Exegesis before Constantine (mostly about Origen)

One of the challenges facing anyone who wishes to embrace pre-modern Christian thought is the way the ancient and medieval Christians read the Bible — particularly their use of those approaches to the polysemy of Scripture that we broadly call “allegory” but which I have come to prefer to call the “spiritual sense” of Scripture. I do this partly because the “spiritual sense” may be what we would strictly consider “allegory” (a one-to-one correspondence between events and things in text and events and things in “reality”), or it may be typology (an image in the text is fulfilled in later salvation history, usually by Jesus), or it may really be more “symbolic” (eg., many approaches to Moses on Mt Sinai may be more strictly symbolic than allegorical). Or it may be none of these but occupy some other term relative to the spiritual level of reading — anagogy or tropology or …

Typology is the most scripturally … justified spiritual sense. The book of Hebrews, for example, sees the ceremonial world of the Old Testament as being types of the anti-Type, Christ. Christ himself considers the brass serpent Moses lifted up in the wilderness a type of his own crucificixion (Jn 3). 1 Peter 3:20-22 uses the term antitypos in reference to Noah’s ark as a prefigurement to baptism. The Christian tradition naturally followed the apostolic witness (besides Christ Himself!) and found other types throughout the Old Testament. Melito of Sardis, to cite only one example, in his Paschal Sermon, sees the Passover as a type that Christ fulfils. Typology is happily used by Reformed preachers today.

Allegory, on the other hand, gets people concerned. Although some like to wag their fingers at the post-Constantinian African Augustine, most people, if they know a thing or two, are concerned about Origen of Alexandria (d. c. 253). Origen is seen as a Neo- or Middle Platonist who’s not really fully Christian, and he brings over to the Bible the foreign, pagan Platonic allegory. He’s too speculative, and he rejects the “literal” meaning of Scripture.

The allegories of the pagans, the allegories of the myths, are considered “eisegesis of embarrassment” — the gods getting up to no good in Homer and Hesiod are actually allegories about natural philosophy (“science”). Other myths, such as Hercules’ descent into Hades, are turned into moral allegories. The story of Zeus and Danae, wherein he impregnates her through a shower of gold, begetting Perseus, is considered an allegory about how you can only get the girl if you’re rich enough. Somehow that’s even more embarassing!

Anyway, if pagan allegory is the origin of Christian allegory (which I doubt), then the genealogical fallacy tells us that allegory is how Christian writers smooth out the “awkward” bits of Scripture.

This is not usually the case. There are times, we must admit, when Origen says that when Abraham does something wrong, it’s not literally true but there to serve an allegory. Like Lot having sex with his daughters. But the vast majority of the allegories of the Fathers, of Origen, are nothing of this sort.

Here are some basic facts about allegory as practised by Origen and his successors, such as St Gregory of Nyssa, St Maximus the Confessor, and others:

First, the genealogy of Christian allegory comes from Philo and his exegesis. Now, Philo will have taken his method from his fellow Platonist mystics and applied it to the Jewish Scriptures. But the Christians took up Philo precisely because he was a reader of the same Bible as they.

Second, the genealogy of Christian allegory comes from St Paul, particularly the allegory of Hagar and Sarah (Gal 4).

Third, Christian allegory, in fact, almost never denies the historical reality or indeed reliability of the text of Scripture. Some of them seem to deny the historical truth of Genesis 1, but many do not. St Augustine seems to affirm multiple allegories as well as the “literal” truth. They work alongside each other and interplay with each other. God is the Lord both of the writing of Scripture and of history. This is vitally important if we are to understand Origen.

Origen can read scripture “literally” (ad litteram in Latin [although he wrote in Greek]) and “spiritually” at the same time. Allegory and typology are at the service of the historical fact as it unfolds through the revealed word pointing us to God the Word.

Fourth — and this may actually be the single most important point — Christian allegory, like typology, is almost always about Christ. Jesus Christ is the God-Word Who became flesh. He is the wisdom of God. He is present to us in a special way when we read Scripture (something affirmed by Origen in words that are almost sacramental). Jesus is seen as the key to the Old Testament, both in basic terms of fulfilling prophecies and in typological terms. He is also the focus of most allegories, especially those that endure.

