Incarnation and Eucharist

I have observed an interesting phenomenon the past few years — the hymn, ‘Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence’, has been used as a Christmas carol. This is of note because the hymn itself is, in fact, a versified translation of a portion of the Divine Liturgy of St James, the traditional eucharistic liturgy of the Church of Jerusalem.

First the hymn as we know it:

1 Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in His hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.

2 King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture –
in the body and the blood.
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

3 Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the pow’rs of hell may vanish
as the darkness clears away.

4 At His feet the six-winged seraph,
cherubim, with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the Presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry,
“Alleluia, alleluia!
Alleluia, Lord most high!”

This is very clearly eucharistic — ‘Lord of lords, in human vesture / in the body and the blood. / He will give to all the faithful / His own self for heavenly food.’

Nonetheless, perhaps it is fitting for the season of the Nativity. Immediately after this hymn in the Divine Liturgy of St James, the priest is about to bring in the ‘holy gifts’ and pray over them this prayer:

O God, our God, who sent forth the heavenly bread, the food of the whole world, our Lord Jesus Christ, to be a Saviour, and Redeemer, and Benefactor, blessing and sanctifying us, do You Yourself bless this offering, and graciously receive it to Your altar above the skies

Thus, this divine liturgy makes explicit the connection between the physical bread on the table here present, and the coming of Jesus Christ as the heavenly bread in history. We normally associate the Eucharist with Christ’s death and resurrection (as well we should) and with the recapitulation of those glorious and life-giving events in symbols and rituals that are more than symbols and rituals.

Yet this hymn and the ensuing prayer break through our own historicised, symbolised view of the Eucharist. The kairos — the acceptable time — ruptures the chronos — the sequential time — and salvation history collapses into a single moment. Holy, eternal time is not restricted to linear movement — this is a point that, a bit East of Jerusalem, St Ephrem the Syrian will make (approximately contemporary with this liturgy).

Here in the Eucharist, we encounter not only ‘a perpetual memory of that his precious death … in remembrance of his death and passion’ (BCP) but, as ‘partakers of his most blessed Body and Blood’ (BCP again) we find ourselves meeting God as Jesus, and the Incarnation breaks through. The God-Man strides from Christmas to Easter to the communion table at your local church, all coalescing in the same moment.

Consider: God is truly transcendent. Utterly. He is holy because He is wholly other. There is an ontological divide between creature and creator. And then He rends the heavens and comes down (Is. 64:1) — not just once, at Bethlehem, but, somehow, every time and every place the Eucharist is celebrated. Somehow, mystically, He is incarnated and present unto us in the bread and wine.

In the Eucharist, space and time collapse, heaven and earth meet, and the cosmic power of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection are made real to us in the elements of bread and wine.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence and in fear and trembling stand.

Evangelicals read the Fathers for ‘fresh’ readings of Scripture

The word fresh is in quotation marks above because the freshness of the Fathers is relative to the reader. They themselves are not fresh, for they have mostly been around for 1500 years of more. But to many of us, their ideas can be a breath of fresh air.

When I queried Why Should Evangelicals Read the Fathers?, the third response, from a friend doing a PhD in New Testament who was once a pastor, was ‘To learn how not to do exegesis.’ (The other two were ”Cause they’re awesome‘ and ‘Because they are relevant‘.)

When we first meet patristic exegesis, it can often seem quite unfamiliar to us. And some of it is probably bogus. So why should we even try Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers? (To name a book that addresses this very issue.)

To answer this, I think I’ll use a different approach, one that will hopefully highlight those other reasons to read the Fathers — their awesomeness and relevance. I’ll talk about myself (something bloggers like to do).

My very, very first encounter with patristic exegesis was, thankfully, not the beautiful, lyrical, typological poems of St. Ephraim the Syrian. If it had been, I would have been left very puzzled and very nonplussed. No, it was with level-headed, ‘down-to-earth’, ‘Antiochene’ St. John Chrysostom.

