Note, excellent friends, how marvellously and how harmoniously the arrangement of words moves in Divine Scripture. There is an ever-increasing desire, a fullness without end, a glorious hunger of the blessed where excess is not reproved but constant desire is, instead, praised — and rightly so, since Scripture both teaches beneficial knowledge and offers eternal life to those who believe and act on their belief. They describe the past without fiction, and reveal more of the present than is seen, and tell of the future as if it had already taken place. Truth rules everywhere in them; everywhere divine excellence shines forth; everywhere benefits to the human race are revealed. While the present situation exists on earth, heavenly truth, in so far as we are able to grasp it, is revealed by parables and mysteries, as God himself bears witness in the seventy-seventh Psalm: ‘I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter mysteries from the beginning’ [Psalm 77:2]. For they pass on to us, in order that we may discharge all duties, a prayerful knowledge of the holy Trinity (which, over the great passage of time, humanity, blind, sad, and enslaved to idols, has not known). They tell us that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one God, creator and director of all created things does ‘all that he wills in heaven and on earth’ [Psalm 134:6]. If you seek its faithfulness, listen to the brief statement: ‘A stronghold for the oppressed in times of distress’ [Psalm 9:10]; if you seek power, hear: ‘Who can withstand your power?’ [Psalm 75:8; Wisdom 11:22]; if justice, read: ‘He will judge the world with justice’ [Psalms 9:99 and 95:13]. For Scripture declares most obviously that God is everywhere; in the words of the writer of the Psalms: ‘Where can I go from your spirit? from your presence where can I flee? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I sink to the nether world, you are present there’ [Psalm 138:7-8], and likewise the other aspects of God’s majesty are embedded in the holy writings. -Cassiodorus, Inst. I.XVI.1, trans. J W Halporn, p. 146
Re-post from elsewhere in 2008.
Back when I worshipped at St. Alban the Martyr Anglican Church in Ottawa, I went on a retreat for young folks of the “College & Careers” variety. The talks were delivered by the excellent David Alexander on the theme of the Psalms. The Psalms, he reminded us, are prayers. They’re God’s Prayer Book. He recommended praying through the Psalms, saying that we could get through the whole Book of Psalms over two times in a whole year. He also led us through the Psalms, showing us many of the Messianic promises and foreshadowings that were fulfilled in Jesus.
I like the idea of praying the Psalms. This is in part related to praying the Gloria Patri — in psalmody, we join with Christians from throughout history, around the globe, and between traditions. The original monastic offices, as practised by the Desert Fathers and then more formalised through Cassian and Benedict, consisted of gathering to pray the Psalms together. The core of the worship of the monks as they gathered once or twice a week in Egypt or seven times a day in Italy was the Book of Psalms. Eastern Orthodox monks today have a service where they chant all the Psalms of David without stop.
Before the liturgies were organised and formalised, before the hymns were written and gathered, the faithful have had the Psalms to sing, worship, and pray with. The Psalms are like an ancient Jewish hymn book. We ought not to neglect them. Nor should we simply read them as we read the rest of the Bible. They were included in the Scriptures not simply because they reveal things about Almighty God but also because they teach us how to pray, aid us in prayer, give us words when we lack our own. Edith Humphrey, in Ecstasy and Intimacy, notes that Evelyn Underhill, a 20th-century English mystic, says that the Psalms and the Gospels are the foundational texts for Christian mysticism and spirituality.
The Gloria Patri makes the Psalms part of our prayer. We conclude the lessons with, “The word of the Lord,” or “Here endeth the lesson.” The Gospels when read aloud are closed with, “The Gospel of Christ.” But the Psalms are not concluded in such a manner when we use the Gloria Patri. Instead, they flow into our worship, for they were always intended to be prayers.
