Watershed Online

Fish Stylesheet

A Taste for Scripture
Water Into Wine

While reading Origen I had an image of the Scripture being like the swaddling clothes that were wrapped around Jesus at his birth. It was as if this mental image was a picture under which the words, "Christ Comes Wrapped," were written. Origen constantly speaks about Christ incognito, through a variety of types and allegorical images. He takes us far above history and grammar into the realm of eternity where there seems to be a host of theophanies all lined up, ready to reveal the eternal Word.

Origen reminds us that Jesus identified himself with a variety of these proto-words. I recall Jesus once said that before John the Baptist was, he was. Historically this is not correct. So what did he mean? In another passage Jesus spoke of being before Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And in the passage that is mentioned in today's reading, Origen reminds us that Christ was present in the persecuted prophets of Israel who were stoned by the religious authorities. Origen is enamored by the idea of a pre-existent Christ, distinguished from, but connected to, Jesus of Nazareth.

Origen uses the poetic terms of the Canticle (Song of Solomon 2:8) in describing this Eternal Christ who comes "leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills." Christ comes pouncing out of the poetry of the Old Testament. For Origen these mountains and hills represented the Law and the Prophets from which Christ came leaping over into the New Covenant. In fact, he says that both testaments are made new in this "new" Christological interpretation.

Origen distinguishes between those who read the Scripture literally and those who read it spiritually. He compares the former to those who take in the Scripture, as it were, through the skin used for drinking and the latter with those who take in the Scripture directly, as if they had wells within their souls. According to Origen, both are children of Abraham and both receive a blessing but one is undoubtedly favoured. Here is how he puts it:

Isaac owns wells for which he must fight the Philistines. Ishmael, however, drinks water from a skin; but this skin is leaky like all skins and thus he suffers thirst and finds no well. But you, who "like Isaac are a child of promise" Galatians 4:28, "drink water from your own wells; and the water from your own wells is not scattered abroad, but your waters flow into your streets" Proverbs 5:15-16. But the one who is born according to the flesh drinks water from a skin, and the water is insufficient and in many ways deficient. The skin of the law is the letter... for the historical meaning is in many ways deficient...

These two different apprehensions of the Word remind me of what Maurice Nicoll says about the water and wine. The water is necessary as a first step but is not truly satisfying and doesn't lead to the higher stages of interpretation. There are different spiritual qualities associated with different methods of understanding the Word found in Scripture and there is, according to Origen, a progression from one stage to the next. Here is an early example of developmental philosophy or psychology applied to the spiritual life.

What surprised me was that Origen says that there comes a time when the Word as revealed in Scripture is surpassed by the direct Word of Christ in the Soul of the believer. The Word that is Jesus is above that which is written.

Consider then, if it is not possible that the well of Jacob is the whole scripture, but that the water from Jesus is that which is above that which is written. But it is not possible for all to search out the things which are above what is written, but only for the one who has become assimilated to them.

I remember when I was first introduced to Origen, while at Regent College in Vancouver, that for some reason I blurted out something in a Scripture interpretation class that almost got me burned at the stake. I said Scripture is like a ladder that once climbed needs to be kicked away. Boy, did the evangelical conservatives in the group not appreciate that Origen-inspired insight! But now I see that Origen nuanced this insight by reminding his students that the assimilation of the teachings of Scripture needs to take place before the direct Word can be heard and obeyed. You don't skip stages and you have to work through each stage diligently both from a literal as well as a symbolic viewpoint. It takes a lifetime, I am sure.

back to what's new comments next