Fifth, allegory is careful. In the sixteenth century, allegorical readings of Scripture came under fire because it was seen as treating Scripture as a wax nose that could be bent whichever way the exegete wanted. This is emphatically not what the Origenian tradition does. They have methods that are theological, literary-philological, and philosophical that determine how we are to understand an allegory. In fact, Origen’s search for the spiritual sense uses as much philology as a modernist seeking the plain sense!

Anyway, I doubt this will convince the skeptical that the allegories of Origen, the Cappadocians, Ambrose, Augustine, St Maximus the Confessor, and Lancelot Andrewes are worth reading. But I hope to at least make these things clear. Also, more straightforward ways of reading of greater familiarity to us are still in practice throughout the era before (and after) Constantine.

If you want to learn more about ante-Nicene exegesis and Origen, you should sign up for my course with Davenant Hall, Christianity Before Constantine! Registration ends September 10 — that’s Friday!

“Read Sophocles”: Poetry, Philosophy, Beauty

2-volume 19th-century Bible, The Tollkeeper’s House, Toronto

In the midst of a philosophical discussion online, a philosopher/theologian friend (who teaches the “great books” at university) stated, “Read Sophocles.” The point was that if one were to read Sophocles, the philosophical position being elucidated would become clearer.

This is a good use of the classics. I still remember my first encounter with Antigone in high school and the stichomythia between Haemon and his father Creon, preceded by Haemon’s speech, including these lines:

Whoever thinks that he alone possess intelligence,
the gift of eloquence, he and no one else,
and character too . . . such men, I tell you,
spread them open — you will find them empty.
No, it’s no disgrace for a man, even a wise man,
to learn many things and not to be too rigid.
You’ve seen trees by a raging winter torrent,
how many sway with the flood and salvage every twig,
but not the stubborn — they’re ripped out, roots and all.
Bend or break. The same when a man is sailing:
haul your sheets too taut, never give an inch,
you’ll capsize, and go the rest of the voyage
keel up and the rowing-benches under.

Lines 707-718, trans. Robert Fagles (English lines 791-803), pp. 95-96

As the remaining events of the play bear out, Haemon is correct. Creon, King of Thebes, (in case you still need to read the play) has decreed that his nephew Polyneices (son of Oedipus), brother of the titular Antigone, is not to be buried, but Antigone seems to have done so, or attempted to do so. And so he is going to seal Antigone alive in a tomb. This ends up with Antigone, Haemon Creon’s son, and Eurydice his wife all dead and Creon repenting — too late.

There are lots of noteworthy points made and speeches and it’s well worth a read.

And, as with any good tragedy, whether by Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, Shakespeare, or Marlowe, you learn a lot through the human drama as it unfolds.

What I am trying to figure out is whether or not this is the chief end of tragedy. I’m not saying my friend thinks so. Maybe no one does, but sometimes, when you read the people promoting the “great books” or “classical education” or the Greek and Latin classics, when they turn on the tap of their rhetoric to convince you that this is a worthy endeavour, it often feels as though — for that moment, at least — the reason is because there are “lessons” to be gained from Sophocles, that we can learn about philosophy from reading ancient poetry, and not just the explicitly philosophical like Lucretius, and that this is the most important reason people should read the greats.

Maybe this is because they are trying to convince skeptical parents and donors that this is a worthwhile endeavour. And maybe I’m misreading everything. And hopefully what I’m about to say will resound with them all.

Whatever lessons and whatever philosophy, ethics, politics, can be gained from reading Sophocles or Homer (and it can, as I have just demonstrated), the basic philosophical utility of the classics is not necessarily the number one reason to read them.

To take up the classically Christian cause of this blog, the monks who copied the Latin classics would likely disagree. I have not read Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, for over five years, but as I recall, the Benedictines and Cistercians of pre-scholastic, monastic theology, read pagan Latin verse primarily for its beauty — chiefly Virgil, but also Ovid, Horace, Statius. This latter poet, as C S Lewis discusses,* was imagined by some in the Middle Ages to have been a crypto-Christian because of his portrayal of the gods. Philosophy was the schoolbook for philosophy (and they had more and more Latin Aristotle to read as time went on, directly from Greek, alongside Plato, and Calcidius and Boethius and Cicero).

Given that, theologically, they were steeped in Sts Augustine of Hippo and Gregory the Great, it is also worth noting that narrative fiction, such as Virgil or Sophocles or Terence (always a school text), was considered “lies”, so they would have read it (not Sophocles, given that he’s Greek) for the language, for its beauty and subtlety. The advice from St Augustine in De Doctrina Christiana to make your teaching beautiful as well as true (but, at the very least, true) was one they took to heart. And so they read the pagan classics.

