Our Nearness to the Ancients
Few stories in Christian antiquity circulated as widely and as rapidly as Athanasius' telling of the life of Anthony, the fourth-century hermit of the Egyptian desert. Within a generation of Anthony's death, Augustine tells us,(1) the book had motivated countless Christians to take up the contemplative life in seclusion. The drama in Athanasius' narrative turned on a single moment in Anthony's youth.
Not six months after the death of his parents, he went according to custom to the Lord's house . . . He entered the church, and it happened the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven" [Mt 19:21]. Anthony, . . . as if the passage had been read on his account, went out immediately from the church, and gave the possessions of his forefathers to the villagers . . . All the rest that was movable he sold, and having got together much money he gave it to the poor, reserving a little, however, for his sister's sake . . . And again he went into the church, and he heard the Lord say in the Gospel, "do not be anxious about your life" [Mt 6:25]. He could stay no longer, but went out and gave those things also to the poor . . . he henceforth devoted himself outside his house to discipline.(2)
It is a rich passage for those who wish to understand the history of biblical interpretation. Athanasius' Life of Anthony made a profound impression on the greatest exegetes of the next generations: Augustine, Jerome, Rufinus, Evagrius. And the author himself, Athanasius, played a crucial role in the history of the formation of the New Testament canon.
For our purposes, though, the passage is important not so much because of its effects or its author, but because of the window it opens upon biblical interpretation in an early Christian community.
What we encounter in this episode is not merely evidence of a received text--two stories from Matthew's gospel--but also the very process of reception. Anthony's turning point came at the mid-third century, when the canon had not yet reached a final and universal form.
Athanasius shows us, here as elsewhere, that the ordinary place of biblical interpretation was the church, and the ordinary time was the liturgy. In the ancient world, the church's liturgy--its public, ritual worship--was the natural and supernatural habitat of the church's scriptures.
This was true not only of the Christian ekklesia (church), but also of the qahal (assembly) of ancient Israel, which proclaimed and chanted the scriptures in its liturgies of synagogue, temple, and home. Biblical religion was liturgical religion, and its sacred texts were primarily liturgical texts. This is what makes the witness of the church fathers so valuable for biblical studies. Christopher Hall speaks of the fathers' "hermeneutical proximity"--their interpretive nearness--to the biblical world. The overwhelming witness of the fathers and the rabbis is not an accumulation of the conclusions of scientific exegesis, but rather a great mass of liturgical sermons, catechetical lectures, and rubrics for worship. Even the "passing on" of the texts and doctrines--for Christians the traditio and redditio--was, then as now, a liturgical action. The Christian fathers received the texts, prayed the texts, proclaimed the texts, venerated the texts, and passed on the texts in ways that were similar to, and continuous with, those of their apostolic and Jewish ancestors.
For both Jews and Christians, the scriptural texts, though historical in character, were not merely records of past events. Reading them in public was more than just the preservation of a national saga. The scriptures were intended to sweep the worshiper into their action--"as if the passage had been read on his account." More than two centuries after Jesus spoke his words to the rich young man and to the crowd, Anthony (and his biographer) assumed that the words were addressed directly to himself. The historical words were actualized again in the life of a contemporary listener, a contemporary worshiper. And Anthony's own participation in salvation history was itself history-making for future generations.
Biblical scholarship of the last century and a half has profited immeasurably from the wider cultural current of historical consciousness--that is, the growing awareness of the conditioning influence of historical and cultural circumstances. Perhaps more than any other field, biblical exegesis has tested the limits of the historical-critical method. If we are more aware today of the common liturgical ground of Israel's qahal and Christianity's ekklesia, it is because of these movements in scholarship, aided by important discoveries in other fields, not least in archeology and textual and documentary analysis.
In our diligent pursuit of the Bible's elusive Sitz im Leben (its original life-setting), we find ourselves, surprisingly, in a familiar place: in the ritual public worship of the congregation. If we can hope for any insight into our proto-Christian and Israelite forebears, it is because we, like the fathers Anthony and Athanasius, share something in common with the ancients. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has warned against a too-eager appropriation of the fathers: "to return to the classical work and to omit what we have learned over the last two hundred years is not a possibility."(3_ But it is arguably the best critical scholarship that has led us again to that original setting. "As to the origin of the Scriptures," wrote scholar Geoffrey Wainwright, "much of their material . . . has been judged by contemporary scholarship to have had its Sitz im Leben in the worship of the believing community."(4)
Liturgy is the very place of our interpretive nearness to the ancients. In our present is our beginning.
When I speak of liturgy, I mean the ritual public worship of God's covenant people. I speak primarily of the eucharistic liturgy, but not only that; for all the sacramental liturgies, as well as the liturgy of the hours, find their origin and source in the scriptures--and are similarly saturated with biblical texts. And all the church's liturgies share with the scriptures a common end: Deo omnis gloria--all the glory to God.
In the course of this book, I want to explore the liturgical content of the Bible and the liturgical context in which the scriptures were first produced, canonized, and proclaimed. I hope to demonstrate the living relationship between scripture and liturgy, and how this relationship enables both, together, to draw believers, as active participants, into the divine drama of salvation history.
Nowhere is the relationship between Bible and liturgy presented so vividly and succinctly as in the Bible itself, specifically in Luke's account of the conversation on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-25).
It is the Sunday after Jesus' crucifixion. Two disciples make their way along the road from Jerusalem when they are joined by a third man. It is Jesus, Luke tells us, but the disciples "are kept from recognizing him." Jesus questions them and draws out their dismal account of the previous Friday's events. They conclude by expressing their frustrated hopes: "But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel."
