The Throne of God (What’s going on in Isaiah 6?)

Fresco of St. Ambrose in Sant’Ambrogio, Milan (photo by me!)

One of the most famous parts of Isaiah, one of the few parts of the Bible useful for angelology, and a source for part of the liturgy, Isaiah 6 can be a perplexing place to find oneself, in any language. I was recently reading Ambrose of Milan, On the Holy Spirit, and I noticed that the translator did not provide Isaiah 6:2 as I expected. What I expected was what I grew up with, NIV:

Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.

Instead, where the NIV has ‘their faces … their feet’, I read ‘His face … His feet’. Being smug, I assumed the translator got his Latin wrong and confused the two different Latin words for ‘his’, one which can be rendered ‘his own’, the other which means someone else’s. But I checked Ambrose, On the Holy Spirit 3.160, and found:

et Seraphim stabant in circuitu ejus; sex alae uni, et sex alae alteri, et duabus velabant faciem ejus, et duabus velabant pedes ejus, et duabus volabant

Which is to say that the translator got it right. This is the same text that Vulgate has — the Seraphim are covering the Lord Sabaoth’s face and feet, not their own. My guess is that, since the Geneva Bible, the KJV, the NIV, and the ESV have the Seraphim covering their own feet, the Hebrew has the same. The Greek is vague — each Seraph covers the face and the feet, using the definite article and no possessive. (Unless this is a use of the article someone could detail for me…)

Hence the Old Latin used by Ambrose and the later Vulgate version of this verse.

Therefore, we cannot give priority to the Vulgate/Ambrose text, since the Septuagint (and presumably the Hebrew) needn’t lead that direction.

Nevertheless, the Seraphim covering the Lord of Sabaoth’s face and feet pointed to an important point that I (we?) rarely acknowledge, barely grasp:

Isaiah has had a vision of the throne-room of God, and he presumably saw some sort of anthropomorphic figure seated on a throne and surrounded by six-winged Seraphim.

We probably subconsciously shy away from this due to the fact that the LORD has already told Moses that no one may look on his face and live and that 1 John says that no one has ever seen God. And yet in the Gospel of John Jesus does say that if we have seen him, we have seen the Father.

I think we should confront two possibilities here. I suspect that modern readers who are willing to take Isaiah’s vision as literal (as opposed to those who think it a theological-literary fiction) will go for option number one: God has created an image to project into Isaiah’s feeble, earth-bound, image-driven mind as a means of communicating with the prophet.

The second, and one I do hope has Church Fathers to back it up, is that this is Christ in glory. This one is less popular today either because we don’t like reading the New Covenant into the Hebrew Bible on literary-historical grounds (Isaiah can’t see Jesus because he doesn’t know about Jesus, even if Jesus is the Messiah) or we don’t like the implied supersessionism and appropriation of Jewish Scripture.

But if we actually believe historic Christian orthodoxy, we’ve already appropriated the entirety of Jewish Scripture simply by stating that Jesus is the Christ — Messiah, or that Jesus is Lord. Moreover, we go much further when we affirm Nicene-Chalcedonian orthodoxy and say that Jesus is of one substance with the Father.

Throw eternity into the mix, and we are also affirming that the man Jesus who was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate has also always existed in that body in the throne room of God. Because He is God and exists outside of time.

I find, therefore, a tantalising idea in the throne room vision of Isaiah, and that idea is that Isaiah has seen the risen, glorified Jesus of Nazareth, the Second Person if the Trinity, the pre-incarnate (yet incarnate!) Christ, who is the leader of heaven’s armies and will return on a white horse to bring justice to the earth (cf. Revelation).

Several decades after Ambrose, the goal of the monastic life was the vision of Christ-God, the beatific vision, found through cultivating purity of heart, according to John Cassian. And so ascetic-mystical theology, dogmatic theology, and biblical interpretation embrace.

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Perichoresis: That word does not mean what you think it means

I am reading Alan Jacobs, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love right now, part of an attempt to make me a better reader, since I study and teach texts. What follows is perhaps not the hermeneutics of love, but I hope it is at least helpful? To soften it, I do think Jacobs has written an interesting, if at times challenging (I am more a philologist than literary critic) book. Sometimes I wonder why we need to work our way through Bakhtin to reach the end of the journey, but I imagine it is all worth it.

