[Consonant with both Anglicanism’s and monasticism’s love of patristic theology-spirituality, I occasionally post selections from Durham University’s two-year lectionary for the Divine Office that draws mostly from patristic writings. The lectionary was initially edited by Stephen Mark Holmes (University of Edinburgh School of Divinity) and subsequently re-edited and formatted by Michele Freyhauf (Durham University). Click here for the link to the lectionary.]
Patristic Lectionary—4 June 2020, Thursday in Whitsun Week (9th Week in Ordinary Time)
[The image is of an eleventh-century mosaic of St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Sophia Cathedral, Kiev, Ukraine.]
Divine Inheritance and the Freedom of the New Covenant
Formerly, when you did not know God, you were in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods; but now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days, and months, and seasons, and years! I am afraid I have laboured over you in vain.
Brethren, I beseech you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You did me no wrong; you know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first; and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. What has become of the satisfaction you felt? For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me. Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth? They make much of you, but for no good purpose; they want to shut you out, that you may make much of them. For a good purpose it is always good to be made much of, and not only when I am present with you. My little children, with whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you! I could wish to be present with you now and to change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.
Tell me, you who desire to be under law, do you not hear the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, the son of the free woman through promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written, “Rejoice, O barren one that dost not bear; break forth and shout, thou who art not in travail; for the desolate hath more children than she who hath a husband.” Now we, brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now. But what does the scripture say? Cast out the slave and her son; for the son of the slave shall not inherit with the son of the free woman. So, brethren, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.
St. Gregory of Nyssa
Commentary on the Song of Songs, Prologue 3-7 (Tr. McCambley)
We must give a response to those members of the Church who think it always right only to follow the letter of holy Scripture and do not take into account the symbolic and allegorical meanings. It is indeed necessary to search the divinely inspired Scriptures with every means at our disposal, and so if the literal sense is of any use, we will readily have the object of our search. But if anything in the hidden, symbolic sense cannot be understood literally, we will, as the Word teaches and as Proverbs says, understand the passage either as a parable, a dark saying, or an utterance of wise men such as a riddle.
The great Apostle Paul says that the Law is spiritual. He includes under the name of Law the historical narratives, since all the inspired Scriptures is Law for those who read them. They teach not only through precepts but through the historical narratives: both lead to knowledge of the mysteries and to a pure way of life for those who have diligent minds. Paul uses exegesis with an eye to what is useful and best for him, and he calls his consideration of the two children of Abraham – one born of a slave woman and the other from a free woman – an allegory. In another place, after having related certain details of a story, he says, These things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction. And again, after using the expression You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain, he added, God does not care about oxen, but clearly it has been written for our benefit. Yet Paul somewhere calls the shift from the corporeal to the spiritual a turning to the Lord and the removal of a veil.
In all these different expressions and names of contemplation Paul is teaching us an important lesson: we must pass to a spiritual and intelligent investigation of Scripture so that considerations of the merely human element might be changed into something perceived by the mind once the more fleshly sense of the words has been shaken off like dust. For this reason, Paul says, the letter kills, but the spirit gives life. If we stay only with the mere facts of the text, the historical narratives of Scripture do not offer us examples of a good life. For what benefit to virtuous living can we obtain from the Prophet Hosea, or from Isaiah having intercourse with a prophetess, unless something else lies beyond the mere letter? Or how did the stories regarding David, his terrible act of adultery and murder, pertain to virtuous living? If anyone argues that these stories are reprehensible, then the saying of the Apostle will certainly be true – the letter kills, for its examples of evil conduct, but the spirit gives life. For the apparent, reprehensible sense is changed into something having a divine meaning.