SPIRITUALITY: Divine Presents, The Sacramental Mysteries—The Sacramental Mystery of Holy Scripture, by Gregory Collins

A Benedictine Vision of the Spiritual Life

Divine Presents, The Sacramental Mysteries—The Sacramental Mystery of Holy Scripture, by Gregory Collins

From Meeting Christ in His Mysteries

The fathers, with the light of faith to guide them, saw everywhere – in the law, the prophets, the acts of Old Testament kings and saints, here more clearly, there less – the figure of Jesus, glowing in the half-darkness, until it emerges in the gospel’s brightness.  What the ancients gradually and wearily came to was as clear as noonday when the world’s own light shone: the keys to all mysteries were in Christ; when this unfailing instrument, the Key of David, is put to the explaining of scripture, the whole beauty, depth, and clarity of Christian allegory is seen for what it really is in the liturgy.  Its heart is the redeeming work of Christ and everything we read and pray in these texts points to that. (Odo Casel)

The Bible, with its old and New Testaments, is much more than merely a collection of sacred texts or holy books.  It is inspired holy scripture, “God-breathed writings” to borrow an expression from the early church, (2 Timothy 3:16).  Scripture is one of the fundamental loci where we encounter the revealed mystery of Christ.  It is a tabernacle of his presence and a place of encounter.  Through the mediating words of holy scripture we come into direct contact with God’s living Word, Jesus Christ.

Notwithstanding the differences, there is an evident analogy between how God’s Word took flesh in Jesus Christ and is still communicated to us in the sacramental mysteries, and the way in which the bible mediates the word of God to us today.  In the incarnation of the eternal Son, God’s living Word assumed the condition of our human existence with all its limitations including the fragility and vulnerability of life in the world.  This act of divine generosity was only possible through an act of kenosis on Christ’s part, a freely chosen decision undertaken by God the Son in harmony with the will of the Father and the Holy Spirit to temporarily lay down his glory and divine privileges so as to become capable of sharing our human lot.

In a not dissimilar way, God’s communication of his word through the written texts of holy scripture also requires a kind of divine accommodation, a kenosis.  Just as the Word-made-flesh shared all the temporal and spatial limitations of human life, so the word of God in the bible comes to us with, in, and under all the limitations of time and space entailed by human speech and writing.  The human nature of Christ was like our own – inseparable from the social and political contexts in which he lived and died.  It both bounded and limited the infinity of God’s Word while yet revealing it through the prism of human words and actions: it manifested God even as it concealed him.

God’s Son and Word did not just hover above us or sail around us like a ghost.  He took flesh in real time, in a real place within a real context.  Karl Barth spoke powerfully of the fact that the Word did not just “become flesh” – rather he became Jewish flesh, thus rooting himself in a real people and a particular context.  Similarly, Barth spoke of how God appropriates and takes human language to himself, transforming it, liberating it from its intrinsic limitations and elevating it to become a suitable vehicle for his Word.

God’s word became “flesh” as holy scripture at specific times and in specific places throughout history in a marvelous cooperation between the Holy Spirit (the “original” author in the sense of the deepest inspirer of the texts), and the human writers whom God called, set apart, and sanctified to communicate his truth.  The limitations of place, time, and individual literary style typical of each of the Biblical authors (as well as the historical process, the formation of the authorized “canon” through which the church recognized which books are truly inspired and therefore normative for faith), became the human instrument for conveying God’s word.  Those limitations were not just bypassed but taken up, used, and transfigured so that the writers could become bearers of the Word.

Indeed those very limitations, far from being simply a negative obstacle to the communication of God’s truth, are in fact powerful sacramental vehicles by means of which the word is wonderfully conveyed.  Each writer’s personality and literary ability (often very considerable) was placed in service of the Word of God so that, as the Greek Fathers taught, the sacred pages of the Bible may be justly called a kind of flesh and blood of the Word.  The Bible is like an extension of the incarnation.  It is a further exemplification of the sacramental principle revealed in Christ: the invisible and intangible God communicates with his creation by raising visible things to the level of symbols.  Analogous to the sacramental appearances of bread and wine in the Eucharist, they are bearers of a mystery far surpassing them.