As I say, I have no doubt that people in the great books and classical education camps are not reductionistic, and they certainly see the worth in reading something for its beauty. But it’s an important thought to keep in mind.

Let me close with an anecdote on this theme, then. Malcolm Guite visited Rome when he was still an atheist. And there, he encountered John Keats’ poetry and Keats House at Piazza Spagna. And through the sublimity of Keats’ poetry, God began to break through Father Malcolm’s unbelief and soften his heart, making him at least open to the possibility of God, although not yet a Christian.

And so we can find God in the beauty of the poets even without hunting for lessons in philosophy.

*C. S. Lewis, “Dante’s Statius,” Medium Aevum 25 (1956): 133–9.

Benedict, Sophrony, and Theosis

Every Sunday morning, I do a little bit of an introduction to the church season. In the vast sea from Trinity to Advent, that is usually a nearby saint’s feast. Last week, July 4, it was St Andrei Rublev (watch my video about his Trinity icon here), and today it was St Sophrony of Essex, who happens to share his feast (in the West, anyway) with St Benedict of Nursia.

St Sophrony (d. 1993) has a special place in my life because he was the founder of the Monastery of St John the Baptist in Essex, and Archimandrite Zacharias, his successor there, is the spiritual father of my own mentor, Father Raphael of Edinburgh, Scotland. Besides drinking in wisdom and Greek coffee with Father Raphael, I have also read St Sophrony’s book His Life Is Mine, and I began St Silouan the Athonite a while back.

St Sophrony was a fashionable Russin emigre in early twentieth-century Paris who made fashionable modern art and was fashionably agnostic. He believed that somehow this art would be a source of transcendence — but in the end, he found true freedom in Christ and the Russian Orthodox faith of his homeland, and became and iconographer and monk, founding an oasis in the south of England (as they say, the only way is Essex).

His Life Is Mine is a book chiefly on prayer, about the human desire and encounter with God, Who Is. Who is Primordial Being. Who is Love. Who is Trinity. Who is the one, true hypostasis, persona. Whom we encounter because of the Incarnation and through contemplation, the beginning of which is repentance. In discussing theosis, St Sophrony writes:

The doctrine that man may become godlike … lies at the root of our Christian anthropology. As the image and likeness of the Absolute, man … transcends every other form of natural being. In prayer we glimpse in ourselves divine infinity not yet actualized but foreknown. Perfection of likeness … does not remove the ontological distance between God the Creator and man the created.

Perfection of likeness, of course, shall not be fully achieved here but in the hereafter — if at all. I wonder what St Sophrony would say to St Gregory of Nyssa’s concept of epektasis that our likeness to God will mean an infinite growth in perfection, since we are finite but God is infinite. It is important to observe that St Sophrony says that even if we do ever achieve a perfect likeness to God, the ontological gulf still exists.

This ontological gulf, that God is “holy, holy, holy”, that He is wholly Other, that he is being itself, is absolutely vital to keeping eastern Christian teaching on theosis in proper perspective. Some seem to think that theosis means we are perhaps swallowed up in God as in some versions of Hindu mysticism, or that we actually become part of God in a truly essential way, or something else. But the general description of our deification is done in the terms of St Gregory of Nyssa, who himself sparsely uses this terminology, who speaks largely of our union with God.

To whatever extent we become godlike, we never become God Himself, the Trinity Who Creates.

At the heart of this eastern Christian theosis as expressed in the life and teaching of St Sophrony, St Silouan, Archimandrite Zacharias, and Father Raphael is the Jesus Prayer (here’s my introductory post to this prayer). A main feature of the common prayer life of the Monastery of St John the Baptist is communal praying of the Jesus Prayer. I’ve done this at the Orthodox Church in Edinburgh, in fact. It is a different experience from the normal communal liturgical worship and from the solitary use of the Jesus Prayer. But it is good.

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

As I said above, today is also the feast of another famous monk, St Benedict of Nursia, whose little rule for beginners designed for establishing a school for the Lord’s service has been one of the most influential volumes in western spiritual history, as it became the norm for Latin monasticism — his spiritual sons and daughters (that is, those who follow his rule) include not only those that are part of the Order of Saint Benedict but also the Cistercians and Trappists and some independent Orthodox monasteries. I’ve written about the Rule of St Benedict and about Benedictines a lot.

