suffering and our destiny; he shares actively and decisively in them.  He ‘knows’ them in the biblical sense of participation.  There is no human suffering, for example, that he does not share to the very depths.  As Isaiah declares of the Lord’s Servant, ‘he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.‘  This is as true a characteristic of God as his creative energy that ceaselessly brings things from non-existence into being.”  (pp 230-231)

God does not leave us to history, God enters into history and shares our history including the pain and sorrow of it.  God accepts our destiny, becoming one with us, part of the created order and what is happening and is going to happen to humanity, the world and the cosmos.  Nothing that happens or that He allows to happen has no impact or effect on God – in fact all of it impacts God and God in the incarnation makes sure of that!   History and our experience of it become imbued with divinity, and thus become something more than mere materialistic events, they become the stories of God, they are turned into God’s Word.  The Word becomes flesh, but in that process human life becomes the Word as recorded in the Scriptures.  Myth in this sense is not fiction but human life revealing divinity and divinity working in and through humans and human history.  We can never fully understand how the transcendent God can not only touch creation but becomes part of it.  That is the real sense of Christian myth – our world touched by the transcendent because God is revealing Himself to us and in His Light we see light.

Christianity is not meant to be a self-help program to allow us to succeed or be satisfied with material creation.  Christianity is not trying just to help us get to heaven.  Rather Christianity is God’s own presence in this world, enabling us all to become united with God, here and now – to experience heaven on earth even in the midst of sin and suffering and death because Christ has overcome this world.  Christianity is revealing this world as our way to union with God.

We really don’t need the Church to tell us how far we have become separated from God, alienated from the divine, exiled from Heaven.  We can experience that perfectly in our daily lives.  What we need is for someone to show us the way to reunion with God, to show us what communion with God looks like, and enables us to become deified.  That is the purpose of the Liturgy, of icons, of ritual, symbol, or poetic hymns.  It lifts us up to heaven and makes heaven present on earth.

Next: A Life-giving Myth (II)

 

Noah: Prophet Preparing Us for the Coming of Christ

During the week days of Great Lent we generally do not read Scripture lessons from the New Testament.  Rather, the daily readings are from Isaiah, Proverbs and Genesis.  This does give us a chance to contemplate a world without Christ and the resurrection – to intensify our sense of being in exile from the Kingdom of God.  We  think about the world of the Fall before the coming of Christ and yet, paradoxically,  our food fasting by denying us the foods of the fallen world enables us to experience the foods available to us in Paradise (Genesis 1:29, 2:16).  And yet . . . we don’t ever read the Old Testament apart from Christ.   We always read the Old Testament through the lens of Christ and we believe the Old Testament bears witness to Christ and is about Him.  We read the Old Testament to learn about Christ, not about science or history.  Jesus said of the Old Testament:

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)

Moses wasn’t writing history so much as writing about Christ!  That is how Jesus Himself reads and understands Genesis.  So the real question for us as Christians is not “what does Genesis teach us about ancient history?”, but what does it teach us about Christ?  What was Moses trying to tell us about the Christ long before Jesus was even born?  Throughout the New Testament, we see how the New Testament authors read Moses as being a prophet, writing about what God is doing and what God is going to do.  Noah in this context too is a prophet, preparing us to know Christ.

So in Matthew 24:36-44 we read Jesus teaching about the end times, the eschaton:

“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of man. …  Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the householder had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”

 

We read a very similar message in the parallel passage in Luke 17:26-30 where Jesus says:

As it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of man. They ate, they drank, they married, they were given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise as it was in the days of Lot—they ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom fire and sulphur rained from heaven and destroyed them all— so will it be on the day when the Son of man is revealed.

The story of Noah and the flood is mentioned in the Gospels not to teach us about ancient history, but to prepare us for the future second coming of the Lord.  If reading about the Flood causes you to want to go in search of the ark, you are looking in the wrong direction, for the Gospels says the narrative about Noah is to prepare us for the eschaton and the end of this world.  Noah’s story looks even beyond the time of the Gospel into the parousia when Christ will come in glory.  We are reading the account of Noah during Great Lent, not to learn history but to get our minds geared toward the future coming of Christ.  The story of the flood is thus orienting us toward Christ and His coming again, not to some ancient event or story which may or may not have happened.

