Blood: Agony & Allegory 2: Christological exegesis

The goal of this series is to consider the Christological reading of Isaiah 63, which sees the blood from the wine-press as the blood of Christ, inspired by Malcolm Guite’s reading of George Herbert’s ‘The Agony’. The verse in question, Isaiah 63:3:

I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment.

According to Guite, the Fathers see Christ’s blood as the blood ‘sprinkled upon my garments’. Before turning to the Fathers, it is always worth thinking about their mindset and method. How do they come to such a reading?

In short: All the Scriptures are about Jesus Christ. We don’t even need to look to the Fathers to see this:

And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he [Jesus] expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:27)

For all the promises of God in him are yea, and in him Amen, unto the glory of God by us. (2 Cor. 1:20)

The typological approach is used in Romans 5, 1 Corinthians 15, and the vast majority of the book of Hebrews. Various Scriptural passages are taken by the writers of the New Testament to refer to Christ as well, from Matthew onwards, even if they seem to a modern(ist) eye to refer to something else. But, of course, is Jesus not God the Word? Might there not be, as a result, some special relationship between God the Word and God’s word written?

Whether you can reconcile yourself to the spiritual reading of Scripture or not, centuries of tradition, East and West, have read the Bible this way, taking their cue from the apostles. I have found myself recently beguiled by Henri de Lubac on this matter, so I present to you his words from the second volume of Medieval Exegesis, translated by E. M. Macierowski.

All the patristic and medieval discussions of allegory

come together in the concrete definition of allegoria such as one reads, for example, in Bede,[note 21] or in many others after him: [note 22] “Allegory exists when the present sacraments of Christ and the Church are signed by means of mystical words or things.” (p. 91)

In Christian exegesis, there is no longer myth on the one hand; there is no longer naturalistic thought or philosophical abstraction, on the other. What it proposes is to ‘introduce by figures’ the events and the laws of the old Covenant ‘to the sight of the Truth,’ which is nothing but ‘the fullness of the Christ.'[n. 26] So thereby one is clearly going, at least in a first step, from history to history — though assuredly not to mere history, or not to what is merely beyond history.[n. 27] One is led by a series of singular facts up to one other singular Fact; one series of divine interventions, whose reality itself is significant, leads to another sort of divine intervention, equally real, but deeper and more decisive. Everything culminates in one great Fact, which, in its unique singularity, has multiple repercussions; which dominates history and which is the bearer of all light as well as of all spiritual fecundity: the Fact of Christ. As Cassiodorus puts it, a bit crudely perhaps but forcefully, there is not any one theory or one invention of a philosopher, ‘which is formed in our hearts with a fantastic imagination’; this is not one idea, itself fitting, happy and fruitful even: this is a reality ‘which grasps an existing person,’ a reality inserted at a certain moment in our history and which blossoms in the Church, a ‘gathering of all the holy faithful, one in heart and soul, the bride of Christ, the Jerusalem of the age to come.'[n. 28], p. 101

No more than life in Christ is the knowledge of Christ drawn from Scripture accessible to the natural man, the one who confines himself to mere appearances even in his deepest reflections. Interior and spiritual, the object of allegory is by that very fact a ‘hidden’ object: mysticus occultus. It conceals itself from carnal eyes. Pagans do not perceive it, nor do unbelieving Jews, nor those ‘carnal’ Christians who see in Christ nothing but a human being. It is like a fire hidden in a rock: so long as one holds it in one’s hand to observe its surface, it stays cold; but when one strikes it with iron, at that point the spark flashes forth. As it is for Christ, so it is for the Scriptures: with a glance piercing like fire, their secret ought, so to speak, to be wrenched free from them — and it is the same secret: for it si with regard to the written word of God as it is with the incarnate word of God. The letter is his flesh; the spirit is his divinity. Letter and flesh are like milk, the nourishment of children and the weak; spirit and divinity are the bread, the solid nourishment. p.107

As I say, Henri de Lubac here beguiles me. I feel like I am truly discovering how to read the Bible as a Christian — as one baptised into Christ, adopted by the Father, indwelt by the Spirit. It is rich, it is beautiful. This is the kind of religion I want and crave, not dry modern(ist) scholarship on the Scripture (interesting as it is, it only goes so far), but access to the living fountain of Jesus Christ.