At his moment in history, in the mid-500s, St Benedict did not found an order but a monastery. There was no wider organisation than that. This is in keeping with the general tenor of late antique monasticism, that monasteries would form under a charismatic abbot and follow his rule whether written or unwritten. It is the basic form of Orthodox monasticism that they have no monastic orders, and every house or associated federation has its own monastic rule.

But if we’re pondering similarities between St Benedict and St Sophrony, although I’m sure they can be found in a variety of exterior facts related to their common heritage as monks and ascetics, I think the single most importan thing is a radical commitment to prayer. Compared to many other late antique and early medieval monastic rules, the Rule of St Benedict is actually fairly light in its burdens. However, this has been done precisely so that the brothers (or sisters) who live under the rule are capable of pursuing prayer. St Benedict goes into great detail over several chapters of the Rule about how the monastery’s prayer life is to be ordered. He also discusses how their attitude at prayer.

And what is the goal of prayer, of the monastic life? Here again, it is the same for St Benedict as for St Sophrony. To quote a famous line from Chapter 72 of St Benedict’s Rule:

Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.

Amen. Let us follow the example of these holy men on the path to everlasting life and theosis.

The wide embrace of Christ

From The Quest of the Holy Grail, a hermit speaking with Sir Lancelot:

Then looking about him, the good man saw a cross on which Our Lord was painted in effigy, and pointed it out to Lancelot, saying:

‘Sir, do you see that cross?’

‘Yes,’ he answered.

‘Then be assured,’ said the other, ‘that the arms of that figure are thus stretched wide to welcome all who come. In just the same way has Our Lord extended His arms to embrace every sinner that turns to him, both you and others, calling evermore: “Come unto Me!” And since in His loving kindness He is always ready to receive each man and woman trust comes back to Him, never doubt He will admit you if you offer yourself to Him in the manner I have described, which is that of oral confession, of true repentance and amendment. So bare your soul to Him now while I listen, and I will help and succour you to the utmost of my power, and will counsel you as best I can.”

Watch “King Arthur, Symbol, and the Christian Embrace of Narrative Fiction” on YouTube

My latest offering on YouTube is about Arthurian literature and how it represents an embrace of narrative fiction by Christians, with a discussion of symbol and a sacramental worldview that includes a digression about The Lord of the Rings.

Reflection from Trinity Sunday

Almost a week late, but here’s the reflection I put together for my worshipping community, Thunder Bay’s Urban Abbey, last Sunday.

Once I mentioned to a friend that Evagrius Ponticus, the fourth-century monastic mystic of Egypt, said that contemplation of the Trinity was the goal of Christian contemplation. She said she could never understand the Trinity, how three people can be one. Many people express similar thoughts, expressing hesitation and weakness or awkwardness in the face of talking about this doctrine. On behalf of theological educators everywhere, I would like to apologise for this. Speaking about the Trinity is really easy to do without falling into heresy, actually.

And you’re never going to comprehend how three Persons can also be or share a single Essence.

There are two places old-school theologians liked to begin in talking about the Trinity: the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ or the incomprehensibility of God. Let’s begin with the second one today. Very briefly: One of the reasons why we cannot fully understand how three Persons are a single God is that God as God is ultimately incomprehensible. We cannot grasp or understand or comprehend Who God is according to God’s own nature.

God is not a being among beings. God simply is. God is being itself. God is not a thing or an object within the universe. God created all the things and objects—the universe itself. God is utterly, ultimately beyond anything and everything that we know through daily experience. This is actually a Good Thing—it means that God makes God’sselves (God’s self? Theirselves?) known to us when it is needful for us, for God is not limited by the material or even spiritual creation. Thus, the doctrine of transcendence (God is beyond everything) guarantees the lived experience of immanence (God is in everything). In God we live and move and have our being, as St Paul said in Athens.