I knew of the efforts of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, and I wished to make use of such things those few moments when people foolishly gave their pulpits to me. I also knew of the Christian Classics Ethereal Library and its digital version of the Ante-Nicene Fathers (ANF) & Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (NPNF). Not overfond of reading lengthy text online, especially if Victorian, I got my hands on St. John Chrysostom from NPNF and used him in preparing for homilies.

What I found was not merely attention to detail or the exegesis of the passage in terms of what it meant in its original, historical context. Chrysostom looked at the passage and exegeted it to bring its full weight to bear upon his congregation. He drew forth from the words of Holy Writ spiritual and ethical lessons for his congregation. He called them to lead holy lives.

When Chrysostom talks of St. Paul’s conversion, he also calls his congregation to read their Bibles for themselves. Commenting upon Philippians, he berates fathers who are angry about their sons taking up the religious life — if they are Christians, how is this a bad choice? Better than the pitfalls at the imperial court with its many opportunities for sin and worldliness! Then he says that one could be a light in the darkness at the imperial court, and it’s not a place Christians should avoid.

The Scriptures for Chrysostom and many, if not all, of the Fathers are alive. They speak here and now. They call us to holiness. They call us to contemplation (theoria) of God.* They drive us to worship. They are not objects of study — rather, they turn us into the objects of study. Patristic exegesis was not scary but exciting and invigorating with Chrysostom.

If you are cautious about patristic exegesis, start with St. John Chrysostom.

If you are curious about things less familiar, less like a Sunday-morning evangelical sermon, curious about things that will take you into the land of mystical union with the Divine and the world of the luminous eye (to cite the title of a book by Sebastian Brock), check out my second major helping of Patristic exegesis: St. Gregory of Nyssa’s The Life of Moses.

The Life of Moses starts out with Chrysostom’s familiar territory — ad litteram — the literal, historical meaning of the text. St. Gregory (Saint of the Week here) tells us the life of Moses as found in the Pentateuch. There are lessons to be found here about life, ethics, and God. Even that (in)famous allegorist Origen believes in the power and importance of the literal meaning of Scripture.

But Gregory takes us beyond the literal into the mystical world of allegory. Moses’ life is an allegory for our own spiritual world. As the Israelites were saved by crossing the Red Sea, we are saved in the waters of baptism. As Moses ascended the mountain of God into the cloud of unknowing (to borrow the title of a piece of Middle English mysticism), so too is the Christian called to ascend the mountain of God and find God in His incomprehensibility through mystical contemplation.

That’s probably more than enough to make most people uneasy about Patristic exegesis. What has Moses ascending Mt. Sinai to do with me, alone, in a dark room engaged in the ‘useless’ pursuit of omphaloskepsis (‘navel-gazing’, used as a perjorative in the Byzantine Hesychastic Controversy)?

We, as Protestants, shy away from this sort of allegorical, mystical reading, fearing that it will turn the Scriptures into a wax nose that can be twisted in any direction.

When I read The Life of Moses, I found it invigorating, in fact. Who knows if St. Gregory’s mystical allegory is true or ‘right’? What I know is that it contained truth and rightness. I mean to say that it found in all of Scripture a spiritual sense and sought to encourage Christians through the use of Scripture for understanding their special call as followers of Jesus. St. Gregory sees the events of the history of the people of Israel as more than simply the account of God’s dealing with the human race — he sees in them a vision of God’s dealings with each, individual human. God can save you and me, and draw us to Him, if we have the eyes to see and a deep faith rooted in Him and His word.

You may not like allegory. You may think it dangerous. You may confuse it with typology (if that’s the case, read my post about the usefulness of typology in Scripture-reading, as well as on the fourfold sense of Scripture). Nonetheless, I hope that encountering uncomfortable writings such as St. Gregory of Nyssa will jar you into trying to see that there is spiritual benefit in all of Scripture, that the Scriptures are not a self-help book, that the Scriptures are not there as a perfect roadmap to life, but, most importantly, that the Scriptures exist primarily as the revelation of God and as a means for us to be drawn into him.

This leaves us even with a place for the mind-bending typologies of St. Ephraim the Syrian (see this hymn on the Incarnation of his), well worth a read. And then, perhaps we can shed any vestiges that we have the perfect, historically accurate, airtight, ‘useful’ interpretation of Scripture and allow our souls to breathe.

Further Explorations

If you are curious about looking into Patristic exegesis and hermeneutics more, here are two places to start:

Hall, Christopher A. Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers. IVP. This book was my introduction to Patristic ways of reading the Bible. Worth a read.

Oden, Thomas, General Editor. The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. IVP. Hall’s book is meant to be an accompaniment to this 26-volume commentary on the whole of Scripture, including the Deuterocanonical Books, giving brief selections from the Patristic witness ranging from Origen and Athanasius to Cassian and Augustine. A fantastic resource.

*For a good article about Chrysostom and the Antiochene understanding and use of theoria in interpreting Scripture, see Bradley Nassif, “Antiochene theoria [actually in Greek] in John Chrysostom’s Exegesis,” in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity, ed. Kenneth Tanner and Christopher A. Hall. IVP.

Typology As a Way Forward in Bible Reading

I have previously posted about the fourfold sense of Scripture here and here. Among the spiritual senses, we find typology. Typology, as you may recall, is when we see events, items, and persons in the Old Testament as prefigurations of New Testament theology. It is distinguished from allegory as allegory is when we see parallels in events in the Old Testament not only of the New Testament but also of our own spiritual journey. Thus, an allegorical reading of Genesis 3, while not denying the real Fall of humanity, will say that this is the story of Everyman.

Typology, on other hand, sees a moment as a single flash of the greatness of the fulfillment of the promises in Christ and the Church — Melchizedek is a type of Christ; the flashing sword in Eden is a type of Mary; the crossing of the Red Sea is a type of Baptism, Jerusalem is a type of the heavenly city, and so forth. I have already posted on Noah’s Ark as a type of Mary.

This approach to Scripture is never meant to entirely supplant the literal or historical meaning, something even its most famous proponent, Origen, acknowledges. Yet it seeks to see with spiritual eyes a new, different layer of meaning. Since the purpose of Scripture is to reveal to us the things of God and empower us to lead godly lives, I see no difficulty in this way of reading Scripture.

Indeed, many see this way of reading the Bible as a way forward for western biblical interpretation. Sebastian Brock writes:

the typological approach to the Bible as found in the Syriac (and of course other) Fathers is essentially a fluid one, refusing to be contained by dogmatic statements on the one hand, or considerations of modern biblical scholarship and its findings on the other. Indeed, one wonders whether this approach does not offer the openings of a via tertia for twentieth-century western Christianity in its dilemma when faced with the liberal critical approach to the Bible that to many seems purely destructive, on the one side, and a distastefully fundamentalist approach on the other. (p. 188)*

Now, one may argue that there already exists middle ground between liberal criticism and fundamentalism, but the idea of typology as being part of that middle ground is not a bad idea. With typology, we are able to say, “Indeed, the points of the liberal’s modernist critique may be valid, and the doctrinal concerns of the fundamentalist are also worthy of consideration, and with typology I am able to honour both.”

Suddenly, Scripture is not limited to a single, literal meaning at every turn of the page. Through prayerful consideration and the reading of other spiritual books, the Holy Spirit can guide us to spiritual truths about ourselves and the Gospels that perhaps we would never have thought of if shackled to the liberal/fundamentalist approach.