In Hebrews 11:6-7, we read:

And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, took heed and constructed an ark for the saving of his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness which comes by faith.

Noah in this text is being upheld as a model of a person of faith, who doesn’t know what is going to happen, but who believes in God.  Again, the lesson is being used to orient us toward this future and what God is going to do.  We need to live by faith in this world in order to be righteous as Noah was righteous – we are awaiting Christ’s coming again, just as Noah had to wait to see what God was going to do.

In 1 Peter 3:18-22, St Peter connects the story of Noah to baptism to help us understand the sacrament and life in the Church.  The Church is like Noah’s ark in which we are saved from the flood, but the flood is no longer drowning sinners but rather the waters are cleansing us from sin.

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.

Photo by Jim Forest

Finally, St Peter also interprets the scriptures of Noah and the flood as a teaching about the future Judgment of the world:

For if God . . . did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven other persons, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly . . . then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, (2 Peter 2:4-9)

There is a “history lesson” to be learned from the Genesis account of Noah and the flood, but the lesson is to help us get through our current struggles in this world and to prepare us from the coming judgment day.   The New Testament interprets and uses the Genesis flood story to show us God’s concern for the righteous in this world and to prepare us for the coming judgment of God.  We should not be caught by surprise about events that are going to take place, because we have been forewarned about Christ’s coming again.  However, if we read about Noah to learn ancient history, we are going to miss the real lesson of Genesis, which is as Christ said about Him not about the past.

Jesus and Moses

And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. . . .  Then he said to them, “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.”  (Luke 24:27, 44)

In the Footsteps of Christ: Walking on Water

The Gospel lesson of Matthew 14:22-34 has many, what biblical commentators would call, “textual irritants.”  Textual irritants are things found in the text that cause you to stop reading and take a closer look at the text – what does it mean?  Why did it use these particular words?  Why is the grammar or vocabulary unusual or unexpected?   Textual irritants are things in the text that stand out and make you take notice so that you stop reading and start pondering.   Let’s consider the Gospel lesson of the Lord walking on water:

Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away.

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In 14:22 – Jesus makes the disciples get into the boat, it is already late evening (Matt 14:15 & 23).  Why does Jesus have to compel them into the boat?  He forces them to do something they  perhaps didn’t want to do.  Was the bad weather, which will be described in 14:24 already obvious to them?  They had already survived one storm at sea, but Jesus was in the boat with them that time, though he was asleep (Matt 8:23-27).  Now He is pushing them into the boat but is not going with them.  Chrysostom and other Church Fathers think Jesus was gradually teaching them to trust Him, but each time the lesson is a little more difficult.  First He was with them at sea in the storm, but asleep, now He is sending them into the storm but not going with them.  He wants them to learn to trust Him according to these Fathers.

And when He had sent the multitudes away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. Now when evening came, He was alone there.

Matthew 14:15 says the evening was coming on which led to the disciples wanting Jesus to dismiss the crowd.  Evening was coming on but then Jesus took time to feed the 5000, all ate a full meal and were satisfied, and 12 baskets full of leftovers were gathered up and the crowd was dismissed and the disciples sent off and Jesus went up to pray [Note well: feeding 5000 people takes a lot of time as does dismissing 5000 people].   And then after all these events we read again in 14:23 that evening was coming on – the exact same phrase as before the multiplication of loaves took place.  It is as if no time had elapsed despite all that had happened.  The next time reference in the text at 14:25 mentions the 4th Watch of the night, somewhere between 3-6am.  But the time of the feeding of the 5000 is not only in an unusual place – a deserted place, but the time seems  suspended as well.  Have they entered into and are they experiencing the time of the Kingdom?  The day which has no end?  And there shall be continuous day (it is known to the LORD), not day and not night, for at evening time there shall be light.”  (Zechariah 14:7)

[Also interesting is that in 14:15, the disciples wanted Jesus to send the crowd away for evening was coming on, but Christ choose to feed that crowd first.  Now Jesus sends the disciples away BEFORE dismissing the crowd!  Jesus  is teaching them something – this is part of their formation as disciples.   And then evening finally comes on.]

But the boat was now in the middle of the sea, tossed by the waves, for the wind was contrary.

