It will not have escaped the users of the Anglican Breviary that there is an order to the Scripture readings for Matins. The cycle of readings begins by following the cycle of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ with the Prophet Isaiah. This is important. What it drives home for us right from the beginning of our engagement with Scripture is that the entire Bible speaks about Jesus Christ. We do not first and foremost engage the Bible so we can learn a thing or two about the ancient history of Israel. Rather we read the Bible to learn something about God’s dealing with us through and in Jesus Christ. The Church starts off with Isaiah and it is this Old Testament Prophet that is understood to be prophesying concerning Jesus Christ! Advent – the coming – therefore speaks concerning the coming of Jesus Christ in His birth, in our hearts by faith, and in the Second Coming at the end of time. The second part of the Church year begins to read the stories of the Kings of Israel, and the third and last cycle of readings concerns itself with the prophet Ezekiel (which speaks of the earthly kingdom having run its course and being fulfilled in the arrival of God’s Kingdom). This division in three parts is a remarkable fit with the three stages of Christian spirituality: praktike – knowing and practicing God’s commandments; physike – knowing God by mediation (primarily the spiritual reading of Scripture); theologike – direct, intimate, and unmediated knowledge of God. This division of three is itself, however, a further subdivision of praktike and gnostike (the latter is composed of physike and theologike).
Knowledge and Practice of God’s Commandments
The readings that characterize the time after Trinity are not designed to teach us about the life of Jesus Christ from birth to His resurrection. Rather after Trinity we begin to read concerning the effects of the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in our lives. First we read of the Kings. It speaks toward the Kingdom of God which Jesus tells us is within. Building God’s Kingdom is therefore an ascetic discipline. But build how? By the same means the Kings are told to establish and build their kingdoms: by obediently receiving and performing God’s commandments. One might object that the Law (or Pentateuch) deals with the law rather than the books of kings. It is here that modern, critical, scholarship has produced some interesting results!
As it turns out, the books concerning the kings of Israel (Samuel, Kings, etc) are Deuteronomic. That is, these books show the mindset of whoever authored the Book of Deuteronomy! Knowledge and practice of the law of God is how and where the building of God’s kingdom must begin. This is also the classic understanding of Christian spirituality. A Christian life begins with the basic building blocks: knowledge and practice of God’s commandments. This is, of course, not merely a knowledge of rules. For in the Christian understanding knowledge and practice of God’s laws imply and provides a certain knowledge of the Lawgiver – of God!
Wisdom – knowing God through intermediaries
From August onward the stories of the Kings is rather abruptly brought to an end and the Wisdom books begin to be read. Users of the Breviary will be familiar with the fact that the Matins readings suddenly begin to be counted after the months rather than the Sundays after Trinity. This too is not without significance. Christian spirituality consists of two components: 1. praktike and 2. gnostike. When the readings cease to be counted according to the Sundays, but begin to be counted according to the months we enter a different stage of spiritual life that of gnostike. The somewhat sudden break and change in how readings are to be classified indicates this transition from the practice of the commandments (assuming this foundation has been laid), to spiritual knowledge. The emphasis is now no longer on achieving the required purity of heart by which one is enabled to know God, but on having achieved it, the emphasis is on actually knowing God.
First this knowledge of God is mediated. That means it is indirect. We learn to communicate with God by means of Scripture as well as by means of discerning His purposes with creation itself. All Christians can achieve at least this stage of maturity. How could that be? Not merely by one’s own efforts to be sure. In the previous stage we have found that we are not strong enough to consistently perform God’s commandments – nay, we do not even know what His commandments are! We have come to rely on God’s revelation and on His grace to give us strength. God’s grace has in fact refined us like a fire refines silver and gold. Purity of heart is not achieved by strength of character, will, or effort so much as it is achieved by learning to cooperate with God’s love or us. For God’s love in us, transforms us to love Him back. Once we begin to love Him back with the very love with which he loves us, we find that it s no longer hard or difficult to obey Him and perform His commandments. For we are attracted to what we love, we desire it. Love has brought us to the turning point from learning to love (praktike) to being in love (spiritual knowledge). Love opens up entirely new dimensions of the stories in the Bible, it peels back like an onion the layers of the depths in creation … we are seeing things, become aware of God’s presence in them in a new and utterly surprising way. We become aware of the Bible as a letter written to us by God, and we even become aware of creation itself as being such a letter!
Ezekiel – unmediated knowledge of God
Toward the end of the year we begin to read Ezekiel and various other prophets. We retain the counting of the readings according to the months for there is not another “break” to be accomplished. We have already moved from learning to love (praktike) to being in love (gnostike). We do however enter a new level of spiritual knowledge: direct, intimate, and unmediated knowledge of God. This “stage” is not often attained by us in this life. Though moments of such blissful union with God are recounted by the Christian Mystics throughout the ages. This new stage theologike is not a technique, not a method, and cannot be attained by our own strength. As we see in the life of the mystics, this stage is given by God at a time and in a manner He sees fit. In he eschaton – after Christ has returned – all will be included in this intimate knowledge of God. This is the purpose for which we were created. The eschatological vision laid out in Ezekiel liturgically moves us from physike to theologike so that in the Liturgy the Ultimate Blessedness becomes – in some sense – available for all to taste.
Advent – beginnings
The reading of Ezekiel and the other prophets is not often completed because the season of Advent usually comes in before we are done with this cycle of prophetic readings. This interruption beautifully illustrates the reality of the uncompleteness of our spiritual journey. With Advent we return to the basics: sitting at Jesus’ feet until we have come to His Passion and Resurrection. We have begun the Church year as Mary, have learned when to become as Martha, and are now returning to being like Mary once more. This repetition, year by year, is the way in which the Holy Spirit matures and molds Christians.
This liturgical method of spiritual growth makes the liturgy a kind of “spiritual father or mother” and those of us not lucky enough to have access to a good spiritual director ought to be pay all the more attention to the Paraclete as He speaks to us in the liturgy He has inspired (and thereby given us). No-one is without spiritual direction. Or perhaps I should say no-one should lack spiritual direction. The traditional liturgy is God’s providence in action. It is therefore all the more important that our liturgy be traditional and – as it were – tested by time and experience – rather than new, creative, and based on pastoral needs and current scholarly fashion. Whenever we find the traditional liturgy no longer meaningful to us (such as the Reformes of the 16th century did) it is us rather than the liturgy that is the problem. We have become deaf. It is not the liturgy that has stopped speaking. What is required is certainly reformation and renewal! But not of the liturgy … Rather it is we that need to be reformed by means of the (traditional) liturgy and so become renewed in the image of Creator.
Fr. Gregory Wassen