Typology can be beautiful and can stir the thoughts of the reader, as we see in Brock on Ephrem the Syrian:

Ephrem’s highly allusive poetry, shifting almost relentlessly from one set of symbols to another, makes considerable demands on the reader who, above all, if he is to appreciate Ephrem to the full, must know his Bible as well as Ephrem did. Much of this typological exegesis will appear to modern readers as forced, or it may even be described as ‘wrong’, but I think it is misleading to speak of this kind of exegesis in absolute terms of ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’. The very fact that quite often one finds side by side two pieces of typological exegesis which are logically incompatible when taken together, seems to be an indication that what is being offered was never meant to be the ‘correct exegesis’, such as modern biblical scholarship likes to impose, but possible models which are held up, and whose purpose is to make meaningful, and give insight into, some aspects of a mystery that cannot be fully explained. (185-186)

If we remind ourselves that our doctrine of the Trinity is smaller than the Trinity, that our Christology is a feeble attempt to encapsulate in words the wonders of God Incarnate, if we keep in mind the smallness of ourselves and our doctrines about God in the Face of God Himself, then typology and its difficulties make a certain sense — God is ultimately incomprehensible and a great mystery. Ought not His self-revelation to the world to be filled with wonder and beauty?

Now, most of us probably aren’t reading to do our own typologies, for it is a way of thinking that is foreign to us. Here are some places to begin:

Typology in Action

The Orthodox Study Bible. The NT of this study Bible has been out for a long time, and a couple of years ago they released the entire Bible, Septuagint and NT. Its footnotes provide us with a primarily typological reading of the OT, so it can stand alongside most Protestant study Bibles that give us the literal account and thus bring us deeper into the spiritual world of the Word.

The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. This series of commentaries gathers together selections from the Fathers on the entirety of Scripture. A great many, though not all, patristic passages herein provide a typological understanding of the Scriptural passage at hand.

Ephrem the Syrian, referenced by Brock in the second passage above, has a number of works translated at the CCEL; there is also a volume in the Classics of Western Spirituality Series from Paulist Press and another of the Hymns on Paradise in the Popular Patristics Series from SVS Press. His hymns on the incarnation are especially beautiful, as I’ve noted on this blog before; he takes your mind in worship to places it has likely never gone before.

Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses, mentioned here before, is worth a read, combining both the allegorical and typological readings of Scripture after giving the straight historical reading of the text. The same translation exists in the Classics of Western Spirituality series as well as in the HarperCollins Spiritual Classics; the latter has a less extensive introduction but is also cheaper.

Origen of Alexandria is the most famous of the exegetes who apply “spiritual” methods to Scripture. His Commentary on the Gospel of John provides an introduction to his method of reading Scripture. I’m still working on Origen, myself, so I do not know what else of his to recommend.

About Typology

Hall, Christopher A. Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers. This book deals with the Four Doctors of the Western and the Four Doctors of the Eastern Church and how they read Scripture, including space devoted to Origen and Diodore of Tarsus. Space is thus given to the more spiritual readings of Scripture that lead us to typological understandings. This is a popular level book, geared towards pastors and students.

de Lubac, Henri. Medieval Exegesis: The Fourfold Sense of Scripture. This monumental work, a product of the Ressourcement that began in the 1950s (not ’20s, sorry), taking up three volumes in English, will give you all you want to know about Patristic and western Mediaeval approaches to the reading and interpretation of Scripture. This is a work of scholarship, but the rewards are no doubt hefty for those who persevere to the end (I have yet to do so).

*S. Brock, “Mary in the Syriac Tradition,” in Mary’s Place in Christian Dialogue, ed. Alberic Stacpoole. Pp. 182-191.