Lubac’s Endnotes:

21: De tab., Bk. I, c. vi; c. ix.

26: Cf. Or., In Jo., Bk. VI, c. iii, n. 14-5 (109).

27: Thus it is insufficient to define the contrast between Christianity and paganism in the time of Diocletian, or any other epoch, by saying with F. C. Burkitt that it is “the contrast between an historical account and a philosophical account, or rather … between an annalistic and a systematic account” (Church and Gnosis, 1932, 127; cf. 138, 139, 145).

28: In ps. IV (PL 70, 47C)

Advertisements

‘it has always been my delight to learn or to to teach or to write’

Job applications and fatherhood make you think about what kind of person you want to be and are. Earlier today, I was reminded of — and struck personally by — this passage from the Venerable Bede’s autobiography that he appended to The Ecclesiastical History of the English People:

I have spent all my life in this monastery, applying myself entirely to the study of the Scriptures; and, amid the observance of the discipline of the Rule and the daily task of singing in the church, it has always been my delight to learn or to teach or to write. (HE v.24, trans. McClure and Collins, p.293)

It is that final clause that gets me: it has always been my delight to learn or to teach or to write.

I am no Bede, certainly, but this is what delights me. Learning history, learning theology, learning philosophy, learning about poetry, learning from books, learning from conversation, learning from documentaries, learning from lectures. Teaching — I’ve done less of this! — teaching from pulpits, teaching in lecture halls, teaching undergraduates, ‘teaching’ informally around a table with friends, teaching through small group study. Writing this blog, writing academic articles, re-writing my thesis so it becomes a book, writing journals. Formerly — writing poems, writing stories.

I am no Bede, but here I find a consonance with that monk buried 5 minutes away in Durham Cathedral. This is what I want to spend my life doing, both for the delight it brings and for the greater glory of God.

“Imitating the blessed apostles”: The matrix for ancient and medieval discipline

In my new job, I am acquainting myself with the works of the monk-historian Simeon of Durham, who died around the year 1129. In his History of the Church of Durham (Libellus de Exordio atque Procursu istius, hoc est Dunelmensis, Ecclesie), Simeon writes:

Imitating the blessed apostles, the venerable Cuthbert adorned with good works the episcopal office which he had assumed; for by his continual prayers he protected the people committed to his charge, and called them to mind the things of heaven by his wholesome exhortations. (Book 1.10, trans. J. Stevenson)

A great many of our ancient and medieval ascetics believed themselves to be imitating the Apostles, or living the apostolic life, or living according to the Gospel, living ‘evangelically’ (gospelly). A century after Simeon, Franciscans will make much of ‘evangelical’ poverty.

This is in strong contrast with how most Protestants view asceticism. Indeed, asceticism tends to be associated with body-hating, unbiblical extremism; it is even used with such connotations by Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline. Moreover, it is in contrast with how the apostles are viewed; the only disciplines usually even considered in relation to the apostles are prayer and the study of Scripture.

Now, what might Simeon have in mind for St Cuthbert? Certainly, as the context makes clear, prayer and preaching — these are the chief apostolic virtues of St Cuthbert’s Scots-Irish predecessors, Sts Columba and Aidan. St Cuthbert, like those two, was an evangelist before he was a bishop.

He was also what one might call a prayer warrior. Of course, we might not go for his version of what continual prayer looks like. It is one thing to promote the daily office and cultivate silence, as St Cuthbert (who promoted the Rule of St Benedict amongst the monks of Lindisfarne) would have. It is another to stand in the freezing waters of the sea for an all-night vigil or to try and become a hermit.

Nonetheless, there may be something to the disciplined life being ‘apostolic’. It is clear from the biblical testimony that the apostles prayed at the Jewish hours of prayer; they fasted; they renounced worldly possessions; some of them forewent the joys of marriage for their apostolic mission; they studied and prayed over Scripture.

