St Nicholas Day Sale! Save 20%-50% on books and literature guides through November 9!

Aren’t You Reading Too Much Into This?

Some events are so massive, mankind needs a thousand years to remember them properly.

Any classics teacher who has laid open the typical patristic commentary on the Odyssey, especially the account of Odysseus being tied to the mast of his ship, has likely encountered students who ask, with either chagrin or ennui, “Isn’t he reading a little too deeply into all of this?” Often enough, the mast of Odysseus’ ship is interpreted as the Cross, and the man of tricks is reckoned safe from the song of heretics because he fastens himself to the Wood. If an acrobatic interpretation of pagan myth is not sufficiently outlandish, just about any Church Father’s interpretation of, say, the Exodus epic or the story of Noah will call forth objections on the grounds of speculation. Augustine’s teaching that the three floors of the Ark might represent the three rates of return on piety and faith (“…some thirty-fold, some sixty, some a hundred-fold…”), or the three kinds of chastity (marriage, monasticism, widowhood), or any other set of three holy things provided that “the rule of faith” is not broken often strike modern readers as needlessly and dangerously open and malleable.

Granted, giving a thorough response to such skepticism requires a lengthy theological, philosophical, historical and philological gymnastics. The good teacher will have hopefully laid the groundwork for interpretations of Scripture like those of Clement and Augustine, although the clearest explanations of Patristic exegesis aren’t always at a high school reading level and often involve an assumed sympathy for mysticism. At the same time, there are a host of prejudices many modern readers have about time and factuality, many of them Enlightened, which impede students from sympathy with the Fathers’ digestion of a text.

Modern readers tend to read books like detectives or cops collecting affidavits. Police generally want to talk to witnesses as quickly as possible after a crime has been committed. The details of what was seen will be “fresh” and uncorrupted by competing accounts a witness might accidentally encounter, which, upon hearing, will begin to change the memory of the witness. I know little of police work, and should assume that the practice of rapidly acquiring eye-witness accounts is reasonable and prudent. At the same time, pre-Modern views of factuality entail an entirely different set of prejudices.

When Modern historians address the question of whether Jesus was actually, factually born on December 25th, what they usually want is some two thousand year old hotel registry which reads, “December 24th (late check in): Joseph and Mary (pregnant)— discounted cave rate.” Medievals had little interest in such archaeology because it could be easily faked. Instead, Medievals were content December 25th was the date because it was the Winter Solstice, the darkest day of the year. Following the Solstice, the reign of the sun gained and gained, just as the Advent of Christ ushered in a new era of increasing light. Further, December 25th was nine months after March 25th, the date of the Annunciation. And why was this the date of the Annunciation? Because March 25th was the Equinox, a day of perfect balance between day and night, the same day on which God created the Earth in a state of perfect balance and right order. It made a poetic sense the recreation of the world should take place on the same date. Incidentally, the Spring Equinox and the Winter Solstice are both days upon which the world begins moving toward greater brightness. With such overwhelming astronomical evidence to support the December 25th date, who in their right mind would demand the log book of some ancient Motel 6 to prove a matter of profound theological importance? The stars don’t lie, whereas any joker with a pen, parchment and a dirty pick could claim to have unearthed something which debunked the Church calendar.

Similarly, Modern exegetes tend to want handwritten letters from Moses to Zipporah wherein the Patriarch explains in exacting paragraphs the variety of ways in which the account of Noah might be unpacked before they are willing to concede much is going on in Genesis which isn’t about a boat with three decks. However, intention can never be expressed in words. Words represent thoughts, but even when words are explained, the explanation invariably comes in words, and the latter words represent thoughts still. We might ask what the Parable of the Sower means, and proceed to Christ’s interpretation of it, but Christ’s interpretation of the parable is no less representative of His thought than the original parable. Words are always representative, and representation is the lot of every rational creature. Only God Himself is pure presentation.

Enlightenment sympathizers tended to present human history as movement forward, not movement backwards. A man walking forward beholds all which is coming toward him, and can direct his path to a certain goal, but also navigate around obstacles. As a man moving forward nears an object, that object becomes easier to see. With his back turned to an object, the object becomes impossible to see. For this reason, Enlightenment philosophers annexed the past to a realm of darkness and foolishness. The Church puts forward an entirely different schema for understanding the relationship between man, time and event. If we understand the progression of time as a man taking steps backwards, every event is properly reckoned as an unpredictable surprise suddenly revealed by God. For this reason, Chesterton could commend a unique delight in seeing the sun rise every morning, not a blasé fact which could have been seen coming a mile off. Such a schema also allows for a thing to be understood properly only at a distance. Proximity to an event can obscure it. Take a blindfold off a man when his nose is pressed against a billboard and he will not know if the dab of red before his eyes is an image of an evening gown or human blood. Let him stand a hundred yards off and he can see it is both. The distance which the passage of time allows for does not always obscure. It can just as easily illuminate.

Remembering is work, and Herculean work at that. Such work can take time. Days, weeks, months. Some events are so massive, mankind needs a thousand years to remember them properly. It takes only a moment for the eye to take in the Isenheim Altarpiece, but to describe it to someone who had never seen it might take hours. Remembering is the great task of all mankind; we all struggle to recall the details of the universal work of Jesus Christ. Remembering is not only an individual work, but a communal work. When Matthias Grünewald painted Christ suffering from ergotism, he was not so much inventing as recalling, as though he were St. John suddenly sharing some detail of Good Friday, which had slipped his mind for six decades, to his disciple Irenaeus.

That the passage of time makes some events more clear, not less, seems suggested in the three accounts of Saul’s encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus. The first account comes from Luke’s perspective as narrator, whereas the second and third are written by Luke as dialog coming from the character of St. Paul. Observe the enlarging details:

Acts 9: Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Acts 22: As I was on my way and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone around me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’ Now those who were with me saw the light but did not understand the voice of the one who was speaking to me. And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.’ And since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus.

Acts 29: At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that shone around me and those who journeyed with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’

Years pass in Paul’s life between the first retelling and the second, and yet the years allow Paul to understand with greater clarity the light of Christ. In the first account, the light is a “light from heaven.” In Paul’s first retelling, the light has become “a great light,” and in the final account, a “light from heaven, brighter than the sun.” As the narrative is retold, the detail with which Paul is able to describe the light grows. Were he to retell the story a hundred more times, who can say with what accuracy he would be able to tell of that light? So, too, the words of the Lord are recalled in far greater detail in the final account than the first. And were Paul to have more time to reflect on the words of the Lord, how long might he spend recounting everything the Lord said? He is, in a manner of speaking, describing the Isenheim Altarpiece to people who have never seen it. A man who had ten seconds to describe the Isenheim Altarpiece, a man who had ten minutes to describe it, and a man who had ten days to describe it would all describe the same thing, but the material of the description would enlarge, expand, unfurl. In the ten second description, whole figures and panels might be left out. In the ten minute description, colors would be left out. In the ten day description, details might be forgotten which the memory returned later with interest.

When the teacher takes up an interpretation of Odysseus at the mast or the construction of the Ark or the Damascus sun, he might look for help in hotel registries or the changeless stars. He might bemoan the fact he was not present for the binding or building or blinding, as though the event could be known truly if only someone had thought to snap a picture of it. Or he might regard the passage of time as the enlarging of the microscopic imagination, recognizing at last some unknown nuance of the wood, the water or the bright Word.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles