Reading and Being Read

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There is one experience (at least) of reading Scripture, there is another altogether different of being “read by Scripture.” Both are quite valid but very different things. Reading Scripture is, of course, something we do all the time – perhaps so much so that we rarely stop to think about what we are doing. It is never a simple gathering of facts (like reading a newspaper article), nor is it like reading a novel in which we are simply entertaining ourselves. Scripture exists as a peculiar writing and not because of theories that are frequently put forward in fundamentalist circles.

In those circles we can be told that the Scriptures are what they are because the writers were simply taking passive dictation. This would be a strange thing indeed and would make almost no sense of any of the Epistles. The Gospels demonstrate a clear shaping that is more than accident. The writers seem to know what they are doing.

Several postings back I noted that the Seventh Council stated that “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” In the theological writings that surrounded that council the “do with” was largely explained in terms of “representation.” When St. Theodore the Studite wrote about the Holy Icons he referred to them as “hypostatic representations,” that is, of representations of the “person,” rather than representations of the “substance” portrayed. That is, when we paint an icon we cannot portray the “Divinity” of someone (such as Christ), nor for that matter can we portray the “humanity” of someone, such as you or me.

Imagine if you will a painting entitled, “Humanity.” I suspect what you would get would be something only a committee spending someone else’s money could love. Humanity, as the substance, or being, that we all share together cannot be portrayed – only when it is actually presented in concrete form as “Peter,” or “Paul,” or someone else, are we able to see it.

Thus the icons were defended not because Christ became man, but because He became a man. There is a difference. By the same token it is not possible to speak in the abstract about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, without having said something that becomes dangerously general. St. Paul was quite clear about what he meant by “the Gospel of Christ.” Thus when we read the Gospel in the Church it is always, “The Gospel of Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ according to ….”  The witness of the Church is that we find the same Gospel in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, and other New Testament writers. One and the same gospel presented to us – though its presentation is neither photographic nor like a news account. The Gospel does with words what icons do with color (if I may flip the saying of the Fathers).

Learning to read the Scriptures as we would view an icon can be most helpful, particularly if you are trying to read them in a manner similar to the Church and not in a manner similar to the average televangelist. Listening to the Old Testament, we learn, in colors of slaughtered Amalekites to see the representation of Christ’s defeat of the hosts of evil (and so forth). Much more could and should be said about this in a later post.

But there is also the experience of “being read by the Scriptures.” This happens to us when we cease to be the master of the text, and the text seems to be the master of us. This is a reading in which the Scriptures are speaking the truth of my life, and not just about someone else. Before such a reading we fall down. I believe that this is just as important a reading as any other, perhaps more important than how we ourselves read.

There are portions of Scripture that were always meant to be heard in this manner. Thus the telling of the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea is not just about what God did for our fathers, but what God did for us.

I will sing unto the Lord for He hath triumphed gloriously the horse and rider thrown into the sea. The Lord is my God and I will praise Him, my Fathers’ God, and I will exalt Him!

When these verses are read on Holy Saturday I always feel a deep stirring within me. I know that this song is not about Egyptians but about death and hell and everything that Christ has drowned in the waters of baptism. I hear in them of my former slavery and of my present liberty, and thus of the uncompromising love of God.

Reading and being read. Both have their place – but I confess to preferring Scripture to read me – to read me completely out of the bondage of my life and into the glorious company of the saints in light.

10 Responses to “Reading and Being Read”

  1. fatherstephen Says:

    I found a picture of my good brother, the priest Justin Patterson, of St. Athanasius in Nicholasville, KY. A fitting icon of the reading of the Gospel in the Church.

  2. Jack Says:

    Father,

    I read this post very quicky, please forgive me. But, one thought occurred to me, is it not possible to claim that the Logos became one particular man in order to become all of man? Is an icon of someone perfected by grace not, in an important sense, another icon of the Word enfleshed? I think of the sometimes scandalous poems of St. Symeon the New Theologian, or the fact that St. Paul understood the nature of the Church to be the Word’s body. The flesh of that one man makes all men his flesh.

