Transfiguration

Transfiguration

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) We all know this verse pertains the Incarnation of our Lord. But how many of us ever considered it as St John retelling the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor (Mark 9; Matt 17)?

Christ takes Peter, James, and his brother John (the very John who wrote the Gospel account) up the mountain. There they see Christ transfigured, with Moses and Elijah standing next to Him. Then a cloud appears above them and a voice says, “This is my beloved Son: hear Him.” (Mark 9:7; Matt 17:5) So what does this have to do with John 1:14 and how is that verse a telling of the Feast of the Transfiguration?

On John 1:14, St Theophylact of Ochrid has this to say:

Because he had said, The Word became flesh, here he adds, and we beheld His glory, that is to say, “While He was in the flesh, we beheld His glory.” The Israelites had been unable to look upon the face of Moses when it shone with glory after he spoke with God. [See Ex. 34:29-35.] Could the Apostles possibly have been able to endure the full divinity of the Only-begotten, had it not been revealed to them through the veil of the flesh? We beheld His glory, but not such glory as Moses’ face reflected, nor as the glory in which the cherubim and seraphim appeared to the prophet [Ezek. 10:4], but such glory as befits the Only-begotten Son of the Father, and belonging to Him by nature. Here, the word as does not express similarity [i.e. glory similar to that of the Only-begotten], but, instead, certain and unambiguous identity.” ~St Theophylact of Ochrid, commentary on the Gospel of John

As we will see soon, St Theophylact supports our case. The glory which St John says he beheld in John 1:14 is that which he beheld on Mount Tabor. But St Theophylact uses this opportunity to draw out old testament references by mentioning Moses and Ezekiel, to compare just how much they pale in comparison to what was experienced on Mount Tabor. Ezekiel 10:4 is rather compelling when taken in light of the Transfiguration, which reads:

Then the glory of the Lord went up from the cherub, and stood over the threshold of the house; and the house was filled with the cloud, and the court was full of the brightness of the Lord’s glory.” (Ezekiel 10:4) The parallels are alarming. Although Ezekiel’s vision happens in a house and not on a mountain, both nonetheless involve a cloud and the brightness of the Lord’s glory. There are some things to mention here about house and courts and what they symbolize. However, I’m going to back us up a few verses.

Then I looked, and, behold, in the firmament that was above the head of the cherubims there appeared over them as it were a sapphire stone, as the appearance of the likeness of a throne.” (Ezekiel 10:1) As spoken of in Separation of the Waters, the waters above and below the firmament symbol the nous and soul. If we need more support that this verse is speaking about the nous, explore the meaning of sapphire. Sapphire is a symbol of the purified intellect according to Evagrius of Pontus:

When the intellect [nous] has shed its fallen state and acquired the state of grace, then during prayer it will see its own nature like a sapphire or the color of heaven. In Scripture this is called the realm of God that was seen by the elders on Mount Sinai.” ~Evagrius of Pontus, Texts on Discrimination in Respect of Passions and Thought, #18, Philokalia vol 1

Take a quick glance back at the icon the Transfiguration (above), and you’ll notice now the giant sapphire behind our Lord. This depiction of a sapphire, both shape and color, is very common across all the icons of the Transfiguration.

And he spake unto the man clothed with linen, and said, Go in between the wheels, even under the cherub, and fill thine hand with coals of fire from between the cherubims, and scatter them over the city. And he went in in my sight.” (Ezek 10:2) Going under the cherub is a reference to when St Paul says, “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death,” (Heb 2:7;9), so the man clothed with linen is Jesus Christ. Going between the wheels could be going between the two worlds, heaven and earth, which are circles, in the form of the cross, unifying both. But, some may object to this because there are four wheels. If this does not satisfy you, let us continue with our symbolic rendering of Man, body, soul, and nous.

If Ezekiel 10:1 symbolically refers to the nous, that of sapphire being wisdom and intellect, then the four wheels in 10:2 which the Lord goes between are the four rivers which flow from Eden and as such point to the soul, as we see found in Genesis 2:10: “And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads.

You have read, then, that a fount was there and that ‘a river rose in Eden,’ [ Gen 2:10 ] that is, in your soul there exists a fount. This is the meaning of Solomon’s words: ‘Drink water out of thy own cistern and the streams of thy own well.’ [ Prov 5:15 ] This refers to the fount which rose out of that well-tilled soul, full of pleasant things, this fount which irrigates Paradise, that is to say, the soul’s virtues that blossom because of their eminent merits.” ~St Ambrose of Milan, commentary on Genesis

We are still not yet ready to address house and court in verse 4. To ensure our case, let us look at how the preceding events to the house was filled with the cloud, and the court was full of the brightness of the Lord’s glory. In Ezekiel 8, Ezekiel is told to go to the door of the court of the Lord and dig a hole in the wall. (vs 7-8) In verse 9, Ezekiel is told that all kinds of abominations rest there.

Then in vs 11-16 Ezekiel witness three types of evils in successive order of wickedness. These three types of wickedness are none other than the passions of the three aspects of the soul: desiring, incensive, intelligent.

The things which are done in the dark (vs 12), hoping the Lord will not see: “The sins of the desiring aspect are gluttony, greed, drunkenness, unchastity (fornication), adultery, uncleanliness, licentiousness.” These are the passions which we do hoping no one will notice.

And those done to make women weep (vs 14): “…heartlessness, hatred, lack of compassion, rancor, envy, murder…” If this befuddles you, how women weeping is a symbol of a lack of compassion and the others, remember that St Paul says, “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.” (Eph 5:25; Col 3:19)

And those done by turning one’s back on the temple of the Lord (vs 16): “The sins of the intelligent aspect are unbelief, heresy, folly, blasphemy, ingratitude, and the assent to sins originating in the soul’s passable aspect.

As we can see, it could be said that the heart is the court which Ezekiel saw full of all kinds of wickedness and abomination. Remembering the words of St Makarios: As we can see, it could be said that …

The heart is a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are lions; there are poisonous beasts and all treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace–all things are there.”  

The cloud enters the house, that is, the cloud as symbol of spiritual contemplation, enters the intellect through the grace of the Holy Spirit. When the house is filled with the cloud, when the intellect is full of spiritual contemplation of God, the Lord’s glory shines in the court, or, the heart. If this bothers you, remember the words of St Paul: “What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?” (1 Cor 6:19)

A final word: the lead up (Ezekiel 8) to the prefigure of the Transfiguration in Ezekiel 10 dealing with the passions of the three aspects of the soul highlights a deep truth about the Transfiguration itself. The Transfiguration is about us and what we must do to see the Lord Transfigured. In order to see the Lord’s Transfiguration, Ss Peter, James, and John had success in the struggle against all three levels of the passions: intelligent, incensive, and desiring. So what am I saying?

Notice that in St John’s telling of the Transfiguration he does not say, “And the Lord glorified Himself before us.” It clearly says, “And we beheld His glory.” For St John, the Transfiguration is something that always is, and what we must struggle to witness by purifying the whole of our soul’s passion. If this was not so, how could St Theophylact have said:

But all that Christ said and did is full of truth, for Christ Himself is Grace and Truth, and He bestowed these things on others. Where did they behold His glory? Perhaps some will think that the disciples did so on Mount Tabor when He was transfigured. This is true, but not on the mountain only, but in everything that the Lord spoke and did, they beheld His glory.” ~St Theophylact of Ochrid, commentary on the Gospel of John

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The Centurion

Intellect and HeartNow when the centurion saw what was done, he glorified God, saying, Certainly this was a righteous man.” (Luke 23:47) Continuing now with the intellect and the heart, we return again to the Gospel of Luke and the centurion recognizing the crucified Lord as Lord in the eclipse. Remembering the words of St Makarios from On Intellect and Heart, and using them as symbol for the eclipse at the crucifixion, that is, the eclipse is our sinful passions, the centurion becomes a physical witness of what we previously discussed: the crucified Lord residing side by side with our sinful passions in our heart. St Ephraim the Syrian has some pertinent symbolic exegesis on this event:

Jesus’ kinsfolk stood far off so that [the word of the psalmist] might be fulfilled: “My neighbors stood far off.” They killed him before the sabbath, while there was opportunity for death, and before the sabbath they buried him, while there was place for mourning. For the sabbath itself is the boundary mark for toil, and on it all distress must remain [hidden] within. There is no place for suffering on it, and neither has it any share in corruption.” ~Commentary on Tatian’s Diatessaron

The Sabbath is rest from the passions or suffering under the corrupting influence of sin leading to death. In the spiritual Sabbath the nous reattains its impassibility – rest and repose in the stability of its cleansed, although inherent, divine image. About the centurion and the Jews standing there, St Cyril of Alexandria says this:

When the centurion saw what happened, he glorified God. He said, “Truly this man was righteous.” Please observe that immediately after Christ endured the passion on the cross for us, he began to win many to the knowledge of the truth. It says, “When he saw what happened, the centurion glorified God saying, ‘Truly this man was righteous.’ ” Certain Jews also beat their chests, because their consciences doubtlessly pricked them. Their mind’s eye looked up to the Lord.” ~Commentary on the Gospel of Luke

St Cyril is speaking of the nous-their minds eye. It is easy to assume St Cyril’s words-Their minds eye looked up to the Lord-only references the Jews who beat their breast. However, we must attribute this line to the centurion also, for otherwise how would he have recognized the Lord, i.e. used his intellectual (noetic) faculty? I do not say that the centurion used merely his rational faculty, but truly used his intellectual (noetic) faculty. Why?