Many believe that St Paul’s time in Arabia was spent in prayer and communion with God before entering into ministry. Jesus certainly spent 40 days fasting on the cusp of his ministry.

As we saw a few months ago, in fact, Bede relates the story of the Roman mission to the Anglo-Saxons, headed by Augustine at Canterbury, in terms of them living as the apostolic community did according to Acts 2. These were certainly monks.

Later in the Middle Ages, it was the canons regular who claimed to be living the apostolic life. These were not, by a strict definition, monks, but clergy who lived together in community, lived a disciplined life, prayed a version of the daily office, and were active in their local communities, preaching and tending to the poor.

It is worth thinking about and pondering seriously — what does the apostolic life look like? It may not look like the cloister, but does it look like the comfortable pew?

Further thoughts on missionary monks

Reflecting on my most recent post, the question arising is: What did Gregory’s missionary monks do, what did they look like? According to the Venerable St Bede (672-735, saint of the week here):

As soon as they entered the dwelling-place assigned to them, they began to imitate the Apostolic manner of life in the primitive Church; applying themselves to constant prayer, watchings, and fastings; preaching the Word of life to as many as they could; despising all worldly things, as in nowise concerning them; receiving only their necessary food from those they taught; living themselves in all respects conformably to what they taught, and being always ready to suffer any adversity, and even to die for that truth which they preached. In brief, some believed and were baptized, admiring the simplicity of their blameless life, and the sweetness of their heavenly doctrine. There was on the east side of the city, a church dedicated of old to the honour of St. Martin, built whilst the Romans were still in the island, wherein the queen, who, as has been said before, was a Christian, was wont to pray. In this they also first began to come together, to chant the Psalms, to pray, to celebrate Mass, to preach, and to baptize, till when the king had been converted to the faith, they obtained greater liberty to preach everywhere and build or repair churches.

When he, among the rest, believed and was baptized, attracted by the pure life of these holy men and their gracious promises, the truth of which they established by many miracles, greater numbers began daily to flock together to hear the Word, and, forsaking their heathen rites, to have fellowship, through faith, in the unity of Christ’s Holy Church. It is told that the king, while he rejoiced at their conversion and their faith, yet compelled none to embrace Christianity, but only showed more affection to the believers, as to his fellow citizens in the kingdom of Heaven. For he had learned from those who had instructed him and guided him to salvation, that the service of Christ ought to be voluntary, not by compulsion. Nor was it long before he gave his teachers a settled residence suited to their degree in his metropolis of Canterbury, with such possessions of divers sorts as were necessary for them. (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 1.26 trans. Sellar)

These two paragraphs likely cover a longer period of time than it seems.1  Nonetheless, we see here the evangelistic or ‘missional’ outworkings of the contemplative life upon the Kentish court. The life of the missionary monks resembles in many ways that of a monastery whether we look to Benedict, Columbanus, Cassian, or Basil. It also looks a lot like Acts 2:

42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47 ESV)

It is typified, according to Bede by:

  • prayer
  • watchings (or vigils)
  • preaching to as many as they could
  • despising all worldly things
  • receiving only what they truly needed from the disciples
  • submitting themselves to suffering
  • gathering together
  • chanting the Psalms
  • celebrating Mass

If we are being inspired by the contemplative missionary, the two most controversial are likely to be despising worldly things and receiving from those they taught. Concerning the latter, I believe the idea is not that they are seeking material gain but rather the opposite. Unlike Jim and Tammy Bakker, Augustine and his companions accepted only what they needed to survive. This is in accord with what St Paul says of evangelists as well as The Didache. We pay our pastors, after all. But it does mean that this aspect does not apply to any of us laypersons who wish to start emulating the monastic mission in our own lives.

Despising worldly things has always been a hang-up for the affluent. I have no easy way around it, honestly. In our culture, especially, we should probably be seeking the Freedom of Simplicity and endeavouring to be Dethroning Mammon.