Rest calmly, then, knowing that your inability to comprehend the Trinity is neither a fault in yourself nor in the doctrine but part of the reality that comes with knowing God. Embrace the mystery, joining with the twelfth-century Cistercian Willliam of St-Thierry:

when I fix my inward gaze full upon him to whom I turn for light, to whom I offer worship or entreaty: it is God as Trinity who comes to meet me, a truth which the Catholic faith, bred in my bones, instilled by practice, commended by yourself and by your teachers, presents to me. But my soul, which must always visualize, perceives this given truth in such a way that it foolishly fancies number to reside in the simple being of the Godhead, which is beyond all number, and which itself made all that is by number and measure and weight. In this way it allots to each Person of the Trinity as it were his individual place and, praying to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, pictures itself as passing from the one to the other through the third. And thus the mind, baffled by the one, is diffracted among the three, as though there were three bodies that must be differentiated or united.

trans. P. Matarasso, The Cisercian World, p. 113

Can we say nothing, then? Are humans so inadequate that we can say nothing true about the one, true, and living God? How can we articulate any doctrine, let alone the Trinity, in light of the glorious beauty of the transcendent God? I assure you—monks and mystics throughout history have felt this. But they have also realised that God has made God’s Self known to us through creation, through acting in human history, and through the writings of sacred Scripture. God is transcendent, not aloof. God has communicated with us through these ways because God loves us more than we can ask or imagine.

Many passages in the New Testament demonstrate to us that Jesus, the God Word incarnate, is fully God. I’ll give just one example: John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And Jesus’ words testify to the fact that there is a Divine Person named the Father—and that Jesus and the Father are one. Not only that, but if you’ve seen Jesus, you’ve seen the Father. Finally, in numerous instances throughout St Paul’s letters as well as statements made by Jesus, such as the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, there is also a third Person Who is God, the Holy Spirit.

Nonetheless, throughout both Old and New Testaments it is clear that there is only one God who does not share His glory with another.

As the ancient church meditated on this, they found ways of expressing this threefold oneness that are faithful to Scripture, developing the language of the Trinity. There are three persons in one God. The Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit; the Son is not the Father or the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is not the Father or the Son. But there are not three Gods, only one God. The Father almighty, the Son almighty, the Holy Spirit almighty; but there are not three almighties, only one almighty.

Anything you can say about God—immortal, invisible, wise—you can say about any of the three Persons of the Trinity. They are united in complete, utter, and perfect love, being as they are a single substance or essence. How? I don’t know. But God is the truest, most perfect love there is. In fact, that is an important element of Trinitarian theology: God is love, and love implies a beloved. Therefore, God exists in all eternity as the Holy Three, filling each other with utterly perfect self-giving love.

God-as-Trinity is love. God-as-Trinity is Creator, as well. Of Their own free will, perfectly united in essence and love, God chose to create this world. And then God created us humans in God’s own Trinitarian image—not a true Trinity, but a likeness of it, similar in many respects. And then that image was damaged and marred by sin, death, and the devil. So the mighty God sent prophets, signs, and wonders, and then, out of the boundless love that is part of God’s very essence as Trinity, God Himself came down.

God Himself came down to save us.

Jesus the Christ is the God Word Who exists eternally in perfect, selfless love with the Father and the Holy Spirit. More than a carpenter. More than a good teacher. More than a prophet. And the sinless, pure, spotless, immortal God Who is love poured out His blood for us, rose again, and ascended.

So that you won’t be misled by what I’m about to say, remember this: God the Holy Trinity is perfect and infinite according to nature and essence. God doesn’t need us.

But God loves us.

Therefore, God invites us into a taste of that Trinitarian life, as we read about in John 14. We are baptised into that Trinitarian life, according to Matthew 28. And we are called to bring others into that life of boundless, endless, self-giving love, to participate, abide in the power, glory, and goodness of God Who Is Trinity. (But none of us can become a member of the Trinity; God does not need us, remember. God loves us and wants us to know Him.)

And in making disciples of Jesus the Christ, we begin also to reconcile ourselves to one another, for Jesus prays for us to be one as He and the Father are one. We are called to imperfectly mirror that Trinitarian reality as the church, where we live in selfless love for one another, acting together in God’s mission in the world, just as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were active together in creation.

This Trinity Sunday, let us pray for our unity as a community, for the unity of all Christian people, and, most importantly, fall down (literally or figuratively) in worship before a God Whom we can never fully understand but Who loves us so much He chose to die for us. Worship the Trinity. Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

Pentecost and the Allegory of the Holy Grail

Enjoy my latest offering on YouTube wherein I talk about the allegorical meaning of the Quest for the Holy Grail, referencing Malcolm Guite, Pauline Matarasso’s translation of The Quest for the Holy Grail and its introduction (and thereby Etienne Gilson and Myrrha Lot-Boroodine), St Bernard, and William of St-Thierry. And the Canon of the Mass in the Use According to Sarum. It’s a good time, I promise!