What is the rational faculty? Reason, mind (dianoia): the discursive, conceptualizing and logical faculty in man, the function of which is to draw conclusions or formulate concepts deriving from data provided either by revelation or spiritual knowledge or by sense observation. (Glossary, Philokalia vol 1)

This certainly sounds reasonable. Couldn’t the centurion have simply deduced that the innocent man on the cross whose death brought about the eclipse was the Son of God (Mark 15:39; Matt 27:45)? Well, no.

Intellect (nous): the highest faculty in man, through which – provided it is purified – he knows God by means of direct apprehension or spiritual perception. Unlike the dianoia (Reason-above)…it [intellect] understands divine truth by means of immediate experience, intuition or ‘simple cognition’. (Glossary, Philokalia vol 1)

The centurion sees Christ truly as the Son of God, which we know from the Lord’s words Himself is only revealed from the Father: “And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. (Matt 16:17) Our Lord is telling St Peter here that it isn’t because St Peter pieced together data from other sources, and rationally concluded that Christ is the Lord. St Peter had this revealed directly from God; St Peter had a direct, immediate experience.

This is why I say that the centurion is using his intellectual (noetic) faculty. The centurion, in proclaiming the crucified Lord as Son of God, is having a “St Peter moment,” a similar proclamation as referenced in Matthew 16. In order for him to do this, it must be a revelation from God. The centurion recognizes the Lord in the eclipse: that is, the eclipse is a symbol of the intellectual (noetic) faculty. Though it is darkened with the passions, the centurion nonetheless noetically sees the Lord.

One could then ask: does this mean the centurion’s intellect (nous) is purified? To some extent, yes! To further discuss this, let us delve, only a little, into the patristic understanding of the passions, and their associating aspect in the soul.

In the Orthodox Church we are typically introduced to the passions through the the eight central passions. They are as follows: Gluttony, Fornication, Greed, Despair, Anger, Listlessness, Vainglory, and Pride. Though we tend to articulate them in these eight categories, in truth there are many, limitless even, passions. But this is a rather common way to introduce the Orthodox faithful to the passions, and to begin combating them. Not suggesting this is a bad or weak method, however, I want to look at a different, unfortunately rarely spoken of, division of the passions, by discussing where they arise in the soul.

The soul has three aspects, a tripartite division: the intelligent (to logistikon), the incensive (to thymikon), and the desiring (to epithymitikon) aspect. Yes, this is Platonic and found in The Republic. It’s also found in St John of Damaskos, “On the Virtues and the Vices,” Philokalia vol 2. I will work backwards, starting from the desiring:

The sins of the desiring aspect are gluttony, greed, drunkenness, unchastity (fornication), adultery, uncleanliness, licentiousness …” ~St John of Damaskos. Those of the incensive are: “…heartlessness, hatred, lack of compassion, rancor, envy, murder…” ~St John of Damaskos. Anger and wrath are also associated with the incensive power or aspect.

Of the passions, when we prepare for confession, I’m going to wager the majority of us focus on what has just been discussed: we were angry, we were spiteful, we were greedy, we were promiscuous, and so forth. So what of the intellect?

Are there truly passions associated with the intellectual faculty of the soul? It is true that the desiring and incensive aspects are referred to as the souls “passable” aspect, while the intellect is not truly termed as such. However, the intellect (nous) is nonetheless susceptible to passion. St John of Damaskos continues:

The sins of the intelligent aspect are unbelief, heresy, folly, blasphemy, ingratitude, and the assent to sins originating in the soul’s passable aspect.” ~On the Virtues and Vices, Philokalia vol 2

These are the sins of the intellectual faculty, the highest faculty of the soul. In a sense, these are the “highest” or “most grave” passions, since they affect the highest faculty in man, the nous.

Does a purified nous, even if only purified in a very limited way, mean that that person can never be wrong, or to use a favored Latin term, that person has become “infallible”? What is the proper patristic response to those who teach, both truthfully and falsely?

But if anyone believes, is persuaded by and concurs with the saints and does not ‘make excuses to justify sin’ (Ps 141:4 LXX) and if although ignorant of the manner of the mystery does not because of his ignorance reject what is clearly proclaimed, let him not refuse to inquire and learn from those who do possess knowledge.” ~The Declaration of the Holy Mountain in Defense of Those who Devoutly Practice a Life of Stillness

Here is the perfect safeguard of our intellect to fend off the intelligible passions both against disregarding true teaching, and accepting false teaching. First, we are persuaded and concur with the saints! We protect against the intelligible passions through obedience to the teaching of the Fathers. And like unto it, even if ignorant of a topic, as long as we do not reject what is clearly proclaimed by the Fathers, we guard against intelligible pride, like the Pharisees, putting our rational understanding ahead of what has been revealed and taught from the beginning.

And so we return to the centurion, to the Jews, and to the quote of St Ephraim and its explanation above:

The Jews who called for Christ’s crucifixion had sunk to relying on a lower faculty of man, reason (dianoia), merely deducing that Christ could not be God, because they were not contemplating His words noetically (John 9:41). Their stubborn proclamation of heresy and blasphemy allowed their intellect (nous) to assent to the lower aspects associating passions, the desiring and incensive, in the form of anger, wrath, and ultimately murder.

By contrast, the centurion, in some mystical way granted by God, is able to contemplate the crucifixion and the eclipse noetically, (to see the crucified Lord side by side his sinful passions, i.e. the symbolic eclipse as muddled nous/heart). He partakes as much as he is able in the Sabbath rest of the Lord, resting from his desiring and incensive passions. In doing so, the centurion has gained, to some degree, illumination which could be spoken of as the momentary stability, the Sabbath rest, of the intellectual (noetic) faculty.

 

On Intellect & Heart

Eclipse

I am sure, for most of you, in your discussions and reading about Orthodox theology all of you have at one point or another come upon that podcast or article warning you not to be “too legalistic” when reading the Fathers. Similarly, there is bandied about this idea that one can “know theology” yet miss the point of the Gospel. At the center of these two statements is promoted this idea of a distinction between the intellect (nous) and the heart, with a desire to “keep theology in one’s heart” vs. being too overly intellectual. But does this harshly rigid distinction between intellect and heart exist?

In the exegesis of Psalm 145 (LXX), we discussed the symbolism behind Christ giving up His Spirit. There is a key sentence of this account in the Gospel of Luke which suits our discussion at hand: “Then the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was torn in two.” ~Luke 23:45

The symbolism is rather striking. The sun (light, brilliance, revelation, knowledge) is darkened at the crucifixion. We’re going to shelve this symbolism for now, but do not forget it, for we will come back to it at the end to tie everything together.

From the beginning, we must emphatically state that any and all persons who want to sentimentalize the faith, and make theology anywhere remotely sentimental, grossly misunderstand the Fathers and the Patristic usage of such terms intellect (nous) and heart. If by heart, those who say not to be “too legalistic” mean anything remotely emotional, a type of “emotionalism,” well, our only response can be that the Christian life is about achieving dispassion, which is, quite frankly, the opposite of our modern understanding of being “emotional”.

(Note: Please do not fall into the standard misconception of interpreting this Orthodox understanding of dispassion in terms of the English word “apathy” — that is completely misleading. Dispassion does not, in fact, mean to be “devoid of human feeling”, but instead to cease to be governed by all the warring emotions and feelings that run rampant within us, but rather to have those passible and highly mutable aspects of our inner life be placed into a transformative subjection to the rightly ordered spiritual intellect or nous, namely the mind that is unwaveringly obedient to Jesus Christ. With that in mind, let us continue.)

Conversely to the false “emotionalism”, and yet on the opposite side of the same coin, is a type of false “intellectualism,” a type of academic accumulation of mere data points, without perceiving the Gospel noetically. Our Lord mentions this, saying, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, ‘We see.’ Therefore your sin remains.” (John 9:41) Here the Pharisees were not perceiving the words of our Lord noetically. They were unable to perceive their sin because they were not using their ‘intellect’ or ‘nous’ (ie the spiritual “eye” of the heart — the spiritual organ of “sight”) to see, but rather for some mere intellectualism.

So how are the terms intellect (nous) and heart (kardia) to be understood? How do the Fathers use these terms?

The heart is the mystical and hidden chamber of the mind, or in other words, the soul, as we said in the beginning.” ~St Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain

St Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain was one of the two compilers of the Philokalia for the laity. Here, St Nicodemos relates the heart directly with the mind (i.e. the nous or intellect) and says that the heart is both mystical and hidden, (tuck that away on the same shelf where we put Christ being revealed in darkness). Like this saying by St Nicodemos, it is often said that “the nous is the eye of the soul.”

