Melito of Sardis (d. 180AD) – the Passover and Christ in the Old Testament

Melito was the Bishop of Sardis near Smyrna in Asia Minor, a very early expositor and herald of Christianity (he died c. 180AD).

Melito of Sardis, d. 180AD

In his Paschal homily, an exposition of the Paschal event in connection to Christ, he prefigues much of later Biblical theology which has been established in the Church for two millenia. With a high Christology, he based his exegesis on a framework of type/antitype, shadow/substance, promise/fulfillment, images/realities.

In the original account of Exodus, the paschal Lamb is sacrificed and its blood is poured on the doorposts of the covenant people who are to be delivered from the Angel who brings death to the unbelieving and unrepentant Egyptians, represented and embodied in their king, Pharaoh, himself a type of the god of this world.

In this way, the model given in Exodus present in type all that is later accomplished in substance in Christ. The images prefigure the reality of the death, passion, and resurrection of the Son of God, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, for the redemption of His people delivering them from ultimate death.

In this way the principles of the Gospel are proclaimed beforehand, as a sketch, in the Law; and the Gospel is the Law’s explanation and fullness. In the Law, particularly in the account of Exodus, there is the sheep, the blood of the sheep, the lamb, the Jerusalem below and the narrow inheritance of the Promised Land, later known as Palestine. These prefigure the Lamb of God, the Great and Good Shepherd, the true Israel, and the One who bestows on His people not a plot of land, but the renewed cosmos.
Christ is God and human being. He is everything.

The Passover is old and new; it is old in the Law, a figure in time; it is new in the Word, eternal in grace. The sheep are corruptible, mortal; the Lord is incorruptible, immortal in his Resurrection. The Law is old, the Word is new. Christ, as human being, contains all crated things. As God, he creates all things. The shadowy account of Exodus gives the commandment and prefigures the grace to come; the figure eventually gives place to the reality. The Law judges, the Logos brings grace; Christ begets and is begotten, he is God and man, the sheep and the Lamb and Shepherd.

In the Passover, the lamb was slaughtered and eaten; the firstborn of those who were not consecrated was taken by the Angel of death. The sheep were sacrificed for Israel’s salvation, the death of the lambs brought life to the people. This was a prefiguration of the Lord, who died and was raised for the redemption of his people. Melito takes an etymological liberty with the word Pascha (originally a Hebrew term, Pesach, meaning passing over, skipping) correlating it with παθειν, to suffer.

As Abel suffered and was murdered, so was Christ; Isaac was bound to be offered as a sacrifice, Jacob was exiled, Joseph was sold in slavery, Moses was exposed, David and the prophets (Jeremiah, Isaiah) were persecuted and dishonored, the sheep were sacrificed. These all prefigured Christ, the One who was murdered, bound, sacrificed, exiled, betrayed, persecuted, dishonored, and raised for our sakes; the One who was killed and yet who smote Egypt.

Has made flesh in a Virgin, He was hanged on wood, entombed in the earth, raised from the dead, lifted up to heaven; He was the speechless Lamb, the One who suffered unjustly, God’s Firstborn who created all things. He was the Old Testament’s pillar of fire, the cloud, the manna that rained on God’s people as heavenly food, the Rock who gushed out drink to quench the ultimate thirst, the One who gave the Law, the One who gave Israel the prefigured inheritance, the One who sent the prophets, the one who raised the kings, and the One who came as the Prophet, Priest and King, to save and refashion all humanity.  

In summary, Melito sees Christ as

(1) Typologically prefigured in the events and persons of the OT,

(2) The fulfillment of prophecy, and

(3) Personally present in the Theophanies, and even as Creator

A Very Brief Synopsis of the Letter to the Hebrews

The Epistle to the Hebrews has no epistolary introduction (greetings come at the end of the letter), but it begins with the soaring rhetoric about the identity of Jesus and the significance of his work. God spoke in times past to our fathers, but now He speaks to us; he spoke before through the prophets, but how He speaks by His Son.  This gives the blueprint for the message of the letter, i.e., the superiority of Jesus in its manifold ways as compared to all that pertained to the shadows (the Old Covenant) that prefigured the realities which have now come (the New Covenant).

Jesus is superior to angels, to Moses, to the Law, to the Aaronic priesthood, and to the entire Old Covenant with its sacrifices. He is so because he is the Son of God, God’s final Word, holding the eternal and superior priesthood of Melchizedek; he has finished the true and ultimate sacrifice as Priest and offering, and has entered the true temple in heaven, of which the earthly temple was just a type and shadow.

In 1:4-2:18 the author shows that Jesus is superior over the angels, through whom the Law was given; he is the Son, the One to whom the inspired David says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,” and so “let all angels worship him.” He was made a “little lower than the angels,” i.e., he took human nature, but in that humanity he destroyed him who had the power over death (the devil) and was crowned with a glory the angels do not have.

In 3:1-4:13 Jesus is shown to be superior over Moses, as a Son is superior to a tutor and steward with respect to the inheritance and ownership of the house. He is a Son over his house (his people), and has entered the rest of God (the eschatological presence), opening the way for us. Moses was faithful as a servant, but Christ is faithful as a Son – and the Son is superior to the servant.

In 4:14-7:28 we see the superiority of Jesus’ priesthood over the Levitical priesthood; as the tribe of Levi came from Jacob, and Jacob was the grandson of Abraham, the father of faith, so Abraham is reckoned superior to Levi; and yet Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek (the superior receiving tithes from the inferior), who appears without genealogy, without beginning or end of days, and, as a priest, blesses Abraham with bread and wine. Jesus’s priesthood is eternal because he is risen and immortal, having the “power of an endless life;” so the Psalmist has said that God sworn that He is “a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek,” the surety of a superior covenant, an unchangeable priesthood, once and for all offering up Himself.