  3. fatherstephen Says:

    The caution in this vein in speak about icons (and therefore Scripture, too) was that it was not the principle of the incarnation that the Fathers cited, but that of “hypostatic representation,” something quite different. When the iconoclasts called the Eucharist the only true icon, the Fathers responded that the Eucharist is not an icon, it is the very Body and Blood.

  4. biblicalia » Blog Archive » Reading and Being Read Says:

    […] Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest who writes the Glory to God for All Things blog, beautifully expounds on the above. It fits well into the mystical reading of Scripture that several of us were recently […]

  5. Bob MacDonald Says:

    Thank you. You express both the particular and the necessary shift in point of view that teaches us something of our own particular dialogue. I like also to shift the meaning of the word ‘abstract’ to recognize its origin in abs-trahere – to draw out. So water can be drawn out from a particular well, or one human can be drawn out of fear into the presence of the Holy, so enabling the redrawing of the image. While there is no substitute for this participation, there is also the call to unity. I think this is what produces the danger in us of generalization, a too hasty reductionism.

  6. David Says:

    My wife asked me this weekend why we weren’t Orthodox. She’s been reading your blog for some time now. I won’t recount the entire conversation here, but one point I made was that all churches are people.

    We wouldn’t be lucky enough to have Fr Stephen as our priest. 🙂

    I’m sure the last thing you want is for someone to say they aren’t Orthodox because they couldn’t have a sacramental relationship with you. I assure you it’s not that (as you know we’ve discussed my troubles in the past). But it really is meant as a complement.

    Honey, if you read this, I hope you don’t mind me telling him.

    Another fantastic post Fr Stephen.

  7. fatherstephen Says:

    Thanks for the compliment – but there are much better priests than me. My wife (whose has a kind of unique relationship – she has to hear my sermons about three times as I prepare them – read the blog about 5 times, etc.) and goes to someone else for confession and direction (priests don’t hear their wives confessions normally). But when she speaks of Orthodoxy one of the things she mentions is being in communion with St. Seraphim, etc. The great saints of our hearts are Orthodox. All Churches are people, and even at St. Anne’s some will drive you crazy. In some cases I’m the very one who drives someone crazy. All of this, of course, is from God. How else are we to be saved? If Church were perfect where would be the struggle?

    Someone might retort that you can struggle anywhere. Of course you can. But within the Orthodox faith you struggle within the faith, strengthened by the sacraments, and bathed in the liturgical fullness of the faith. Your wife sounds like a very wise woman who is looking out for your best spiritual interests 🙂 You should listen to her!

  8. David Says:

    I listen to her often and greatly. I also am required to be my best when I’m with her. She doesn’t “demand” greatness from me, she “draws” greatness out of me.

  9. Fatherstephen Says:

    David,

    Then you are a blessed man. May God grant her many years and you as well!

  10. Jacob Says:

    Dixie today posted a book excerpt on a similar theme: Fr. Matta El-Maskeen on Reading the Holy Scriptures:

    There are two ways of reading [the Bible]:

    The first is when a man reads and puts himself and his mind in control of the text, trying to subject its meaning to his own understanding and then comparing it with the understanding of others.

    The second is when a man puts the text on a level above himself and tries to bring his mind into submission to its meaning, and even sets the text up as a judge over him, counting it as the highest criterion.

    The first way is suitable for any book in the world whether it be a work of science or of literature. The second is indispensable in reading the Bible. The first way gives man mastery over the world, which is his natural role. The second gives God mastery as the all-wise and all-powerful Creator.

    But if man confuses the roles of these two methods, he stands to lose from them both, for if he reads science and literature as he should read the Gospel, ho grows small in stature, his academic ability diminishes, and his dignity among the rest of creation dwindles.

    And if he reads the Bible as he should read science, he understands and feels God to be small, the divine being appears limited and his awesomeness fades. We acquire a false sense of our own superiority over divine things—the very same forbidden thing that Adam committed in the beginning.

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