Monday, 5 December 2016

O that some Nehemiah might come in our own days...

On Sunday I heard a sermon that started from the Matins readings, and pointed to the Christological reading of these texts, and so I thought it was worth briefly commenting on how we think we should approach Scripture, particularly as we seek guidance on how to respond to the world around us.

In the Benedictine tradition of lectio divina which I  try to follow - which is really just that of the Fathers - there are, I think, three dimensions we need to think about when reading the Old Testament: the significance of the original historical context or teachings embodied in the literal meaning of the text; the Christological interpretation of the text; and the sense in which it foreshadows what is happening now, or is calling us to act.

All three of these dimensions of Scripture can have spiritual implications for us that need to be considered.

The literal sense

Old Testament events occurred for a reason; they are part of God's providential plan.  Accordingly, it is important to consider just why they happened, and what those events were and are meant to teach.

St Jerome notes that:
Even if one understands Holy Writ only as history, he has something useful for his soul. (Commentary on Psalm 1)
Isaiah's vision of heaven (chapter 6), for example, reminds us of the care God has shown for his people through history, sending prophets and teachers to guide them when needed.  It also reminds of the awe we should feel when we enter a Church and especially when we are in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.

The spiritual senses of Scripture

All the same, while most contemporary commentaries effectively stop at this point, there is a lot more spiritual juice to be extracted!  We have to be careful in how we treat the Old Testament, interpreting it in the light of the New, for as St Bede says:
...the Lord 'investigated' God's law in that he rejected the traditions of the Pharisees and taught how Holy Scripture was to be understood mystically and what spiritual secrets it concealed beneath the veil of the letter, and because he showed that the decrees of the Gospel that he himself brought to the world were more perfect and pleasing to God the Father than the ones that he had sent earlier through Moses. (On Ezra and Nehemiah, pg 116-7)
Many people will be familiar with the four 'senses' of Scripture, viz literal, allegorical, moral and anagogical (or eschatological).  But I actually think it is useful to reconceptualise these a little, into the Christological and personal dimensions of Scripture.

The Christological sense

Emphasising the Christological sense of the Old Testament is particularly important in our time, for many have lost the sense that virtually every line of the Old Testament prophesies and foreshadows aspects of the Incarnation and life of Christ.

The Old Testament is filled with 'types' of Christ, of whom Isaiah is one: when 'God asks who shall I send?' the answer is indeed Christ, and this chapter can certainly be read as a prophesy of the Incarnation.  Cyril of Alexandria, for example, in his commentary on Isaiah says:
In announcing that the whole earth is full of his glory, the seraphim are predicting the mystery of the economy that will be brought to pass through Christ....  
St Cyril's commentary on Isaiah goes on to suggest that the vision points us to the realisation that through the Incarnation, true worship is inaugurated, since by becoming human, the world was filled with his glory.  Through the Incarnation, we have the gifts of the channels of grace such as the sacraments to aid us, and we should make full use of them.

The life of Christ, whether in shadow in the Old Testament, or directly in the New, is meant to be the central pole, the reference point that anchors and grounds our lives, pointing us to our hope of heaven, so it is important always to keep it front and centre.  And of course, in Advent, we should rightly focus on the coming of Our Lord.

For the world today, and us

That said, we cannot, in my view break off interpretation at this point, for history is not yet done!

The providential history of the world, embodied in typological events and people, can continue to provide guidance to us today in terms of what we are each called to do here and now.  We have to also ponder, for example, whether God is currently saying to us, Who will I send?  And if so, just what it is he wants us to do and say.

In his commentary on Esra and Nehemiah, for example, Bede keeps coming back to the importance of those who study Scripture and share their insights with others; to the importance of teachers and preachers to build up the Church.  He argues that it is only with the help of Holy Scripture that we can withstand the assault of the devil:
The pool built with great labour can be understood not inappropriately as Divine Scripture, which, composed as it was by the work of the Holy Spirit, supplies us with the bath to expiate our sins as well as with the cup of the taste of salvation, and which, if changed into wine for us by the Lord (that is, if it has been translated into the spiritual sense), intoxicates us with an even more pleasing sweetness of truth...all who are accustomed to being refreshed by the abundant streams of divine utterances by hearing and practising them are rendered strong and invincible against all attacks of the ancient enemy. (On Nehemiah 3:16, trans DeGregorio, pg 173)
Unsurprisingly given his own vocation as a Benedictine monk and author of several commentaries on Scripture, he sees a big role for religious in meditating on Scripture, and sharing their insights with others.  He also, though, sees key roles for those in all other states of life, repeatedly finding parallels between the events he is commenting on in Scripture and his own times, saying for instance that:
We see that this occurs among us in the same manner everyday....Would that some Nehemiah (ie 'a consoler from the Lord') might come in our own days and retain our errors, kindle our breasts to love of the divine, and strengthen our hands by turning them away from our own pleasures to establishing Christ's city! (on Nehemiah 5:1-4, pg 184)

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