In his treatise on the heart, St Dimitri of Rostov not only talks of the heart in intimate proximity with the mind, but he also equates the two when he symbolically renders ‘praying in secret’ (Matt 6:6) as follows: “The closet is twofold, outer and inner, material and spiritual: the material place is of wood or stone, the spiritual closet is the heart or mind.” Like St Nicodemos above, St Dimitri here speaks of the heart as something distinct from that of any material place (namely, as a spiritual closet) and as something more in alignment with a hidden or mystical “place”.  

This all begs the question: how do we gain access to our heart? We gain access to the heart through our proper use of the “eye of the heart”, the intellect (the nous)! It is through the proper use of our intellectual or noetic faculty that we gain access to our heart, which is why the Fathers are constantly telling us to be noetically or mentally on guard — in order to protect our thoughts. For, we must train our intellect to be mindful, to be attentive. We must exercise intellectual watchfulness. Ss. Isaac the Syrian, Nicodemos the Holy Mountain, and Dimitri of Rostov, elucidate:

A muddled intellect cannot avoid forgetfulness, and wisdom does not open her door before it.” St Isaac the Syrian, Homily 5 (Syriac reads: “A distracted heart cannot avoid going astray…”). I have included the translation from the Syriac (where it says “distracted heart”) alongside the translation from the Greek (where it says “muddled intellect”) to highlight just how intimately the monastic Orthodox Greek translators were able even, at times, to equate heart and intellect, with one other. Think here, also, of the words of King Solomon from the book of Proverbs in the Old Testament: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” (Proverbs 23:7) Thinking and the heart are not unrelated in the least.

This fact is rather common among the Syrian Fathers and is something to always keep in mind when reading St Isaac the Syrian. For, he can, while writing from within the Syriac tradition of expression, use the term “heart” in such a manner as to be found equivalent at that point to the concept found within the Greek tradition’s verbal usage of “nous” or “intellect”.

St Isaac, however, is never speaking of some emotional, sentimental “heart”. Rather, keeping in mind the words of St Nicodemos, St Isaac is perfectly aligned, speaking of the heart as the mystical center of Man. This also shows that it is utterly impossible to know theology and somehow miss the point of the Gospel, for wisdom does not open her door…before a muddled intellect (ie a distracted heart)!

Later St Isaac continues with precisely how one properly arrays their intellect:

Without non-possessiveness, the soul cannot be freed from the turmoil of thoughts; and without stillness of senses, she will not perceive peace of mind. Without entering into temptations, no man will ever gain the wisdom of the Spirit; and without assiduous reading, he will know no refinement of thoughts.” St Isaac the Syrian, Homily 5

Notice just how closely St. Isaac, above, relates to the concepts of soul, mind, wisdom, and thoughts, and how King Solomon has closely related the heart to one’s thinking, and, as we will now see in the next two quotations, how St. Nicodemos and St. Dimitri closely relate the heart with various thoughts that enter there or are collected there.

One must be more vigilant to guard his heart from evil thoughts and passions than to guard his sense from external and harmful influences.” ~St Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, Guarding the Mind and the Heart

 

Training, then, must also be twofold, outer and inner: outer in reading books, inner in thoughts of God; outer in love of wisdom, inner in love of God; outer in words, inner in prayer; outer in keenness of intellect, inner in warmth of spirit; outer in technique, inner in vision…Wherever man is, his heart is always with him, and so, having collected his thoughts inside his heart [emphasis mine], he can shut himself in and pray to God in secret, whether he be talking or listening, whether among few or many people…Man needs to enclose himself in the inner closet of his heart more often than he need go to church: and collecting all his thoughts there, he must place his mind before God, praying to him in secret with all warmth of spirit and with living faith.” ~St Dimitri Rostov, The Inner Closet of the Heart

All three of these Saints align. All three speak of purifying our thoughts as the entrance into the heart. It is precisely through the appropriate use of our intellect, of our mind, of our nous, by reading (of both Scripture and the Fathers), through attentiveness and mindfulness, that we participate synergistically in prayer of the mind in the heart. After all, isn’t this what the Greek word metanoia (repentance) actually means: To change one’s mind (nous)?

How do we know if what we’re looking at is truly our heart and not a sentimental false idol? What exactly is in our heart? I started this paper with symbolic exegesis of Luke 23:45, of finding Christ in the darkness. This is a key component when looking to the Saints who have achieved success at purifying their intellect and seeing into their heart.

The heart is a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are lions; there are poisonous beasts and all treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace–all things are there.” ~St Macarius the Great

This all begs the question: how can God and sin exist in the same place? How can the baptized Orthodox Christian, cleansed of all sin and having put on Christ, still have dragons, lions, and poisonous beasts dwelling side by side within his heart?

As we have said, from the instant we are baptized, grace is hidden in the depths of the intellect, concealing its presence even from the perception of the intellect itself. When someone begins, however, to love God with full resolve, then, in a mysterious way, by means of intellectual perception, grace communicates something of its riches to his soul. Then, if he really wants to hold fast to this discovery, he joyfully starts longing to be rid of all his temporal goods, so as to acquire the field in which he has found the hidden treasure of life (Matt 13:44). This is because, when someone rids himself of all worldly riches, he discovers the place where the grace of God is hidden. For as the soul advances, divine grace more and more reveals itself to the intellect.” ~St Diadochos of Photiki, saying #77, Philokalia vol 1

Let’s now overlay what St Diadochos says about the baptized heart, keeping in mind St Macarius’ words as well, with the symbolic rendering of the darkening of the sun at the crucifixion. The baptized Orthodox Christian has truly put on Christ at their baptism. Christ now dwells, mystically, at the center of their heart, which, in turn, is the mystical center of each individual man.

But remember carefully St Paul’s words about what exactly we put on at baptism: Christ’s death. Christ dwells in our hearts, crucified. The darkening of the sun (of light, brilliance, revelation, and knowledge; Luke 23:45) are our sinful thoughts and actions, which like a cloud covering the whole earth and eclipsing the natural sun, cloud our intellection, our mind, from seeing Christ crucified in ourselves. I am deeply reminded of St Ephraim’s symbolic exegesis of the tree of life being hidden behind or within the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, as previously spoken about in the article Christ in the Garden.  

So purifying our nous, our intellection, and guarding our thoughts (those things that can enter into, or can dwell within, our heart) is not only for seeing outwardly, but also for seeing inwardly, and why the Fathers are so adamant in speaking about this.

For the saying is true, Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God!

 

Psalm 145 (LXX)

CrucifixionSo when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And bowing His head, He gave up His spirit.” (John 19:30) The story of the crucifixion is well known to us. But what of this part of Christ giving up His spirit? How is this particular act, that of Christ giving up His spirit, foreshadowed in the Old Testament, and what might any foreshadowing tell us about the Church? We will rely heavily on psalm 145 (LXX) sung during the Typica, a part of the service in the Slavonic tradition right before the little entrance. While I will discuss the whole psalm starting from the beginning, the reason I am discussing it at all in relation to Christ giving up His spirit is the importance of verse four, which speaks to the spirit of the dead going forth, and man’s burial.

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul! While I live I will praise the Lord; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.” (vs 1-2) Right away we are struck with the adulation of this psalm. To praise the Lord has a rather specific symbolic meaning for our Christian lives, which I am saving to go into greater detail in a future piece.

Notice, however, how quickly this adulation turns to command and to warning. Not only are we, in essence commanded, to praise the Lord while I live but we are told we can only praise the Lord while we have our being. After we die we will no longer have the ability to praise the Lord. And we see that this warning continues in verse three:

Do not put your trust in princes, in the sons of men, in whom there is no help.” (vs 3) This verse is rather self evident. Our trust, our hope, is not in the sons of men, in a son of Adam, who will eventually die, but only in the Lord our God in Whom we find salvation Who is everlasting. The warning continues into verse four:

His spirit shall go forth, and he shall return again to his earth; In that day all his thoughts shall perish.” (vs 4) While clearly speaking to the princes and sons of men in verse three and how their spirits will eventually leave them, they will perish, and our hope in them failing, verse four also symbolically speaks to our Lord’s crucifixion (John 19:30 above) and resurrection, while at the same time foreshadowing the birth of the Church, and the Final Judgment.

As quoted above, Christ utters, “It is finished!” and then gives up His spirit. Along the same lines as vs 4 of psalm 145, Christ has truly died, and is buried (return again to his earth), as a Man. But we all know that Christ returned in yet a different way, after giving up His spirit, to His earth: in the resurrection. Christ gives up His spirit and dies. But He returns again in the glory of His resurrection.

At Pentecost we celebrate the sending forth of the Spirit (His spirit shall go forth) upon the Apostles and the birth of the Church. God’s Spirit, the Heavenly King and Third Person of the Trinity, has gone forth upon the world as the guide of the Church. The Spirit of the Lord being sent forth at the birth of the Church gives us yet a third way in which our Lord shall return again to his earth: in the Final Judgment. His spirit has gone forth to guide His Church upon His Earth, awaiting His final return.