Anyway, in his discussion of Bakhtin, Jacobs mentions the Russian critic’s Orthodox background (even if Bakhtin was not himself particularly orthodox), and after a brief nod to theosis writes:

Moreover — and this is a still more important point for our purposes here — the God in whose image we were made and are being remade is a Trinity, that is, an intrinsically relational being. Here again we must invoke a doctrine that, although not unique to Orthodoxy, is characteristic of it: perichoresis, the eternal loving dance in which the persons of the Trinity are intertwined. To become deified … is to learn to practice with our neighbors the perichoretic movements that are so awkward for fallen human beings. (63)

There are two weaknesses here, one which this section shares with the preceding paragraph about theosis, and which is entirely forgivable, since no one can read everything. I shall quickly dispense with the first weakness, which is a lack of deep engagement with Orthodox thought on these points. Jacobs is neither a professional theologian nor, indeed, Orthodox. His métier is English literature and literary criticism. And he knows that body of literature very well. To complain that he does not reference Zizioulas on the Trinity or any of the Russian spiritual masters or contemporaries of Bakhtin discussed in Louth’s Modern Orthodox Thinkers would verge on the petty. It would have been nice to see such engagement, nonetheless.

Then again, perhaps such engagement may have saved him from the other weakness, which is an error of fact.

Perichoresis is not about dancing, despite many westerners thinking so (most recently Richard Rohr).

The first place I learned that this word is not about dancing was Edith M. Humphrey’s book Ecstasy and Intimacy, her last book as an Anglican (she is now Orthodox). She phrased it very well, and if my notes were with me instead in a shipping container in the port of Vancouver, I’d share her thoughts with you. Alas.

Anyway, the O in perichoresis is long, not short (an omega, not an omicron). If this were about the ‘divine dance’ (into which we are allegedly invited in the minds of some), the O would be short. Instead, it is related to the verb choreo, translated by the big, fat Greek dictionary (affectionately known as LSJ) variously, depending on context. The most relevant of the brief definitions:

make room for another, give way, withdraw

after Homer, go forward, advance

to be in motion or flux

have room for a thing, hold, contain

The related verb perichoreo:

A.go round, “σὺ περιχώρει λαβὼν τὴν χέρνιβα”  Ar.Av.958π. τὴν Ἑλλάδα Thalesap. D.L.1.44.
II. rotateAnaxag.912.
2. to be transferred to, come to in succession, “ἡ βασιληΐη π. ἐς Δαρεῖον” Hdt. 1.210 ; “ἡ ὀργὴ π. ἐς τό τινων μίασμα” D.C.40.49.

The noun derived therefrom in Classical Greek is given by LSJ simply to mean ‘rotation’. This is obviously not exactly what Greek theology means while talking about the inner life of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity. From what I can tell, when the word was used by St Gregory of Nazianzus (possibly the first to apply perichoresis to the Holy Trinity), it referred to mutual coinhering or mutual indwelling.

Thus, the choreo has to do with making room, and peri, literally ‘around’ as a prefix, has to do with the mutuality of the three. The point is not that the three divine Persons are dancing and making room in the divine dance for each, as cute and happy that image is. That is actually a very poor analogy, especially given the apophaticism of St Gregory in other places, that is, given his insistence on divine incomprehensibility and the utter unlikeness of God to us.

Rather, it has to do with the divine ousia, the essence of God Almighty, whereby that which the Father is, so also is the Son, and so also is the Holy Spirit. Whatever one does or is, so are the others. They have a single nature, substance, essence, and thus, although three persons, they mutually coinhere in perfect love. They do not ‘dance’ and let the other have room to dance. It is more intimate than that.

Jesus our mother (wherein I court controversy)

What follows will likely either offend some Christians in different ways whilst leaving most thinking, ‘So what?’ I hope it will appeal to somebody out there (maybe a Classicist or two), and I have no doubt, if I’m right, a biblical scholar has already addressed the bit where I talk about Greek. #philologywillsavetheworld

In Chapter 8 of A World Transformed, ‘Being Reborn’, Lisa Deam discusses the Ebstorf Map, from c. 1300, where Jesus’ head, hands, and feet peek out from behind the round globe of the world. She argues that this represents Jesus pregnant with the world. Not being an art historian, I can neither affirm nor deny this idea. It’s kind of neat — I’ll take it from Deam, who is an art historian, that this is a feasible interpretation of the map. Here it is:

This leads into a discussion of medieval piety to Jesus as mother. Interestingly, Julian of Norwich doesn’t come up, possibly because Julian’s references to Jesus as mother are so fleeting as to be almost content-less (in my non-expert opinion). Instead, we get something much more powerful, much more vivid, combining late mediaeval crucifixion piety with the image of Jesus as mother. Deam quotes Marguerite d’Oingt (d. 1310), A Page of Meditations, one of whose passages is this:

Oh, Sweet Lord Jesus Christ, who ever saw any mother suffer such a birth! But when the hour of the birth came you were placed on the hard bed of the cross where you could not move or turn around or stretch your limbs as someone who suffers such great pain should be able to do; and seeing this, they stretched you out and fixed you with nails and you were so stretched that there was no bone left that could still have been disjointed, and your nerves and all your veins were broken. And surely it was no wonder that your veins were broken when you gave birth to the world all in one day. (World Transformed, p. 104)

First, given that this piety is around the same time as the Ebstorf Map, this lends weight to Deam’s interpretation.