In 8:1-10:18 the author speaks of the superiority of that offering up himself, which is Jesus’ sacrifice. The high priest of the old covenant could enter the Holy of Holies only once a year, to offer up sacrifices for himself and for the people, year after year. But now, in a trinitarian fashion, the blood of Christ through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God once and for all to remove all sin; and he did so as he entered not the earthly shadow of the temple, but entering heaven itself, in the presence of God, sitting at His right hand.

In 10:19-12:29 the author applies all the forgoing to how Christians avail themselves of  His priestly work, exhorting them to profit from Jesus’ sacrifice (10:19-39), and follows with the greatest examples of faith from the Old Testament (Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, the judges, the Prophets, 11:1-40). They all died in faith, not receiving the promise, which has come now in the Son.

Discern the Things that Matter – St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians

In the letter to the Philippians, given the circumstance of St Paul’s imprisonment and the persecution at Philippi, St Paul wants to encourage the congregation to learn how to find joy, which can only be done when one “discerns the things that [really] matter.”

He writes to them, it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may discern the things that matter (Καί τοῦτο προσεύχομαι ἵνα ἡ ἀγάπη ὑμῶν ἔτι μᾶλλον καί μᾶλλον περισσεύῃ ἐν ἐπιγνώσει καί πάσῃ αἰσθήσει εἰς τὸ δοκιμάζειν ὑμᾶς τά διαφέροντα (Phil. 1:9-10a).

Αἰσθήσει has the sense of perception, discernment; δοκιμάζω has the sense of test, to examine, to approve, and τὰ διαφέροντα are the things that make a difference, that surpass – as opposed to indifferent things, the αδιάφορα.

In Stoic philosophy, as an approach to moral and practical matters, there were categories using the verb διαφέρω as to levels of importance. One would ask, τι διαφέρει, what does it matter? The response would indicate either τα αδιάφορα, things that do not matter, or το διάφορον, things that are important, excellent, things that matter.

For St Paul, in his teaching the Philippians to find joy in the midst of adversity and discouragement, the only way that joy can overcome grief is when one focuses on the things that matter, the things that are not transitory. As he said elsewhere, we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (μή σκοπούντων ἡμῶν τά βλεπόμενα ἀλλά τά μή βλεπόμενα τά γάρ βλεπόμενα πρόσκαιρα τά δέ μή βλεπόμενα αἰώνια (2 Cor. 4:18)).

A central concept in the letter to the Philippians is that of hope in the midst of suffering, particularly as St Paul was writing from prison (it is not clear where; he refers to the Praetorium but that can mean any provincial governor’s residence). Paul had received a gift from Philippi while opponents of the Church there were persecuting the Christians of the region (“do not be frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear omen to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake,” 1:28-29). The Philippian Christians are, generally, discouraged from such persecution, and afraid that they might not see Paul again.

In response, Paul tells them that his imprisonment, in the good providence of God, has actually furthered the gospel, as his captors have heard it and others were encouraged to preach the gospel as well (1:12-18); consistent with his emphasis on the διαφέροντα, he tells them that to die is gain, since to depart and be with Christ is better than all things; and yet, that he is confident that he will still remain to complete his work, which includes serving them (1:19-26)

In this way, Paul writes them a letter in a known ancient format of “consolation.” This included the elements of

(1) a comparison between the αδιάφορα and the διαφέροντα;

(2) the advance of the things that matter;

(3) the emphasis that hardship enhances one’s reputation;

(4) the idea that bearing misfortune well makes one an example to others; and

(5) that joy comes to the one who is properly trained.

In this way, Paul is using a rhetorical technique used by the pagan Stoics, while reframing it and filling it with the content of the gospel.

As with 1 Thessalonians, Paul’s encouragement to them was that they ought to have confidence, for “He who began a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.”

Paul was teaching them to suffer in a “philosophical way;” but with the content of the gospel, he can say, rejoice in the Lord (ἀδελφοί μου χαίρετε ἐν Κυρίῳ, 3:1, χαίρετε ἐν Κυρίῳ πάντοτε πάλιν ἐρῶ χαίρετε, 4:4); since, whatever may befall him and them, ultimately, does not matter in comparison with what really matters: “whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. . . .  that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (3:7-11).

St Maximos on the ever-moving rest in God

Fall Evening at Seminary

In his Response to Thalassios on questions about Sacred Scripture, St Maximos the Confessor (580-662AD) addresses many passages, and here’s an excerpt of his interpretation on 1 Peter 1:10-11 – namely, how those who received inspired, divine revelation, still inquired and investigated as to what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was revealing in advance when He testified to the sufferings of Christ and the glory that would follow.

“The salvation of souls,” properly speaking, “is the aim of faith.”

The aim of faith is the true revelation of the object of one’s faith.

The true revelation of the object of one’s faith is the ineffable relation of mutual love with that object according to the measure of each one’s faith.

The relation of mutual love with the object of faith is the final return of the faithful to their own beginning.

The final return of the faithful to their own beginning is the fulfillment of every desire.

The fulfillment of desire is the ever-moving rest around the object of desire by those who desire it.

The ever-moving rest around the object of desire by those who desire it is the perpetual enjoyment of the object of desire unbroken by any interval.

Perpetual enjoyment of the object of desire unbroken by any interval is participation in divine realities that transcend nature.

Participation in divine realities that transcend nature is the likeness of the participants to the participable.

The likeness of participants to the participable is the actualized identity of the participants with the participable, which they receive through the likeness.

The actualized identity of participants with the participable received through the likeness is the divinization of those made worthy of it.

Divinization, to state the matter briefly, is the compass and limit of all times and ages, and of everything that exists within them.

The compass and limit of times and ages and of everything within them is the unity unbroken by any interval, among those who are being saved, of the true and proper beginning with the true and proper end.

The unity unbroken by any interval, among those being saved, of the true beginning with the true end, is the surpassing ecstasy of those who by nature are essentially measured by a beginning and an end.