Jesus (still incognito to the two) weighs in immediately with his judgment, faulting them for their lack of faith, which he describes in terms of a failure to receive the scriptures properly: "O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!" (v. 25). He follows, logically, by correcting their interpretation, replacing it with a thoroughgoing exegesis of his own. Significantly, Luke discloses not the content of Jesus' interpretation, but rather his method: "beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself."
Later, the disciples will reflect on their hearing and say, "Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?" For the moment, however, their understanding is incomplete, and they ask the stranger to remain with them when they stop for the night's lodging. It is then that the passage reaches its narrative climax: "When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight."
Shortly thereafter, when they encounter the apostles, they tell the story of "what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread."
Volumes of biblical and liturgical theology have been written interpreting only this passage. Here, I would like merely to draw out three characteristics of Jesus' method, encapsulated in three technical terms: economy, typology, and mystagogy.
There is a certain novelty to these terms, though none is new. Two appear prominently in the New Testament, and all three stand out as hallmarks of early Christian exegesis. Yet, in the first half of the twentieth century, they received scant attention in the theological manuals and almost no attention from scholars. All three have since reentered the vocabulary. Their recovery is attributable at least in part to three theological movements: the biblical, the liturgical, and the patristic.
Economy, typology, mystagogy: Since these terms are key to the argument of the rest of the book, and their recovery has been recent and intermittent, it will be good to spend some time discussing them now, in an integrated way, using the Emmaus passage of Luke's gospel as a touchstone.
Jesus' exposition on the road to Emmaus included "all the scriptures" "beginning with Moses and all the prophets." Implicit in this is a unity of purpose throughout the many diverse sacred books of the Jews. Jesus discerned there an orderly plan, unfolding throughout history and expressed in the inspired record, a plan that would culminate in his own saving work.
This notion of an overarching plan in creation and salvation history is hardly peculiar to the Emmaus episode. It is everywhere in Hebrew and Christian thought; and it finds its summary statement in Ephesians 1:9, which describes "the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things." The Greek word translated here as "plan" is oikonomia (Latin, dispensatio). Etymologically, it derives from oikos and nomos, household and law. The oikonomia, the divine economy, is the principle governing all creation as well as all the events of salvation history. It is the law of God's cosmic "household."
The domestic association is richly suggestive. For Paul, history revealed God's fatherly plan for humankind. Later, both the church fathers and their rabbinic contemporaries spoke of the scriptures in terms of "divine accommodation"--God stooping down to communicate with his children on their level, or lifting them up to see from a divine perspective. In the third century, Origen wrote of this as a manifestation of God's fatherhood: "whenever the divine plan [oikonomia] involves human affairs, God takes on human intelligence, manners, and language, just as when we talk to a child of two we talk baby-talk."(1) Origen was surely building here upon the Septuagint, which renders Deuteronomy 1:31: "The Lord your God took on your manners as a man would take on the manners of his son."
A modern rabbi and scholar, Stephen D. Benin, traced the patterns of divine accommodation in Jewish and Christian thought and finds a consistent paternal purpose in God's condescension and elevation. Benin concluded: "God uses history pedagogically."(2) He teaches through the events that correspond to his eternal plan.
This Pauline term oikonomia was to dominate patristic theology and exegesis. Indeed, oikonomia is sometimes translated into English simply as "theology," though that is an imprecision. In the writings of the Greek fathers, the word theologia refers specifically to doctrine and contemplation of the Trinity. Oikonomia refers more broadly to God's dealings with creation.(3) Jean Corbon pointed out, further, that oikonomia means "more than simply the 'history of salvation'; it is the dispensation, or wise arrangement by stages, whereby the mystery that is Christ is brought to fulfillment."(4)
Theology and economy are, of course, related terms, and the modern academy includes both activities within the field of theology. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 236) distinguishes the terms even as it demonstrates their relationship:
The Fathers of the Church distinguish between theology (theologia) and economy (oikonomia). "Theology" refers to the mystery of God's inmost life within the Blessed Trinity and "economy" to all the works by which God reveals himself and communicates his life. Through the oikonomia the theologia is revealed to us; but conversely, the theologia illuminates the whole oikonomia. God's works reveal who he is in himself; the mystery of his inmost being enlightens our understanding of all his works.
Indeed, the Catechism's editor, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, identified the oikonomia as the "leitmotiv running through the whole of the new Catechism . . . It is certain that the theme of the divine economy is woven through all four parts" [italics in original].(5)
Schonborn goes on to sketch the trinitarian shape of the economy: "The whole of the divine economy has no other source or purpose than this infinitely blissful [trinitarian] life: the economy is therefore expressed in accordance with the great moments of the communication of this life: the word of creation and divine governance (Providence), the work of redemption through Jesus Christ and the work of sanctification in the Holy Spirit through the Church. . . . in the age of the Church, it becomes the sacramental economy."(6) Corbon anticipated this conclusion: "From Pentecost on, the economy has become liturgy because we are in the stage of response and of the synergy . . . of Spirit and Church."(7)
What Christ revealed at Emmaus, then, was nothing less than the plan, the dramatic plot, the story line for all of history before him and after him. By unveiling the "things concerning him" "in all the scriptures," he made possible the work of exegesis and of biblical theology. His interpretation of the entirety of the Hebrew scriptures functioned like an act of canonization, precluding all future attempts (such as Marcion's) to excise the "Old Testament" as obsolete. Christ himself made Israel's scriptures canonical as he made them one with his new covenant.
Moreover, he modeled what would become biblical religion's defining action during the age of the church, the time of the sacramental economy. He revealed himself conclusively "in the breaking of the bread." The "breaking of the bread" is Luke's preferred term for the eucharist; and in the Lukan Acts of the Apostles, the eucharistic "breaking of the bread" is the preeminent sign of the church (see Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7, 11; 27:35).