God is not a thing — but is he a res?

St Augustine, by Philippe de Champaigne.

A few weeks ago I had the delightful opportunity of teaching my excellent group of students at Davenant Hall De Doctrina Christiana by St Augustine, or On Christian Teaching. In De Doctrina, St Augustine deals with the important question of language (for how can we read and interpret Scripture without thinking about what it actually is?). His basic approach to language is that it is part of the wider universe of signs, or signa, all of which point to things, or res. Some signa are natural, like smoke being the signum for the res that is a fire. Others are human conventions, such as language. All signa are res, but not all res are signa. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Language is made up of oral signa that disappear as soon as they come into existence. To represent these oral signa, we have invented writing, itself a further system of signa that represent the res that are the signa of spoken words.

Augustine then goes into a discussion of how all res can either be enjoyed (frui) or used (uti). Ultimately, in Augustine’s view, God is the only res that we are to enjoy. All other res exist for the purpose of being used to help us enjoy God more. At a certain level, all res may even be seen as signa that point us to God, depending on how you look at it.

And the ultimate signum that shows us the way to God is the incarnate God Himself, the perfect signum for the res that God is.

But wait —

Is God a thing?

One of my students expressed his surprise at Augustine having included God amongst the res. This student even has a copy of a book called God Is No Thing, after all. As people who think that Thomas Aquinas is the height of theological awesomeness like to point out, God is not even a being. God is being itself (FYI: St Augustine agrees, see De Trin 5) — ipsum esse.

Not being deep into scholasticism, I won’t judge the accuracy of that.

God is not a thing inasmuch as God is not a being among beings. God is not an object among objects. God, then, is not a thing among things.

However, for St Augustine’s argument about signa and how they work, God is a res — he is the signified of a signifier. Or is the signified of a signifier actually our own false mental image of God, and Godinhimself is something more distant?

Augustine feels this, and we’ll leave this post here confronting the vast mystery of the divine:

Have I spoken of God, or uttered His praise, in any worthy way?  Nay, I feel that I have done nothing more than desire to speak; and if I have said anything, it is not what I desired to say.  How do I know this, except from the fact that God is unspeakable?  But what I have said, if it had been unspeakable, could not have been spoken.  And so God is not even to be called “unspeakable,” because to say even this is to speak of Him.  Thus there arises a curious contradiction of words, because if the unspeakable is what cannot be spoken of, it is not unspeakable if it can be called unspeakable.  And this opposition of words is rather to be avoided by silence than to be explained away by speech.  And yet God, although nothing worthy of His greatness can be said of Him, has condescended to accept the worship of men’s mouths, and has desired us through the medium of our own words to rejoice in His praise.  For on this principle it is that He is called Deus (God).  For the sound of those two syllables in itself conveys no true knowledge of His nature; but yet all who know the Latin tongue are led, when that sound reaches their ears, to think of a nature supreme in excellence and eternal in existence.

De Doctrina 1.6, NPNF2, vol. 2, p. 524

Palm Sunday reflection

This is a reflection I put together for my church, Urban Abbey, in Thunder Bay for this past Sunday.

Since ancient times, Palm Sunday has had two Gospel readings—a short reading for Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and then a long reading of a passion narrative, recounting Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and execution at the hands of sinners. The English word passion comes from the Latin passio, the word for suffering. This suffering and death, recounted to us in Mark 14:1-15:47 in today’s Gospel, is something that I have meditated on in these reflections the past few Sundays, pointing to Jesus, high and lifted up, glorious and dead, saving us, drawing us to the Father with whom he now reigns in glory.

A surface reading of this passage in Mark shows us a beaten man, dying unjustly under the thumb of an imperial power. Yet when we unite this with the events of Palm Sunday, something starts to peek out, as the crowd calls, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:13, quoting Psalm 118:25, 26) and our Lord’s fulfillment of ancient prophecy, “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” (John 12:15, quoting Zechariah 9:9). On Palm Sunday we glimpse Jesus as the King of Israel, the Messiah, the anointed one of the God of Israel.