To not throw us into despair at the thought of the Final Judgment, psalm 145 takes a sharp turn with verse five, and beckons us to rejoice in the creation of the Church:

Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help, Whose hope is in the Lord his God,” (vs 5). This speaks directly to failed hope in sons of men, and to the coming joy we receive upon entering the Church where salvation is found! One can only wonder if also, knowing Christ would die on the cross, the Spirit did not purposefully foreshadow this verse to bring comfort to the Apostles during those three days prior to the resurrection.  

Who made heaven and earth, The sea, and all that is in them; Who preserves truth forever,” (vs 6). A literal creational verse. But why does this verse not just merely say made heaven and earth but adds the sea? Remember what was discussed in Polyeleos on the creation narrative, that there is a compass on the face of the deep (Proverbs 8:27) to guide our way. Having just spoken of the creation of the Church, here the sea is giving us a choice, to either repent and to follow the compass towards the Church and our salvation, or not.

The sea has more connotations, particularly since the verse continues: and all that is in them. In a number of articles, including The Blindness of Adam & Knowing the Shepherd, it was shown how the waters above and below the firmament symbolize nous and soul, the mixture of which births the virtues. The seas are this mixture, and all that is in them are the virtues. We can, then, read verse six as the creation of Man, body, soul, and nous endowed with the power to create the virtues.

Verse six ends with, “Who preserves truth forever.” John 14:6 reads: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Those who participate in the creation of the virtues, who are grafted into the tree of life, into the Church, are grafted into Christ who is the Vine; Christ, Who is Truth, preserves those who abide in Him forever.

Who executes justice for the oppressed, Who gives food to the hungry. The Lord gives freedom to the prisoners.” (vs 7) As spoken in my article on the atonement, Divine Justice is described this way:

But further, Almighty God is celebrated as justice, as distributing things suitable to all, both due measure, and beauty, and good order, and arrangement, and marking out all distributions and orders for each, according to that which truly is the most just limit, and as being Cause for all of the free action of each. For the Divine Justice arranges and disposes all things, and preserving all things unmingled and unconfused, from all, gives to all existing beings things convenient for each, according to the due falling to each existing thing.” ~St. Dionysios the Areopagite, Divine Names, Caput 8.7

We, under the curse of the transgression, are the oppressed. The Justice which God executes for us on our behalf is the birth, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the founding of His Church. The food which He will give us is His flesh (John 6:51), for we are hungry, our seas are empty; we are void of the virtues. Through our initiation into the Church and participation in Her mysteries, we are able to cultivate the virtues, to “fill” our sea, which ultimately provides freedom from our slave masters: the passions.

The Lord opens the eyes of the blind; The Lord raises up the fallen; The Lord loves the righteous.” (vs 8)

Verse eight goes in rapid succession, but they are common stories: that of the man born blind, the paralytic, and the Samaritan woman at the well. Much has already been written on these three central healings from the Gospel of John, and I invite you all to revisit those articles for reference. There are a number of verses in the psalter which mimic psalm 145 vs 8 (LXX) clearly foreshadowing these three healings in the Gospel of John. But it is here, in this position, because these are the physical and spiritual freedoms which we receive by participation in the Church and from the Lord. Combined, these three healings cover healing the whole of Man, body, soul, and nous.

The Lord watches over the strangers; He relieves the fatherless and widow; But the way of the wicked He turns upside down.” (vs 9) Psalm 145 returns to the atonement theme. The strangers are us, who are estranged from God through our sin. We all are also the fatherless, with Eve being the widow. Adam died a spiritual death in the Garden of Eden, thus failing to fulfill his role as high priest of creation, and leaving us fatherless. But God, watching over us, has given us the power to become Sons of God and having God as our Father. (John 1:12-13) In some translations the verse reads: He shall adopt for Himself the orphan and the widow; This rendering makes this point even more clear. 

As previously just discussed, Divine Justice is the proper ordering of the cosmos. Turning the wicked upside down is returning to the natural order of creation, and a clear atonement message.

The Lord shall reign forever— Your God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the Lord!” (vs 10) Verse ten bookends the psalm as it began, with praise and adulation. However, this praise at the end is very different from the praise at the beginning. At the beginning there is praise for our creation. But as we work through the psalm we discover that the praise at the end is due to our salvation and reunification with God. Originally we asked ourselves if there was any symbolic meaning behind Christ giving up His spirit. At the end, we discover the foreshadowing of the Church and our salvation. For the saying is true: He has purchased the Church with His blood. (Act 20:28)

 

Knowing The Shepherd

To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice.” (John 10:3) The story of Christ The Good Shepherd is well known to us. It is also, unfortunately, well known to us how non-Orthodox traditions use John 10 to support predestination of the saved, of being chosen by God to be in Christ’s “flock.” But is that what the parable of The Good Shepherd is about?

In Light for the Blind Man it was shown how the healing of the blind man (John 9) symbolically represents the first day of creation. In Separation of the Waters it was shown how the man born blind washing his newly fashioned eyes symbolically represents the second day of creation, while in The Blindness of Adam it was discussed how the waters on the second day of creation are symbol of Man’s nous and soul, the union of which produces the virtues and allows Man to fulfill the likeness in which God created us. It ultimately becomes clear that the first three days of creation are a mystical foreshadowing of the creation of tripartite man.

If the healing of the blind man mystically represents the first day of creation, we could say that the healing of the woman at the well (John 4), a healing about the woman’s soul, mystically represents the second day of creation, the separation of us from our sins, and the cleansing of our souls. The paralytic then (John 5), a healing of the flesh, mystically represents the third day, when the waters are separated revealing dryland suitable for all kinds of vegetation, which we know to be symbol of the virtues created by the nous and soul.

The healings of the woman at the well and the paralytic may seem like a tangent, until we see the themes being woven in their stories. The healing of Man, of Adam, is not only of the flesh, or of the soul, or of the nous. It is the healing of the totality of Man. In Our Lord’s Passion at the Well her previous five husbands mystically represent the first five days of creation, with the man she is with now (John 4:18), her “sixth” husband, representing Adam and her partaking in the fall of mankind. Christ then represents her “seventh” husband, who will bring her into the rest of His Sabbath. This same motif is found in the paralytic, laying at five porches (the first five days of creation) with himself, paralyzed with sin, being Adam and the sixth day, and Christ being the Lord of the Sabbath, which is even referenced by the man being told to pick up his mat and walk. (John 5:8)

Returning to the woman at the well, we read:

I sent you to reap that whereon ye bestowed no labour: other men laboured, and ye are entered into their labours.” (John 4:38) In his commentary on the Gospel of John, St Theophylact of Ohrid says:

Now he begins to reveal clearly to His disciples the meaning of what He had said before in riddles. “You say,” meaning, you think, “that the harvest,” namely, the material harvest, “is coming in four months. But I say to you, the noetic harvest is here already.” He said this in reference to the Samaritans who were just then approaching Him. “Therefore lift up your eyes, both noetic and physical, and behold the multitude of approaching Samaritans and the souls eager and ready to believe, which are like fields white for the harvest.

St Theophylact goes on to say that the prophets planted the seeds, the Apostles reaped, so that both may rejoice together. I want to offer another symbolic interpretation, of One who planted, and others who reap the rewards of that planting.

But Jesus answered them, My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.” (John 5:17) The Father is always working. The Father’s labor is the creation of the world. And we, His creation, enter, literally, into His labor. And His labor is this: tripartite Man. We enter into this labor, as beings given flesh, soul, and nous (intellect), with the ability to create the virtues, which is reaping where we did not sow. (John 4:38) God sowed there, so that the saying is true, one plants, another reaps. And the sower and the reaper rejoice together, for heaven rejoices at one who repents and lives. (Luke 15:7)

Continuing the symbol of reaping and sowing, in The Blindness of Adam it was discussed how irrigation language is symbol for the union of nous with soul. This, coupled with the symbol of the labors of this union as creation of the virtues, is found throughout the psalter. St Augustine explains:

They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.” Psalm 125:5 LXX

For the next words are, “They that sow in tears, shall reap in joy”(ver. 5). In this life, which is full of tears, let us sow. What shall we sow? Good works. Works of mercy are our seeds: of which seeds the Apostle saith, “Let us not be weary in well doing; for in due season we shall reap if we faint not.” ~St Augustine, commentary on psalm 125, vs 5-6, LXX

As in St Gregory of Tours and St Gregory Palamas before, we see this idea of sowing and reaping referring to good works, otherwise known as the virtues. To solidify this symbol of sowing tears and reaping joy, ponder this: tears flow down, much like the waters above, with the waters below, and irrigate the face. Our struggle to attain the virtues, that is our tears, are what waters our flesh, that suitable dryland, so that we may reap the joy of the virtues. St Cyril of Alexandria, in his commentary on the Good Shepherd (John 10), follows this verbiage:

Likewise also through Him comes the rain of blessing, that is, the first-fruits of the Spirit, making as it were a fruitful land of the soul in which it dwells.” This fruitful land in which the soul dwells is our flesh.

