Judith: Chapter 14 Commentary

Luca Giordano, The Discovery of the Body of Holofernes, 1703, Saint Louis Art Museum.

I have completed a draft translation of the Commentary by the Blessed Rabanus Maurus on the fourteenth chapter of Judith. The entire translation project, An Explanation of the Book of Judith, is also available for viewing.

This particular chapter is rather short, so the highlights are scant. In the previous chapter, Judith exhibited the head of Holofernes to the inhabitants of Bethulia. Bolstered by this defeat over one of the most powerful men in the world by a “mere” woman, the citizens are primed for a confrontation.

Likewise, the Church, also a woman, has overcome the ancient enemy. Rabanus helps us to flesh out the impact of this defeat on the citizens of heaven.

The Church, with maternal affection as well as magisterial authority, teaches her children how they should pursue the spiritual enemy: clearly that as soon as the sun rises they should hang the head of their enemy upon their walls. That is, as soon as the serenity of divine reconciliation and supernal solace have illuminated them, the believers should, with the Gospel teaching by which they are strengthened, disclose the wounded pride of the ancient enemy to everyone. And clothed with celestial weapons, that is with the shield of faith, the breastplate of justice, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit which is the Word of God, they should—not sluggishly, but vigorously—pursue the flying wedge of enemies.

The flying wedge is a traditional offensive military formation used by the Romans and still in use today in the military and even in the game of football. Rabanus likes to make the story real.

For some reason I feel a song coming on…

Onward Christian soldiers! 
marching as to war...

(For further information about this translation project, please see my series of posts on Judith.)

Descent into Hell

For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matthew 12:40 OSB).

2013_11_15_00_03Jonah’s flight from God brings him to a point in time when he must make a decision. He can choose between continuing to hide, or offering himself to save the seafarers onboard the ship. Just as Christ sought to “let this cup pass from me,” Jonah sought another path. But in the end, he saw that for the sake of others, he had to pass through suffering and, from his perspective, probably death.

Jonah, while reluctant, follows the pattern of Christ’s life. The Christian too, while reluctant, must follow this path. When initially given a command to obey, we disobey and hide from God. All of mankind has sinned and hidden from God as did both Jonah and Adam, but Christ, as the culmination of God’s winnowing action upon mankind, like the fine point of a needle, opens the way of salvation. Jonah’s descent into the depths of the sea for three days typifies Christ’s descent into hell and our descent in his wake through the baptism of water and of tears.

I recently experienced the joy of a friend’s wedding. Father Anthony, the presiding priest, observed in his homily that the act of martyrdom is present in each of the sacraments. Baptism demonstrates the death of self and the renewal into life brought by this sacrifice. Confession too contains the death and suffering of the self. The sacrament of marriage is replete with martyrdom and self-sacrifice for the sake of one’s spouse. And of course the ultimate sacrifice is evident in Christ’s self-offering of the Eucharist.

The prerequisite for redemption is sacrifice. Out of the depths of Christ’s sacrifice, he raises up his apostles unto the Gentiles just as Jonah ascended from the depths to the Ninevites. We must likewise, through our own self-sacrifice, ‘tradition’ the faith to our spiritual descendants. Saint Paul presents himself as a metaphor of Christ, revealing that he carries about in his own body the death of the Lord Jesus, that His life might be made manifest in his children (2 Corinthians 7-12). Like the risen Lord, Paul metaphorically dies so that his children might live. It is this continual cycle of death and rebirth that is the essence of tradition.

Ultimately, Christ’s resurrection and ascension culminate in our deification. Saint Athanasius the Great said that, “The Son of God became man that we might become god.” Christ, in his descent into death and ascent into life, ‘traditions’ unto us the purifying power of martyrdom and the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit in the outpouring of Pentecost. The purification experienced through martyrdom prepares us for the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit.

Material persons are purified, sanctified, and deified. Bread and wine become God. Bones work miracles. The dead live.

The martyrs are those who have truly sacrificed everything for God. They are seeds who have been planted, died, and risen into true life. They have finally become human.

Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John 12:24-25).

Purity of Heart

Because I have been practicing with the choir in preparation for Pascha, I had an opportunity to sing the hymn we sing at midnight:

Thy resurrection oh Christ our savior,
the angels in heaven sing,
enables us on earth
to glorify thee in purity of heart.

For some reason singing that caused me to think about the implications of what it says. It seems obvious and maybe intuitive, but I ended up spending several hours pouring through theology books in an attempt to find a good articulation of the reality.

I ended up with two passages from different theology books that, while perhaps not explicit about purity of heart, lead one on the path to understanding. The first passage relates in detail what happened at the death and resurrection of our Lord. This is taken from Orthodox Dogmatic Theology by Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky:

Christ, after His death on the Cross, descended in His soul and in His Divinity into hell, at the same time that His body remained in the grave. He preached salvation to the captives of hell and brought up from there all the Old Testament righteous ones into the bright mansions of the Kingdom of Heaven. Concerning this raising up of the righteous ones from hell, we read in the Epistle of St. Peter: “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit; by which also He went and preached unto the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:18-19). And in the same place we read further: “For this cause was the Gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit” (1 Peter 4:6). St. Paul speaks of the same thing: quoting the verse of the Psalm, “When He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men,” the Apostle continues: “Now that He ascended, what is it but that He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things” (Eph. 4:8-10).

To use the words of St. John Chrysostom, “Hell was taken captive by the Lord Who descended into it. It was laid waste, it was mocked, it was put to death, it was overthrown, it was bound” (Homily on Pascha).

I suppose one might wonder how one could have any purity of heart if one was held captive in hell. That’s somewhat crude, but it’s clear that death and hell are a factor that would prevent us from glorifying Christ in purity of heart.

The second passage I found helpful is from The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church by Vladimir Lossky:

The way of deification, which was planned for the first man, will be impossible until human nature triumphs over sin and death. The way to union will henceforth be presented to fallen humanity as salvation. This negative term stands for the removal of an obstacle: one is saved from something—from death, and from sin—its root. The divine plan was not fulfilled by Adam; instead of the straight line of ascent towards God, the will of the first man followed a path contrary to nature, and ending in death. God alone can endow men with the possibility of deification, by liberating him at one and the same time from death and from captivity to sin. What man ought to have attained by raising himself up to God, God achieved by descending to man. That is why the triple barrier which separates us from God—death, sin, nature—impassable for men, is broken through by God in the inverse order, beginning with the union of the separated natures, and ending with victory over death. Nicholas Cabasilas, a Byzantine theologian of the fourteenth century, said on this subject: “The Lord allowed men, separated from God by the triple barrier of nature, sin and death, to be fully possessed of Him and to be directly united to Him by the fact he has set aside each barrier in turn: that of nature by His incarnation, of sin by His death, and of death by His resurrection.” This is the reason why St. Paul writes: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (I Cor 15:26).

This makes it clear that the last barrier is death and thus the resurrection is that event which finally unravels or removes the the last barrier to deification, and thus purity of heart.