At the back of SVS Press’ translation of On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius is Athanasius’ Letter to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms. It is well worth a read for its insight into the Psalms as prophecy as well as prayer and how the Psalms lay out the entire spiritual life for us. In one passage, he writes:
In the other books of Scripture we read or hear the words of holy men as belonging only to those who spoke them, not at all as though they were our own; and in the same way the dongs there narrated are to us material for wonder and examples to be followed, but not in any sense things we have done ourselves. With this book, however, though one does read the prophecies about the Saviour in that way, with reverence and with awe, in the case of all the other Psalms it is as though it were one’s own words that one read; and any one who hears them is moved at heart, as though they voiced for him his deepest thoughts. . . . The marvel with the Psalter is that, barring those prophecies about the Saviour and some about the Gentiles, the reader takes all its words upon his lips as though they were his own, written for his special benefit, and takes them and recites them, not as though someone else were speaking or another person’s feelings being described, but as himself speaking of himself, offering the words to God as his own heart’s utterance, just as though he himself had made them up. Not as the words of the patriarchs or of Moses and the other prophets will he reverence these: no, he is bold to take them as his own and written for his very self. Whether he has kept the Law or whether he has broken it, it is his own doings that the Psalms describe; every one is bound to find his very self in them and, be he faithful soul or be he sinner, each reads in them descriptions of himself. (pp. 104-105)
Through my own praying of the Psalms and reading about the Psalms and the Gloria Patri, I have come to appreciate this ancient practice of making the Psalms one’s own. And now I think I understand my brother‘s dislike of the Psalter as found in the Book of Alternative Services (BAS).
The BAS is the Anglican Church of Canada’s modern liturgy and is fast becoming the dominant liturgy in Canada. I grew up with it; it is not as bad as many say. I was nourished by its words and grew into a man of faith using this book at worship every Sunday. Nonetheless, it is a lesser book compared to the BCP.
This is one reason why.
While it does include the Gloria Patri after the versicles from the Psalms, the Gloria Patri is rendered optional for the actual Psalm of the day. If you turn to the Psalter in said book (pp. 705-909), you will note something following each Psalm: a Psalm prayer. These prayers render the Psalms into little Aesop’s Fables in prayer form. If the Psalm is chiefly a prayer or an act of worship, then a prayer based on the theme of the Psalm at hand or praying for one of the lessons of the Psalm is completely extraneous.
I’ve a feeling, though, that the Psalms are not used or understood in this way by many Anglicans. Celebrating Common Prayer, the Society of Saint Francis’ book of the divine office, does the same thing, although it keeps the Gloria Patri with the versicles and canticles. The Psalms are not our own hymns and prayers! They’re just there to teach us a lesson! And if they conflict with our worldview, we’ll just excise the uncomfortable bits from the lectionary.
We are to be a people of prayer, drawing from the deep well of Scripture and Tradition. The praying of the Psalms has the benefit of being both. Using the Gloria Patri helps ensure that we continue to pray the Psalms, not simply say the Psalms.
O God make speed to save us; O Lord make haste to help us.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
The little chapel was lit only by ambient light from the sides, the chandelier from the ceiling turned off — this, of course, augmented by the lights on Fr. Raphael’s lectern and the glowing candles in the lamps before the iconostasis and those lit by the faithful before the icons near the door.
Icons hung on the four walls of the room as well as on the iconostasis, although not completely covering this piece of ecclesiastical furniture which was made from simple timbers and boards, no fancy carvings in sight. Although the chapel had no dome (I believe Fr. John lives upstairs), a circular icon of Christ Pantokrator was mounted to the ceiling above the nave.
When the curtain in the iconostasis opened, I could see the Holy Table* with an ornate cross with two other ornate objects flanking it; they reminded me of monstrances, but I knew they couldn’t be since Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament is a western phenomenon associated with the 13th-century feast of Corpus Christi.
Fr. Raphael stood at his lectern in the back left corner of the chapel and chanted and sang Vespers. There were Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer, Kyries, and many others. Amidst these beautiful hymns and chants were hymns for St. Ambrose of Milan whose feast was the next day. These were beautiful and complex, verse homilies in miniature, teaching us of the life and teachings of St. Ambrose, praying that our faith might mirror his.
My Sundays of worship at Evensong at St. Alban’s in Ottawa as well as the many nights I have prayed Compline alone gladdened my heart when Fr. Raphael sang the Nunc Dimittis. I mouthed the words silently along with him.
Every once in a while, I would see Fr. John behind the iconostasis, standing before the Holy Table, bowing, praying, and chanting a few portions of the order for Vespers himself. At one point, Fr. John censed the Holy Table and then proceed out from behind the iconostasis with the censer. He censed the doors, the icons of the day posted near the doors, Theodore, me, and Fr. Raphael, before proceeding back to his position behind the iconostasis.
Theodore, a young Romanian student of electrical engineering at the University of Edinburgh, and I were the only two congregants for most of Vespers last night. We stood at the back, crossing ourselves at the right moments and lifting up our hearts to God. Using skills developed at Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic services, I kept half an eye on Fr. Raphael to know when to cross myself. I tried to listen to the words of the service, but sometimes, especially when the chanting became singing, I got caught up in the melody and lost track of the words.