I hope and pray we can take their example seriously in our lives as individuals, families, and church communities. Perhaps we can see similar results, with the conversion not of kings but of colleagues, bosses, friends, parents, siblings, or — to look higher — CEOs, judges, politicians. Imagine true disciples of Jesus Christ being made in our midst at every turn by contemplative activists?


1. Markus, Gregory the Great and His World, argues that the process described by Bede may have taken years. I am not a Bede scholar, so I leave the question as to duration open. 

Saint of the Week: St Willibrord, Apostle to Frisia

Willibrord, in Paris lat. 10510
Willibrord, in Paris lat. 10510

St Willibrord (658-739; Feast: 7 November) is one of the various missionary saints from the Anglo-Saxon world to the European continent such as his younger contemporary St Boniface (saint of the week here); his mission field was Frisia and parts of the modern Netherlands and Luxembourg, reaching into (pre-Viking) Denmark.

Willibrord was born in Yorkshire, the son of a certain Wilgils who at some point after Willibrord’s birth became a hermit. Willibrord was educated by St Wilfrid at Ripon and, in 678, went into exile in Ireland when Wilfrid lost his episcopacy in York and took his appeal to Rome (the first English bishop to use Rome as a court of appeal). Of note concerning Wilfrid is that he spent some time preaching in Frisia, also an Anglo-Saxon first, and no doubt later to inspire his disciple Willibrord.

Willibrord spent twelve years in self-imposed exile in Ireland where he spent time in study and was ordained priest. According to the Venerable Bede (saint of the week here), Egbert had long wanted to engage in continental mission, and the earlier mission of a certain Wictbert had availed nothing. After Willibrord’s return to England in 690, he and twelve companions went as missionaries to Frisia to fulfil Egbert’s vision. The choice of Frisia/Friesland makes sense, given the linguistic similarities between Old English and Frisian. I also believe that it is one of the parts of the Continent whence came Britain’s post-Roman Germanic invaders (ultimately ‘Anglo-Saxons’ to us).

Willibrord had the support of the Carolingian dux Pippin II, and his continental mission, like that of Boniface shortly thereafter, was both episcopal and apostolic. As Archbishop of Utrecht, he organised and reformed the existing Christian communities as well as engaging in evangelism of the non-Christian inhabitants of his Metropolitan area.*

Anglo-Saxon bishops (and Carolingians) tended to hold the Bishop of Rome in very high regard, not simply as the Patriarch of Western Christendom, but also as the person (in particular, Gregory the Great, saint of the week here) who first organised the Anglo-Saxon mission of Augustine of Canterbury (saint of the week here). As a result of this esteem in which the papacy was held, Willibrord visited Pope Sergius in Rome early in his mission. In 695 he again visited Rome, this time for his consecration as Bishop of Utrecht.

In 698, he founded his first monastery at Echternach. Monasticism and mission go hand in hand for insular evangelism.

Christianity, of course, can be a politically and socially de-stabilising creed. While Pippin II may have supported Willibrord, Radbod, a Frisian king who practised traditional religion, did not. In 714, Radbod drove Willibrord out of Utrecht, destroyed churches, and killed some priests. In 719, Radbod died, and Willibrord returned to Achiepiscopal see. It was after this that St Boniface joined Willibrord for a time before going East for his own missionary activity.

Like most missionaries of his day, Willibrord literally killed some sacred cows and destroyed some idols. Unlike the less fortunate ones, he and his companions survived. He died at the monastery in Echternach in 739.

He is an example of how early mediaeval prelates combined asceticism with evangelistic zeal. We would do well to imitate, I think.

Read more about Willibrod!

I got most of this information from:

Also available online is Alcuin’s Life of Willibrord.

*Quick note on church organisation: Local bishops have the pastoral and administrative care of cities and their surrounding area, today called a Diocese. These are further organised into Provinces, each of which has a Metropolitan. In the early mediaeval church, above the Metropolitans was the Pope.