Because Christianity is an historical religion based on the real incarnation of God in time and space, the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches do not accept a fundamentalist reading of the Bible.  Scripture mediates God’s word in the most privileged way.  It is the written record of God’s living voice and a constant source for the church not only of life and consolation but also of challenge and rebuke.  But the written text cannot simply be identified in a simplistic way with the Word as such, any more than the flesh of Christ may be simplistically described as “God” in an absolute sense: by analogy with Christ’s humanity, human words are joined to the Word and become transparent to the divine.

Christ’s “flesh” (his humanity) is, of course, truly and permanently united to the Second Person of the Trinity, so much so that one can point to Jesus and say, There is God”; but it would be theologically more accurate to say that Jesus is “God incarnate.”  The reality of his humanity is never swallowed up by his divinity, otherwise the very humanity he came to save would be endangered.  Instead, taken up and united to God and elevated far above its limitations, it is permeated with divine energies.  The humanity of Jesus, rooted and grounded in his divine person, is like a glorious stained glass window suffused and permeated with the light of his divine nature, which shines through it but is never confused with it or simply absorbed into it.

The Hebrew scriptures say that when God looked on the world he had created he pronounced it to be very good, (Genesis 1:31).  Christianity repeats that positive affirmation when it insists that notwithstanding the fall and the world’s sinfulness, God gave up his only Son that it might have life in his name.  The created world for which Christ gave his life is not doomed simply to be absorbed into God like a drop of water falling into an ocean.  The saving work of Jesus is so marvelous precisely because he not only saves us from sin but because he also saves us from being overwhelmed by God.

In the flesh-and-blood-humanity which Christ assumed, saved, transfigured, and brought into Heaven in his ascension, God assures us that the created order’s existence is eternally affirmed.  It will never be destroyed or negated by the divine.  That is one of the major differences between a Christian and a Hindu or a Buddhist worldview: created nature is saved, not absorbed or abolished.

In a similar way the texts of holy scripture, connected as a medium to God’s Word, serve as its filter.  Scripture is the sacrament in which the revealed mystery of Christ has been recorded and is transmitted to the church throughout the ages.  It is one of the fundamental disclosure zones where God reveals his will and our constant reference point for entry into the mystery of Christ.  It is never an end in itself, but a created medium utilized by God for contact with himself.  Fundamentalist approaches to scripture tend to deny the nitty-gritty facticity of the incarnation by undermining the reality of historical processes and created limitations.

They are akin to the ancient heresies of Docetism and Monophysitism which denied that the Son of God had assumed a real humanity, thereby making everything in him divine and interpreting the divine itself as something essentially abstract and static; or with the heresy of Nestorianism which distinguished Christ’s divine person and nature from his human nature so much that it risked making the latter substantially independent, thus sundering the unity of his being altogether.  Both heresies tend to undermine the real and abiding union of the divine and human in Christ.

With a firm sense, therefore, of how scripture mirrors the incarnate Word (one divine person and nature who has assumed a human nature) one should not fear to affirm the human reality of the Biblical texts, locating them in their historical, social, and political contexts.  That can be an invaluable help towards investigating their content, illuminating their forms and elucidating their meaning: anything else amounts to a denial of the incarnation.

Yet we receive these scriptures as the Book of the Church.  The Bible is made up not just of separate books, independent fragments (or even fragments of fragments) gathered together by various editors throughout the centuries.  While they certainly began their life that way, the Christian community (as the Jews also did for the Hebrew scriptures), gathered the fragments and combined them into a unified whole in which each individual part illuminates all the others.  It is the whole Bible that is the definite witness to God’s plan.  For the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, the one great mystery of Christ, announced, prefigured, and prophesied in the Hebrew and Greek scriptures of the Old Testament where is it lies latent, concealed within a host of mysteries and symbols in narratives, poems, and laments, is made clear in the New Testament.

