Judith: Chapter 15 Commentary

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

In this chapter the people of Bethulia and of Israel slaughter the Assyrians and put the remaineder of them to flight. They collect massive spoils from their camp, giving very generous portions to Judith. Joachim the high priest comes from Jerusalem to meet with Judith and offers her much praise, as do all the people.

Hrabanus talks quite a bit about how the Israelites who pursued the Assyrians represent the preachers and those of the faithful who war against the enemy. I would like to highlight how these spiritual warriors, and Mother Church herself, treat the spoils of war. In speaking about the spoils (verse 12), Hrabanus says the following;

It is appropriate to consider that it says that those who had remained inside the city bore off the plunder of the Assyrians, moreover, those who returned conquerors from the slaughter of the enemy took a multitude of cattle, beasts and all movables. This is because, although the work of Christ’s soldiers may be inordinate, yet the intention and devotion should be one and the same: that they might convert whatever they are able to tear away from the unjust possession of the enemy to the adornment and riches of the Holy Church, that is the gold of wisdom, the silver of eloquence, the gems of morality and the virtues, and furthermore the people given to carnal sensuality who were captured in idolatry and guilty of slavery to vices, to the extent that all these things that the arrogant Assyrian and prince of this world used to unjustly possess, are returned to the honor of the divine religion through the soldiers of Christ.

Not only are the soldiers of Christ reclaiming the lost people who were captured in idolatry and enslaved to the vices, but also the good practices and wisdom that were embedded in those cultures. Further on he reiterates this idea (verse 26):

What does it mean that it says that all those things that were the peculiar goods of Holofernes, the people gave to Judith, if it does not mean that all of the faithful who carry out the war of Christ, seize everything from the dominion or possession of the enemies, collectively reckon all to the praise and endeavor of Holy Mother Church, and hasten to collect it for her spiritual adornment, so that she herself might gleam with the gold of wisdom, shine with the brilliance of eloquence, radiate with the gems of precious virtues and be clothed with the ornaments of the various disciplines? All this, namely any of the good things that the iniquitous possessor was unjustly possessing, she herself rightly appropriates for her own adornment.

This is an important point. The Church does not simply reject things out of hand that come from other cultures or religions. It seeks out the good things that are found in these cultures, and “baptizing” them, makes them her own.

Saint Seraphim of Sarov explains more clearly why the Church takes this approach with “pagan” cultures:

Though not with the same power as in the people of God, nevertheless the presence of the Spirit of God also acted in the pagans who did not know the true God, because even among them, God found the chosen people. For instance, there were the virgin-prophetesses called Sibyls who vowed virginity to an unknown God, but to God, the Creator of the universe, the all-powerful ruler of the world, as He was conceived by the pagans. Though the pagan philosophers also wandered in the darkness of ignorance of God, yet they sought the truth which is beloved by God. Because of this God-pleasing seeking, they could partake of the Spirit of God. It is said that nations who do not know God, practice by nature the demands of the law and do what is pleasing to God (cf. Rom. 2:14). The Lord so praises truth that He says of it Himself by the Holy Spirit: Truth has sprung from the earth, and justice has looked down from heaven (Ps. 84[85]:11) … both in the holy Hebrew people, a people beloved by God, and in the pagans who did not know God, there was preserved a knowledge of God…

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

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.)

Judith: Chapter 13 Commentary

August von Heckel, Judith shows her people the head of the Holofernes, c. 1857, Oil on canvas.

I have completed a draft translation of the Commentary by the Blessed Rabanus Maurus on the thirteenth chapter of Judith. The entire translation project, An Explanation of the Book of Judith, is also available for viewing. I’d like to share some highlights from the chapter.

In chapter thirteen, the deed is done. Holofernes loses his head. (Chapter thirteen does seem apropos for the loss of one’s head). The Blessed Rabanus Maurus finds this event and its setting to be to be a veritable treasure trove of practical object lessons, rich with allegory.

As Holofernes lies completely sloshed in his bed, Rabanus crafts an image in which each object in the tent takes on an allegorical meaning. In verse 5 he says:

The pillar that was at the head of Holofernes’ bed signifies the hardness of the depraved heart that generated the error of faithless complacency. The sword that hung tied upon it is the malice of evil intention; the hair of the head: the exaltation of an arrogant mind; the neck, in truth: the stubbornness of evil action; and the canopy, which is a net for flies, signifies the snares of deceitful thought.