Second, this is, I think, totally acceptable, along the same lines as ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ (that is, keep it to yourself; don’t add it to the liturgy). It is a pious meditation upon the salvific event of the crucifixion of our Lord and Saviour. And it is a realisation that his death brings life. His agony allows me to breathe. The cross, as the ultimate kairos, is an event with trans-temporal significance, backwards to Abraham and Adam, forwards to Judgement Day. The true life of the world is brought forth in the cross.

The theology expressed in what, for us, is entirely novel, is also entirely in keeping with the theology of St Irenaeus of Lyons or St Ephraim the Syrian.

Deam also points out that has nothing to do with the historical gender of the real Jesus. God the Word Incarnate may have had two natures, but he had only one sex. Jesus was a man. This has more to do with seeing His role in our lives and in salvation history in a light we’re not used to.

The argument leading up to Marguerite is also of interest, reminding us of the various biblical passages where God and Jesus are discussed with maternal imagery. Jesus even uses it of himself, after all! I, however, am one of those people who are quick to say that a metaphor or image doesn’t have anything to do divine names or attributes, but points beyond itself to the divine Person in some other aspect of His Person(s). God the mother is about the oikonomia of God the Father acting in our personal and world salvation history, not about renaming the First Person of the Trinity.

God as Father fulfils all the functions of fathers and mothers perfectly. But God is not named Mother in Scripture; therefore, I refuse to use feminine pronouns for God and I refuse to call God ‘Mother’.

However, I am not sold on the reading of Acts 2:24 provided on page 101.

God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. (ESV)

ὃν ὁ θεὸς ἀνέστησεν λύσας τὰς ὠδῖνας τοῦ θανάτου, καθότι οὐκ ἦν δυνατὸν κρατεῖσθαι αὐτὸν ὑπ’ αὐτοῦ

The word for ‘pangs’ here is τὰς ὠδῖνας. Following Margaret Hammer, Deam renders it ‘birth pangs’, because this is exactly what the word means in Greek. If you check your big, fat Greek dictionary, this is what you’ll find under ὠδίς. It can, however, be used metaphorically, in which case St Peter is not necessarily saying that Jesus was giving birth to the world. In fact, the ὠδῖνας under discussion are not necessarily those that Jesus went through, in the first place. They are what Jesus has loosed, has set free by his death (λύσας from λύω).

Thus, it is our ‘birth pangs’ that Jesus has loosed, not ours.

But I don’t think that St Peter said τὰς ὠδῖνας in the first place, because he would have been preaching in Aramaic, right? If you read the entry for ὠδίς in Liddel & Scott to the end, you’ll find citation of the word in the plural to mean ‘bonds’:

ὠδῖνες θανάτου, ᾄδου, the bonds of death, LXX 2 Ki.22.6Ps.17(18).56 (due to confusion of Heb. [hudot ]ēbel ‘pang’ with [hudot ]ěbel ‘cord’), cf. Act.Ap.2.24.

The ESV, translating Hebrew, gives us this as 2 Samuel 22:6 (LXX 2 Kingdoms):

the cords of Sheol entangled me;
the snares of death confronted me.

This is the same as Ps. 18:5:

the cords of Sheol entangled me;
    the snares of death confronted me.

The difference between ‘cords of Sheol’ and ‘pangs of Sheol’ is the length of the first vowel in Jebel. You can see how the translators of the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament, aka LXX) could easily have mistaken the Hebrew, given that Hebrew is written in consonants with little markings to represent vowels. If we imagine that Acts 2:24 is, in fact, parallelling 2 Sam. 22:6/Psalm 18:5, then we see St Peter drawing a scriptural parallel, using scriptural language for the great, powerful, salvific act that is Jesus’ death and resurrection.

It works with both the wider and immediate context.

So, in sum: If you want to imagine Jesus as your spiritual mother, that’s totally legit. It’s a medieval thing. It’s not my style, but whatevs. However, I don’t think Acts 2:24 has anything to do with it.