Byzantine Syria: Oppressive Hierarchies vs. Personal Connection with God

Last night I read the article “The Forgotten Faithful: Arab Christians” by Don Belt in the June issue of National Geographic (I read it in print).  I do not doubt that Don Belt knows much more intimately the state of affairs for the modern Arab Christian; the article was very good and balanced and informed on that front.  However, the following statement makes me wonder at his knowledge regarding their Byzantine ancestors:

When the Musliam Caliph Omar conquered Syria from the Byzantine Empire around 636, he protected the Christians under his rule, allowing them to keep their churches and worship as they pleased.  But many Christians converted to Islam anyway, preferring its emphasis on a personal connection with God to the oppressive hierarchies of the Byzantine Church. (p. 94)

My issue is with the final sentence, not the first.  The first is true, verifiable, historical fact.  The second is speculation.  We do not know the motives behind most conversions of local populations at that time because most of them were unlettered — not necessarily illiterate, but not about to write a paperback about “My Conversion to Islam.”  I imagine that their conversion to Islam was similar to that of many Roman citizens in 313 or more likely 381.  This is the new religion in town, the rulers recommend it.

I acknowledge that the Church has had her times of “oppressive hierarchies” and that the Byzantines would not have been entirely free from them.  However, we should note a few things that make Byzantine Christianity different from Roman Catholicism (since most people imagine everything from Constantine to the Reformation to be the same sort of creature).

One fact is the lay nature of the monks.  Monasticism was a lay movement started and maintained by the laity of the Eastern Church, not governed or regulated by the clergy.  There were no bishops sitting around approving which orders were allowed to found monasteries; there are no orders in the East.  They are all just monks.  And often, especially in places like Syria and Palestine, the monks were local holy men, involved in the life of the community.  Lay monasticism was a source for popular piety amongst the Christians of the Holy Land, something not enshrined in the hierarchies.  These holy men would have stressed the importance of a personal connection with God.

Second, there was a robust Syriac and Aramaic Christian literature, as seen in the earlier St. Ephraim and the liturgies of the Syrian Church.  Many theologians would have been writing in Greek, the international language of the day.  St. John of Damascus, a Syrian, did, as did many across Asia Minor and in Egypt.  The existence of Christian literature in the vernacular speaks of the existence of personal piety in Late Antique/Byzantine Syria.

Third, the role of the clergy, this so-called “oppressive hierarchy” was to baptise, preside at the Divine Liturgy (Eucharist), and to teach the people.  In a proper setting, Eastern Christian clergy are not intermediaries between the lay people and God, but exhorters of the lay people, instructors of the lay people, shepherds who help keep the lay people on their pathway to their own personal connection with God.  The Eucharist is not about the priest standing between me and God; it is about God coming to me in the bread and wine.  Perhaps some people find the fact that it’s always a priest or bishop consecrating the elements oppressive; a proper understanding of the Eucharist creates popular piety and devotion to God (even a bad one can, both being seen in Mediaeval Catholic piety).

This personal connection with God would have been demonstrated in the attendance at morning and evening, and occasionally noon, prayers.  This is the same expression of a “personal connection with God” that Islam would have offered.  I could see an uneducated, uncatechised Christian not seeing much difference between Christianity and Islam due to similarities such as this; yet I do not imagine that they would say, “Great!  I am free from those oppressive hierarchies!”

Fifth, the whole point of Pseudo-Dionysius (aka Denys, before AD 532) was the accessibility of God to every Christian.  Mysticism is not meant solely for the monks and the priests.  That’s the point.  And Pseudo-Dionysius was very popular in the Byzantine world, as were many other mystical writers from St. Gregory of Nyssa to St. John Climacus.  Very popular as well was St. Ephraim the Syrian.

Sixth, if the hierarchies of this era were oppressive, what was a layman like St. John of Damascus doing producing such excellent and well-informed theology?

There was ample opportunity for a personal connection with God in the world of Byzantine Syrian Christianity, through monasticism and contact with monks, through the sacraments, through daily prayer, through the literature of Syrian Christians, through mysticism.  I think that a shift from Christianity to Islam on the part of the local inhabitants of the Middle East was fairly gradual and the result of a cultural form of Christianity that had not taken root in the hearts of the people.

Yet to this day there are many Christians residing in the Holy Land, praying where Christ and the Apostles prayed, walking where they walked, living where they lived, dying where they died.