Recall that Judith represents the Holy Church. Rabanus now takes this symbolism and applies it to the way in which the Holy Church works even today in verses 6 and 7:

She goes to the pillar and looses the sword, by which she might cut off the head of the most wicked enemy; with the malice of a hard heart stripped away, she cuts off from the enemy the opportunity for fierce temptation [or attack].

She removes the canopy because she uncovers his deceptions, with which he strives to entangle the guileless and incautious, and in the same way she is “rolling away the headless body of the enemy” whenever she shows the enemy himself to be infirm and debilitated in every part, with the result that the easier the soldiers of Christ think the most wicked enemy himself can be overcome, the more thoroughly they learn that he will be weak and conquerable.

Later on in verse 24, Rabanus connects this remarkable defeat with the prophesy made in the book of Genesis, and also God’s enabling of the apostles (the founders of the Church) with power over the enemy. He says:

…the Lord says to the cunning serpent in the beginning, “She shall crush thy head” (Gn 3:15). And the Truth Himself says to Her in the Gospel, “Behold, I give you power to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and upon all the power of the enemy” (Lk 10:19).

But not only does God, through the Church, overcome the devil. The Church also uncovers what the devil and his minions are up to so that he is easily seen through. In Bethulia, Judith presents the head to her people in triumph. Rabanus likens this demonstration to the Church’s exposition of the devil’s deceptions in verse 27:

Judith is bringing forth the head of Holofernes in the view of the people and showing them “his canopy, wherein he lay in his drunkenness,” whenever the Holy Church exposes in lucid discourse the ancient enemy’s arrogant mind and plainly uncovers for them his deception, in which the majority wickedly believed, so that they might know how perverse their enemy is and the magnitude of the omnipotent God’s righteousness, by which, under the authority of faithful spirits, he was overcome and driven back.

This is a useful image. Judith holding the head of Holofernes is an image worth imagining every time the devil’s schemes are exposed by the Church. And what are we to do with this knowledge? Rabanus gives that answer very clearly in verse 28:

Divine protection preserves these unharmed from every fraud of the enemy and the contamination of error, so that, with all these things having been fully understood, they give proper thanks and they unceasingly give back devoted praises to their creator and redeemer in return for this.

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

Judith: Chapter 12 Commentary

Judith () Veronese 3
Paolo Veronese (circle of), Judith feasted by Holofernes, Oil on canvas,” The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology Oxford, England, UK

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

In this chapter Holofernes stashes Judith in his treasure chamber with the rest of his treasure. This seems quite symbolic. The good Abbot, Rabanus, comments on it in verse 3, noting that it symbolizes the secular leadership holding preachers of the Gospel in high regard:

What does it mean that Holofernes instructed Judith to stay in the place “where his treasures were laid up,” unless it means that the leadership of this age consents to hold a very great position for the preachers of the Gospel among those who have a mind that is both intelligent and a recipient of sound faith? For the intensification of a virtuous will is the most valuable treasure of the heart, where the figurative Judith stays, because the Holy Church steadfastly resides there.

The rest of the story is focused on Holofernes’ attempt to draw Judith into his revelry and to seduce her. He is absolutely smitten by her and can’t stand the thought of having her in his camp without having her in his bed. He tries to talk her into eating his food and drinking his wine, but she insists on eating the food that she has brought with her and that is prepared by her maid, so that she won’t be defiled by his food.

Holofernes is a bit put off by this and looks for a way to draw Judith into his feasting. He sees that she has meager provisions and hopes that by this he can draw her into consumption of his victuals. Her food symbolizing her religion, Rabanus observes that this event represents the fact that among secular leaders ,”the worship of the Christian religion is seen to be of little value and they strive to draw its practitioners into the filth of images or the seductions of the carnal pleasures” (verse 4).