The wind (Greek: anemou).  The Evangelist Matthew had in the Greek language a number of different words he could use to refer to the wind.  He chooses one which gives us a sense of the wind as a force of nature.  The wind is powerful and unpredictable, we don’t know where it comes from or where it is going (John 3:8).  The word is used in the expression “ scattered to the 4 winds” meaning the entire world, or the world in which God acts.  This wind will be significant to Peter in a moment.

The wind was contrary –  Remember Jesus sent the disciples out on the sea, and now the wind is against them.  Was this a sign from God that they were headed in the wrong direction?  On the boat they were probably wondering why in the world Jesus had sent them out there in the first place.  Now God was opposing them . . . or was it God, or is it a force that opposes God?  Is the lesson they are learning is that doing the will of God is not easy and sometimes all the forces of nature and the world will oppose you when you set out to do God’s will?

Now in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, “It is a ghost!”

 Disciples see Jesus walking on the sea, but it is night, and the wind is howling and the waves buffeting the boat, there are no spotlights on the boat.  They are looking into the darkness and see something walking on the sea.  If the wind and water were totally calm, one might be able to see something on the water, but the wind is blowing hard, so the waves would be roiling as well.   It is pretty hard to see under such conditions, no wonder they are troubled by seeing anything on the water, let alone a person!  They see someone on the water, not in a boat, so of course they think it has to be a phantom of some kind.

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The disciples are not only seeing something, they are having some kind of spiritual experience, for their eyes alone would not be able to see much as it is dark.  The disciples had experienced something of eternity when Christ fed the 5000, something outside of normal time.  Now they experience another spiritual reality.

In 14:26 disciples seeing  is in Greek: idontes – experience or perceive.   Note that in 14:30 the Evangelist uses a totally different word in describing Peter seeing.  There he uses the Greek: Blepwn –  which is the word meaning the opposite of blindness,  but also spiritual perception and insight.  The fact that Matthew uses two different Greek words for seeing tells us he is putting special stress on how and what they are seeing.

And they cried out for fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.”

 The disciples cry out in fear, but Jesus calmly speaks to them.  Again, one wonders how they could have heard him so clearly under these windy conditions.  He must be very near their boat, another sign that something supernatural is happening.  They are able to hear and see under very adverse conditions.   We might call to mind Isaiah 32:1-4 –  “Behold, a king will reign in righteousness, and princes will rule in justice. Each will be like a hiding place from the wind, a covert from the tempest, like streams of water in a dry place, like the shade of a great rock in a weary land. Then the eyes of those who see will not be closed, and the ears of those who hear will hearken. The mind of the rash will have good judgment, and the tongue of the stammerers will speak readily and distinctly.”  

 And Peter answered Him and said, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” So He said, “Come.”

 “Command me to come” –  Peter, as rash as he sometime is, dares not of his own volition join Christ in this revelation.   He cannot come out on the water on his own, and he knows it.  But if Christ commands him to come  out, he is willing to obey.   Was Peter trying to show off how obedient he could be?  Or trying to show the other disciples that he indeed was greater than them and had a special relationship to Christ?  Or trying to show that he was not afraid – he is obeying Jesus’ command not to be afraid but to be of good cheer?

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Does Jesus invite Peter to come, or command him to come?  In either case, Peter has to decide to do what Christ tells him.  Without hesitation Peter does as Christ bids him to do.

[One is reminded of the demons of the Gadarene demoniacs (Matt 8) asking Christ to apostolize them by sending them into the herd of swine.  They can’t do it on their own, in Christ’s presence, they need Christ’s permission.]

And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!”

Seeing the wind (Greek: anemou).  He would have felt the wind all along as it was battering the boat.  All the disciples knew the wind was blowing strongly against them.  What did Peter suddenly see?    One doesn’t normally see the wind, but one can see what the wind can do – the force of the wind against things.  Peter apparently sees the wind to be the power of nature even chaos it represents, a force far greater than himself Peter has choices before him.  He has to decide what the forceful wind represents – it is a force to be reckoned with, yet is it God’s will or God’s presence or is it opposing God?   Peter faces what the Prophet Elijah encountered: And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind …  (1 Kings 19:11)

Peter can focus his sight on God in Christ,  or on the wind that great force of nature and a real threat to Peter, or on his on experience and the limits of his human powers.   Peter has to decide who is more powerful Christ or the force of the wind and whom will he obey – the force of the wind or the voice of God.   Perhaps it is even the face of death.  Blowing at Peter is the force of chaos, beneath him is the abyss of the sea – Davey Jones’ locker.   A sailor fears being swept overboard by a violent wind, but Peter is already overboard!