I prayed the Jesus Prayer (‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’) many times over. My charismatic upbringing also manifested itself in the quiet praying in tongues through the movement of the Holy Spirit in that quiet, holy space. At times, my mind wandered as I stood there, thinking about Eastern Orthodoxy, liturgy, and worship, as well as St. Ambrose. Inevitably, my thoughts turned to the fact that my back was hurting.
I sat down. Theodore had already done so, so I didn’t feel bad about it.
Within about a minute of having sat down, Fr. Raphael called me over to his four-platformed spinning lectern to read.
I read the Trisagion, the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer to St. Ambrose, and a prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary. I may have prayed something else, but those are the prayers that stand out in my mind. Fortunately, I know enough of Orthodox liturgy to have been able to pray the Glory Be without printed words properly.
After this beautiful service, we retired to the church hall for tea and cake. I met Theodore and Dimitri, and had a conversation with Fr. Raphael about Pope St. Leo the Great and St. Cyril of Alexandria. Then, as it was about 8:15 and I hadn’t had supper, I went home.
I’m glad I stopped in at the Orthodox Community of St. Andrew the Apostle. The Lord blessed me through that visit, and I worshipped him in spirit and in truth.
*If I recall Fr. Alexander Schmemann properly, the entire space involved in the iconostasis is the altar. Not knowing the Orthodox word, I give you the Anglican.
I am currently engaged in the first semester of a year-long Master of Theology, ‘Theology in History’ at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Divinity (hereafter known as ‘New College’). In the year 2000, New College purchased a facsimile of Codex Vaticanus. Vaticanus may well be the oldest manuscript of the Greek Bible we have (from the 300s). If it isn’t, Codex Sinaiticus is.
I had the opportunity of sitting in a glass room at New College’s library (well within sight of the librarians, I can assure you) and perusing this 6000-dollar volume.
It is a beautiful book. The pages are heavyweight paper with an exact image of what Vaticanus itself, off in the Vatican looks like (not on vellum — 365 goats for the original are enough, thank you very much). The pages are all funny sizes and shapes. They have the holes in the pages where the real codex has its holes. The decorations are reproduced in full colour. The rubber stamps from the Vatican Library are clearly visible on the opening pages.
It is a thing of beauty.
Most of Vaticanus is written in uncials — big, block letters that are fairly square in shape and quite easy to read. You can take a look at the late 19th-century photo-facsimile here (it is much less awesome than the new facsimile). The first bit and last bit of this old book went missing at some point, so in the fifteenth century someone recopied the missing bits. Those bits are harder to read, written out in minuscules — tiny, flowy script that runs together and is beautiful yet illegible to the untrained eye. I deciphered ‘In the beginning, made’ from Genesis 1 before giving up. No doubt the next word was ‘theos‘.
The beginning of each book has a non-iconic decoration at the top of the column and the first letter written large and in colour. This makes reading easier, since both uncials and minuscules leave no breaks between words and lack serious punctuation. The result is large, rectangular columns of text. Very geometric.
Of course, the Psalms are verse. Rather than three columns of uncials, you get two. And they have indentations and uneven lines. I liked the look of the Psalms in Vaticanus.
Scattered throughout this massive book are scholia, marginal writings by scribes. They are mostly in minuscule, and there is a page in Proverbs where the margins are entirely filled with text, including the gap between the columns. I didn’t notice this fact during my own perusal but only later when our professor brought the facsimile to class. I wonder if that page is Proverbs 8 …
One scholion was comprised of several brief lines of uncial text that got gradually smaller until coming to a point, sort of like the blade of a dagger.
People tend to use these beautiful old books as sources for disembodied texts such as the New Testament, the Septuagint, the ancient classics. Yet a look at Vaticanus makes you realise that these manuscripts are pieces of material culture. They are remnants of an age long-past, held together sometimes by sheer force of will (in the case of the sixth-century Codex Alexandrinus in the British Library, divided into four parts, so not even sheer force of will kept that one together).
They are lovely. They are pieces of art. They exhibit very fine craftsmanship.