Then, alluding to a means of escape from these traps, he describes a practice that aligns closely with the practice of some Orthodox countries or Jurisdictions even today. In preparation for receiving the Eucharist, many Orthodox faithful fast and pray during three days of confession leading up to Holy Communion. Recall that Rabanus Maurus was an Abbot in what is present day Germany. Consequently, it seems plausible that the practice we find in many Orthodox countries today was also found in eighth century western Europe. The blessed abbot describes it this way (verse 5):

But those with a faithful soul and a sure hope assure themselves that divine grace quickly comes to help, persist in prayers the entire night of this world, and baptize themselves with a fountain of tears; they wash the bed of their heart with a psalm throughout each night and water the couch of their thoughts with pious tears (cf. Ps 6:7); and in this manner during the three days of Catholic confession, completing their prayer through faith, hope, and love, (cf. 1 Cor 13:13) they finally on the fourth day, that is in the scintillating light of the Gospel, prepare for themselves victory over the enemy, and the author of death and darkness himself, blinded by his own malice, they convict as guilty, with eternal liability.

The key for Rabanus is that the Holy Church and her members remain pure in spite of living in the secular world. Consuming her own food, she is “in no way polluted by the idolatry or superstition of the Gentiles,” but has, as the Lord Himself said to his Disciples, “meat to eat, which you know not … My meat is to do the will of Him that sent me, that I may perfect His work.”

UPDATE (8/7/2019): After more research, it seems that the above description of a penitential practice may instead be alluding to the quarterly penance practiced by all Christians during a period now known as Ember Days or Embertide. The three Ember Days were always on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the same week. On the fourth day, Sunday, the faithful would celebrate Holy Mass. These days were widely observed throughout the Frankish empire by the time of Rabanus Maurus, having been enjoined by Charlemagne in 769. Embertide does not seem to have ever been observed in the eastern Church.

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

Judith: Chapter 10 Commentary

Paolo Veronese (circle of), Judith Leaving Bethulia, Oil on canvas, The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford, England, UK

I’m pleased to make available a draft of my translation of the commentary by the Blessed Rabanus Maurus on the tenth chapter of Judith!

(A brief aside in explanation of the delay… As I mentioned a while back, I was diagnosed with stage 4 non-hodgkins lymphoma back in 2017. I underwent chemotherapy for six months and was unable to pay much attention to this type of work for quite some time. At this time I am in remission. Glory to God! In addition to medical issues, I also made a move from Colorado to North Carolina. My family and I are settled into our new home and I am now starting to get back into some of my old projects.)

In chapter 10, Judith departs Bethulia, making her way to the camp of the Assyrians and to Holofernes himself. Below I present some highlights from the commentary.

The paradigm of the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant is often used to help understand both the visible and invisible parts of the Church. The Church Triumphant is comprised of all those saints who have triumphantly completed the race of this life and are now joined together with all the bodiless powers of heaven that we don’t see. “The Church which is militant upon earth in essence also is triumphant in the victory performed by the Saviour, but it is still undergoing battle with the ‘prince of this world,’ a battle which will end with the defeat of satan and the final casting of him into the lake of fire” (quoted from Orthodox Dogmatic Theology).

As I have noted in previous posts in this series, Rabanus considers Judith to be a type of the Holy Church. Judith brings her maid along with her. In this chapter, he likens this maid to a combatant in the Church Militant (Verse 8):

What does it mean that Judith, about to go forth into combat, gave those things necessary for her along the way to her maid to carry, unless it means that the Holy Church, hastening to contend against the enemy in the stadium of this world, makes use of certain corporeal ones according to her own needs for the present work. If they faithfully carry this out, they can attain true freedom, in such a way that they are made joint heirs and participants in future proprietorship, like the renowned free maid released by Judith her mistress, recalled at the end of this book.

Judith’s passage is interrupted by the watchmen of the Assyrians. Rabanus likens these watchmen to the philosophers and philologists of the Gentiles and draws a parallel between how they take Judith to Holofernes’ tent and how these “watchmen” turn the Christians over to the secular authorities. When Judith is in the custody of Holofernes, he treats her well and Rabanus likewise draws parallels to historical incidents when the secular authorities treated these Christians well. For example (verses 19-20):

From this point onward in the Ecclesiastical Histories it is also found that the leaders of the Gentiles themselves, with the gentleness and moderation of the faithful having been seen, ceased to impose punishments and force upon them. Just as Tiberius Caesar established edicts lest anything might set in motion adversity and opposition to the teaching of Christ, and threatened death to the accusers of the Christians, so also the Emperor Claudius, even though he afflicted the Jews with diverse calamities, did not harm the Christians.