The ecstasy of those who by nature are circumscribed by a beginning and an end is the immediate and infinite activity of God, which is all-powerful and transcends all power, and which is infinitely active among those made worthy to pass beyond—in a superior sense—the things of nature.

The immediate and infinite activity of God, which is infinitely active, and which is all-powerful and transcends all power, is the ineffable and beyond ineffable pleasure and joy of those who, in their union with God beyond all language and concepts, are the recipients of God’s activities—a joy which is absolutely impossible for intellect, reason, thoughts, or words, or anything else in the nature of created beings to capture or express.

St. John Damascene (676-749AD) on the Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ:

If then the Word of God is quick and energizing and the Lord did all that He willed; if He said, Let there be light and there was light, let there be a firmament and there was a firmament; if the heavens were established by the Word of the Lord and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth; if the heaven and the earth, water and fire and air and the whole glory of these, and, in sooth, this most noble creature, man, were perfected by the Word of the Lord; if God the Word of His own will became man and the pure and undefiled blood of the holy and ever-virginal One made His flesh without the aid of seed, can He not then make the bread His body and the wine and water His blood? . . .

St John of Damascus

God said, This is My body, and This is My blood, and this do ye in remembrance of Me. And so it is at His omnipotent command until He come: for it was in this sense that He said until He come: and the overshadowing power of the Holy Spirit becomes through the invocation the rain to this new tillage. For just as God made all that He made by the energy of the Holy Spirit, so also now the energy of the Spirit performs those things that are supernatural and which it is not possible to comprehend unless by faith alone.

How shall this be, said the holy Virgin, seeing I know not a man? And the archangel Gabriel answered her: The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee. And now you ask, how the bread became Christ’s body and the wine and water Christ’s blood. And I say unto thee, “The Holy Spirit is present and does those things which surpass reason and thought.”

Further, bread and wine are employed: for God knoweth man’s infirmity . . . and just as, in the case of baptism, since it is man’s custom to wash himself with water and anoint himself with oil, He connected the grace of the Spirit with the oil and the water and made it the water of regeneration, in like manner since it is man’s custom to eat and to drink water and wine, He connected His divinity with these and made them His body and blood in order that we may rise to what is supernatural through what is familiar and natural.

The body which is born of the holy Virgin is in truth body united with divinity, not that the body which was received up into the heavens descends, but that the bread itself and the wine are changed into God’s body and blood.

But if you enquire how this happens, it is enough for you to learn that it was through the Holy Spirit, just as the Lord took on Himself flesh that subsisted in Him and was born of the holy Mother of God through the Spirit.

And we know nothing further save that the Word of God is true and energizes and is omnipotent, but the manner of this cannot be searched out . . . the bread of the table and the wine and water are supernaturally changed by the invocation and presence of the Holy Spirit into the body and blood of Christ, and are not two but one and the same.

The bread and the wine are not merely figures of the body and blood of Christ (God forbid!) but0 for the Lord has said, “This is My body,” not, this is a figure of My body: and “My blood,” not, a figure of My blood.

And on a previous occasion He had said to the Jews, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, ye have no life in you. For My flesh is meat indeed and My blood is drink indeed. And again, He that eateth Me, shall live . . . through it we have communion with Christ and share in His flesh and His divinity

An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, 4.13

St Gregory the Theologian and the Call to the Priesthood

St Gregory the Theologian – Second Oration (In Defense of His Flight to Pontus)

St Gregory of Nazianzus, known by the Orthodox Church as St. Gregory the Theologian (329 – 390 AD), was the son of the Bishop of Nazianzus (Cappadocia).

Introduction

St Gregory the Theologian (St Gregory Nazianzus) 329-390AD

               In this short article I will address the arguments and content of his St Gregory the Theologian’s Second Theological Oration, also known as his treatise on the priesthood. I will start, first, with the context of his life leading to his ordination as a priest; second, with the content of his writing concerning priesthood; third, with a summary of his main arguments related to the daunting tasks associated with the priesthood – namely, his two main arguments concerning the need virtue and knowledge; finally, I will assess the resolution of his arguments concerning the fear failure and the fear of disobedience, and the tensions inherent in his argument, both in light of his own context, as well as how it might be applied to those considering the call to priesthood in our own modern context.

Gregory was born at about 330 in south-western Cappadocia, in the neighborhood of Nazianzus, where his father Gregory was a bishop. Through the influence and example of his wife Nonna, Bishop Gregory converted to Christianity in 325, and his son Gregory was consecrated by his mother even before birth. He was sent to school of rhetoric at an early age in Caesarea and later studied in Palestine, Alexandria, and eventually Athens, after which he received baptism in Cappadocia at about 358. At that time he lived for a period in monastic retirement with St Basil in Pontus. St Gregory followed a classical course of studies and has been called “a humanist among the theologians of the fourth century, insofar as he preferred quiet contemplation and the union of ascetic piety and literary culture to the splendor of an active life and ecclesiastical position.” [1]

Gregory would have chosen this life of contemplation had not his father decided to consecrate him to the priesthood in 362, against Gregory’s will. Displeased and fearful with his sudden ordination, Gregory fled to Pontus for several months before eventually returning to his diocese in Nazianzus, when he wrote the oration known as the Second Oration, or the Apologeticus de Fuga. He was aware that “his behavior was tantamount to a canonical rejection of ordination within the very week of receiving it.” In this way, “He had not only weakened his claim to the office but had caused animosity . . . his sudden flight would have offended [his supporters] as much as his father, for he had clearly preferred the community of Basil to that of his . . . brethren at home.”[2]  Gregory eventually succeeded his father as the Bishop of Nazianzus in 374, but a year later he withdrew to Seleucia to lead a life of retirement and contemplation. This did not last long, as five years later the small Nicene minority in Constantinople called for his aid against the Arians after the death of Emperor Valens.[3]

It was in Constantinople that he preached his Five Orations on the Divinity of the Logos, when Theodosius became emperor, called for the Second Ecumenical Council in 381, and appointed Gregory as the Bishop of the capital.  When the Macedonians and Alexandrians opposed his nomination, in frustration, Gregory delivered a farewell sermon and retired back to Nazianzus; after a successor was appointed to that see, he retired to his estate in Arianzum to pursue the life of solitude and contemplation he always desired, until his death in 389 or 390.[4] He left an immensely influential literary body, yet one composed not of dogmatic treatises, but solely of orations, poetry, and letters.