Again the Evangelist uses a different word for seeing.  Here, Peter sees (Greek: Blepwn) the wind whereas back in 14:26 the disciples see (Greek: idontes) Christ walking on the water.  The Evangelist changes the word for seeing because he wants us to understand something beyond nature is occurring here.  We cannot see God with the eyes of the world, we need a new way of seeing to find God, for God is holy, God is other, our minds must change in order for us to see God.  So in this lesson, it is in the most unusual place and in the darkness of the night that Peter sees something he has never seen before.   Peter’s eyes are open, he is no longer blind but is seeing the spiritual reality the wind represents – and immediately he is afraid – of what?  The chaos of oblivion?  Of his own death?  Or that now he sees God face to face?

In 14:27 Jesus told them not to fear,  but in 14:30 Peter is afraid – is the issue that he disobeys Christ in this?   His fear is a natural response to the situation, but he in walking out on the water he was obeying Christ, but now in the midst of this he disobeys and allows fear to take over his life.   Is that why Jesus rebukes him as one of little-faith?

Beginning to sink?  One doesn’t just begin to sink, one goes down quickly.  Step off the side of a pool into the water, when do you “begin” to sink?

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Petros – sank like a rock.  Maybe this is what the other disciples thought of Peter – he was so bold as to step out on the water, maybe they thought he was trying to show his faith was greater than theirs.  Later, one can imagine the disciples, but maybe not Peter, were amused.  Yes indeed Peter is rightly named the rock (John 1:42), and he sank just like one.

… and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!”   And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” 

Surprisingly Jesus rebukes Peter not the wind.  The wind keeps howling until they get into the boat (14:32).   Peter apparently is only a half-believer, and it shows.  Peter shows fear, is this his doubt? – Even though he did Christ’s bidding and came out on the water, once there he ceases to obey Christ’s command not to be afraid.   Just like Peter each of us can obey some command of Christ and yet in the midst of that obedience, disobey some other command of Christ.  Discipleship is challenging.

And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. Then those who were in the boat came and worshiped Him, saying, “Truly You are the Son of God.” When they had crossed over, they came to the land of Gennesaret.

Christ did not suspend nature to save this one disciple, He saves Peter while allowing the wind to continue blowing against them.  It is only once they are in the boat, in the fellowship of the community of disciples, in the Church, that the wind no longer prevails.  They also are not brought to their destination by the wind, for it ceased.  They crossed the lake in the boat under their own power.

Of course there is the one time miraculous sign – not only Jesus walking on water but Jesus able to call His disciple out on the lake with Him.   Christ is showing Himself more powerful than nature, more powerful than wind, or deep or gravity.   Yet Christ doesn’t command or teach His disciples to foolishly disregard nature or the powers of nature in their day to day living.  He does not take this moment to promise them that the winds will always be with them or that nothing will ever threaten them or that they will never be afraid again.

The Gospel lesson is also for us today.  It is  about the call to discipleship – obedience to Christ.  Even if we willingly obey Christ or do what we think he wants us to do, we might find ourselves in trouble, needing to be saved, facing death or the hostile forces of nature or of evil or of our fellow humans.  And then we have to ask ourselves do we really believe Christ is more powerful than all of these?  Are we willing to die for Christ, knowing Him to be more powerful than death, realizing we have nothing to fear from death itself for Christ has overcome death.

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On a small level, when I came to Dayton, OH, with my family in 1986, I was following Christ, and walking out onto water.  We came to establish an Orthodox parish where there was none.   I did not know whether the mission would succeed or not.  There was a small group of disciples here, but I did not know if we could work together to plant a church.  There were forces we had to deal with including that almost all of the original people were very strong willed.   Each one could blow like the wind where it would.    Could we set aside our individual egos and personal dreams and drives in order to work together to build a community?    Yet we did it, we all climbed aboard that boat with Christ to weather the storm.