But our Lord does not merely say that His sheep know His voice, but that He also knows His sheep, for He says, I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.” (John 10:14) St Gregory the Dialogist, Pope of Rome, offers this explanation:

As if He said, I love My sheep, and they love and follow Me. For he who loves not the truth, is as yet very far from knowing it. And I lay down My life for My sheep. As if to say, This is why I know My Father, and am known by the Father, because I lay down My life for My sheep; i.e. by My love for My sheep, to show how much I love My Father.

If the creation of the virtues is being made according to Our Likeness (Gen 1:26), then certainly this is how the righteous hear and recognize the voice of The Good Shepherd. And this is how the righteous come to both know and be known by the Lord. We participate synergistically with God: God plants in us the ability to create the virtues as we reap, that is, by participation in manifesting the virtues. Through manifesting virtue we become more like Christ, become more recognizable as Christ’s sheep, and more able to recognize Christ ourselves. As St Anthony says, “I no longer fear God, but I love Him.”

God gives life to those who live according to the Word, and he shares himself with them: I mean both angels and humans. Yet for those who live like beasts: he continues to preserve only their existence, but he is not shared by them.” ~St Anastasios, Hexaemeron

St Peter Chrysologus ends his sermon on The Good Shepherd with this sentence, which I felt fitting to end this piece:

What the toiling sower does not see in his seed he will see in the harvest; and he who weeps while he sows in the furrow will have great joy in the fruit.

The Blindness Of Adam

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth.” (John 9:1) The details of this story are, of course, well known to us. However, there are layers of symbolism here worth exploring. From the outset we can say he is no different than any other passer by in first century Judea. We could also rightly say that he is each and every one of us, broken, blind and in need of healing, and of salvation. We could, however, take the blind man as symbol for another who was blind from birth, not because of his sin, nor his parents sin, but so that the works of God should be made manifest in him: Adam.

From the outset we will set some boundaries. Adam is the first Man. He has no parents and until the time of his first transgression, he has no personal sin. We must also state at the outset that the Fathers of the Church instruct us that the creation of Adam’s flesh is simultaneous with the inbreathing of his soul. While this piece will be speaking of the creation of Adam’s flesh apart from the inbreathing of his soul, we need to suspend rigid, literal thought, in order to embrace a deeper symbolic meaning of the passage.

As previously discussed Christ fashions “seeing” eyes for the blind man. This is so the blind man could know He is the Word and Son of God, through Whom all things were made. Our Lord spitting on the mud is a symbol of breathing forth the Spirit at Pentecost, which hovered on the waters, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. These are all symbol of God inbreathing the dust of Adam with a living soul. (Gen 2:7) It is well documented that subsequent to the fall, humanity cannot see God. But it was also true for Adam prior to the fall, that God remained hidden, until God revealed Himself.

For it seemed that the greatness of God so far surpassed the mental powers of His handiwork, that however far the limited mind of man might strain in the hazardous effort to define Him, the gap was not lessened between the finite nature which struggled and the boundless infinity that lay beyond its ken [beyond our understanding].” ~St Hilary of Poitiers, De Trinitate

We’ve already discussed Christ fashioning the eyes as the first day of creation, and the blind man washing his newly fashioned eyes as the washing away of the waters, that is the second day. It’s time to take the next step and understand how God reveals Himself to us who are spiritually blind, unable to approach His ineffable essence.

And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day. (Gen 1:7-8) This is the second day of creation, which we discussed in Separation of the Waters as “our sins are swept away, revealing the earth, and all kinds of suitable vegetation.” Yet as with most symbols, there is another way of interpreting the waters, highlighting each stage of water, that is those above and below the firmament, and adding in the dry land, all of which combined as symbol of tripartite Man.

Typically the Orthodox Church employs speaking about Man in a dipartite, or “of two parties,” way. That is, composition of Body and Soul. There is another way, known as tripartite or “of three parties.” Tripartite Man is more detailed and nuanced, a composition of three parts: Body, Soul, and Nous. Recall that in Light for the blind man, it was explained that nous pertains to intellection, that faculty which apprehends spiritual realities in a direct manner. (Intellection, Glossary, Philokalia vol 1) We map tripartite Man with the second day, along with adding the third day, of creation. We have two different waters, one above, the other below, the firmament, which is heaven. That one is above heaven, the other below, is key. Angels are pure nous. They are pure intellection. Angels have neither a body nor a soul. Angels are also in heaven. The waters above the firmament can safely, therefore, be seen as a symbol of nous. That which exists below the heavens are not of the angels, so while still incorporeal, the waters below can be seen as a symbol for soul.

Dryland appears after God gathers the waters together on the third day of creation. The waters which previously just stood for nous and soul, in this case mean our drowning in ignorance, sin, and death, as found in Polyeleos. This “dryland” is Man’s flesh or body, our final component in the tripartite composition of Man. It is notable that this dryland is suitable for every kind of vegetation. We see just how important this detail is in that the Fathers are ripe with agricultural and irrigation symbolic verbiage, as seen below:

Among the seeds of eternal life which the heavenly sower, in the field of an untilled soul, irrigates with waters flowing from the divine source His precepts, and which he makes fertile by His doctrine, is the one in which He tells us: “He that doth not take up his cross and follow Me, is not worthy of Me.” ~St Gregory of Tours, Vita Patrum

As stated in Polyeleos, Dryland is important since dryland is barren until it is watered. Christ thus spits on the eyes (John 9:7), that is, He issues His Divine precepts, and creates “seeing” eyes in us. St Gregory the Dialogist explains:

By His spittle understand the savor of inward contemplation. It runs down from the head into the mouth, and gives us the taste of revelation from the Divine splendor even in this life. The mixture of His spittle with clay is the mixture of supernatural grace, even the contemplation of Himself with our carnal knowledge, to the soul’s enlightenment, and restoration of the human understanding from its original blindness. ~commentary on the Blind Man

By His Word He creates “living” matter, a body endowed with a living soul. But just how is the flesh irrigated? What is it about the tripartite man and the creation narrative that teaches us how this is accomplished? Quite simply, it is the union of the nous and soul; it is the union of the waters above with the waters below the firmament which symbolically rain down on the fertile dryland.

Woman symbolizes the soul engaged in ascetic practice; through union with it the Intellect [nous] begets the virtues.” ~St Thalassios the Libyan, 4 centuries On Love, 2nd century, #27, Philokalia vol 2

And we read in the Psalter:

Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine upon the walls of thine house; Thy children like newly-planted olives trees round about thy table.” Ps 127:3-4 LXX

These two quotes by St Thalassios and psalm 127 draw our attention to symbolic marital relations language: union, a fruitful wife, and of bearing children. And we discussed in Kidron Brook how olives, which are referred to as children in psalm 127, are a symbol of virtue. This is how Man begets virtue within himself.

This union of nous with soul produces the virtues; the union of the waters above, with the waters below, irrigates the dryland, that is our flesh, which has become suitable for all kinds of vegetation (i.e. the virtues). And God reveals this by His spittle, that is by way of the mouth. Whether by spitting, as is the case of the blind man, or by breathing, as is the case with that first inbreathing of a living soul with Adam (Gen 2:7) or at Pentecost when Christ breathed the Holy Spirit on the Apostles.

And he breathed into his nostrils,” that is to say, he placed in man some share of his own grace, in order that he might recognize likeness through likeness.” ~St Basil the Great, commentary on the Genesis

St Basil here leads us now to the idea that Tripartite Man, that is nous, soul, and body as one whole and concrete reality, is made in God’s image according to His likeness. (Gen 1:26) I have italicized likeness on purpose, because as also stated in Polyeleos, For a man is not merely who has hands and feet as a man, but who practices piety and virtue with boldness (~St John Chrysostom). This union of nous with soul to produce the virtues is what being according to Our Likeness (Gen 1:26) means. And it is this likeness, that is our ability to produce virtue within ourselves, which Man lost in the Garden. St Gregory Palamas explains:

Since the noetic and intelligent nature of the human soul alone possesses intellect, thought-form (logos) and life-generating spirit, it alone – more so than the bodiless angels – is created by God in His image. This image the soul possesses inalienably, even if it does not recognize its own dignity, or think and live in a manner worthy of the Creator’s image within it. After our forefather’s transgression in paradise through the tree, we suffered the death of our soul – which is the separation of the soul from God – prior to our bodily death; yet although we cast away our divine likeness, we did not lose our divine image.”  Topics of Natural and Theological Science and on the Moral and Ascetic Life, #39, Philokalia vol 4

If we return to the blind man however, doesn’t our Lord clearly state that it was neither his sin nor his parents sin that caused his blindness? (John 9:3) How do we negotiate what St Gregory Palamas says above with that the blind man’s blindness is not caused by sin? I am not bringing up St Gregory Palamas above as an argument against the blind man’s blindness being due to anyone’s sin. The first reason is to draw attention to the idea of the likeness being “cast away.” In order to be able to cast something away, it must first be in your possession. The second is to highlight that our being created according to God’s likeness is our ability to create the virtues, of which no other creature, not animal nor angel, is capable. St Gregory Palamas continues:

Thus when the soul renounces its attachment to inferior things and cleves through love to God and submits itself to Him through acts and modes of virtue, it is illuminated and made beautiful by God and is raised to a higher level, obeying His counsels and exhortations.” Ibid

We see now two saints, St Gregory of Tours and St Gregory Palamas, separated by close to a thousand years, saying the same thing: virtue is created by obedience to the doctrines and precepts of God, through our inalienable faculties, which is the union of nous with soul. This virtue is spoken of using agricultural and irrigation language, symbolizing the nous and soul as the waters both above and below the firmament which irrigate the dryland, our flesh: days two and three of the creation narrative.  