Gregory’s Second Oration is an apology for his flight from ordination and for his eventual acceptance of it; ultimately, it is also an articulation of the ideal of the priesthood. The text we possess might not have been written for delivery, or, at least, it is almost certainly a later revision of his speech.[5] He starts his defense by arguing that his flight was neither from inexperience or ignorance, nor from contempt for divine laws and ordinances; it was as a result, as he saw it, of his inadequacy for the pastoral ministry, which requires that the pastor surpasses the majority of the people in virtue and nearness to God (paragraph §3).[6]

Virtue and Knowledge

St. Gregory arguments focus on two main aspects: the need for virtue and discernment, and the need for knowledge of Scripture as the medicine to heal sous. First, he argues that priests should be, at minimum, those who surpass others in virtue, and  says that he is ashamed of those who “intrude” into the sacred offices without being “better than ordinary people; ” those who, “before becoming worthy to approach the temples, lay claim to the sanctuary,” i.e., whose practice in virtue and knowledge is average at best, so that they barely can be considered worthy to enter the Church, let alone minister in the sanctuary where are the Gifts and the priests (§8). St. Gregory did not consider himself qualified to rule a flock and to have authority over men, especially since, for priests, this entails a proportionate measure of dignity and risk – and failure can be disastrous because it would involve damage to the souls of many.

He argues that one cannot undertake the task to heal others while one is still not healed; one ought to be eminent in good.  “He should know no limits in goodness of spiritual progress” and ought not think “it a great gain to excel ordinary people” (§14). A priest must excel others in virtue especially because his rule is by influence of persuasion, so as to draw people at least to ordinary virtue by one’s evident extraordinary virtue (not by mere command). For St. Gregory, “the scope of our art is to provide the soul with wings, to rescue it from the world and give it to God, . . . in short, to deify, and bestow heavenly bliss upon one who belongs to the heavenly host” (§22).

A physician of souls, like a Shepherd, must walk in the “King’s Highway” in perfect balance, incurring a great risk as one who is changed with the “illumination of others” – “and who is sufficient for these things?” (cf. 2 Cor. 2). Leading the flock in virtue might be the most difficult work of all, since it requires that the leader and teacher has submitted himself to God in love and obedience, so that he will be able to lead others to the same conformity. In one of his most memorable quotes, he says,

A man must himself be cleansed, before cleansing others: himself become wise, that he may make others wise; become light, and then give light: draw near to God, and so bring others near; be hallowed, then hallow them; be possessed of hands to lead others by the hand, of wisdom to give advice.” (§71).

A priest must also excel in knowledge, since the guiding of man, which relates to the soul and its eternal destiny, is the “science of sciences.” St. Gregory shifts the emphasis to “the first of our duties,” the knowledge and the instruction of the Word (§35); and yet, “we are at once wise teachers, of high estimation in Divine things, the first of scribes and lawyers; we ordain ourselves men of heaven and seek to be called Rabbi by men” (§49).

After mentioning the representatives of the Law and the Prophets (Moses, Aaron, Elijah, Samuel, David, the other prophets, etc.) as well as the apostles and their successors, St Gregory focuses on St Paul as a paradigm: “I set forth Paul as the witness to my assertions . . .  his labors, his watchings, his sufferings in hunger and thirst, . . .  With these thoughts I am occupied night and day: they waste my marrow, and feed upon my flesh, and will not allow me to be confident or to look up. (§52-71).

Reasons for the Flight

St. Gregory brings these considerations on virtue and knowledge, on ascetic practice and contemplation, and the seemingly insurmountable requirements, challenges, tasks, expectations, and dangers related to the priesthood, as a justification for his unwillingness to immediately accept his charge and for his flight. And yet at this point he cites his personal history – having been reared as a Christian, the son of godly parents, baptized, consecrated to God, highly educated, and trained in philosophical (theological) ascetical practice and contemplation:

I had been invited from my youth, if I may speak of what most men know not, and had been cast upon Him from the womb, and presented by the promise of my mother, afterwards confirmed in the hour of danger: . . . I gave as an offering my all to Him Who had won me and saved me, my property, my fame, my health, my very words . . . and the words of God were made sweet as honeycombs to me, and I cried after knowledge and lifted up my voice for wisdom. There was moreover the moderation of anger, the curbing of the tongue, the restraint of the eyes, the discipline of the belly, and the trampling under foot of the glory which clings to the earth. I speak foolishly, but it shall be said, in these pursuits I was perhaps not inferior to many. (§77)

These statements might raise the question of whether St Gregory was, in reality, trained in virtue and knowledge precisely in the way needful for the task of the priesthood, as he saw it. As he argued, one is required (a) not only to be cleansed of sin, but greatly surpass the average person in virtue; (b) to have the wisdom and discernment and to apply these in the diagnosis and healing of individuals and groups; (c) to surpass greatly others in the spiritual knowledge and application of Scripture; and (d) to have the wisdom and discernment in the instruction of others.