And it is true that not only in founding St. Paul’s parish were we walking on water, but all  who have joined us through the years, who left behind family and friends and the familiar to convert to Orthodoxy and join the parish, also walked by faith on water.  None of us knew what would happen, but we trusted Christ each in our own turn.

And on another level, we understand this Gospel lesson to be about facing the end of life  – we each and all have to face death at some point.  Peter was suddenly confronted with it right there in the face of Christ, while obeying Christ and walking with Christ.   To the end we have to cry out:

God be merciful to me the sinner and save me.

We are Made into Icons of Christ

With unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, we are all being transformed into the same image [Greek: icon], from glory to glory, and this is from the Lord, the Spirit.  . . . Even if our Good News is veiled, it is veiled in those who perish, as the god of this world has blinded the minds of those who do not believe, so that the light of the Good News of the glory of Christ who is the image [Greek: icon] of God should not dawn on them.” (2 Corinthians 3:18, 4:3-4, EOB)

This transformation of all believers into the likeness of Christ (cf. “the same image” [2 Corinthians 3:18] and “Christ who is the image of God [4:4] – the key word eikon is used in both places) should be understood as a further clarification of the senses in which Paul can claim that the Corinthians are a letter from Christ that can be known and read by everyone. Because they are being changed into the likeness of Christ, they manifest the life of Jesus in their mortal flesh (cf. 2 Cor. 4:11). Consequently, the deepest paradox of the passage emerges: Paul’s reading of the sacred text (Exodus 34) reveals that revelation occurs not primarily in the sacred text but in the transformed community of readers.  

(Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, p. 144)

As St. Paul states it Jesus Christ is the image (icon) of God the Father and we believers are being transformed into that same image!  We believers are becoming Christ.  We are the Church (1 Corinthians 12:27), the Church is the Body of Christ (Colossians 1:18), and so we together are becoming Christ.  We are being transformed by the Holy Spirit into Christ – not individually, but collectively as part of the Church which is Christ’s body.  In as much as we become the image of God, in as much as we become Christ, we become the Word of God to the world.  To read and understand Scripture, we need to be able to see Christ manifested in the world – we need to see the Church.  The Church is to be light to the world thus fulfilling Christ’s own teaching.  We are to be the fullness of Christ in the world.  As Richard Hayes notes above for people to understand a passage such as Exodus 34 they need to see Christ, visible to them in His Body, the Church.

Prayer Before Reading Scripture

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.

 

Literalism: The Word of God vs. the Scriptures

Previous post in this series:  The Living Word, Not Literalism

And he said to me, “Son of man, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. And he said to me, “Son of man, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” Then I ate it; and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey. And he said to me, “Son of man, go, get you to the house of Israel, and speak with my words to them.   (Ezekiel 3:1-4)

So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll; and he said to me, “Take it and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.” And I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach was made bitter.   (Revelation 10:9-10)

Though in the Bible in a few narratives a saint is commanded to literally eat the scroll on which words are written, we have no problem understanding these commands as having a metaphorical or spiritual meaning.  Indeed, we know that the Bible is for reading, and it will do us little spiritual good to tear out and eat the pages of our bibles.  The Word of God which we encounter in the text of our Bibles, has to be lifted from the text in our minds and souls for us to appropriate the Word and for that Word to become written on our hearts.  This cannot be accomplished by literally chewing and swallowing the paper pages of our Bibles.  Literally eating the pages of the Bible would no doubt lead to John’s stomachache which he describes in the Revelation passage above.

We experience in our spiritual life the need to distinguish the Word of God from the manuscripts upon which they are written with ink.  We do consume the Word, but in a spiritual manner, exactly as the Church Fathers taught.  We experience in our lives how the Word of God who is Jesus Christ is different from the Bible as the written Word of God. “…God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:5-6).  Christ manifests himself now beyond the text printed in the manuscripts.  We encounter Christ also both hidden and revealed in the sacraments, in the liturgies and in the Church which is His body.   The Scriptures bear witness to Christ, but Christ is not limited to their words and pages.  We must get beyond the literal word to come to the Word of God.  God’s revelation is fully there, hidden in the text, and the text is essential for our encounter with Christ, and yet as we encounter the incarnate Word of God, we move beyond the printed text not just to the virtual reality of Christ, but to The Word of God Himself.