And although Adam lost the likeness due to his original disobedience, that light is returned to all of mankind when Christ fulfills that original temptation (Symbolism at the Kidron Brook). This is how the works of God are made manifest, for it is in virtue that we are given light as stated: in thy Light shall we see light. (Ps 35:10 LXX; Doxology)

From the Ikos for the Sunday of the man born blind :

That I may recount what the divine book of the Gospel of peace teaches: the miracle of the blind man; for being blind from birth he receives both physical eyes and eyes of the soul, as he cries: You are the radiant light of those in darkness.

Polyeleos (Ps 135 LXX)

Before we continue with our symbolic mapping of the man born blind, and because we are delving deeper into the Genesis creation narrative, let us shift our focus to that creation narrative. We are going to rely heavily on the Polyeleos (Ps 135 LXX), sung during the festal and Sunday Matins service, and use the Theophany icon as our guide.

The Theophany icon is separated into three main sections: the far right, center, and far left. On the far right we have the angels ministering to the Lord, who is being baptized in the center, with John the baptist, and sometimes Ss. Andrew the First-Called and John the Theologian behind him, on the far left. In some versions there is a bush with an axe, symbolizing the way St John will die. Above Christ is the Spirit descending like a dove, with fish below His feet.

You will see that each of these three sections will be discussed twice, as each aspect represents two distinct yet linked together days of creation. Days one, two, and three of creation mirror days four, five, and six. This is because God first creates the place. Then in the corresponding day He fills that previously made place with its suitable creature.

On the first day God said Let there be Light. He did not create the Light, as previously discussed. This is the Uncreated Light of His Glory, and also a symbol of the Logos Himself. In the icon, the Logos qua Logos can only be depicted as Incarnation (which is presented in the middle of the icon). So we are unable to present the Logos as pre-incarnate Logos in the icon. But we do have the angels, that is, the dwellers of heaven on the left side of the icon. And the Polyeleos records this mystically for us:

O give thanks unto the God of gods;  O give thanks to the Lord of lords (Ps 135:2-3) In the old testament, angels are often referred to as “gods.” This is especially true of the fallen angels, the demons, being referred to as “gods.” Both these statements, the creation of “gods” and “lords,” comes before verse 5: To him that by wisdom made the heavens. The psalmist has recorded the creation of angels prior to the creation of the heavens as a foreshadowing and symbol for both the first day of creation and the Logos, since the Logos is invisible and cannot be depicted, nor is the Logos created.

On the second day, God separated the waters from the waters, and places between them a firmament. This is the center of the Theophany icon. Christ is standing above waters, with the waters above, that is the natural sky.

On the third day, God brings forth dry land with all suitable kind of vegetation. This is the far left of the icon. It exemplifies why I prefer the Theophany icon with the bush and the axe, since the bush symbolically stands for the suitable kind of vegetation. That the land is “dryland” is not some inane detail either. Dryland is important since dryland is barren until it is watered. The Polyeleos continues its support with verse 6: To him that stretched out the earth above the waters, that is, God brought forth dry land.

Days four, five, and six God will fill their corresponding day (one, two, or three) with the suitable creature. On the first day there is Light, which can only mystically be represented by foreshadowing what will fill it, that is, the angels. And we see on the far right of the Theophany icon the angels ministering to the Lord. They now symbolically represent the created lights, the sun, moon, and fixed stars. The Polyeleos continues with verses 7-9: To him that made great lights (7); The sun to rule by day (8); The moon and stars to rule by night (9).

On day five, God fills the seas with fish and the skies with birds. The Theophany icon has fish, and the Spirit descending in the form of a dove. So the dove stands in for both the Holy Spirit and factual birds filling the skies. Here the Polyeleos takes a decidedly interesting turn: To him that smote Egypt in their firstborn. (vs 10)

Egypt is a symbol of hades, of sin, and of death. And as discussed previously with the Light created for the blind man, washing in the pool of Siloam, the separation of the waters on the second day of creation, is a symbol of our ignorance, sin, and death. This opens, literally, the gateway for the creation of Man, which is the sixth day of creation. For a man is not merely who has hands and feet as a man, but who practices piety and virtue with boldness ~St John Chrysostom. Like the revelation of dry land after the separation of the waters, Man is revealed after the purgation of our ignorance, sin, and death.

What then is the smiting of the firstborn? Mark 11:21 records a curious case where the Lord smites and curses a fig tree. St Cyril of Jerusalem, in his catechetical lectures, records the fig leaf as symbolically representing our fallen nature, since the fig leaf was that which Adam and Eve clothed themselves with when they knew they were naked. The Lord cursing the fig leaf is the Lord cursing the curse of Adam.

If Egypt is a symbol of hades, of sin, and of death, then Egypt’s “firstborn” is the original disobedience of Adam in the Garden. Christ smites the firstborn of Egypt, that is the original disobedience of Adam; He places a curse on the curse; He smites death; He destroys death by death.  

And brought out Israel from among them. (vs 11) Christ is the firstborn of a new creation. This new creation is not like that of Egypt, of ignorance, of sin, and of death. This new creation is of God. He washes our sins away in the waters of His baptism. We have now come back to the middle of the Theophany icon, to Christ, and to the day the Lord rested from His work: the seventh day.

From here we will focus the rest primarily from the Polyeleos. We will see that some of the rest of this psalm is simply repeating themes, but there is some valuable new information as well. With a strong hand, and with a stretched out arm. (vs 12) There are a number of symbolic understandings of this verse, but I will focus in on only two. The most poignant time when God using His hand is mentioned comes in Exodus with Moses on mount Sinai.

And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a cleft of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by. (Ex 33:22) Here Moses has begged the Lord to allow him to see Him. And so, with a stretched out arm, the Lord covers Moses face and passes by. But this Exodus verse gives us our second symbolic meaning behind stretched out arm, when it says, I will put thee in the cleft of the rock. The cleft of the rock is the symbol of Adam’s side where the rib was taken to form Eve. This makes this resurrectional, since the rib of Adam which formed Eve, is a symbol of the Theotokos who will bring about Man’s salvation, that is, the birth of our Lord. This is a second symbolic understanding of verse 12 in the Polyeleos.

Verses 13-15 are a retelling of the Exodus story, and repeating the mystical telling of the passion of our Lord, of the harrowing of hades, and of our salvation. While also being a retelling of the Exodus story, verse 16 To him which led his people through the wilderness, speaks to what was previously discussed about darkness on the face of the deep. (Gen 1:2)

If darkness and ignorance are on the face of the depth, then led his people through the wilderness is God leading His people out of ignorance and out of hades, that is another telling of day six to day seven, and of fallen man to the baptism of Christ and restoration of mankind. I am reminded of this verse from Proverbs: When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth. (Proverbs: 8:27)

Having already discussed how verses 2 & 3, the God of gods and Lord of lords, is a telling of the angels and fallen angels, the demons, verses 17-20 are a retelling of how God overthrows the demons. The great and famous kings and Sihon and Og symbolically represent the principal’s and powers of this world, that is, the demons.

And gave their land for an heritage. (vs 21) If the great and famous kings stand for the fallen angels, then their land is where they dwell: heaven. Heaven is given to the righteous. This is the final day of “creation,” the eighth day. Even an heritage unto Israel his servant (vs 22) continues the idea of Israel as Adam and sixth day of creation (vs 11 above), but also of God’s servants, who have put on the wedding garment of Christ’s baptism, that is, Theophany.

The remaining verses of the Polyeleos are symbolically self evident, redeeming us from our sins (vs 23-24), giving us the Eucharist (vs 25), and general thanksgiving (vs 26). But I want to finish this thought by quoting a different psalm which is also read at vigil, specifically vespers, which is psalm 103.

Psalm 103: 10 LXX

between the mountains will the waters run.

If we map the overarching visual of the Theophany icon, we have Christ in the center with the rising mountains on both left and right. Between these mountains will the waters of Christ’s baptism run. This mapping may come as a reminder, since I’ve discussed it before. In Symbolism of Kidron Brook, I discussed how Christ comes down from the Temple, the mountain on the left of the “Trinity” icon, descends into the Kidron valley, in the center of the “Trinity” icon, and ascends into the Garden of Gethsemane, which is the mountain on the right side of the “Trinity” icon.