These days, palaeography and textual criticism are starting to look a bit more attractive to me …
There has been some discussion here of late regarding worship and liturgy and modern vs. traditional. This past Sunday I worshipped at one of my favourite services in all of Christendom. A traditional, BCP Evensong in and of itself is not necessarily my favourite. It is Evensong at St. Alban the Martyr Anglican Church, Ottawa, Ontario, that I love (I have been at St. Paul’s in London and a couple of other high church variations — beautiful, but not what I truly love).
I slipped into a pew midway up the right side (Epistle) of the church beside my friend Clive and took off my big, grey coat then prayed a bit. Clive and I chatted briefly, then I prayed some more (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Repeat 5x.). The sanctuary was basically quiet save beautiful music wending its way from the pipes of the organ at the front.
The service begins with a proclamation from the priest that our Lord Jesus said that where two or three are gathered, he will be with them also — glad to know we tripled the minimum requirement! We sang “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” then opened our red (1962) Books of Common Prayer to p. 18 (my tattered tome has a blue sticky to take me right there).
And then, having assembled and met together “to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at [God’s] hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his most holy Word, and to ask those things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul” (BCP, 19), we confessed our sins, prayed the versicles, then recited the psalm appointed for the day, alternately by the half verse.
This was followed by the First Lesson, from Isaiah 6. And then we sang in the stark yet beautiful and (for me) comfortable plainsong the Magnificat (Mary’s song from Luke 1:46 ff). This was followed by the Second Lesson, wherein our Lord and Saviour healed the man at the pool near Bethesda. Following this, we sang in another stark yet beautiful plainsong the Nunc Dimittis (Simeon’s song from Luke 2: 29 ff).
We recited our faith in the words of the ancient baptismal creed of Rome, the Apostles’ Creed. We prayed more versicles, then the Collect for Christmas, the Collect of the Day, the requisite Collects for Peace and Aid Against All Perils.
The priest sermonised about Isaiah and the Apostle John, about the great glory of God, and the cleverness of the early Church as they prepared their delivery of the Good News.
We proceeded to sing “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” An offering was taken up during the hymn. This was followed by the prayers from Morning Prayer, pp. 13-15. We sang “Joy to the World.” Richard played a beautiful postlude on the organ that made me glad to be there.
Then we (now numbering 8, not 6) drank Orangina and ate cookies, discussing various things. Questions re my future were a topic of interest, since I only turn up about once or twice a year, and my future is a bit vague at this point.
I wouldn’t call this service high or low. Simply traditional. It was sung, but we all sang together. Evensong at St. Alban’s is liturgy as it should be — the work of the people. We are worshipping God using the words of Scripture, the hymns, the tradition, and so forth. The music, the beautiful setting, the people, the stillness, the smallness — these contributed to an atmosphere wherein I (at least) was able to focus my attention on the words and their meaning and the God whom I came to worship.
This service of Evensong is very special. I hope it stays as it is for many more years to come.
2. Why Did God Become a Man?
So this God has chosen to take on flesh and dwell amongst us (see last post). He could have stayed in Heaven on His sapphire throne with cherubim and seraphim surrounding him with their continuous cry, “Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Hosts! Heaven and Earth are full of thy glory!” “All the heavens cannot hold Him!” The train of His robe fills the Temple! He is Light! He is utterly perfect, which means that there is nothing He lacks and that He fulfils His role in the universe without fail, blemish, or fault. This perfect being, the One Who thought up butterflies and cheese, chose to enflesh Himself and pitch His tent among us.
And He chose to do so, coming as a baby.
He came because of love. His creation had fallen. We human beings, created in the very image of God, had fallen into sin and death. All that awaited us was annihilation. We were destined to death, to corruption due to our fall. Without God’s redemptive action, we were destined for an end the Bible calls various things: death, a place of outer darkness where there is moaning and gnashing of teeth, the second death, spiritual death, the lake of fire, Hades, Sheol, the pit, the grave. However, we weren’t really made for that. We were made to dwell with our Creator forever. And He took great pity upon us and sought to remake us after His own Image. He alone could do this, however. The law could not do this, nor the prophets, nor the revelation of His character in nature. Only He alone could recreate humanity into what we were meant to be.
In order to effect this re-creation, however, He had first to do away with death and corruption. Therefore He assumed a human body, in order that in it death might once for all be destroyed, and that men might be renewed according to the Image. The Image of the Father only was sufficient for this need. (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation)
Part of the mystery of the Incarnation, then, is that God loved us sinners enough to make Himself human. It’s not simply that the Creator made Himself into a man. Some point out that He can do anything. In fact, some of the Church Fathers say that Jesus was ordering the universe the whole time He was on earth—that, as perfect God, He never ceased performing the full function of the Almighty. I’m not sure I believe that, myself, but it’s an intriguing thought. Nonetheless, Almighty God took on flesh because He loves us! He became man for our sake.