Having seen the face of God in Christ and received the illumination of the Holy Spirit after Pentecost, the apostles and evangelists saw that the unveiling of revelation lifted the mystery of Christ out of the shadows and images of the earlier covenant.  It now stands open, bathed in the fullness of light revealed by the events of Easter, (2 Corinthians 3:7-18; Luke 24:27; John 5:39-40).  Every one of the inspired writers of the New Testament, especially the four evangelists, Saint Paul, the writer of Hebrews, and Saint Peter, reflecting on the older scriptures found therein some aspect of the resplendent fullness of revelation as they saw the light of Christ shining retrospectively on them.

Yet since the Bible is the “Book of the Church,” consensus about which writings really are inspired was reached largely on the basis of which were chosen for proclamation in the church’s worship assemblies.  The common prayer of the liturgy has always been and still is today the natural environment in which the reading of the Bible has flourished.  Because the books compose a collection, gathered together in the canon, no single book ought to be interpreted apart from the witness of the others, nor should one book or author (Paul, for example) be taken as the final word in explaining the contents of the whole, even allowing for the fact that not all books have the same importance.

In addition to the theological criteria required for discerning that, a certain Christian common sense is also necessary.  One does not have to be a theological genius to recognize pretty quickly that the Letter of Jude is rather less significant than the Letter to the Hebrews or the third letter of John than the gospel ascribed to him.  Yet that does not deny them their own, limited importance and their legitimate place in the canon.  In practice, that means no Paul without James, no Luke without John, no Matthew without Galatians, and, above all, none of them without the constant backdrop of the Jewish scriptures.

Consequently, three things need to be stressed in considering the unified nature of the collection of sacred books recognized and cherished by the church.  The first is that the Bible is the written, codified, and “canonized” sacramental mediation of the mystery of Christ.  In addition to analyzing it critically, a much deeper and more important task has to be performed.  It has to be read “contemplatively” in faith, with prayer, reverence, and love, if it is to manifest the mystery to which it bears witness.

Like the sacramental liturgy in general, the sacrament of the word is meant to be celebrated, proclaimed, spoken, sung, and broken open by preaching so that its hidden depths may flare out and its inexhaustible springs of life flow forth in every generation.  Both Luther and Karl Barth rightly asserted that it becomes existentially and effectively God’s word – gospel or good news – above all as it is proclaimed in worship, preaching, and teaching.  The Second Vatican Council likewise taught that when scripture is read in the worship assembly Christ truly speaks to us today.

Next, in reading contemplatively one needs to make use of a synthetic methodology.  In medieval monasticism that type of reading was bound up with the spiritual practice of lectio divina.  It meant developing a sense of how each individual book and every part of each one interacts with and casts light on all the others.  In Roman Catholic theology, a key principle for growing in knowledge of the revealed mystery is this: to allow the individual mysteries of Christ recorded in scripture to lead us together into his one great mystery.  Each one is related to the others and to the whole, in such a way that deeper knowledge of one entails further comprehension of the others.  There is no better place to do this than the church’s liturgy, the supreme school for hearing and learning God’s word.  The liturgy, with its connection-making capacities, alerts us to the interconnectedness of the mysteries in the one great mystery of Christ.

To take just one example, that of Christmas Midnight Mass: In that context the liturgy of the word combines the promise of Isaiah, (9:1-6), supremely fulfilled at Christmas that a child will be born to us who will be called “wonder-counselor” and “mighty God,” with the account of the birth of Jesus recorded in the third gospel, (Luke 2:15-20).  It comments on this first reading through the use of Psalm 95(96) whose deepest meaning is disclosed when it is used to announce God’s coming to rule the Earth in the incarnation.  In the second reading, (Titus 2:11-14), Paul reminds Titus that the grace of God has been revealed, making salvation possible for all, but that we await its final revelation on the last day.  In the meantime we are exhorted to live self-restrained and upright lives in hope.  That last great appearance is called significantly in the original Greek text Christ’s “epiphany,” thus reconnecting his final coming with his first.