               It is arguable that St Gregory fulfills all these requirements. He was “invited from [his] youth . . . cast upon Him from the womb;” he was raised in the Faith, baptized after an oath of consecration after danger in the sea, as he traveled to study in Athens and cried out God when he thought the ship would sink.[7]  He was highly trained in virtue and knowledge, both in secular training (including the best available training in in the world at the time) and in the Church; he left all for a life of contemplation with St Basil. He was trained in the Scriptures in a way that greatly surpassed the average Christian; he practiced virtue in monastic ascetic practices, and he says, in a way reminiscent of St Paul (cf. Gal. 1:14), that he surpassed most men both in virtue and knowledge, – “I was perhaps not inferior to many.”

               By laying out, clearly and extensively, the seemingly impossible requirements for the office of the priesthood, and then, in a small paragraph, indicating that he might have actually fulfilled those requirements, St Gregory is not being self-contradictory. He is both stressing the great holiness of the office as well as modeling humility as a form of behavior. St Gregory lays out with wisdom, precision, and rhetorical beauty, all that one who would embody Christ as the Shepherd should be to his flock, especially considering the abuses and lowered standards he had observed. Becoming a priest is not for the average person, i.e., one who is average in virtue, knowledge, wisdom, discernment, ascetic practice, and ability to discern the complexities of governing and healing others. These are qualities and abilities which can be acquired through effort, contemplation, study, and time; but they need to be embodied to the greatest possible degree, according to one’s ability, in a priest. They are things that, in one’s personal level, should “waste my marrow, and feed upon my flesh, and will not allow me to be confident or to look up.”

               St Gregory upholds both the impossible task and the possibility of the accomplishing task through God – while emphasizing that such work of grace can only be possible to those who understand that they are called to climb a mountain into the very cloud of the presence of God. He laments that “there is not any distinction between the state of the people and that of the priesthood: but it seems to me to be a simple fulfilment of the ancient curse, ‘As with the people so with the priest’” (§80-82). In this way, the oration is already a sobering call, a medicine to those who are sick and need healing from vice and blindness – and that includes readers of all times and ages. As he says, “before a man has, as far as possible, gained this superiority, and sufficiently purified his mind, and far surpassed his fellows in nearness to God, I do not think it safe for him to be entrusted with the rule over souls (§91-95).

Conclusion – Fear of Inadequacy vs. Fear of God

St Gregory introduces two reasons for his reconsideration and return: the fear of disobeying his parents and the fear of disobeying God. He reaffirms that “that we are far too low to perform the priest’s office before God,” yet, “someone else may perhaps refuse to acquit us on the charge of disobedience” (§111). There are then two fears that appear in his Oration: first, the fear of failure because of his unworthiness; this was the fear that held him back. Then the fear of disobedience (to his parents, and to God). This was the fear that brought him back. This becomes an instruction for the readers who would aspire to the work of ordained ministry, desire which is a good thing (εἴ τις ἐπισκοπῆς ὀρέγεται καλοῦ ἔργου ἐπιθυμεῖ, 1 Tim. 3). The realization of such a daunting task should not be a source of despair, but of awe and commitment in the face of the immensity of the challenge and task.

Given the content of this oration, it would be important to emphasize that the internal, subjective calling of God in one’s life for the priesthood is only confirmed by the external call – in the case of St Gregory, the call to ordination by his father – and that is what caused Gregory to ultimately consider. To disobey the objective, tangible, historical, practical calling of his bishop was to disobey God. In other words, subjective states of desiring the priesthood are necessary but not sufficient (or, in the case of St Gregory, were not even present), but the external call of God through the bishop caused him to consider his duty and the attending responsibilities in virtue, wisdom, and discernment. As he puts it in closing, “I fell down and humbled myself under the mighty hand of God, and asked pardon for my former idleness and disobedience . . . now I am commissioned to exalt Him in the congregation of the people, and praise Him in the seat of the elders. (§111)

Select Bibliography

Constas, Maximos. Roads to Damascus – Crisis, Conversion, and Community in the Lives of the Three Hierarchs (unpublished paper)

Greer, Rowan. Reflections on Priestly Authority. St. Luke’s Journal of Theology. March 1991, Volume XXXIV, Number 2.

McGunkin, John. St Gregory of Nazianzus – An Intellectual Biography.

Nazianzen, St Gregory, Select Orations, trans. Charles Gordon Brown and James Edward Swallow.

Quasten, Johannes, Patrology. Volume: II The Ante-Nicene Literature after Irenaeus, (Vol. 39, No. 4), p. 236

.


[1] Johannes Quasten, Patrology. Volume: II The Ante-Nicene Literature after Irenaeus, (Vol. 39, No. 4), p. 236

[2] John McGunkin, St Gregory of Nazianzus – An Intellectual Biography, p. 110.

[3] Quasten., 237.

[4] Ibid., 238.

[5] Rowan Greer, “Reflections on Priestly Authority.” St. Luke’s Journal of Theology (March 1991, Volume XXXIV, Number 2), p. 103.

[6] St Gregory Nazianzen, “Select Orations” trans. Charles Gordon Brown and James Edward Swallow.

[7] Maximos Constas, Roads to Damascus – Crisis, Conversion, and Community in the Lives of the Three Hierarchs, p. 5-6.

The Sermon on the Mount and the Progress of Eternity

The Sermon on the Mount is challenging not only because of its ethical demands, but also for the demands it places on the reader as to how to apply a hermeneutical framework that is both faithful to the text and applicable in everyday life even in its paradoxical elements.

In his book The Sermon on the Mount, Dale C. Allison (Princeton Theological Seminary’s Richard J. Dearborn Professor of New Testament) begins by listing three main hermeneutical approaches which, while contributing some perspective, ultimately fail:

First, the “monastic approach” that reads the text as a set of injunctions to a moral elite. Second, a Lutheran Law/Gospel approach in which the Sermon is meant, as Law, to show what we cannot do, in order to receive the Gospel; i.e., what Christ has done for us; and third, a modern approach that reduces the demands of the Sermon to mere internal dispositions, not necessarily concrete actions.

