Gospel


Bright Monday. Christ is risen sounds again
In the quiet of the church, and rises, more gently
Than the great eruption in the night. Outside, rain
Falls through the cool grey. After the great drama,
Rest, and the reflection of small spaces,
The garden close, spring leaves make bowers,
Huddled in a room, hands warming in the bright circle
Of a fish-cooking fire, the air still sharp these nights. Home-
Comings, partings, expectation. We will watch the trees
Grow dark and heavy, as the days stretch and fill. The warm
Melancholy of summer, the descent of the Spirit. Trampling
Down death by death, we will strain to hear, and remember.
Maranatha.

It has been some time since I have presented a translation of my own of a Syriac source here. To be honest, I had allowed my command of Syriac to become rusty through neglect, something I have begun trying to rectify. As part of this effort, I present here a translation of a Syriac scholia, or short selective commentary, on a passage from the book of Genesis. The author is Mar Jacob of Edessa, a prominent and productive Syriac Christian bishop and writer of the seventh century (A.D.). This text, while explicating a passage about Cain, the Bible’s first murderer, is really an examination of freedom of will and the mechanics of human wrong-doing, with the verse in question acting as a jumping-off place, and supporting evidence, for the centrality of human freedom in moral action.

*

 Behold! If you do good, I will accept you (Gen. 4:7a): And also, I am accepting of you if you do good. These are an evident indication that God wills the repentance of man, and receives his repentance. And He is longsuffering with him, and gives him also means that call him to this, because He wills his salvation.

But, if you do not do good—upon the door sin is crouching. You are turned towards it and it has mastery over you (Gen. 4:7b): These [words] point out that mastery of the house[1] and freedom of will belong to humans, and that one wills by his own will. One calls to sin that it come upon him and have mastery over his soul. If he does not will it, sin is not able to draw near to him. That is, it crouches upon the door of your mind, like a fierce animal outside of the gate of a house. If you turn towards this by your own will, and open up to it, it enters and has mastery upon you. And if you do not will, it is not able to enter against you.

By means of these you are clearly taught that Satan is not the sower of sin able to compel, or govern with force the rule of the house of the human mind, and sin is not the seed itself of evil. For this Cain was condemned, for he did not come to repentance of these things, though he opened the door to sin by his own will, and it entered and took mastery over him, as God said to him, and he murdered his transgression-less brother, from envy alone.

Mar Jacob of Edessa, Scholia on the Old Testament


[1] That is, mastery of the human body, or perhaps the soul: the exact meaning of the phrase, here literally translated, is a bit ambiguous.

_____________

I have removed to a distance, Benevolent One, I dwelt in the desert
and I was hidden from You, the sweet Master.
I came under the night of life’s worry,
and there I sustained many stings and wounds,
having gone up I bear many blows in my soul,
and I cry out amid the suffering and trouble of my heart:
have mercy, have pity on me the transgressor!
O soul-loving doctor Who alone loves mercy,
Who heals the weak and wounded as a gift,
cure my bruises and wounds!
Drip the oil of Your grace, my God,
and anoint my injuries, wipe out my infections,
form scar tissues and bind up my severed
members, and remove all the scars, Savior,
and heal the whole of me completely as before
when I did not have defilement, when I did not have any bruise,
nor infected injury, nor stain, O my God,
but calm and joy, peace and meekness,
and holy humility, and patience,
the illumination of long-suffering and excellent works,
long-suffering and utterly unconquerable power.
Hence much comfort from tears each day,
hence the exultation of my heart
gushed forth like a spring, flowed everlastingly,
and was a stream dripping honey, and a drink of merriment,
continuously turning in the mouth of my mind.
Hence all health, hence purity,
hence cleansing of my passions and vain thoughts,
hence dispassion was with me like lightening,
and always associated with me. Understand me spiritually,
I who say these things, be not wretched, defiled!
The dispassion produced in me is the unutterable pleasure of communion,
and boundless desire for the wedding feast, for union full of God,
partaking of which I also became dispassionate,
I was burned up with pleasure, blazing with desire for it,
and I shared in the light, yes, I became light,
higher than all passion, outside all wickedness.
For passion does not touch the light of dispassion,
just as the shadow or darkness of night cannot touch the sun.
And so having become such, and being such a kind,
I was relaxed, Master, as I took confidence in myself.
I was dragged down by worry about perceptible matters,
I fell down, wretched, to the concern of life’s problems,
and I become cold like black iron,
and lying around for a long time I took on rust.
Because of this I shout to You asking to purified anew,
Benevolent One, and to be lifted up to the first
beauty, and to enjoy fully Your light
now and always unto all ages. Amen.

St. Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), Hymn 46. Trans. Daniel Griggs

The excerpt below is from a Western Christian exegete, Alan of Lille (1128?-1203), a scholar and teacher who composed a number of works of Scripture commentary. While there are many similarities between this Latin commentary and that of Gregory of Narek’s Armenian commentary—they are both coming from a broad tradition of Song of Songs interpretation—there are also some marked differences. Alan’s allegorical reading moves along a different track: whereas Gregory read the Song as referring to the relationship between Christ and the soul, Alan here informs us of at least two possible readings. One is that of the Song being about Christ and the Church, a fairly common interpretation in the Latin West. However, such a correspondence is not Alan’s intention here. Rather, as he notes at the beginning of his commentary, he is going to read the Song as being about Christ and His Mother, the Virgin Mary. To a modern reader, even one sympathetic to allegorical and multi-valenced readings of Scripture, this is neither an obvious nor perhaps particularly tasteful interpretation. However, Alan develops it in depth and on multiple levels, as evidenced here. His interpretation is subtle and deliberately multi-valenced, developing a range of correspondences and meanings, some on a ‘literal’ level, others at a deeper allegorical or ‘mystical’ level. Finally, alongside the allegorical or mystical sense, Alan also wishes to develop a didactic or pedagogical meaning within the text. All of these levels are visible in this fairly brief excerpt, evidence of a fairly sophisticated and involved reading of one of the most treasured and commented-upon of all Scriptural texts in the Latin West.

*

 2. … And so, although the song of love, Solomon’s wedding song, refers particularly and according to its spiritual sense to the Church, in its most particular and spiritual reference it signifies the most glorious Virgin: this, with divine help, we will explain as far as will be within our power.

3. So it is that in her eagerness for the presence of the Bridegroom, longing for that glorious conception of which she was told by the angel and out of her desire for the divine incarnation, the glorious Virgin speaks thus:

4. May he kiss me with the kiss of his mouth: This is but to say what is elsewhere said in these words: Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to your word. For she had listened to the Archangel Gabriel who was sent to her as a heavenly proxy for her Bridegroom; and he honours the Virgin, filled as she is with extraordinary and spiritual blessing, and speaks a special and unheard of greeting: Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. And when she heard that the Son of God would be born of her, she found no cause for self-congratualation in this news, she did not allow herself to be carried away by this word, nor did she take pride in herself because of her child; rather did she humble herself in and through all things before God; and, never doubting the prophetic word, she replied: Behold the handmaid of the Lord.

5. Which is the same as saying: be it done unto me according to your word, that is, at your word I will conceive the Word of God. And this is what is meant here by: May he kiss me with the kiss of his mouth….

8. For your breasts are more delightful than wine: Which is as much as to say, ‘You desire my kisses and I your breasts, for your breasts are more delightful than wine.’ I can read this literally as referring to the Virgin’s natural breasts, for the Gospel speaks of them in these terms: Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts which you have sucked. Which breasts are more delightful, which better, than those which gave milk to Christ, milk drawn not by the foulness of lust, but from the rich store of virginity? Christ longed for those breasts, he longed to draw milk from them, so as to experience not the deceitful taste of the flesh, but rather the antidote of her virginity. Those breasts were to Christ sweeter than wine, sweeter than the most pleasing of all drinks. For wine is the drink of drinks; it is what we mean we speak of ‘having a good drink.’

9. More fragrant than the finest ointments, that is, they may be compared to fragrance to the very best oils; for what oils emit by way of fragrance, the virginal breasts bestow in integrity. Because as the one attracts by its fragrance, the others nourish Christ on their auroma.

Alan of Lille, Commentary on the Song of Songs, trans. by Denys Turner in Eros and Allegory: Medieval Exegesis of the Song of Songs.

The following is an excerpt from a commentary on the Song of Songs by the tenth century Armenian scholar Gregory of Narek (945?-1003). Like many medieval Christian exegetes in both Eastern and Western traditions, Gregory’s exegesis tends to be allegorical: he interprets the text through a system of correspondences between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ meanings. Like many medieval exegetes, for Gregory this ‘allegorical’ method operates alongside a view of Scripture and Scriptural truth that allows for and even demands multiple perspectives, valuations, and interpretations of the same text. As he notes in this brief excerpt, ‘full understanding of the sacred Scriptures’ is ultimately unattainable, given their divine inspiration: just as God is ultimately uncircumscribable and undefinable, the Scriptures He has revealed ultimately elude a final pinning down. Their truth unfolds continuously through the process of reading, meditation, practice, and exegesis.