Finally, Judith shows respect to Holofernes by prostrating herself before him. Rabanus teaches through this that we should likewise show honor where honor is due (verse 25):

That Judith pays homage to Holofernes is not an apprehensive confounding of role, but a preservation of order. For as often as holy men bestow honor upon an earthly power—not out of the vice of flattery, but from the duty of honor—they do this.

In support of this teaching he provides many examples from scripture, such as when Elijah prostrated himself before King Ahab (verse 29):

Regarding this, the prophet Elias is found in Kings to have paid homage to the evil king Achab, by no means with the piety of religious devotion, but with the duty of honor (3 Kgs 18:41–43).

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

Judith: Chapter 8 Commentary

judith-veronese-2

Paolo Veronese, Judith Receiving the Ancients of Bethulia, oil on canvas.

I’m pleased to make available a draft of my translation of the commentary by the Blessed Rabanus Maurus on the eighth chapter of Judith. This chapter was nearly twice the length of previous chapters and so took some extra time (in addition to relaxing my focus on this work during Lent).

In this chapter Judith chastises the elders for setting dates. They had essentially given God a timeline to dish out his mercy upon them and agreed to give up the city if God hadn’t made himself known in five days. Judith, and rightly so, tells them that this was a very audacious thing to do and that they now need to pour out their souls in fasting, prayer, and repentance and hope they haven’t angered God. She makes her own plans and leaves them at the city gates to watch and pray.

There are a few interesting highlights in the commentary that I’d like to point out. First, Rabanus, like other Fathers before him, likes numerology. The strongest example of this follows (verse 7):

Furthermore, the very same Judith is found in the Scripture begotten in the fifteenth generation, which undoubtedly signifies that the Church itself emerged from the Patriarchs and Apostles through the number seven and the number eight of the Law and of the Gospel, and is appointed so that the glory of Heaven might be merited; for this number of steps was mystically presented in the Psalter and will reveal a type of the future ascension into the heavens, arriving at which the saints are justly able to say, “Behold now bless ye the Lord, all ye servants of the Lord: Who stand in the house of the Lord, in the courts of the house of our God” (Ps 133:1).

Rabanus follows the example of Saint Augustine of Hippo, who uses this same combination of seven and eight in discussing how high the water rose above the mountains during the flood. Augustine connects the fact that the water rose fifteen cubits above the mountains with baptism, which represents our regeneration, noting that the seventh day of rest (which epitomizes the Law), is thus connected with the eighth day of our resurrection (which epitomizes the Gospel) through this aggregate number of 15.

In the Vulgate and Septuagint, Psalms 119-133 (in translations based on the Masoretic Text like the King James Version, these are Psalms 120-134) are a sequence of fifteen Psalms or Odes of Ascent, also known as Graduals (note that gradus is the Latin word for step). Some scholars believe that these Psalms were sung by the Israelites as they made the journey to Jerusalem for the three great feasts. These Graduals continue to play a significant role in both the eastern and western liturgies. In the eastern rite, their principal use comes as the Church progresses through Lent toward Pascha. In the traditional western rite, these are sung at the third, sixth, and ninth hours on weekdays.

The second highlight that I would like to emphasize is that Rabanus sees the Ten Commandments as a an ancient and obsolete law. He likens Judith’s dead husband to the ten commandments, saying (verse 9):

She had Manasses for a husband, whose name is interpreted forgetful or necessity; who also, standing in the barley harvest over those binding sheaves in the field, died when the heat came upon his head. This is because she is discerned to be bound and subject either to the Ten Commandments of the Law or to a tribal custom from ancient times, but, with the coming Christ and with the sun of the Gospel growing brighter in the world, all that observance of the flesh ceased, and just as the gathering of the meager harvest came to a rapid finish, it was transferred through Christ to cultivation of the spiritual.

Rabanus teaches that the ancient law is a practice “of the flesh” and under the new covenant we are to cultivate the spirit rather than the flesh.

The third highlight that I would like to emphasize is how Rabanus Maurus speaks about prayer (verse 26).

“When therefore she had heard that Ozias had promised that he would deliver up the city after the fifth day” (Jdt 8:9), she reproved the idea, judging it inappropriate to establish for the Lord the time of His mercy, since He alone knew both the time and the manner of His mercy before all things; and because of this it is inappropriate for anyone to impudently demand anything of the Lord, but rather to refer everything to his judgment, just as a certain one of the Fathers is observed to have said as much in a prayer: “Son of God, as you will and as you know, have mercy on me.”