However, considering that the Sermon applies not to a few, but to disciples made of all nations, taught to keep all Jesus taught; that the Sermon does not hint that believers are not expected to live it; and that the sermon does not separate inward from outward; then a better approach is needed.

Allison presents some “exegetical guidelines” for a better approach.

First, the recognition that Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon finds parallels in other times and places because it is not completely novel and unique. Jesus came not to abolish but to fulfill.

Therefore, secondly, the Law and the Prophets not only are still in force, but they are a hermeneutical key.

Third, the larger context of the Sermon shows that it is a call for Israel to repent, and presents Jesus as “a gracious religious presence whose demand is accompanied by a helping presence (18:20; 28:20).”

Fourth, the Sermon is a poetic text, which, while meant to be taken seriously, is given with dramatic and pictorial elements.

Lastly, it has an eschatological orientation. As a result,

The Sermon is not as a mere set of rules, but something that instills “a moral vision;” it is not concerned with what is merely practical, but with the perfect will of God on earth as it is in heaven – a growth in love that can be ever perfected, the ultimate goal of the eschatological kingdom, in which we live and to which we journey.

He cites St John of the Ladder speaking of love as “the progress of eternity,” i.e., a journey that can never come to completion.  He also mentions St Gregory of Nyssa, and the following includes Allison’s citation as well as a few additional passages:

Every quantitative measurement presupposes its own proper limits. Anyone who considers, for example, the cubit, or the number ten, will see that their perfection consists in their having a beginning and an end. But with regard to virtue we know from the Apostle that the one determination of perfection is its not having any limit.[1]

Later St Gregory states,

But though my argument has shown that we cannot attain our goal, we must not, for all that, neglect the divine command, Be you perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Math. 5.48). For though it may not be possible completely to attain the ultimate and sovereign good, it is most desirable for those who are wise to have at least a share in it . . . rather let us change in such a way that we may constantly evolve towards what is better, being transformed form glory to glory, and thus always improving and ever becoming more perfect by daily growth, and never arriving at any limit of perfection. For that perfection consists in our never stopping in our growth in good, never circumscribing our perfection by any limitation.[2]

In this way, Allison argues, the Sermon is a “ladder to be climbed rung by rung,” a “pressing on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

It is a call akin to the lives of the Saints, as example and inspiration, or of the teaching of a father to his children, urging them on to move beyond their present abilities. The Sermon is indeed partly a summary of the Speaker’s deeds; He lives as He speaks and He speaks as He lives.

This is what encourages to the imitation of Christ – which, as Allison argues, cannot be reduced as a purely human effort that cannot be achieved; but rather, “in the first Gospel, Jesus is an ever abiding, helpful presence.”


[1] St Gregory of Nyssa, The Meaning of Perfection (The Life of Moses, PG 44.300)

[2] Ibid.

The Lost Scriptural Mind

Fr Georges Florovsky

In 1951, Fr. Georges Florovsky (a priest, theologian, Dean of Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, and professor of Church History at Harvard University) wrote a short article entitled “The Lost Scriptural Mind.” He said,

The first task of the contemporary preacher is the “reconstruction of belief.” It is by no means an intellectual endeavor. Belief is just the map of the true world, and should not be mistaken for reality. Modern man has been too much concerned with his own ideas and convictions, his own attitudes and reactions.

The modern crisis precipitated by humanism (an undeniable fact) has been brought about by the rediscovery of the real world, in which we do believe. The rediscovery of the church is the most decisive aspect of this new spiritual realism. Reality is no more screened from us by the wall of our own ideas. It is again accessible. It is again realized that the church is not just a company of believers, but the “Body of Christ.”

This is a rediscovery of a new dimension, a rediscovery of the continuing presence of the divine Redeemer in the midst of his faithful flock. This discovery throws a new flood of light on the misery of our disintegrated existence in a world thoroughly secularized. It is already recognized by many that the true solution of all social problems lies somehow in the reconstruction of the church.

“In a time such as this” one has to preach the “whole Christ,” Christ and the church — totus Christus, caput et corpus, to use the famous phrase of St. Augustine. Possibly this preaching is still unusual, but it seems to be the only way to preach the Word of God efficiently in a period of doom and despair like ours.

In an “age of intellectual chaos and disintegration” – Florovsky already presents, 70 years ago, a criticism of his society’s approach to religion, to the Bible, to preaching, and the relation the modern word to Christianity.

For him, the loss of the of the “scriptural mind” is the relegation of the language of Scripture and Tradition to a realm of irrelevance, as if it is unable to address modern problems unless it is fundamentally altered to fit certain modern expectations.

As he puts it, “Most of us have lost the integrity of the scriptural mind, even if some bits of biblical phraseology are retained. The modern man often complains that the truth of God is offered to him in an ‘archaic idiom’” and should therefore be “demythologized.”

 The problem, as he sees it, is that reinterpreting the language and categories of Scripture would entail changing its contents precisely because of the current loss of the scriptural mind, a forgetfulness of the original language, in the first place.

Therefore, what needs to be changed is not Scripture or the traditional preaching, but the modern mind itself through the Scriptural preching; for “no man can receive the gospel unless he repents — ‘changes his mind.’”

Chalcedonian Preaching

For Florovsky then the solution is to use Scripture and the uninterrupted Tradition of the Church in their own language and purpose, to preach the “doctrines of the creed.”

It is to recover, for the modern mind, the implications of a Chalcedonian Christology – i.e., the One who entered history and addresses us in our poor human condition, in all circumstances and at all times, is the Divine Person of the Logos. In other words, it is God the Son who is Incarnate and takes on human nature to unite it to God; if God enters history in the Incarnation, then this fact, and this message, have “perennial adequacy and relevance to all ages and to all situations, including ‘a time such as this.’”

 The “reconversion” of the world to Christianity is what we ought to preach, he argues, because of the enormous impact that it had, and will always continue to have. The union of God with humanity as witnessed in Chalcedonian declaration entails that there is a union of the divine providence with kenosis, for the transformation of man into a new man, of the world into an new world.