Finally, all of this is interwoven with texts such as the Gloria of the Mass (first sung at Christ’s birth), the very rich ancient prayer texts spoken by the president of the liturgical assembly, and the use of the verse from Psalm 2(7) as the entrance chant, (Introit): “The Lord said to me you are my Son: it is I who have begotten you this day!”  (Dominus dixit ad me, Filius meus es tu), to bring home in the most synthetic, holistic way imaginable that the Old and New Testament readings and the prayers of the liturgy are meant to focus our attention on the birth of the incarnate God as Savior and Messiah.  Thus the liturgy itself is the primary catechesis and the place of theological interpretation.  The same can be asserted of every liturgical feast and especially the paschal liturgy, the center of the church’s year.  That is where holy scripture is at home.

The theologian’s task consists in cultivating the capacity given as a gift from God (but also demanding study and reflection) of recognizing the connections between the mysteries, what the First Vatican Council called the nexus mysteriorum, the network or interconnectedness of the mysteries.  That is why the task of theological interpretation is pursued as much (indeed much more) by way of intuition and imagination, analogy, and sensitivity to symbol and metaphor, as through academic training or professional expertise, important though these are.  A theologian who cannot “do” analogy or recognize connections between the multifaceted aspects of the mysteries is doomed to certain failure.  As in life so in revelation and the theology which comments on it: truth discloses itself above all in the relationships we are able to discern between realities.

This principle is supremely true in reading or rather contemplating the sacrament of holy scripture in the Bible, the church’s book.  If I want to have as complete a picture as possible of who Christ is and of what he achieved, then I cannot content myself with reading only John or Paul as individual authors.  I have to read each one in the light of all the others.  I also need to pray the texts, using especially the psalms, the prayer book of both church and synagogue, and the mainstay of the church’s worship since at least the fourth century.  In those inspired songs, as the church fathers recognized, one hears the echo of the voice of the living Christ, crying out to the Father both in joy and agony.

Such a method of reading holy scripture is spiritually very demanding.  It calls for a kind of kenosis, an emptying out of one’s own plans, desires, and ideas so as to become free and open to God’s Word.  It demands self-disciplined attentiveness and most importantly repeated prayer.  There is a liturgy of private reading that corresponds to the law of the church’s public worship.  Invocation (epiclesis) of the Holy Spirit, appealing to God for light is an indispensable condition for making the memory of Christ (his amamnesis) in which he becomes really present.  Only such reading is able to enlighten and confer spiritual understanding.  The monastic traditions of the west have always known that sacred reading or lectio divina is hard work, the work of God (opus Dei), and that it makes its own ascetical demands.  But it bears great fruit in the joy and delight of communion with God granted by the Holy Spirit through our pondering of the sacra pagina, the sacred page.  One reads in the prophet Isaiah:

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.  And you will say in that day:

Give thanks to the Lord,
call on his name;
make known his deeds among the nations;
proclaim that his name is exalted. (Isaiah 12:3-4)

Through contemplating in prayer, praise, faith, and a spirit of wonder the marvelous sacrament of the Bible with its many mysteries, the light of God’s presence breaks through the text in marvelous ways.  It irradiates the word written, read, and preached, revealing through it the mystery of Christ, God’s primordial Word.

Finally, the scriptural word has to become flesh and blood in us.  It has to be realized in life and action so that the written word can become incarnate in an entirely new context far beyond the very different one in which it was originally set down.  Only by being existentially appropriated in a living way can the sacred book of the church become a privileged “disclosure zone” for God.  His presence to us has to shine out with transforming power in us, in both communities and individuals.  Only if the text of the Bible, received as the sacrament of God’s presence, is like the bread of the Eucharist broken, given, shared, and consumed, can there be living and transforming contact with the mystery of Christ, of which the New Testament writers are the primary and permanent witnesses.  That is why scripture has been given us by God: so that we may become ourselves the message.

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