The overarching visuals of the Theophany and “Trinity” icons are precisely the same. As Alcuin of York stated, Christ descends into the Kidron Brook, to drink the brook of His passion. This is also Christ descending into the waters at His baptism, as St Paul tells us that which we must do: we are united into His death, in the hope of being united into His Resurrection.

I have brought up psalm 103 not only to help map the Theophany icon, but since is read at vespers, like the Polyeleos read at Matins, which both liturgically happen prior to the Divine Liturgy. Both of these psalms, Polyeleos read at Matins, psalm 103 read at Vespers, are read at services which play with both light and dark, day and night, that is “creational” imagery. In the Byzantine tradition, Matins, that is the imagery of “day and night,” bleeds into the Divine Liturgy, that mystical service of only light, the Divine Liturgy being mystically the eighth day of creation, when the priest shouts:

Glory to thee who has shown us the Light!

Separation of the Waters

Having just discussed the healing of the blind man as symbolic map of the first day of creation, let us return to the blind man, him washing his face, and this as continuation of the creation narrative in Genesis.

And said unto him, Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.” (John 9:7) Much commentary on this verse is rooted in how the man does not question the command, but immediately goes to wash. While not ignoring this instruction and lesson of humility, let us, rather, continue our symbolic journey alongside the creation narrative. Christ has fashioned a pair of eyes for the man born blind, that in a symbolic way is understood as “heaven and earth,” and now tells him to wash, that is covering these bodies by water. Let us take a quick moment to discuss the waters.

“then over us would have gone the raging waters.” – Psalms 123:5, LXX

In his commentary on psalm 123:5 LXX, St Augustine says:

Hence He, our Head, first drinketh, of whom it is said in the Psalms, “He shall drink of the torrent in the way: therefore shall He lift up His head.” For our Head is already exalted, because He drank of the torrent by the way; for our Lord hath suffered.

And elsewhere he says:

Let us consider Him drinking of the brook in the way: first of all, what is the brook? the onward flow of human mortality: for as a brook is gathered together by the rain, overflows, roars, runs, and by running runs down, that is, has finished its course; so is all this course of mortality. commentary on psalm 110, LXX

And we read in the Pentecostarion for the Sunday of the Man born blind:

Of the Blind Man. The Irmos.

O Lord, make firm my heart shaken by the waves of life, as God guiding it to a fair haven.

We see the waters as a symbol of ignorance and suffering. Water forms waves which, like temptation, crash on us and rock our foundations. St Augustine uses the waters as a symbol of our mortality, of our passability, that is mutability to suffering, and death. This is also precisely what Christ takes upon Himself both at His Incarnation, and in His Passion, that is, our humanity, our suffering, and the curse of the transgression: death.

We must, here, acknowledge that there are simultaneously other symbolic meanings to “the waters,” and by no means are we trying to be literal or fundamentalist in our usage of the symbol of water. We can most definitely interpret the waters as a type of baptism, as a type of cleansing, and rightfully so!

But let us return and map this symbolic understanding of waters, that of ignorance, suffering, and death, with our previous thought of the healing of the man born blind as creation narrative. Christ first fashions “seeing” eyes for the blind man, that is heaven and earth, what is known as the first day of creation. The Spirit of God hovered above the waters which raged over the earth. There was no dry land to bear life, for all was drowned under the ignorance and darkness of sin.

And so we can rightly say that the blind man going to wash, that is his eyes symbolically standing for heaven and earth, is God separating the waters on the second day.

And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” (Gen 1:6) This is the man washing his eyes, this is God washing the two worlds which He created.

And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.” (Gen 1:9) Christ has come into the world as Man. He has drunk the brook of our mortality, He has gathered together our suffering, and He has separated them from us. (Gen 1:6) But He has not merely drunk the brook of our mortality, culminating in His Passion, but He has washed the world that it may be lifted up, therefore shall He lift up His head, exalted as His gift to God the Father.

By the washing of the man’s eyes, we see again how Christ does not merely give him eyes but also “seeing” eyes, that is, the Lord “opens” the spiritual sight of the man. This is in direct opposition to Adam and Eve unlawfully partaking of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, who were tricked about opening their eyes, but fell into darkness, ignorance, and sin. What is it that the man is now capable of seeing with this new “spiritual” sight? Jesus Christ as the Word and Son of God, through Whom all things were made!

From the Pentecostarion for the Sunday of the man born blind, Ode 5. troparia

Having opened the eyes of one who had not seen the natural light, you enlightened the pupils of his soul and led him to give glory when he recognised you as maker, through compassion seen as a mortal.

Now that the waters have dispersed, now that our carnal eyesight has been cleansed that we may see not only natural light but also see spiritually with “seeing” eyes, we recognize Jesus Christ, the God-Man, as creator of the universe. This is, as St Anastasios says, the good existence. The waters of our sins are swept away, revealing the earth, and all kinds of suitable vegetation. Now we see Christ is risen from the dead!

From the Pentecostarion for the Sunday of the man born blind, Ode 3. Troparia 

Now all things are filled with light, both heaven and earth and those beneath the earth: so let all creation sing Christ’s rising, by which it is established.

 

Light For The Blind Man

Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” (John 9:3) Having already discussed our Lord’s passion at the well, and our spiritually paralyzed souls, let us move to discuss the healing of the man born blind, and why this healing, more so than the other two previously mentioned, manifests “the works of God.” What works of God are being manifested other than the healing itself? Before discussing the healing itself, let us examine how we got to this point.

Prior to this healing, Christ has made two statements in chapter eight revealing that He is God. The more obvious of the two is when He refers to Himself as “I AM.” (John 8:58) But there is another, almost missed due to its supreme subtly, which I want to highlight.

Are you the Messiah? I am the same as I have told you from the -beginning-” (John 8:25) I have bracketed beginning for emphasis. This is a clear creational statement. Christ is saying, “I am He who formed the heavens and the earth. I am He who was in the beginning.”

“So in the Gospel, in answer to those who were inquiring of Him ‘Who art thou? He replied: ‘I am the beginning, I who speak with you. All this was that you might know that He gave to all created things their beginnings and that He is the Creator of the world.” ~St Ambrose of Milan, Hexaemeron

When he had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay” (John 9:6) Though not apparent in this translation, we must emphatically state here that Christ did not merely heal this man’s previously formed, yet unseeing, eyes. Christ fashioned entirely new eyeballs. He physically creates a pair, that is two, of seeing eyes. I say “seeing” because He not only made the pair of eyes, He gave the man vision. St Theophylact of Ohrid, in his commentary on this, states:

Earlier He announced, in so many words, “I am He Who formed Adam,” offending His listeners; now He demonstrates with an irrefutable deed the truth of that proclamation. Jesus created eyes for the blind man out of clay, just as He had done for Adam. He did not merely fashion the eyes, or open them, but gave them vision. This proves that it was He Who breathed the soul into Adam. Without the soul being present to impart its divine energy, even a perfectly formed eye would see nothing.

Let us do a symbolic rendering, then, of this healing, underlining it with the creation narrative, first looking at that narrative in Genesis.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” (Gen 1:1-2)

In the beginning the earth was formless and void. This is humanity without God, unfinished and empty, being disunited from the Divinity. And the darkness was on the face of the deep, for ignorance is the gateway into the abyss of sin and hades. I do not say that ignorance is sin, but that it is a gateway, the face of the deep. Ignorance leaves us sick for many years (John 5:5; The Paralyzed Soul), and though we bare the heat of the midday Sun, standing in the bright light of this world, we do not know who it is who is asking us a question. (John 4:9; Election at the Well)

Then God said, Let there be Light, that is, He brought forth His Son, who is the Light of the world, to come into the world and shine on all people. (John 1:9) Knowledge had come into the world. Illumination had sprung forth. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world. (John 9:5) This is the same Light which God first called forth, “Let there be Light.” (Gen 1:3) Note that it does not say, “And God made the light.” It says, “And there was Light,” because the Son of God is eternally begotten and not made. So God calls forth His Son to enlighten the world, which was covered by waters, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. This darkness was ignorance of God, of who had created the world out of nothing. And though He came to bring knowledge to those who were ignorant, we still did not know Him, nor were we able to receive Him. (John 1:10-11)

And so God divided the waters, that is, He spit on the two worlds (John 9:6) that they may come to be able to see Him. God creates two bodies, heaven and earth. He also creates for these bodies two types of beings capable of seeing God: Man, who is fashioned with “nous,” and the Angels who are pure “nous” or “noetic beings.” “Nous” or “noetic” pertains to intellection, that faculty which apprehends spiritual realities in a direct manner. (Intellection, Glossary, Philokalia vol 1) I happen to like the definition of the name Cherubim, “full of knowledge.”

Because neither could see Him, He fashioned them sight. And though one praised Him continually yet could still not see Him (the angels), He came in like manner to them who had forsaken Him and never praised Him (man). He did this, that, seeing Him in their manner they would come to believe, and bear as witness to them who before praised Him continually, yet could not see Him.