O Come, let us adore Him!!
We see this aspect of Christ’s incarnation, in fact, in some of tonight’s passages (Christmas 1, Year 1, BCP Evensong).
Ps. 130:8: He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.
Jer. 31:1-6: 1 “At that time,” declares the LORD, “I will be the God of all the clans of Israel, and they will be my people.” 2 This is what the LORD says: “The people who survive the sword will find favor in the desert will come to give rest to Israel.” 3 The LORD appeared to us in the past, saying: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness. 4 I will build you up again and you will be rebuilt, O Virgin Israel. Again you will take up your tambourines and go out to dance with the joyful. 5 Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; the farmers will plant them and enjoy their fruit. 6 There will be a day when watchmen cry out on the hills of Ephraim, ‘Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God.’ “
3. Our Response
What is our response? First, worship. Second, worship. Third, worship. And while we worship, we should take the words of Jesus seriously and live by them in faith. The sort of faith is found in the second lesson from tonight. In Matt. 18:3-4, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
As we live worshipping Jesus and putting our whole faith in Him, certain attitudes will inevitably be adopted. St. Paul puts it eloquently in Philippians 2:
5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
We should give of ourselves as God Himself has. God, the, the Creator of all that was, is, and shall be, is Jesus. God Who revealed Himself to us in the Old Testament and acted in real ways in history, is Jesus. God is Jesus. How can we not worship Him and get caught up in the glory that He came to earth to save us from our sins? And so, reflecting on this mystery, we are spurred on to live righteous lives, lives of humility, lives lived for others, lives that seek to help the poor, lives that seek to help other people find the joy of life with Christ, lives that relieve the needs of those around them. J.I. Packer writes:
We talk glibly of the ‘Christmas spirit’, rarely meaning more by this than sentimental jollity on a family basis. But what we have said makes it clear that the phrase should in fact carry a tremendous weight of meaning. It ought to mean the reproducing in human lives of the temper of him who for our sakes became poor at the first Christmas. And the Christmas spirit ought to be the mark of every Christian all the year round. (Knowing God, p. 70)
I preached a shortened version of this sermon at Evensong at St. Alban’s Anglican Church, Ottawa, Ontario, on December 28, 2008. The preaching began with a reading of the hymns by Ephrem the Syrian quoted in my last post.
It is Christmas. I hope to share with you in this homily some thoughts on the ineffable mystery of Christmas. The elusive “true meaning” of Christmas that every Christmas special seeks to hunt down is bigger than Santa, gifts, family, friends, carols, winter, snow or anything else that we human beings do. The true meaning of Christmas, dear friends, is that of the Incarnation, as St. Ephraim says, “the God-man.” It is this theological mystery I hope to investigate tonight.
People are often afraid of theology, and I’ll skip over a lot of jargon; I’ll use Scripture, hymns, creeds, the Fathers, etc, to bring out the beauty of the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation—with the understanding that the hymns, Fathers, creeds, etc, are in accord with Scripture. When we see the beauty and glory and magnificence of this event, I hope that we will be drawn to worship and prayer. True worship of the true God is the ultimate goal of all proper theology.
Diadochus of Photike says, “Divine theology brings into harmony the voices of those who praise God’s majesty.” Similarly, Evagrius Ponticus declares, “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” Worship and prayer are vitally important; both fuel us and drive us into action; may we thus also live better lives in the light of the truth of Christmas, when God came down and lived amongst us.
1. What God is Jesus? The Creator God.
According to John 1, Jesus is the Incarnate Word of God. And the Word is not only with God, but is God. We read the Nicene Creed instead of the Apostle’s tonight so we could read its Christological formulae: Jesus, the Word, is “begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” (BCP) The Word is not other than God. God, in His fullness, is Jesus. Anything we can say about God we can also say about Jesus. So in Psalm 72, when the Psalmist says, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who only doeth wondrous things; and blessed be the Name of his majesty for ever: and let all the earth be filled with his majesty. Amen and Amen,” (BCP) we can substitute Jesus for the Divine Name, “the LORD”, and proclaim, “Blessed be Jesus, the God of Israel, who only doeth wondrous things; and blessed be the Name of his majesty for ever: and let all the earth be filled with his majesty. Amen and Amen.”