Rabanus is here quoting a prayer of Saint Macarius the Great. The full saying follows:

Abba Macarius was asked, ‘How should one pray?’ The old man said, ‘There is no need at all to make long discourses; it is enough to stretch out one’s hands and say, ‘Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.’ And if the conflict grows fiercer say, ‘Lord, help!’ He knows very well what we need and he shews us his mercy.1

Finally, while Judith, who represents the Church, chastises the ancients, the priests of the Church should still be respected by those of us who have been placed under their leadership. The Blessed Rabanus describes it this way (verse 37):

Judith entrusts the ancients with the gate, because the Holy Church commends the careful protection of the camp of God to the priests of Christ, so that intently vigilant and skilled in oversight they might in this way strive unharmed to fortify and to protect against the ambushes of the enemy through the weapons of prayers.

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


1 The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, trans. Benedicta Ward, (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications 1975), p. 131.

The Hospitality of Abraham: Iconography

rublev_troitsa

In our ongoing discussion of the Hospitality of Abraham, we have followed the story from the Old testament, through the New Testament, the writings of the Fathers, and the Liturgical witness. This final installment will take a brief look at the iconography and explore a few thoughts to help wrap up the discussion.

I have personally experienced an explanation of Rublev’s icon by several parish priests. Many of the aspects of the story in Genesis 18 are visible, including the famous oak tree at Mamre, which is seen near the top and just to the right of center, and Abraham’s ‘tabernacle’ or tent in the upper left of the icon. Food has been placed before the men by Abraham. The three men take on angelic form as is noted in Hebrews 13:2.

In addition, Saint Andrei Rublev has added some elements that cannot be directly discerned from the story in Genesis, but from later developments in Theology. For instance, the colors of the central figure’s garments closely match the typical colors that Christ wears in other icons. The green on the right-hand figure is reminiscent of the color we see most prominently at the feast of Pentecost, representing the Holy Spirit. Both of the rightmost figures are inclining their heads toward the leftmost figure, representing deference to the primus inter pares (i.e. the Father). The negative space between the two outermost figures approximates the shape of a chalice, while the central figure is inside this chalice. And a nearly perfect circle can be discerned in the outermost outlines of the three figures.

What has been left out is also of interest. Genesis 18:8 describes Abraham standing nearby under the oak tree and verse 10 describes Sarah standing in the doorway of her tent. Unlike earlier portrayals, Rublev chose to exclude some of these key features of the story so that the focus might center on the Holy Trinity. Even the colors of the angels are more vibrant than the colors of their surroundings.

Screen Shot 2017-03-17 at 2.37.06 PMThe Rublev icon is generally seen to be the ultimate evolution of the iconographic representation of the Old Testament Trinity. However, it appears that the iconographic tradition lagged behind the patristic tradition. Bunge claims that depictions of the story were from the beginning angelological1 and notes that we begin to encounter Christologically oriented depictions around the year 1000.2 The icon on the right shows such a Christological rendition, in which you can see the usual cross, indicating Christ, in the nimbus around the central figure. The tradition culminates in Rublev’s famous icon (c. 1410) in which we seem to have reverted to a purely angelological depiction, but find elements, however subtle, of the more advanced Trinitarian theology of the Nicene and post-Nicene fathers.

Conclusion

While knowledge of the evolution of the patristic understanding and iconographic tradition is edifying, the most important aspect of such a study is to obtain an understanding of what the church presently teaches us through an active participation in the life of the Church. The present teaching is the culmination of this progressive deepening process.

I believe that the first and foremost dimension of this teaching is the confluence of the Feast of Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, with the veneration of the icon of the Holy Trinity. The icon placed in the context of the birth of the church and the complete revelation of the Holy Trinity juxtaposes the type with the antetype. We see at once the Old Testament promise and its New Testament fulfillment. We see the beginning of the Old Testament Church juxtaposed with the birth of the New Testament Church. And we see a veiled image of God alongside a fuller revelation of the Holy Trinity. However, the most startling picture for me is Saint Cyril’s portrait of three persons walking and speaking in unison. The Trinity truly is One in essence and undivided.


1 Gabriel Bunge, “The Rublev Trinity,” trans. Andrew Louth, (Yonkers: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press 2007), p. 52.