Heresy and the human spirit: Bede’s allegorical reading of Luke 17:11-19

Today, I was leading a tutorial discussion about Clement of Alexandria (150-215; saint of the week here) and Origen (185-254; on whose importance, see here), and my students were discussing the usefulness of allegory, of which Origen is a highly famed practicioner. How useful is it? How legitimate is it? And, in a colleague’s group, can we use it of the New as well as Old Testament? Origen says that we can use it of the New, although never neglecting the literal truth.

The Venerable Bede (672-735; saint of the week here) certainly thought you could allegorise the New Testament, and Mark Armitage over at Enlarging the Heart has helpfully given us a beautiful example of allegory expertly used in Bede’s discussion of Luke 17:11-19; it has been broken into three parts (first, second, third) on his blog. You should read them; each is pretty short.

For me, what resonates most strongly in Bede’s exegesis is the image of leprosy as heresy. Perhaps this is because I still self-identify as Anglican and see the Anglican churches of the West as deeply marred by heresy at this moment of history. Perhaps it’s also because I see the Fathers and their concern about heresy time and again being miscast as struggles for power, whereas my reading of Leo vs. the heretics (here) is not a power struggle, but a pastoral concern.

If heresy is like leprosy, this means it is a disease. It is something that you can acquire against your will. And, as Bede points out, as leprous skin is always mingled with healthy skin, heresy is always mixed with truth. The image is of a sick person, a sick world, a sick idea, that needs healing and restoration, not a bad person who needs condemning. Sometimes when we (I) get fired up about unorthodox persons in our (my) midst, we (I) lose sight of the need for healing by Christ  in their lives.

And, if we admit it, we may be a little unorthodox (heretical) ourselves, in need of that healing as well.

I like that this allegory puts Christ at the centre of the cure for heresy.

I also like Bede’s commentary on the nine who do not thank him. This is a warning to those of us who have it all together — I believe Nicaea and Chalcedon (indeed, all Seven Ecumenical Councils!), I believe in the Bible, I actually believe the 39 Articles of Religion. So my heresy is washed away. Well done.

Do we remember to thank Christ in humility, acknowledging that He is the source of any orthodox thought we have, the source of all spiritual health in us, doctrinal, moral, dogmatical, ethical?

So I approve of Bede’s use of allegory here. It follows Augustine’s exhortation in On Christian Teaching that a reading of Scripture that draws people further into love of God cannot be really wrong.

An excursus on the Synod of Whitby (AD 664) and Celtic Christianity

Whitby Abbey

As I travel through the messiness that is church history from Constantine to the Reformation, hunting for those whom the institutional church hunted, I would like to branch off on the cusp of the big issues of the Middle Ages to bring to you …

The Synod of Whitby

Why is the Synod of Whitby worth bold letters in the centre of the page? Because the popular myth that surrounds Whitby, one that is intimately linked with modern visions of the ‘Celtic Church’, is that in 664, when King Oswiu and Northumberland chose to follow the current Roman calculations for Easter, they became ‘aligned’ with the Roman Church against the ‘Celtic’ Church in a clash of civilisations and worldviews. It was free-spirited Celt vs bureaucratic, legalistic Roman. Many people call 664 the end of Celtic Christianity. If you’re interested in Celtic spirituality, don’t look any later than this.

So, especially since the gathering was called by the King of Northumberland, it seems the perfect fit for the nastiness that is the official church and its organisms after Constantine ruined everything by daring to give bishops tax-free status.

I just read Benedicta Ward’s little booklet A True Easter: The Synod of Whiby 664 AD, and, well, the truth is messier and, quite frankly, doesn’t support the above reading which draws more upon nineteenth-century nationalism and contemporary Protestant/agnostic searches for early (Christian) spirituality that doesn’t require the presence of a Bishop in Rome.

First, what was this gathering actually about? It was about two things: the date of Easter and how monks should shave their heads. True story. That is all it was about. The latter is not so important. The former, on the other hand, was a big deal all over the ancient and early mediaeval church.