This truth is expressed most fully in the Creed of St. Athanasius, which can be found here. The entire thing is worth a read someday; I encourage you to do so. Verse 30 reads, “Now the right Faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is both God and Man. He is God, of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and he is Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born into the world; Perfect God; perfect Man, of reasoning soul and human flesh subsisting; Equal to the Father as touching his Godhead; less than the Father as touching his Manhood.” (BCP)
God. Jesus is fully God. He is not some lesser being, some semi-divine creature, or an angelic being. He is God Himself. This is a mystery. We cannot penetrate into the fullness of its glory. Indeed, it boggles the mind to think on it: God in the flesh! There is so much that could be said about the God Who Jesus is—he is the God of the Old Testament, He set the people of Israel free from Egypt, He spoke by the prophets, He gave the law, He showed Moses a glimpse of His glory. Let’s reflect for a moment on the fact that He is the Creator God.
a. The Creator God
God, according to Genesis 1, created everything. He spoke, and it happened. God said, “Let light come into being, and there was light.” Since God created using speech, it comes as no surprise that we read in John 1, “All things were made through [the Word], and without Him nothing was made that was made.” (NKJV) Jesus, the Word, created. He is the living Word of God the Father, and He brought all things into existence. He is the One Who creates out of nothing. Before we rush off into these heights of glorious truth, let us recall the title of a book I once read, Jesus with Dirty Feet. This Jesus we read of in the Gospels, the One with dirty feet, Who walked the shores of Galilee, Who threw the moneychangers from the Temple, Who wept at Lazarus’ death, Who told stories, Who was born a Babe in Bethlehem and laid in a manger by His mother—this Jesus happens also to be the Creator of the Universe.
Creator. Of. The. Universe.
This is who Jesus is: the Creator of the Stars of Night; the Creator of nebulae and galaxies and comets and solar systems and suns and planets and asteroids and all stellar phenomena; the Creator of ants and whales and bacteria and diatoms and hair and mountains and goats and birch trees and mighty oaks and Niagara Falls and you and me. As Creator of humanity, He gave unto us a certain creative faculty. Therefore, all the works of beauty created by humans are traceable back to the Creator God: the architecture of this Church, beautiful poetry, paintings, stained-glass windows, fabulous novels, true philosophy—all because of Jesus. He is the Creator of the Universe. He made stuff by talking. His Word went forth and made all that was, all that is, and all that ever shall be. As we sing in the fourth-century hymn of Prudentius:
At his word the worlds were framèd;
He commanded; it was done:
Heaven and earth and depths of ocean
In their threefold order one;
All that grows beneath the shining
Of the moon and burning sun,
Evermore and Evermore.
This Creator God took on flesh at Christmas. He was born of a Virgin as an infant. The mind that hung the Pleiades in the sky was incapable of expressing itself in words and lived off the very milk of a woman whom He created. Mindblowing.
b. The God of the Old Testament
Briefly, let us remember that the Creator God has a specific character and history as revealed in the Old Testament; and Jesus, the Babe of Bethlehem, is that God. In fact, some of the early Church Fathers taught that the Word of God, Jesus, is the God who speaks in the Old Testament. I’m not sure I agree, but the implications are that the Second Person of the Trinity is the One Who once on Sinai’s height did “give the Law in cloud and majesty and awe”; He spoke to Elijah in the still small voice on Mt. Carmel; He visited Abraham and Sarah; He spoke to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and all the prophets.
This God we worship in Jesus is not just a speaker and Creator. He doesn’t just order the cosmos and talk to us every once in a while. He acts. Remember our Sunday School Bible stories: He brought Noah’s flood, He led the people of Israel out of Egypt into the Promised Land, He caused the walls of Jericho to fall down, He gave Samson superhuman strength, He gave Solomon wisdom, He consumed the offerings that Elijah gave on the altar with a mighty flame, He saved Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace. The holy God of Israel, Who meets Moses in the burning bush and declares His Divine Name, “I am that I am,” manifests Himself as Jesus.
He is just, righteous, jealous for His holy Name, compassionate and merciful. Anything we can say about Almighty God we can say about Jesus. This means also that, in the New Testament, when John says that God is Love, the same applies to Jesus. That God is Love helps unlock the mystery of why this God of power and might would choose to humble Himself as a poor infant, born into this world not into the halls of kings or emperors but into a manger of all places!