“The mystery of the Incarnation was a mystery of the love divine, of the divine identification with lost man. And the climax of Incarnation was the cross. It is the turning point of human destiny . . . the Crucified was in very truth “the Son of the living God.’” And so it was the “end of death and the inauguration of life everlasting for man.” This is the gospel that always regenerates, at all times and in all circumstances.

1 Samuel – Let the Light Shine

samuelOn Aug 20 it was the blessed Feast of the Prophet Samuel.

God answered the prayer of his lowly maidservant Hannah, and opened her womb, giving her a son who would bring deliverance to Israel. As we saw last week, the boy Samuel was taken to the tabernacle of the Lord to serve Him there all the days of his life, as God was about to remove the corrupt priesthood and the corrupt judges from his people.

Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in the LORD. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation.” God was about to abase the proud, exalt the humble, and raise the poor and the needy from the dust and the ash heap.

Samuel was now growing in stature, in wisdom and favor with the Lord and men. In the last section of chapter 2 God promised that he would honor those who honored him, and that he would cut off your strength of those who despised him.

Hophni, Phinehas, and even their father Eli were about to be removed – but Samuel was preparing the way of the Lord for the light of God to shine again in Israel.

[1 Now the young man Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.]

Samuel is now living in the house of the Lord, in the Temple, and Eli has taken responsibility over him; but ultimately the boy Samuel has been adopted by the Lord to serve him in his presence. Eli was a blind spiritual father, but the Lord adopted Samuel.

Within the context of the dark times of Israel (when there was no king and everybody did whatever was right in their own eyes) we read that the Word of the Lord was rare in those days, and that there were not frequent visions in Israel.

As we have seen in the previous chapters, the circumstances of Hannah, Samuel, Eli, and his sons were historical and yet also a vivid illustration of the spiritual state of Israel.

Israel was deaf and it was blind. As it is today. The sons of Eli would not hear of it when it was complained that they were robbing the people, robbing God, and transforming the tabernacle into a pagan temple with their immoralities. As sects do today.

They stopped their ears to the truth and to the Lord, and so they became deaf.

Eli was losing his sight, and so he also failed to distinguish good from evil– thinking godly Hannah to be a worthless woman when in fact it was his sons serving in the Tabernacle who were worthless.

Israel was in darkness, blind, and deaf. It did not want to hear the Lord, and so His word was infrequent. There was deafness and blindness, and so there was silence and darkness.

[2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his own place. 3 The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.]

We have already seen how Eli’s loosing of his eyesight becomes also a parable and picture of his own lack of discernment, but also the lack of discernment of the nation Israel, whose eyes had become dimmer and dimmer since the death of Joshua.

Now, the writer tells us that Eli, who lived in the precincts of the temple, with dim eyes, is going to bed at night. The whole picture is one of darkness setting in.

His eyes are dim, and now he lays down at night in the darkness of the tabernacle – because Israel was in darkness.

As we read this words, we can’t help but be transported by the writer into a picture of utter darkness, physical and spiritual.

But God had not yet abandoned his people.

The lamp of God in the tabernacle had not yet gone out. The lamp of God was what we know as a Manorah, that lampstand with seven lights – 3 on each side – and from the instructions in Ex. 25 and Lev. 24 we learn that it was always to be lit in the tabernacle. It was the continuous burning of the light of God among his people – like the burning bush, ever burning but never consuming.

Here, the implication is that the light of the lampstand was about to be extinguished – but not yet. There is some light, however dim, flickering in the darkness of the house of the Lord and in the midst of his people, and by the grace of God that light will not be conquered by darkness. It’s flickering! There’s still hope.

[4 Then the Lord called Samuel, and he said, “Here I am!” 5 and ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. 6 And the Lord called again, “Samuel!” and Samuel arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” ]

The light of the lamp of God was flickering in the darkness and in the silence of the tabernacle, but now the light of life and the word of life shatter the darkness and the silence.

The Lord, whose word had been rare, breaks through the barren and dark land and calls for his chosen prophet, the child Samuel. How many times does He call? Of course three times.

That very same Word of God who spoke “let there be light” when there was nothing but darkness and chaos, now again enters the realm of darkness and chaos, as it is spoken by the good and merciful God who cares about his own people sitting in darkness.

The Word of God comes not only to bring light out of darkness and out of blindness, but it also comes to unstop deaf ears. This is the Word of God that performs what God desires just by virtue of being spoken.

The speech is the divine act. It is that Word that calls us to hear, and heed, as expressed in the original creed of Israel, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Dt. 6:4-5).

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word now comes to bring a new beginning to Israel.

Samuel’s response? Here I am!

“Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” “Then the angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob,’ and I said, ‘Here I am.’ When the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.

”Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Then I, Isaiah, said, “Here am I. Send me!” Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and the Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.”

God called Adam, and he hid. But, here I am!

Is this something you and I can say to the Lord unreservedly? Like the Second Adam, “Behold, I have come to do your will.” Are we ready to answer?

God has brought his own chosen prophet, priest and judge to serve him in his temple – not a great warrior, or renowned clergyman, but a child who could not do anything except listen, and serve by and power of the Lord. His response is one of immediate obedience and alertness. Here I am!

The contrast with Eli could not be more vivid. The word of the Lord does not come to Eli, the high priest, but to the boy Samuel.

Samuel runs to Eli, thinking he was calling him, and Eli has no clue of what is going on. Neither Samuel nor Eli know that it is YHWH who calls, but the fact that it is Samuel who hears, and not Eli, already shows that God has chosen another priest to bring deliverance to Israel.

Samuel could not yet discern that it was YHWH, but this was part his learning process. He was a boy!

Eli, on the other hand, should have discerned it but he couldn’t. He sends Samuel back to bed, and the Lord calls again, Samuel goes again to Eli, and Eli sends him back one more time.

