Quingesima Sunday – St. Ambrose teaching Scripture

Lesson viii from today’s Matins continues my theme of teaching Scripture:

But, dearly beloved brethren, the miracles of our Lord and Saviour must be accepted in a two-fold manner ; we must believe that they were actually wrought, and at the same time were intended to signify something to us. For God’s works shew one thing by their power, and another by their mystery.

The words are St. Ambrose’s and – as is obvious to all who have even briefly stopped to look into Patristic commentary on Scripture – he is no exception in his manner of reading Scripture. The principle has been stated differently over the past several posts on this blog and is clearly and unambiguously given by St. Ambrose here. But lucky for us, St. Ambrose does not merely state a principle without showing how it is done the best teachers – I believe – are those who teach what the principles are and  shows how it is done.:

We know not historically who this blind man [from today’s Gospel reading] was, but we do know of what he was mystically the figure. Man verily is blind, driven our from Eden, the Paradise of Pleasure, in the persons of his first parents, knowing not the light of heaven, and suffering the darkness of condemnation. But, nevertheless, through the coming of his Redeemer, he is enlightened, so that now already seeth by hope the gladness of inward light, and walketh by good works in the path of life.

The passage from St. Ambrose continues to exegete the Gospel and it is worth while to consider it further, but I shall not do so here. For now I wish to note that not only is Christ Jesus to be found in Scripture – Jesus Christ is the primary referent of all Scripture – but we are also to be found in its pages. Not by name, I am not encouraging you or anyone else to invent a new Bible Code or any such nonsense. Rather I am suggesting that the entire plan of God concerning the world is contained in Scripture as a sort of road map for us to walk by. Modern exegetes for example have discovered that the way St. Paul speaks of sin in Romans seems to suggest that sin only becomes clear as sin in the light of the Crucified Christ! These scholars –  my Romans teacher in Seminary was among them – seem to suggest that sin is discovered most clearly from the solution and reflecting backwards. It is not our own noble consciences that discover our sinfulness so that we flee to God for mercy, rather it is the confrontation with the harsh reality of the Cross that forces the awareness of sin upon us. As fallen creatures we are not even able to find repentance for our sins without God’s gracious reaching out to us.

The Scriptures speak of our creation, very briefly, as if to avoid saying too much in order to force the focus on the present rather than a past we cannot return to. Much more does Scripture speak of the many different ways sin manifests in the life in the activities of our world. Even those who are named righteous in Scripture appear to be named so relative to others rather than relative to God’s law of life. Noah is one Old Testament righteous, but he get’s so drunk he apparently falls over in his tent naked. Not exactly the behavior one might expect from a righteous man is it? Or Abraham and his lies about his wife … Lying and deceit are not the qualities associated with righteousness especially considered in the light that Abraham did not appear to have the faith in God to risk his life but he had faith enough to risk that of his son … We could also think of David, the Apostle Peter, and a host of other biblical saints. Scripture wants us to understand that it does not matter what the details are of our unfallen state in Eden nor does it matter what the details are of what Bp. N. T. Wright has called the life after life after death, rather what really matters is that from God perspective we are all deformed in the disease of sin.

The consequences of sin – its wages says St. Paul – is death. The Lord had warned that breaking His command (not to eat the proverbial Apple) would lead to death. And indeed our world is very much characterized by the tragic reality of death. From the moment of birth our entire life hurries toward death. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann explained in his book For the Life of the World this world was supposed to be eucharistic and thereby life-giving. It was a means of communing with God. The loss of the world as eucharistic could be styled original sin and it means that our action to prefer the world over God – to eat and drink from this world for its own sake – has turned the world into a communion with something which has no life in and of itself. Cut off from the Source of Life eating and drinking in the world is no longer eucharistic. The world has become to us a communion with death.

All of life automatically arrives at Calverie. We will all of us without exception end up on one of three crosses on that hill – for we will all die. The question really is which one of the crosses will die on? The one from which the mocker hangs who curses Jesus in his own death struggle? Or the cross of the repentant sinner asking the Lord to remember him? The Lord Jesus is the Coming One even now. Will we respond like the blind man and cry out to Him for mercy? Or like the mockers beneath the Cross and even in the cross of our own death continue to mock Him whose power has transformed the grave into a cradle of new birth? Such things are for the here and now and they require our action here and now. This is why Scripture’s theological anthropology – its teaching on human kind – is geared toward that one goal; our salvation. This is why the blind man, the criminals on their crosses on Calverie, and many other figures from Scripture are speaking of us – you and me – in a mystery. It is of the utmost importance therefore that we learn to read Scripture rightly. In this the Anglican Breviary is a great help.

Fr. Gregory +

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