I believe that classical exegesis gives us the tools for unlocking even the most unfortunate parts of Scripture. Thus, we look upon the aforementioned verse, Psalm 71:13:
Let them be confounded and perish that are against my soul; let them be covered with shame and dishonour that seek to do me evil.
Then we scratch our heads and pray, thinking about what sort of spiritual meaning could lie there. And then John Cassian says:
When we read or sing all these things [of violence and hatred in the Psalms], therefore, and others like them that have been included in the Sacred Books, if we do not take them as having been written against those evil spirits that lie in wait for us day and night we shall not only not derive from them any increase of gentleness and patience but we shall even conceive a kind of cruel feeling that is contrary to gospel perfection. For we shall not only be taught not to pray for our enemies and not to love them, but we shall even be incited to detest them with an implacable hatred, to curse them, and unceasingly to pour out prayer against them. (Conf. 7.21.7-8, trans. Ramsey)
Who are against your soul? Who seek to do you evil? Evil spirits. Demons. The Psalm in the Christian’s hands becomes a tool of spiritual warfare to combat the forces of darkness.
Let us now, therefore, consider the most famous of the violent Psalms, Ps. 137. The Psalm closes with the following:
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock! (NRSV)
Typically, the Revised Common Lectionary avoids these passages, and if we consider how most of us read the Bible most of the time, I can understand it. However, if we look to the ancients, such as John Cassian or C.S. Lewis, we find new ways of looking at the above verses:
It behooves us as well to destroy the sinners in our bed — namely, our fleshly feelings — on the morning of their birth, as they emerge, and, while they are still young, to dash the children of Babylon against the rock. Unless they are killed at a very tender age they will, with our acquiescence, rise up to our harm as stronger adults, and they will certainly not be overcome without great pain and effort. (John Cassian, The Institutes 6.13.2, trans. Ramsey)
And C.S. Lewis:
I know things in the inner world which are like babies; the infantile beginnings of small indulgences, small resentments, which may one day become dipsomania or settled hatred, but which woo us and wheedle us with special pleadings and seem so tiny, so helpless that in resisting them we feel we are being cruel to animals. They begin whispering to us, “I don’t ask much, but”, or “I had at least hoped”, or “you owe yourself some consideration”. Against all such pretty infants (the dears have such winning ways) the advice of the Psalm is the best: knock the little bastards’ brains out. And “blessed” he who can, for it’s easier said than done. (C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, pp. 383-384, in Selected Books)
And there you have it, the spiritual interpretation of the difficult Psalms at work.
Modern biblical criticism, “liberal” or “evangelical”, likes the historical understanding of Scripture. We must read the text and see what it says to the original audience. This will help us understand what it means. The meaning of Scripture is thereby reduced to the original audience. If the original speaker meant, “Smash babies heads on rocks,” then that’s all it means. If the original speaker meant that a prophecy would be fulfilled in two days, it is unlikely to be fulfilled again in 2000 years. If the original Hebrew says “young girl,” it doesn’t mean “virgin.”
This form of interpretation only takes us so far, however. If all of Scripture is God-breathed and useful, as St. Paul contends, then we need a way of reading the Bible beyond the historical meaning. One of the joys of reading old books and discovering Christians from other ages is to see how they dealt with problems facing them. Thus, I have an idea how to deal with a verse from the BCP-appointed Psalm for today:
Let them be confounded and perish that are against my soul; let them be covered with shame and dishonour that seek to do me evil. (Ps. 71:13)
Our starting point is one of the good, readable books to come out of the Protestant paleo-orthodoxy and the Evangelical ressourcement, Christopher A. Hall’s Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers. This book is a brief introduction to patristic thought that requires little specialised vocabulary and no Latin or Greek (thus, those who are neither clergy nor scholars can read it). He deals with the use of Scripture by the four Doctors of the East and the four Doctors of the West, then he goes more specifically into “Alexandrian” and “Antiochene” schools of thought.
Alexandrians, typified by Origen, sought the allegorical meaning of Scripture, and the Antiochenes reacted against excessive allegorical readings, especially when considering Origen’s more heterodox teachings.* The Antiochene method sought a spiritual meaning that was not divorced from the literal meaning of the text, as seen in Diodore of Tarsus. Both schools of thought looked beyond the historical and literal meanings of Scripture, seeking higher spiritual knowledge revealed by the hard work of exegesis and the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.