Why is the date of Easter a big deal? Why does it matter whether people celebrate it at the same time? Well, as the Venerable Bede points out, when the King of Northumberland celebrated Easter on one date and his Queen another, one would be feasting while the other was fasting (this is how similar the two practices were; basically the date was the only difference). This is the general complaint about different dates of Easter from time immemorial. It also matters because almost the entire liturgical year is centred around Easter; it sets the dates for the fast of Lent as well as the baptisms which traditionally occur at Easter and Pentecost. It was important for the ancient and mediaeval Christians, who lived in an almost completely oral society for whom visible signs meant more than they do today, that those who are united internally — that is, doctrinally — be united visibly as well.

The dispute about Easter first pops up, according to tradition, in the late 100s when some Christians in Asia Minor were found to be always celebrating Easter on 14 Nisan, that is, Passover — they were accordingly called Quartodecimans. Some people call the Roman episcopus Victor who sent the letter on this issue to the eastern churches the first ‘Pope’. Whatever that’s worth, Quartodecimans were not the end of such disputes, since calculating Easter is a bit tricky. Constantine, who very often tried to help the church find unity and uniformity in various matters, ruled that everyone should follow the Bishop of Alexandria, since Egyptians are good at astronomy and stuff. This didn’t stop Pope Leo I a little over a hundred years later arguing with the Bishop of Alexandria about what the right date would be.

Around 457 (while a frustrated Leo was Bishop of Rome), the Church in Rome decided to follow the Easter tables by Victorius of Aquitaine. This usage spread to the whole western Church that was in communion with the Bishop of Rome, including the Church in Ireland, which was in the process of being evangelised by missionary-bishop-monks sent from Rome.

So how do the Rome-evangelised churches in the south of England, and the Ireland-evangelised churches in the north of England end up with different dates for Easter?

Well, in 525, everyone’s favourite short monk from Scythia, Dionysius Exiguus, came up with new tables for calculating the date of Easter that would run until 1063. These were a bit better at calculating the combined solar-lunar cycle that determines Easter (apparently a tricky thing to this day), so the Roman Church and those in communion with her on the continent adopted the new cycle.

Ireland and Wales (and, as a result, the missions in Scotland and England) did not. I imagine this is because there was not a lot of contact between them and Spain and Gaul (let alone Italy!), especially since Spain and Gaul were busy being consolidated into barbarian kingdoms at the time, with the occasional invasion by a neighbour. When Augustine of Canterbury turned up in 597, the Welsh Christians resisted his calculation of Easter; for them, it does seem to have been a mark of resistance and individuality.

Sixty-seven years later at Whitby, however, the Irish-Roman-trained Anglo-Saxons and Irish who favoured the old Roman dating of Easter, and the Kentish-Roman-trained Anglo-Saxons who favoured the new Roman dating, were all simply appealing to what they saw as the authentic tradition. They had all partnered in mission, and some of them were married to people from the other side of the debate.  Theologically, they were in agreement. It was the thorny issue of Easter and how to shave a monk’s head over which they disagreed. As Benedicta Ward paints the scene, this was a meeting of friends, of Christians who loved one another who wanted to solve a problem.

Except possibly Oswiu, for whom this was also a matter of secular politicking.

Anyway, the new Roman position won. Although Colman resigned his bishopric and monastery, his replacements in Lindisfarne were still Irish-trained; the only difference was the fact that they would follow the new date of Easter. When he left, some of the English monks followed him to Iona.

Ward points out that Bede speaks highly of the Irish missionaries and monks, finding their obstinacy concerning dating Easter as the only general fault. Their devotion to the theological truths of Easter he praises.

Eventually, all of England, Ireland, Scotland, and the isles adopted the new Roman date of Easter. While this may sound like reading history backwards, it still strikes me as inevitable. The entire church on the continent followed this practice, as did the churches in southern England with a mix in Northumberland. The Church of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages  esteemed unity, and the celebration of the Church’s chiefest and principal feast was an important demonstration of that unity.

If you’re looking for a Roman church imposing its power over local practices, look not to the Synod of Whitby.