Philippians 2:5-11 brings out the deep meaning of Palm Sunday and Good Friday. This passage is thought to actually be an early Christian hymn incorporated by St Paul from the church’s worship into his letter. Here we read that although Jesus was “in the form of God” he chose to “take on the form of a slave”. Most modern English Bibles have “servant” here—the ESV unhelpfully gives us the antiquated word “bondservant” in the notes as an option for “servant”. The Greek is doulos. It means slave. It’s worth thinking on this mystery.

Jesus is fully God—completely and utterly God, as much God as the Father is God. Anything we can say about God we can say about the Christ: immortal, invisible, wise, almighty, eternal, omniscient, just, loving, merciful, compassionate, infinite. He is also fully man—that is the upshot of Philippians 2:7, that he has the “form of a slave” and was made “in the likeness of human beings.” God in His very Self knows precisely what it means to be the lowest of the low—there is no one in ancient society lower than the slave. A Roman slave was the legal property of another human being. It was part of the regular process of Roman law to simply torture slaves if they were witnesses at trials—not even if they were defendants. If a master was killed by a slave, the entire household of slaves was liable for the murder and put to death; they should have known better or done better to protect him. This is how far God chose to come down to be with us.

God knows everything about being human—he is not aloof.

For us to consider to how deep the love of God the Word for us is, the next verse brings us to the cross—”he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:8) First, Christ our God took on the form of a slave, the lowest of human society. And then he did not merely suffer, he died. And he did not merely die, he died the death reserved for the lowest of the worst criminals. Romans crucified those they considered the scum of the earth, such as Spartacus and 6000 of his fellow slave rebels, the thieves and murderers on either side of Jesus, or 2000 Jews who rebelled against the Romans around the time when Jesus was born. It is a terrible way to die, as many Good Friday sermons enjoy describing for us.

Just as a reminder, here are of some of the divine attributes ancient Christians and Jews believed in and passed along to us—God is immortal. God cannot suffer. God is eternal. God is infinite. As Charles Wesley put it: “’Tis mystery all, the Immortal dies!”

What is the result in the divine plan of his action in human history, his taking on our flesh and dying as one of us? “That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:10-11) Because of the basic nature and order of the universe, humans and the rest of the creation are meant for loving and worshipping God; as has been said, our main purpose in life is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” In falling away from the worship of God, we have fallen from our truest life, and therefore we have gone away from our truest joy and happiness and source of contentment.

Part of our salvation is for God’s glory because, when we give glory to God, we are living our best life now. This is what the Paradise we lost was and what the Paradise we shall regain is going to be. Following Jesus means going through suffering to glory. The grand narrative of the Bible is not simply creation to fall to redemption, but also from redemption to glory, to the new heaven and the new earth of the book of Revelation.

Let us now go back to Philippians 2:5. I quote my own translation, “Therefore, let that mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” From here, St Paul describes the mind that was in Christ Jesus. Ethics and theology are intimately united in the Bible. The ethics that flow from the theology that I have just described, the way of living that we disciples (or better, apprentices) are called to follow by our master and teacher, is given in Philippians 2:6-11. We are called not to grasp for power and authority but to pour out our whole selves in love for others. We are called to humble ourselves and deny ourselves daily. To take up our cross and follow Him—Jesus the Messiah, God the Son, Saviour, Lord, Prophet, Priest, King. His mind is a mind filled with loving humility, with humble love.

Humility, of course, is a strong biblical virtue, and through the centuries, disciples of Jesus have had much to say on the subject. Since we at the Urban Abbey follow a version of the Rule of the seventh-century Irish abbot St Columbanus, I thought I would commend some of his words to you this Palm Sunday:

if … we first hasten by the exercise of true humility to heal the poisons of pride and envy and vain glory, through the teaching of our Saviour Who says for our example, “Learn of Me for I am meek and lowly of heart’’ (Matt. 11. 29), and so on, then let us all, made perfect with no further blemish, with hatred rooted out, as the disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ, love one another’ (cf. John 13. 35) with our whole heart. (Letter II.4)

The only pathway to humility, as with all virtue, is grace. St Columbanus reminds us of God’s grace in his third sermon, where he urges those pursuing eternal life to

call on God’s grace to help [your] striving; for it is impossible for anyone to acquire by his own efforts alone what he lost in Adam. (Sermon III.2)

In closing, here is the prayer of the day (called a “collect”) for Palm Sunday from the Book of Common Prayer, bringing together many of these themes:

ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant, that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Crucifixion, Studenica, Serbia. 1310s.