God, whom the angels had not seen before, was introduced to them by men. What an incomprehensible wonder! They had been praising with hymns their God, but they had not seen whom they were praising. The Thrones had been holding God aloft, but they had not seen whom they were carrying. And the angels with six wings and many eyes had been worshiping and glorifying him without a moment of silence, yet they had not perceived whom they were honoring. For this reason, while genuflecting, they longed, thirsted, prayed, and entreated to look upon the invisible, to see him who could not be seen, or to gaze upon him if only as in a cloudy mirror, or just to glimpse him and see whom they were adoring and hymning! But they could not. The divine essence was unapproachable and incomprehensible. ~St Anastasios of Sinai, Hexaemeron

Christ forms two eyes, that is, two bodies capable of sight. He does so by spitting on them, that is, revealing that they are covered by water. Spitting comes from the mouth, much like breathing does, so we can draw symbolic connections to Pentecost when Christ breaths the Spirit, which hovers on the waters, on the Apostles. But much like God giving but the power to become His children (John 1:12), Christ fashions not merely the capability, but the realisation of seeing Him, per the St Theophylact quote above. So we can right say that, though the angels themselves have been with God continually from the creation of the heavens, and though they be “full of knowledge,” they, too, have never seen God.

This He did to show His Glory. And God gathered the waters together, that is, our drowning in ignorance, sin and Hades, evaporated them in His Justice, that without the waters we may come to know Him who made us. And so our ignorance and sin evaporated and brought forth dry land, bearing every type of suitable and good vegetation. This was the good existence intended by God for those who lived in darkness. This is the illumination of the world.

 

Christ In The Garden

Let us continue our discussion on a symbolic exegesis of John 18. Prior to this, Christ has initiated the Apostles into many Mysteries, and at the start of John 18 Christ crosses Kidron brook and enters the garden, which we have come to know symbolically as the Garden of Eden. Christ has so far fulfilled Adam’s purpose as “high priest.” Now Judas, the betrayer, comes with a band of soldiers carrying torches, asking to find Jesus of Nazareth, so that Christ may fulfill the temptation of Adam.

Let us first look at Judas. Like how Satan comes to Adam in the garden to tempt him to partake of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Judas comes with a band of soldiers to trap Christ, who is the new Adam. “Now after the piece of bread, Satan entered him.” (John 13:27) Judas does not merely symbolize Satan here, as St. Cyril of Alexandria says in his commentary on the Gospel of John:

“For no longer has he [Judas] Satan merely as a counsellor, but he takes him now to be a master of his whole heart and absolute dominator of his thoughts, who was at first merely an advisor who whispered suggestions.”

Yet we have another example to further the symbolism of Judas as tempter and Satan. As Satan betrays Adam and Eve by mixing the truth, chopping it up and weaving in lies, Judas, too, chops up that which otherwise is virtuous, in order to mix it with the poison of betrayal.  

“It must be used I think by way of question, as if he arrests the traitor with a lover’s affection. He says, Betray you with a kiss? that is, do you inflict a wound with the pledge of love? with the instruments of peace do you impose death? a slave, do you betray your Lord; a disciple, your master; one chosen, Him who chose you?” ~St Ambrose of Milan, commentary on the Gospel of Luke

And so we come to Christ, not shrinking away from His captive, but coming out to meet him. (John 18:4) As just discussed Christ, being the new Adam, first fulfills Adam’s role as high priest, that of instituting the Mysteries. Now He must, in essence, undertake that first temptation, fulfilling Adam’s original disobedience with His perfect obedience to the commandment of God, thus restoring Adam to his original state in Himself.

“And behold the Man! Such a One there has never been, there is not, and there shall never be. But why did Christ become such a one? In order to keep the Law of God and His commandments, and so as to enter into battle with and conquer the devil.” ~St Symeon the New Theologian, The Sin of Adam, Chapter 3

What was the Law of God that Christ kept which Adam failed? “Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and to guard it.” (Gen 2:15) In his commentary on Genesis, St Ephraim the Syrian asks the question of what tilling would Adam have done when he had no tools? And what guarding could he have done if there were yet no thieves? St Ephraim says that the “tilling” and the “guarding” Adam did was to fulfill the commandment that had been commanded of him.

Yet Adam did not fulfill the commandment first set down by God. And so Christ must be subject to that which Adam first failed. Christ must keep that commandment which Adam did not. And the commandment is this, as St Gregory the Theologian says, “[God gave Adam] a law as a material for his free will to act on.” By offering, of His own Will, a perfect obedience and love to God, Christ “tills” and “guards” that first commandment of His Father. And He does so by posing a question to show the ignorance of His tempter.

Before Satan, in the form of Judas, and the soldiers can capture Christ, Jesus says, “Whom are you seeking?” It should be noted that Christ asks this question twice. This is to symbolize both the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. As there are two trees in the Garden of Eden, so Christ asks “Whom are you seeking?” twice symbolically referencing these two.

But, why didn’t Judas recognize Christ, having been with Him some three years? We cannot claim that it was dark, for the Evangelist says that they carried with them torches and lanterns. Even if their sight were compromised, couldn’t Judas have recognized Christ by His voice? What is the symbolic meaning behind why Judas and the soldiers do not recognize the Lord?

At first we can say that, Satan having entered Judas, and Satan not recognizing the Lord since the Lord did not initiate Satan into the Mystery of His Incarnation, Judas would not be able to recognize the Lord at this time either for Satan had become for Judas “a master of his whole heart and absolute dominator of his thoughts.” This is how Christ reveals the ignorance of those who have come to tempt Him. But in his commentary on Genesis, St Ephraim the Syrian offers an intriguing alternate way to symbolically understand this passage in the Gospel of John.

“God created the tree of life and hid it from Adam and Eve. This was so that the tree would not cause any great struggle with them by its beauty and thus double their agony. In addition, it was not right that they heed a commandment from Him who could not be seen for the sake of a reward that was before their eyes.” Commentary on Genesis, Section 2, (17), #4

Here we see our answer. Christ, who is Himself Life, as the tree of life, is hidden from the world. And so Satan comes in the same manner he did to Adam, as if by saying, “But when the vinedressers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.’” (Matt 21:38) Here Satan is posed with the Truth of partaking of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Here, Christ is that tree.

“Now when He said to them, ‘I am He,’ they drew back and fell to the ground.” (John 18:6)

“Why is this, that the Elect fall on their faces, the reprobate backward? Because everyone who falls back, sees not where he falls, whereas he who falls forward, sees where he falls. The wicked when they suffer loss in invisible things, are said to fall backward, because they do not see what is behind them: but the righteous, who of their own accord cast themselves down in temporal things, in order that they may rise in spiritual, fall as it were upon their faces, when with fear and repentance they humble themselves with their eyes open.” ~St Gregory The Dialogist, Pope of Rome, commentary on the Gospel of John

So here we see a visual representation of partaking of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The tree was surrounded by death. As St Ephraim the Syrian says:

“God withheld from Adam a single tree and set death around it, so that if Adam would not keep the law out of Love for the One who had set down the law, then at least the fear of death that was set around the tree would frighten him away from overstepping the law.” commentary on Genesis, section 2, (3)

If Adam had been obedient he would have fallen forward towards God. But since he was not obedient, he fell backwards, not knowing where he was going, both as a sign of not understanding the magnitude of his transgression, but also because death is a falling into non-being. Partaking of this tree was for the appropriate time, when God had taught Adam and Eve the proper understanding of good and evil. “The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was, according to my theory, contemplation, which is safe only for those who have reached maturity of habit to enter upon.” ~St Gregory the Theologian

Christ had already, immediately prior, taught the Apostles the proper education of good and evil through the institution of the Divine Mysteries. He brought them to that place where they “reached maturity of habit to enter upon.” Now it is time for Christ to reveal Himself as the tree of life, which, after partaking of the knowledge of good and evil, no longer remains hidden, but is open for the whole world to see.

“Then He asked them again, “Whom are you seeking?” (John 18:7) And so Christ, having first symbolically stood for and Mystically revealing the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that divine gateway to the hidden tree of life, reveals Himself now, Mystically, as the tree of life and source of life. Now He has fulfilled that first temptation while also revealing the way to eternal life.

“And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.” (Gen 3:22) Having transgressed that first law of God, if Adam and Eve partook of the fruit from the tree of life, they would have remained in their fallen state forever. This is why God placed them outside the garden, for how great a punishment would it be to remain in this state forever!

As previously stated, Christ taught the Apostles the proper understanding of good and evil. They can, now, partake of Christ, that is the tree of life, properly and be granted eternal life. But Judas, as well as those who accuse Christ, remain under the condemnation of that first disobedience. This is what Christ means when He says, “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” (John 5:28-29) As well as what St John means here when he speaks of God’s judgment, “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” (John 3:36)

And so we come to the final symbolic point on this passage. Christ has “tilled” and “guarded” the commandment of God, but He has also guarded the Apostles who remain in the garden. He has taken the temptation originally for us upon Himself, and by accepting it freely, He guards us from falling into it. If we “keep His word” and are found to have “Good” abiding in us, we partake of the tree of life, that being Christ, properly, and enjoy life eternal in that good and glorious state.