Breviary Readings ~ Passiontide (ii)

Continued from a previous post

We have already mentioned that the Anglican Breviary and Origen – and here he is representative of the early Fathers/Mothers of the Church – read Scipture on more than the mere literal or surface level. The literal/surface is not discared but there is a push to go deeper.

The passage of Jeremiah from last Sunday’s reading has served as a reminder of God’s certain judgment on sin and the possibility of salvation by God’s grace if we repent. Origen derived this meaning from the way the history of the prophet Jeremiah is written on our behalf. All Scripture, Origen is likely to affirm with me, is written on our behalf.

The verses we are about to consider continue the passage from the Breviary which Origen happened to have exegeted. The verses are often applied to Jesus Christ and Jeremiah both, but not without problems as Origen notes.

4Then the word of the LORD came unto me, saying,

5Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.

6Then said I, Ah, Lord GOD! behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child.

7But the LORD said unto me, Say not, I am a child: for thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee, and whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak.

8Be not afraid of their faces: for I am with thee to deliver thee, saith the LORD.

9Then the LORD put forth his hand, and touched my mouth. And the LORD said unto me, Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth.

10See, I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant.

It is not difficult – on behalf of his Divinity – to understand how it could be said of Jesus that God knew Him before He was formed in the belly of his Mother. To understand how this could said of Jeremiah is more problematic. It is not challenging to understand how it could be said of Jeremiah that  he cannot speak because he is a child, but how this passage is to be understood as speaking of Jesus Christ is problematic. How can he who was eternally with God the Father be an ignorant child? And also what does it mean to destry and to build? What did Jeremiah and Jesus destroy and build? These questions Origen sets out to answer by reading deeper.

First of all Origen agrees to the main principle which ought to determine our reading: “Jeremiah in such passages is a prefigure of the Savior (Homilies on Jeremiah, Hom. 1; 6,2. ).” As far as the difficulties in reading the passage in that way Origen says:

The Person of good sense, however, will find it very troublesome in the context, when he realizes that it is senseless to separate ina series of statements words said either to Jeremiah or to the Savior, and state that these do not belong to Christ but to Jeremiah since they are less than appropriate for Christ, and that these, being greater than Jeremiah, do not belong to Jeremiah but to Christ. Let us refer to the whole context then to Jeremiah, and explain what seems to be greater than Jeremiah (Hom., on Jer., 1; 6, 3).

God, says Origen, begins to know different people at different times not because of a lack in the absoluteness of his knowledge, but due to the relation in which each persons stands toward Him. One who lives in sin is in that sense not known by God and God only begins to know (indicating intimacy rather than information) a person at conversion:

I will even use his [Jesus’] own voice testifying that he does not know some things. To those who supposedly say to him: “Is it not in your name that we have cast out demons and we did many mighty works?” he replies: “Depart from me, for I never Knew you.” Does what is said here by the Savior, “I never knew you,” diminish his power? Or does it suggest something greater and more admirable, since he did not know the inferior and lost ones? For he knew what is distinguished and superior, and the Lord “knew his own,” and, “if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.” Hence the sinner is not recognized by God (Hom., on Jer., 1; 8,2).

The problem with regard to the text as it applies to Jeremiah and Jesus Christ is solved by looking at what other Scriptural passages say. There is not surface level connection in the narrative of Jeremiah and that of the Gospel, but there is a thematic one. Origen perceives that we are dealing with the question how God knows us and what that knowing means. It is no problem to assert of Jeremiah – he is after all a creature – that his knowledge has limits. But to assert such a thing of Jesus Christ is a problem that needs to be solved. Origen solves it by placing reading the Old Testament text allegorically in the light of Jesus’ own words about how it is that He knows us. The conclusion is that “God does not recognize the sinner.” Which is to say that sinners are not in a right relation with Jesus Christ (God).

Again it is not troublesome to assert that Jeremiah, as a child, does not know how to (cannot) speak. Jeremiah, as a creature needs to learn such things. But how can the same be true of the Lord?

He says then, “I do not know how to speak.” I know some things greater than speaking, I know some things greater than this human voice. Do you wish that I speak to men? I have not yhet adopted human speech; I have your dialect, O God, and am your Word, O God; with you I know how to converse with men, “I do not know how to speak for I am a youth (Hom., 1, 8,6).”

Again it is perfectly reasonable that a creature does not know how to speak when it is a child. But how it is that the Word of God could not speak is more difficult to grasp. But, says Origen, if we consider who Jesus is we will find the answer to this also. Jesus, as the Word of God, knows divine speech because He is like the Father: God. His inability to speak human speech underlines that Jesus Christ is the divine Word of God incarnate. Only after the Word has put on human flesh can He speak human words. The text of Jeremiah still refers to both Jeremiah the Prophet and Jesus the divine Savior.

When we come to “before I formed you in the womb” it is not difficult to understand how this refers to the Word of God. But it must be explained with regard to Jeremiah. The latter, being a creature, did not exist until he was born from his mother’s womb. Such is the way of creatures. Or is it?

You need to set many things right in order that God may begin to know you. For he knew Jeremiah before being formed in the womb, but another he may begin to know after he has lived thirty years, another after he has lived forty years (Hom., on Jer., 1; 10,5).

If the reader is thinking of Origen’s famed theory of pre-existence and fall you are certainly not the first. Yet all Origen is really saying here is that the normal course of things is that God gets to know people once they set things right with God. It is not problematic that God fore-knows Jeremiah in a different sense, but to know Jeremiah as to have had a relationship with him is problematic for those to whom Origen’s famed theory is a forbidden fruit. But let us read a little further:

How can he say: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you appeared from your mother, I sanctified you?” God sanctifies some people for himself. He did not await this person so that he could sanctify him after he was born, but he had already sanctified him before he appeared from his mother. If you apply this to the Savior there is no difficulty saying that he was sanctified before he was born: he was sanctified not only before he appeared, but he was also sanctified prior to this. But Jeremiah himself was sanctified before he appeared from his mother (Hom., on Jer., 11).

Origen’s famed theory of pre-existence and fall postulates that pre-incarnate (or rather dis-incarnate) souls sinned and were clothed with flesh as a result of this sin. Here however Origen asserts that if he foreknew Jeremiah as a pre-incarnate soul he apparently did not sin in this pre-incarnate state but is born on our behalf. God sanctifies Jeremiah in his mother’s womb. There is no hint here of a fall from a pre-incarnate state. All that is asserted by Origen is that the Savior is sanctified from his very eternal generation, and that Jeremiah – being a creature – is sanctified while in his mother’s womb. It is tempting perhaps to fill in imaginary blanks in Origen’s narrative so as to supply the theory often ascribed to him, but it has no place here. So here too Origen solves the apparent problem of the text and Jeremiah’s function as a pre-figure of Christ by staying with the text and refelcting on who Jesus Christ is in His eternal godhead and his creaturely manhood, and who Jeremiah is as a creature.

The way Origen, the early Christians, and the Anglican Breviary parse the divine Scriptures is therefore far from fancifull. It has a clear and consistent purpose, but unlike “modernist” readings they do not require a strict speculative historical reading. Patristic reading of Scripture is an in depth reading rather than speculation at and about the surface of the text or behind the text.

Fr. Gregory Wassen +


About Father Gregory

I am an Anglican Catholic Priest, currently residing in Orvelte, the Netherlands.
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