2 Ibid, p. 48.

The Hospitality of Abraham: The Liturgical Witness

2012pentecost23In our ongoing discussion of the typology evident in the story of Abraham’s Hospitality, we have taken a brief tour of the Biblical and Patristic understandings. In this post we will take a very brief look at how this is revealed in the Orthodox liturgy.

The primary liturgical expression of the Old Testament Trinity is during the feast of Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, when in many parishes the icon of the Holy Trinity is placed in the center of the church for veneration.1 Through this action, the earliest revelation of God’s Trinitarian nature is linked to its more complete revelation on the day of Pentecost.2

On the Sunday before Nativity, Forefathers Sunday, we find a direct reference to God’s appearance at Mamre in the Matins service: “Of old holy Abraham entertained the one Godhead in three persons; while now the Word, enthroned with the Father and the divine Spirit, comes forth for the Youths, and he is greatly praised.”3 Additionally, a tribute to Abraham’s visitation is often present in Sunday’s midnight office. Ode 8 in the 5th tone is particularly poignant: “Even that of old you might clearly reveal the triple hypostasis of the one Lordship, you appeared, my God, in human form to Abraham as he praised your single might.”4

These instances are by no means exhaustive, but seem representative. While it is beyond the scope of this discussion to trace these instances back to their origins, it is reasonable to speculate that Abraham’s encounter with the Holy Trinity appeared liturgically as early as the time of Saint John Damascene (676-749) since he is attributed with the creation of an early form of the Octoechos, in which we find the relevant verses of the Midnight Office.5 The Matins occurrences in the Menaion might possibly be even older.

In our next and final post in this series, we will take a look at the iconography relating to this story and offer some thoughts on what it all means.


1 OrthodoxWiki authors, Pentecost.

2 Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, (Yonkers:Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1982), p. 200.

3 Archimandrite Ephrem, Matins, Sunday Before NativityLiturgical Texts.

4 Archimandrite Ephrem, Midnight Office, Tone 5, Sunday.

5 Wikipedia Authors, Octoechos.

Judith: Chapter 7 Commentary

azor_klagenwater_grt

The Citizens Complain (c. 1430), Azor Masters

I have completed a draft translation of chapter 7 of the Blessed Rabanus Maurus’ Commentary on the Book of Judith.

In chapter 7, the city of Bethulia is besieged by Holofernes and his army. The people of Bethulia earnestly beseech the Lord in prayer, yet, their faith is not as strong as it should be. Holofernes and his people notice that Bethulia has a water supply coming into the city through an aqueduct, so they block up the aqueduct, cutting off the supply of water. This clearly makes the people a bit nervous or even afraid, which is evident to the enemy simply from they way they act. Even once the main supply of water is cut off, there are sparse springs near the city walls that people come out to to drink. The Book of Judith notes that they would come out “to refresh themselves a little rather than to drink their fill” (Judith 7:7). This is what tips off the enemy.

Eventually the people come whining to the leaders of the city about the lack of water, begging them to surrender to Holofernes so that they can quench their thirst. The chief leader of the city, Ozias, asks them for a grace period of five days so that the Lord will have a chance to respond to their prayers.

Rabanus ties items in the story very directly to the things of everyday life. For instance, he ties this period of five days to the five senses of the body and finally convenience.

Those five days can be understood as the five senses of the body, by means of which the present life is derived. For indeed, just as the inept teacher seeks a span of five days for a grace period, so does anyone who unwisely promises that physical comfort is to be given from the Lord first-hand to his students, as if the generosity of the highest giver is in his power (given that time and a measure of concession consists more in the ability to give than to receive).

If, however, convenience is refused to be bestowed upon those things of the present life by the Supernal Judge, in accordance with their promise, they immediately desert them to turn aside into illicit desire, and by yielding to their persecutors they avoid physical pain; our Judith, that is the Holy Church, refuses and disdains as hurtful the condition of their agreement, which will be clearly demonstrated in the things that follow.

Rabanus likens the whinings of the citizens of Bethulia to our own lack of fortitude. While they are unable to wait upon the Lord on his own time, we too are unwilling to live with a little inconvenience in our lives. We yield to the temptation of the evil one in order to avoid pain. As we shall see in the next chapter, Judith, that is the Church, refuses this approach.