[8 And the Lord called Samuel again the third time.]

Eli should have discerned that sooner, but he was already too accustomed to the silence, hardened in his heart and slow to hear the Word of YHWH. He eventually catches on to what is going on.

[“Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant hears]

The narrative actually tells us that the Lord stands right there, surely as the preincarnate person of Christ. He can hear Him. Samuel, Samuel, the Lord calls.Shamu-El, the Lord hears, calls you, Samuel, to hear!

And the servant of the Lord says “Speak, for your servant hears.”

Samuel, the deliverer, is being called by God to bring salvation to his people, and he responds promptly and with an open ear. In the darkness of midnight in the temple, with but a flicker of the lamp of the lord dimly shining in the midst of the surrounding physical and spiritual darkness, the Lord stands before his chosen one, and speaks his name.

Samuel, Samuel.

This is the voice of God calling for his beloved child, as he has spoken in our ears and in our hearts by the Holy Spirit when he also called us by name.

God is calling his servant Samuel by name, out of darkness into his marvelous light.

The whole picture of the lamp of the Lord, the calling of Samuel, Samuel, the presence of the Lord, and specially Samuel’s words – here I am – point directly to another deliverer who was called in the same way.

Four hundred years before Samuel, the angel of the LORD appeared to Moses in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. When Moses turned so see the sight of the bush that was burning and yet not consumed, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!”

And he said, “Here I am.”

Then the Lord said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Ex. 3).

Now the dark tabernacle with the dim light at night is, by the presence of the Lord, made again into that which it should always had been – a holy ground – and Samuel is being called to be God’s instrument to bring another exodus for his people.

This is the new exodus of deliverance from their oppressors – here, the Philistines – and most importantly and exodus from their barrenness, deafness and blindness.

But before that new exodus is accomplished, there has to be judgment, and both the corrupt priesthood and the glory of the Lord will be removed for a time.

In verses 11-15 God tells Samuel that he is about to do a thing in Israel at which the two ears of everyone who hears it will tingle. The corrupt and immoral priesthood of the sons of Eli will be removed. Eli and his house will be replaced.

God delivers a message of judgment to Samuel, but it is in his mercy that he is sending his word to his young prophet, because even in judgment he has not deserted Israel to their own devices. He will cleanse his house and establish his kingdom.

[15 Samuel lay until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord.]

The picture is that of Samuel pushing the doors open, as the light of the morning floods into the tabernacle that had been dark.

The light of the Word of God has come to Israel, he has opened the ears of his chosen prophet and priest, and the darkness is being dispelled. Here the narrative once again vividly combines the physical picture with the spiritual picture.

In this particular imagery, there is a sort of double meaning, since, physically, it is as Samuel opens the doors of the house of the Lord that the morning light breaks through and comes in.

Yet spiritually, it is just the opposite; Israel was in darkness, and as Samuel opens the door, it is the light of the Word of God which shines from the inside out – from the holy place of the restored presence of God – to flood the land with the morning dawn.

Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli, but as the high priest presses Samuel, he tells Eli what YHWH had revealed to him. There is nothing left for Eli other than resignation: “It is the Lord. Let him do what seems good to him.”

[19 And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.]

As a boy, Samuel is now growing both in stature and wisdom in the house of the Lord. The first sentence of verse 1 of chapter 4, which really belongs here as a closing sentence of this narrative, states that “And the word of Samuel came to all Israel.”

Samuel, whose birth was prayed for at the doorway of the tabernacle, opened that doorway to bring a new birth for Israel. Samuel has heard the Word, and now he is able to open the door and spread it.

The Lord has come into his temple, and from there the fire of his light, as with the burning bush of old, will judge and burn, but it will not consume. It will cleanse the land, beginning with the tabernacle itself, but it will bring restoration and hope to his people.

But as we know, even that deliverance would not be final until the coming of the Messiah.

In our New Testament passage we see some of the same elements of the narrative of 1 Samuel, but now with the final fulfillment of the promises of God in Christ. After Jesus was born, his family settled in Nazareth, and there’s were our narrative picks up in Luke

Luke 2:39-52
And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.

After telling us in the previous verses about the Annunciation to Mary, the Magnificat which parallels the prayer of Hannah, and the virgin birth, Luke now tells us that the promised child is growing in stature and wisdom and that the favor of God was upon him.

Just like the boy Samuel who was growing in stature and wisdom, and upon whom God’s favor rested, so now the boy Jesus has come to deliver his people from barrenness and darkness.

Wisdom Himself becomes incarnate as a child who now grows in wisdom – deity and humanity perfectly united.

Just like the boy Samuel, the first description of the boy Jesus’ actions take place within the temple of God.

Paul as a Minister and a Priest

leitourgosIn Romans 15, Paul refers to himself as a Minister and a Priest. He says,

“because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit”
(Rom. 15:16).

He says he is a leitourgos” (λειτουργός) – from which we get the word “Liturgy” and the English translation “minister.”

In the New Testament, this sometimes is used especially in the sense of priestly service, e.g.,

we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister [leitourgos] in the holy places, in the true tabernacle that the Lord set up, not man.

(Heb 8:2).

And Paul also says he serves in the “priestly service,”as a ierourgounta; the verb ierourgeo (ἱερουργέω), is one that combines to “work” (ergo) with temple (ieros) and so as a priest (ierevs). The ierourgounta is the one doing temple work, offering sacrifices to God.

The priestly service was introduced in shadowy form in the Old Testament. The people were “a royal priesthood, a holy nation,” (cf. Ex. 19:6); and there were also the specially ordained and anointed priests for the liturgical service, the offering of incense, and the sacrifices.

That is fulfilled in Christ, who makes his people also “a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pet 2) and gives the priesthood to the apostles, their successors (the Bishops), and their delegates (the priests).

Glory to God!