For by means of the creation itself, the Word reveals God the Creator; and by means of the world [does He declare] the Lord the Maker of the world; and by means of the formation [of man] the Artificer who formed him;   (St. Irenaeus of LyonsAgainst Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 5377-79)

Not only in Scripture but the hand of God is always at work in history, in nature, in the laws of physics, in our DNA.  God “writes” His Word in so many ways that become visible to us, and readable to us if we have the eyes to see.  In them we can encounter God, but we have to move beyond them to truly see God and not just be aware of God’s activities.

But by the law and the prophets did the Word preach both Himself and the Father alike [to all]; and all the people heard Him alike, but all did not alike believe.   (St. Irenaeus of Lyons,  Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 5380-81)

The pre-incarnate Jesus Christ spoke to the prophets and to the people of God.  The Old Testament scriptures use the very words of the pre-incarnate Christ to bear witness that Jesus Christ is Lord.  We use the Scriptures as a door into the reality of the Word of God.  Just like an icon is a window into heaven, so too the texts of Scripture are a door by which we pass into the heavenly realms.  The Bible is an interface between God and creation, so it is essential to our knowing Truth.  Yet the ink and paper cannot contain or limit God.  Rather we have to move beyond them to know the living Word.

In Scripture the Logos of God is called and actually is dew (cf. Deut. 32:2), water, spring (cf. John 4:14) and river (cf. John 7:38), according to the subjective capacity of the recipient. To some He is dew because He quenches the burning energy of the passions which assails the body from without. To those seared in the depths of their being by the poison of evil He is water, not only because water through antipathy destroys its opposite but also because it bestows a vivifying power conducive to well-being. To those in whom the fountain of contemplative experience is continually active He is a spring bestowing wisdom. To those from whom flows the true teaching about salvation, He is a river copiously watering men, domestic animals, wild beasts and plants.”        (St. Maximos, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15358-65)

In the words of Scripture – not only through the ink and paper which record the message but also in the very metaphors, parables, images and events – we come to God the Word living in the texts.  Only in moving beyond the literal words can we enter into that relationship with God.

The divine Logos of God the Father is mystically present in each of His commandments. God the Father is by nature present entirely and without division in His entire divine Logos. Thus, he who receives a divine commandment and carries it out receives the Logos of God who is in it;      (St. Maximos, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15397-99)

God is found by us not only in the printed word but in and through the meaning of these printed manuscripts.  God has hidden Himself in the text, but in that encounter with the text, the pure in heart do come to the Giver of the Law, the Speaker of the words, to God our Father and Creator.  God is mystically present in the Scriptures but our full encounter with Him takes us beyond the limits of the text, of the manuscripts, of the paper, and even beyond the metaphors and meaning of those sacred words.

“It is by means of the more lofty conceptual images that the inner principle of Holy Scripture can be stripped gradually of the complex garment of words with which it is physically draped. Then to the visionary intellect – the intellect which through the total abandonment of its natural activities is able to attain a glimpse of the simplicity that in some measure discloses this principle – it reveals itself as though in the sound of a delicate breeze.”   (St Maximos the Confessor, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15433-42)

It turns out that the printed text of the Scriptures are like garments, which cover us.  Those garments can be beautiful.  They can say something about us.  But they also clothe us and hide us.  They are not literally us.  That is what we discover in the spiritual reading of the Scriptures.  We move beyond the clothes, the coverings, and we come to the One who made the garments, to the one who is the Giver of every good and perfect gift.  God.

Without natural contemplation no one can appreciate the disparity between the symbols through which the Law is expressed and the divine realities which these symbols represent.  Further, if through such contemplation a man has not first discerned this disparity and, denying his sense-perception all access to the hidden realm of divine and intelligible realities, does not long to penetrate with his intellect into its beauty, he cannot be liberated completely from the external diversity to be found in the symbols. So long as he cleaves to the letter, his inner hunger for spiritual knowledge will not be satisfied; for he has condemned himself like the wily serpent to feed on the earth – that is, on the outward or literal form – of Scripture (cf. Gen. 3:14), and does not, as a true disciple of Christ, feed on heaven – that is, on the spirit and soul of Scripture, in other words, on celestial and angelic bread. I mean that he does not feed through Christ on the spiritual contemplation and knowledge of the Scriptures, which God gives unstintingly to those who love Him, in accordance with the text: ‘He gave them the bread of heaven; man ate the food of angels’ (Ps. 78:24-25. LXX).”   (St. Maximos the Confessor, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 19610-36)

The beauty of the garments which clothe the Word are wonderful.  The gifts given by the Creator are life-giving.  Yet, we are able to move beyond those wonders and beyond that beauty to the Giver of the Gifts, to the One who is clothed with the garments of salvation.