In our old friend John Cassian, we see that as we read Scripture, our contemplation is divided into the historical and the spiritual. No doubt Cassian would agree with Diodore of Tarsus that we ought not to simply make up whatever allegories we please and that the spiritual understanding will not run counter to the historical (see Conf. 14.8).
The spiritual understanding of a text includes tropology, allegory, and anagogy (14.8.1). His definitions only make sense in the context of the example he uses, so to save time, here’s what the OED tells us:
1. ‘A speaking by tropes’ (Blount, 1656); the use of metaphor in speech or writing; figurative discourse.
2. A moral discourse; a secondary sense or interpretation of Scripture relating to morals.
1. Description of a subject under the guise of some other subject of aptly suggestive resemblance.
2. An instance of such description; a figurative sentence, discourse, or narrative, in which properties and circumstances attributed to the apparent subject really refer to the subject they are meant to suggest; an extended or continued metaphor.
3. An allegorical representation; an emblem.
1. Spiritual elevation or enlightenment, esp. to understand mysteries. Obs.
2. Mystical interpretation, hidden ‘spiritual’ sense of words.
The ancient and mediaeval interpreters of Scripture believed that the historical meaning of Scripture was true and useful. However, it is not enough. We must seek out deeper meanings that will speak to our spiritual lives, meanings that will help us grow as Christians. The Spirit will enlighten our understanding; the classic Christian methodology runs counter to Enlightenment methodology that seeks to interpret Scripture by reason alone, believing that with reason even the heathen can unlock the mysteries of God.
To close, from John Cassian, Conf. 13.17.3:
Whoever believes that he can sound the depths of that immeasurable abyss [of God’s wisdom] by human reason is trying to nullify the marvelous aspect of this knowledge, then, which struck the great teacher of the Gentiles. For the person who is sure that he can conceive in his mind or discuss at length the designs whereby God works salvation in human beings is certainly resisting the truth of the Apostle’s words and declaring with impious audacity that the judgements of God are not inscrutable and that his ways are traceable. (Trans. Boniface Ramsey)
*See also “Antiochene θεωρία in John Chrysostom’s Exegesis,” by Bradley Nassif in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity, K. Tanner & C.A. Hall, eds. Downers Grove: IVP, 2002.
More important than the controversy surrounding him is John Cassian’s legacy. This legacy can be seen in East and West in the history Christian spirituality and monasticism.
In The Institutes, John Cassian presented his adaptation of Evagrius Ponticus’ teaching of the eight thoughts most to be avoided. Cassian’s eight vices — Gluttony, Fornication, Avarice, Anger, Sadness, Acedia, Vainglory, Pride — were adapted by St. Gregory the Great (540-604) into a list of Seven Deadly Sins. He combined vainglory with pride since the two vices are so similar. The Seven Deadlies have influenced thought right up to this day; the only person I can think of whom you might be interested in reading on this topic is St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul.
In the Rule of St. Benedict, Cassian’s Conferences are recommended reading for the monks. The result of this is that many aspects of Cassian’s spirituality run throughout the spiritual writings of the Benedictines (and thence the Cistercians, Carthusians, and so forth). As well, however, St. Benedict encourages his monks to begin their prayers, “O God make speed to save me, O Lord make haste to help me.” This is a bit of advice from Cassian’s 10th Conference, where he waxes eloquent on the usefulness of that phrase from the Psalms. To this day, if you go to a Prayer Book service in the Anglican Church, that is right near the beginning of Morning or Evening Prayer (it usually follows, “O Lord open thou our lips, / and our mouth shall show forth thy praise).
This is probably the best we can do for the obvious, visible legacy of Cassian in the West. The controversy and the centuries have not dealt with him over here kindly. Nonetheless, his influence no doubt runs through the whole current of monastic spirituality, which is itself the spring from which much of the rest of Christian spirituality draws.
In the East, Cassian’s teaching on Grace & Freewill is understood by some to be the orthodox Orthodox position. I’m not sure that they are as obsessed as we are about having a perfect definition of this doctrine, however. Nevertheless, he has the notable distinction of being the only Latin writer who is included in the Philokalia, the Eastern Orthodox collection of teachings from the 2nd through 15th centuries. These teachings centre on prayer and are the core of most Orthodox spirituality. This is where the bulk of his influence in the East is found.
Since Cassian holds a position within the central texts and traditions of Christian spirituality, both East and West, I believe that we should all read him — Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant. We should seek to understand his teachings and draw towards purity of heart and the vision of the divine.