This does not mean, for Gregory or any other exegetes, that commentary should simply proceed as the exegete wishes (though allegorical interpretations can sometimes seem as such). Rather, Gregory and others operated within particular traditions and tendencies of interpretation, building upon the work and meditation of others, often reproducing or expanding upon previously established sets of correspondences and interpretations. For instance, in this excerpt and throughout his commentary on the Song of Songs, Gregory makes use of the Patristic-era theologian and exegete Gregory of Nyssa. He is also drawing upon an old, and exceedingly broad, tradition of allegorically and typologically reading the Song of Songs. In Gregory of Narek’s reading, the Beloved is the human soul, while the Lover (in the Armenian translation of the Scriptures, the Nephew) is Christ. It is from this basic correspondence—one of several possible allegorical or typological correspondences commonly encountered in medieval exegetes—that the rest of his interpretions proceed.

*

5.6 I opened to my Nephew; my Nephew had gone, and my soul went out with his word: See how, as she opened, He had gone. This means that once I had lifted the eyes of my mind to the meaning of Scripture, to behold the inexaminable depths of the knowledge of His grace, once I had opened my heart to embrace that fleeting glimpse, and to examine and become informed of and comprehend the depths of His knowledge, what eluded my weak mind’s grasp so awed me that for desire of it I would have forgotten that which I had received when I opened.

For that reason she says, My Nephew had gone; it is as if no sooner was He seen than He at once withdrew, swift as the lightning. And my soul went out with his word; that is, ‘having obtained a small glimmering of His words my soul left me and pursued His words.’ To put it another way, I recognized Him, and I was united to His love, and I was ebullient with His commandments. And thinking that I had obtained something, I recognized myself to be all the more distant from attainment; seeing the true Sun, I recognized by His light how distant I am from knowledge.

I brought to mind that which this same divine Solomon said in another place: Whoever increases knowledge, increases pain. By saying this, he does not discourage one from gaining knowledge of Holy Writ, lest one’s pain increase; rather, he exhorts one to grow yet more in knowledge, and by that amount of knowledge to understand that the knowledge of what eludes one is knowledge unfathomable. For as a drunkard but thirsts the more, no matter how much he drinks, so also is the person yearns after the maning of the divinely inspired Scriptures: no matter how much he learns, he desires to learn yet more, knowing that he will never uncover the full understanding of the sacred Scriptures. Once his desire for its meaning has been kindled, it becomes a kind of hurt in his spirit, for by means of a little understanding he recognizes the boundlessness of what eludes him, and the desire for that knowledge infects him like a pain, albeit that pain and solicitude increase his healing discoveries.

Gregory of Narek, Commentary on the Song of Songs, trans. by Roberta Ervine (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 2007), 148-9.

From Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom, 2nd Edition (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing), 2003, 70-71:

What was surprising to contemporaries about the Christian Church [around the year 300 AD] was the extent to which activities, which had tended to be kept separate under the old system of religio, were fused into one. Morality, philosophy, and ritual were treated as intimately connected. All were part of “religion” in the wide sense of the term to which we have become accustomed. All were based on the Law of God. They were to be found in their true form only in the Church. In the Christian churches, philosophy was dependent upon revelation and morality was absorbed into religio. Furthermoer, commitment to truth and moral improvement were held to be binding to all believers, irrespective of their class and level of culture. Hence the remarkable combination of stern moralizing and urgent theological speculation which absorbed the energy of serious Christians, from a wide variety of social backgrounds, in the third century as in all later ages.

In much the same manner, the circulation of wealth was harnessed to a carefully thought out system which linked sin with reparation through almsgiving. All classes within the Church were involved in a dogged mobilization of wealth to build up a single religious community. This wealth was distributed along the margins of the Church in such a way as to suggest that the Christian community had the will and the financial “muscle” to take care of the lowest reaches of Roman society.

Thus, when a continuous spate of laws and personal letters in favor of Christians issued from the palace of Constantine in the decades after A.D. 312, they were received and exploited to the full by a religious group which knew how to the make the best of its good fortune. If, in the words of the English proverb, “God helps those who help themselves,” the Christian Church, as it had developed in the course of the third century, more than deserved the apparent “miracle” of Constantine’s conversion at the battle of Milvian Bridge.

One can never be faulted who speaks of Love and Beauty,
For however far his speaking goes, it will never reach the end.
A child speaks to his parent with love,
While his father listens affectionately to all that he says to him.
And when he hears the questions that are posed to him,
He accepts them just as if someone were speaking of serious things.
Even when he chatters a lot without making clear what he is saying,
He is happier with his speech than he would be the speech of philosophers.
So I, like the child before his father,
I am going to speak now before God with great love.
Now I am going to speak, and if I say too little- oh, I will not say too little!
For it is easier for love to speak too much, as much as it desires!

Jacob of Serug (d. 521), Homily on the Judgment of Solomon, ll. 37-48, trans. by Stephen A. Kaufman

Next Page »