“When our intellect has shaken off its many opinions about created things, then the inner principle of truth appears clearly to it, providing it with a foundation of real knowledge and removing its former preconceptions as though removing scales from the eyes, as happened in the case of St Paul (cf. Acts 9:18). For an understanding of Scripture that does not go beyond the literal meaning, and a view of the sensible world that relies exclusively on sense-perception, are indeed scales, blinding the soul’s visionary faculty and preventing access to the pure Logos of truth.”   (St. Maximos, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15451-56)

Next:  The Mystery of Christ the Word of God Found in the Scriptures

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

Christ in the Old Testament

“… the treasure hid in the Scriptures is Christ, since He was pointed out by means of types and parables.”    (St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 6350-51)

Previous Post in the series:  The Old and The New Covenants.  First post in the series: Jesus Christ, The Word of God and Scriptures

Wisdom. King David. Prophecy.
Wisdom. King David. Prophecy.

Central to the teachings of Christ is that Moses and the Prophets wrote about Him.  We have already encountered this in several of the blog posts in this series.

Jesus said:  “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.  . . . If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”   (John 5: 39-47)

In this post, we will look at several quotes from St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202AD) and how he applied Christ’s own words to the Scriptures.

For if ye had believed Moses, ye would also have believed Me; for he wrote of Me;“(John 5:46) [saying this,] no doubt, because the Son of God is implanted everywhere throughout his writings: at one time, indeed, speaking with Abraham, when about to eat with him; at another time with Noah, giving to him the dimensions [of the ark]; at another; inquiring after Adam; at another, bringing down judgment upon the Sodomites; and again, when He becomes visible, and directs Jacob on his journey, and speaks with Moses from the bush. And it would be endless to recount [the occasions] upon which the Son of God is shown forth by Moses. Of the day of His passion, too, he was not ignorant; but foretold Him, after a figurative manner, by the name given to the passover; and at that very festival, which had been proclaimed such a long time previously by Moses, did our Lord suffer, thus fulfilling the passover.”   (St. Irenaeus of Lyons,  Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 5535-41)

In the above quote, St. Irenaeus shows that in the 2nd Century Christians believed that the anthropomorphic appearances of God in the Old Testament were actually appearances of the pre-incarnate Christ.  It is the Son of God who speaks to Moses from the burning bush and in every occurrence in which Moses spoke with God face to face as a man speaks to a friend (Exodus 33:11).  Christ is thus hidden from us in each manifestation of God in the Old Testament if we read the Jewish Scriptures with no knowledge of the Holy Trinity.  But in Christ we see in these Old Testament theophanies that Christ is appearing to the saints of the people of God.  In Christ we come to realize what these holy men and women are seeing when they encounter God.   The authors of the Old Testament books themselves did  not fully understand what they were witnessing, but still they reported these anthropomorphic experiences.  In Christ we understand more fully what they were encountering yet couldn’t fully describe.  That is why the Old Testament theophanies are not able to fully explain that it was the Word of God who they encountered.  Once the incarnation occurs in Christ, we are able to see Christ the Word in the Old Testament texts.