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

The Hospitality of Abraham: Cyril and Maximus

360px-icon_st-_cyril_of_alexandria

So far in this short series, we have followed the development of the Church’s understanding of the story of the Hospitality of Abraham. In this post we will wrap up our discussion of the patristic dialog with Saints Cyril and Maximus.

Saint Cyril of Alexandria seems to have presented the most definitive and enduring interpretation regarding Genesis 18. The understanding expressed by Cyril seems to have prevailed and for this reason I deemed it worth the effort to translate an extended passage of his argument from an available Latin translation of the original Greek. Commenting on Genesis 18:1-3, 9-10a (LXX), Cyril writes:

Behold, clearly it says God appeared unto him, truly being three men in appearance, the Holy Abraham approaching from afar speaking not as if to three: “Lords, if indeed I have found grace in your (pl.) sight, pass not by your (pl.) son,” but calling upon the threefold Lord singularly, as if to one, so that they might turn aside unto him, he asked “when,” and as one appearing in three, even as from one persona, they said, “Where is Sarra thy wife?” and responded, “I will come when the time is ripe.”

Discern therefore, discern indeed three appearing, and each identified by its respective hypostasis,1 in word subject to the consubstantial three comprehended in one, and thus intermingling the given work of conversation among themselves. But the likenesses of this mode are obscured in a certain way and are inferior to the truth, unless in some way they are to be used as a hand leading us into knowledge of their properties, which surpass the intellect and speech (obviously the light of the divine vision will penetrate only the most pure intellects), and as from these things which fall to the senses we fly unto that which to our senses and strength of reasoning are very far.

Singular, therefore, by the unanimity of all persons, is the nature of divinity, which is over all, through all and in all: through intellectual means, verily, this is extrapolated to the holy, venerable, and consubstantial Trinity, into the Father, I say, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit… Our progenitor Abraham, therefore, was not ignorant of the worship of the Holy Trinity…2

Cyril’s portrayal of the three speaking in unison is remarkable. He describes the three who appear to Abraham as likenesses that, while not the fullness of the truth, lead us, as if by the hand, into knowledge of God. He asserts that an understanding of the Holy Trinity can be discerned from this type through the application of the intellect. With Cyril we have completed the transition from a Christological to a Trinitarian interpretation.

maximus_the_confessorSaint Maximus, in his Third Dialog on the Holy Trinity, affirms Saint Cyril’s view, arguing likewise that Abraham spoke to three as to one.3 At one point in the dialog, the dialogist known as ‘Orthodox’ literally states that “the three men were God,”4 while his challenger ‘Macedonius’ insists that only one of the three was God and the others were angels. Saint John Damascene agrees with the imagery, yet makes certain to clarify that, “Abraham saw not the nature of God, for no man ever saw God, but the image of God, and falling down he adored.”5

It is interesting to observe that many, if not most, of the arguments made by the Fathers pivot on a precise interpretation of the literal words in Genesis 18. For instance, the Fathers carefully point out an address made in the singular, or an act done in the plural (e.g. the three measures of flour). Each word of Scripture is deemed significant.

In summary, the writings of the Holy Fathers reveal a progression in understanding of the story of The Hospitality of Abraham. In the earliest times all three persons are seen to be angels. In the second century a Christological interpretation is introduced. As we progress through the later fathers, the three men come to be seen as a type of the Holy Trinity, and even as a true theophany, not only of the Son, but of the entire Trinity. Ouspensky and Lossky clarify that the differences present in the latter two views do not change the understanding of the event because all the fullness of the Godhead is present in each Person. Consequently the earlier interpretation does not preclude a Trinitarian understanding.6

In our next post in this series, we will take a brief look at the liturgical witness to this story.


1 The latin word is subsistentia, which has a very similar meaning to the Greek hypostasis.

Saint Cyril of Alexandria, ‘Pro Sancta Christianorum Religione, Adversos Libros Athei Iuliani,’ in Cyrillii Alexandriae Archiepiscopi Operum, ed. Joannis Auberti, v. 6, b. 1, p. 20.

3 Saint Maximus the Confessor, ‘Opera Omnia,’ ed. Francisci Combefis, v. 2, p. 442.

4 Tres viri fuerunt Deus.

5 Saint John Damascene, ‘On Holy Images,’ trans. Mary H. Allies, (London:Thomas Baker 1898), Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Calvin College.

6 Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, ‘The Meaning of Icons,’ (Yonkers:Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1982), p. 201.