Thursday, 1 December 2016

Those who under the pretext of mercy, do unlawful sins...


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Today's Matins readings, in the traditional lectionary for the Office, come from Isaiah 4 and 5.  The first reading, from Isaiah 4, has long been interpreted as a message to the Church.

It speaks of seven women (the seven Churches of the Book of Revelation) clinging to one man (Christ):
 And in that day seven women shall take hold of one man, saying: We will eat our own bread, and wear our own apparel: only let us be called by thy name, take away our reproach.  In that day the bud of the Lord shall be in magnificence and glory, and the fruit of the earth shall be high, and a great joy to them that shall have escaped of Israel.  And it shall come to pass, that every one that shall be left in Sion, and that shall remain in Jerusalem, shall be called holy, every one that is written in life in Jerusalem.
One of the earliest Christians commentaries on it comes from Victorinus, who was martyred around 303 AD, who interprets the verse as a call for Christ to forgive the sins of his Church:
The one man is Christ, not born of seed; but the seven women are seven churches, receiving His bread, and clothed with his apparel, who ask that their reproach should be taken away, only that His name should be called upon them. The bread is the Holy Spirit, which nourishes to eternal life, promised to them, that is, by faith. And His garments wherewith they desire to be clothed are the glory of immortality, of which Paul the apostle says: For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. 
 Moreover, they ask that their reproach may be taken away— that is, that they may be cleansed from their sins: for the reproach is the original sin which is taken away in baptism, and they begin to be called Christian men, which is, Let your name be called upon us. 
What are the particular sins he is focusing on? One of his key concerns is those who claim to be offering mercy, but are in fact leading the faithful astray:
Therefore in these seven churches, of one Catholic Church are believers, because it is one in seven by the quality of faith and election. Whether writing to them who labour in the world, and live of the frugality of their labours, and are patient, and when they see certain men in the Church wasters, and pernicious, they hear them, lest there should become dissension, he yet admonishes them by love, that in what respects their faith is deficient they should repent; or to those who dwell in cruel places among persecutors, that they should continue faithful; or to those who, under the pretext of mercy, do unlawful sins in the Church, and make them manifest to be done by others; or to those that are at ease in the Church; or to those who are negligent, and Christians only in name; or to those who are meekly instructed, that they may bravely persevere in faith; or to those who study the Scriptures, and labour to know the mysteries of their announcement, and are unwilling to do God's work that is mercy and love: to all he urges penitence, to all he declares judgment.
The form of the judgment comes in the verses from Isaiah 5, using eh allegory of the vineyard:
I will sing to my beloved the canticle of my cousin concerning his vineyard. My beloved had a vineyard on a hill in a fruitful place.  And he fenced it in, and picked the stones out of it, and planted it with the choicest vines, and built a tower in the midst thereof, and set up a winepress therein: and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes.  And now, O ye inhabitants of Jerusalem, and ye men of Juda, judge between me and my vineyard.  What is there that I ought to do more to my vineyard, that I have not done to it?
And now I will shew you what I will do to my vineyard. I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be wasted: I will break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down.  And I will make it desolate: it shall not be pruned, and it shall not be digged: but briers and thorns shall come up: and I will command the clouds to rain no rain upon it.  For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel: and the man of Juda, his pleasant plant: and I looked that he should do judgment, and behold iniquity: and do justice, and behold a cry.
The image of the beloved (Christ) and the vineyard (the Church) recurs frequently in Scripture.  It challenges us to consider: are we bringing forth good fruit or only wild grapes, fit only to allowed to fall desolate, dry and barren, left unpruned and open to wild animals?

St Ambrose comments:
And the Lord Himself spoke through Isaias, saying: 'My beloved had a vineyard  on a hill in a fruitful place. And I fenced it in and dug  around the vine of Sorech and I built a tower in the midst  thereof.' 
He fenced it in with a rampart, as it were of heavenly precepts and with the angels standing guard, for 'the angel of the lord shall encamp round about them that fear him. 
 He placed in the Church a tower, so to speak, of Apostles, Prophets, and Doctors ready to defend the peace of the Church. 
He dug around it, when He had freed it from the burden of earthly anxieties. For nothing burdens the mind more than solicitude for the world and cupidity either for wealth or for power...
It seems clear, therefore, that the example of the vine is designed, as this passage indicates, for the instruction of our lives. It is observed to bud in the mild warmth of early spring and next to produce fruit from the joints of the shoots, from which a grape is formed. This gradually increases in size, but it still retains its bitter taste. 
When, however, it is ripened and mellowed by the sun, it acquires its sweetness. Meanwhile, the vine is decked in green leaves by which it is protected in no slight manner from frosts and other injuries and is defended from the sun's heat. Is there any spectacle which is more pleasing or any fruit that is sweeter? What a joy to behold the rows of hanging grapes like so many jewels of a beautiful countryside, to pluck those grapes gleaming in colors of gold or purple!  (Hexameron, Day 3)

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