“But since the writings (litera) of Moses are the words of Christ, He does Himself declare to the Jews, as John has recorded in the Gospel: “If ye had believed Moses, ye would have believed Me: for he wrote of Me. But if ye believe not his writings, neither will ye believe My words.”  He thus indicates in the clearest manner that the writings of Moses are His words. If, then, [this be the case with regard] to Moses, so also, beyond a doubt, the words of the other prophets are His [words], as I have pointed out. And again, the Lord Himself exhibits Abraham as having said to the rich man, with reference to all those who were still alive: “If they do not obey Moses and the prophets, neither, if any one were to rise from the dead and go to them, will they believe him.”     (St. Irenaeus of Lyons,  Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. Loc. 5203-8)

Not only did Moses and the prophets encounter Christ the Word of God, it is Christ the Word who speaks to them and gives them the words which they record in the Scriptures.  Moses and all the prophets were telling us what they heard from Christ, so that when we encounter these same words, phrases, ideas, and metaphors in the New Testament we recognize Christ in the Old Testament.   Scholars speak about the New Testament being filled with echoes of Old Testament ideas and phrases – this is because in fact the Old Testament authors were hearing Christ and recording what He said.  It is the Old Testament authors who are actually echoing the New Testament!

And teaching this very thing, He said to the Jews: “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he should see my day; and he saw it, and was glad” What is intended? “Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness.” In the first place, [he believed] that He was the maker of heaven and earth, the only God; and in the next place, that He would make his seed as the stars of heaven. This is what is meant by Paul, [when he says,] “as lights in the world.” Righteously, therefore, having left his earthly kindred, he followed the Word of God, walking as a pilgrim with the Word, that he might [afterwards] have his abode with the Word. Righteously also the apostles, being of the race of Abraham, left the ship and their father, and followed the Word. Righteously also do we, possessing the same faith as Abraham, and taking up the cross as Isaac did the wood? follow Him. For in Abraham man had learned beforehand, and had been accustomed to follow the Word of God. For Abraham, according to his faith, followed the command of the Word of God, and with a ready mind delivered up, as a sacrifice to God, his only- begotten and beloved son, in order that God also might be pleased to offer up for all his seed His own beloved and only-begotten Son, as a sacrifice for our redemption.      (St. Irenaeus of Lyons,  Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 5320-29)

Every encounter with the Word of God by the holy men and women of the Old Testament is thus an encounter with Christ.  And each encounter with Christ is also a revelation of God the Father, even as Jesus said: “He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me?” (John 14:9-10).  Each theophany in the Old Testament was thus really an encounter with the pre-incarnate Word of God, but each encounter also revealed the Father to all.  For Christ is the image of the Father.  “He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:15-16).

Fr. St. Irenaeus, Christ is now obvious in the Old Testament texts.  He reads the Torah (Pentateuch) as a typology and preparation for the coming of Jesus the Christ.  Joshua, the protégé of Moses, shares the same name as Jesus in the Old Testament.  Thus everything Joshua does prefigures Christ and is thus prophecy.

“Take unto you Joshua (᾿Ιησοῦν) the son of Nun.” (Numbers 27:18)  For it was proper that Moses should lead the people out of Egypt, but that Jesus (Joshua) should lead them into the inheritance. Also that Moses, as was the case with the law, should cease to be, but that Joshua (᾿Ιησοῦν), as the word, and no untrue type of the Word made flesh (ἐνυποστάτου), should be a preacher to the people. Then again, [it was fit] that Moses should give manna as food to the fathers, but Joshua wheat; as the first-fruits of life, a type of the body of Christ, as also the Scripture declares that the manna of the Lord ceased when the people had eaten wheat from the land.(Joshua 5:12)”     (St. Irenaeus of Lyons,  Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 9079-89)

The books of the Old Testament clearly witness to Christ, but do so by hiding Christ in the very text which records the events of the Old Testament as well as in the events and people of the Tanahk.   Jesus Christ has fully revealed the meaning of the Old Testament.  His image, found on every page of the Scriptures, is now obvious to all of those who are in Christ.

The Holy Prophets
The Holy Prophets

“For every prophecy, before its fulfilment, is to men [full of] enigmas and ambiguities. But when the time has arrived, and the prediction has come to pass, then the prophecies have a clear and certain exposition. And for this reason, indeed, when at this present time the law is read to the Jews, it is like a fable; for they do not possess the explanation of all things pertaining to the advent of the Son of God, which took place in human nature; but when it is read by the Christians, it is a treasure, hid indeed in a field, but brought to light by the cross of Christ, and explained, both enriching the understanding of men, and showing forth the wisdom of God and declaring His dispensations with regard to man, and forming the kingdom of Christ beforehand… ”    (St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 6354-59)

Next in the series:  Reading the Word of God, Becoming Scripture