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Theological Notebook: Benedict XVI Teaching the Roots: the Church Fathers

Continuing the entry from above:

6. Origen of Alexandria

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Dear brothers and sisters, in our meditations on the great personalities of the ancient Church, we turn today to one of the most prominent of these. Origen of Alexandria was truly one of the decisive personalities for the overall development of Christian thought. He encapsulated the heritage of Clement of Alexandria, upon which we meditated last Wednesday, and relaunched it toward the future in such an innovative way that it gave an irreversible new direction to the development of Christian thought.

He was a true “master,” as his pupils remembered him with nostalgic affection: he was not only a brilliant theologian, but also an exemplary witness to the doctrine that he transmitted. “He taught,” writes Eusebius of Caesarea, his enthusiastic biographer, “that one’s conduct must correspond exactly with one’s words, and it was above all in this way that, aided by the grace of God, he induced many to imitate him” (Hist. Eccl. 6:3).

All of his life was accompanied by an incessant desire for martyrdom. He was seventeen years old when, in the tenth year of the reign of Emperor Septimus Severus, the persecution against Christians broke out in Alexandria. Clement, his master, fled the city, and Origen’s father, Leonides, was thrown into prison. His son ardently desired martyrdom, but he was unable to satisfy this desire. So he wrote to his father, exhorting him not to draw back from the supreme witness to the faith. And when Leonides was decapitated, the young Origen felt that he must cultivate the example of his life. Forty years later, while he was preaching in Caesarea, he broke out into this testimony: “It is of no use to me to have had a martyred father if I do not maintain a good conduct of life and honor the nobility of my ancestry, which is the martyrdom of my father and the witness that has made him glorious in Christ” (Hom. Ez. 4:8).

In a later homily – when, thanks to the extreme tolerance of the emperor Phillip the Arab, the possibility of giving a bloody witness seemed diminished – Origen exclaims: “If God would grant me to be washed in my own blood, so as to receive the second baptism having accepted death for Christ, I would leave this world with confidence... But blessed are those who merit these things (Hom. Iud. 7:12).

These expressions reveal all of Origen’s yearning for baptism by blood. And finally this irresistible desire was satisfied, at least in part. In 250, during the Decian persecution, Origen was arrested and cruelly tortured. Exhausted by the suffering he had undergone, he died a few years later. He was not yet seventy years old.

We have referred to the “irreversible new direction” that Origen gave to the history of theology and of Christian thought. But in what consists this “new direction,” this new development so fraught with consequences? It substantially corresponds to the grounding of theology in the explanation of the Scriptures.

Practicing theology was essentially, for him, explaining and understanding Scripture. Or we could also say that his theology is the perfect symbiosis between theology and exegesis.

In reality, the hallmark of Origen’s teaching seems to lie in the incessant invitation to pass from the letter of Scripture to its spirit, in order to advance in the knowledge of God. And this so-called “allegoricalism,” von Balthasar wrote, coincides precisely “with the development of Christian dogma effected by the teaching of the doctors of the Church,” who - in one way or another - accepted the “lesson” of Origen.

Thus tradition and the magisterium, the foundation and guarantee of theological research, configure themselves as “Scripture in action” (cf. Origene: il mondo, Cristo e la Chiesa, Milano 1972, p. 43). We can therefore assert that the nucleus of Origen’s immense literary work consists of his “triple reading” of the Bible.

But before illustrating this “reading,” we should get a quick overview of Origen’s literary production. Saint Jerome, in his Letter 33, lists the titles of 320 books and 310 homilies by Origen. Unfortunately, most of this work has been lost, but even the little that remains makes him the most prolific author of the first three Christian centuries. The scope of his interests extends from exegesis to dogma, to philosophy, to apologetics, to asceticism and mysticism. It is a fundamental and comprehensive view of Christian life.

The central inspiration of this work is, as we have already mentioned, the “triple reading” of the Scriptures developed by Origen over his lifetime.

With this expression we intend to allude to the three most important modalities - not consecutive, but more often overlapping - through which Origen dedicated himself to the study of the Scriptures.

Above all, he read the Bible with the intention of verifying the text as well as possible, and of offering the most trustworthy possible edition of it. This, for example, is the first step: to understand truly what is written and understand what this writing intentionally and initially wanted to say. He conducted a great study to this end, and edited an edition of the Bible with six parallel columns, from left to right, with the Hebrew text in Hebrew characters - he also had contacts with the rabbis, in order to understand well the original Hebrew text of the Bible - then the Hebrew text transliterated into Greek characters, and then four different Greek translations, which permitted him to compare the different translation possibilities. From this comes the title of “Hexapla” (“six columns”) attributed to this immense synopsis. This is the first point: to understand precisely what is written, the text as such.

In the second place, Origen systematically interpreted the Bible in his celebrated commentaries. These reproduce faithfully the explanations that the master offered in his lessons, in both Alexandria and Caesarea. Origen proceeds almost verse by verse, in minute, ample, and in-depth detail, with philological and doctrinal notes. He worked with great precision to understand well what the sacred authors meant to say.

Finally, even before his priestly ordination, Origen dedicated himself greatly to the preaching of the Bible, adapting himself to variously composed audiences. In any case, one also sees in his homilies the master completely dedicated to the systematic interpretation of the pericope under examination, gradually breaking it down verse by verse.

In his homilies, too, Origen takes every opportunity to recall the different dimensions of the meaning of Sacred Scripture, which either aid or express a journey of growth in the faith: there is the “literal” sense, which conceals depths that at first do not appear to the view; the second dimension is the “moral” sense, what we must do to live out the word; and finally there is the “spiritual” sense, which means the unity of Scripture that in its entire development speaks of Christ.

It is the Holy Spirit who makes us understand the Christological content of Scripture, and thus its unity in its diversity. It would be interesting to demonstrate this. I tried somewhat, in my book “Jesus of Nazareth,” to display in today’s situation these multiple dimensions of the Word, of Sacred Scripture, which first must be respected in its historical sense. But this sense draws us toward Christ, in the light of the Holy Spirit, and shows us the way to live. A reference to this is found, for example, in the ninth homily on Numbers, where Origen compares the Scripture to a nut: “So also is the doctrine of the Law and the Prophets in the school of Christ,” asserts the homilist; “the letter is bitter, like the husk [of a nut]; you then come to the kernel, which is the moral doctrine; third you find the sense of the mysteries, by which the souls of the saints are nourished in the present life and in the life to come” (Homily on Numbers 9:7).

Above all, in this way Origen became an effective promoter of the “Christian interpretation” of the Old Testament, brilliantly dispatching the challenge of those heretics - above all the Gnostics and Marcionites - who contrasted the two Testaments to the point of rejecting the Old.

In this regard, in the same Homily on Numbers Origen asserts: “I do not call the Law an ‘Old Testament’, if I comprehend it in the Spirit. The Law becomes an ‘Old Testament’ only for those who want to understand it carnally,” which means stopping at the letter of the text. But “for us, who comprehend it and apply it in the Spirit and in the sense of the Gospel, the Law is always new, and the two Testaments are for us a new Testament, not because of their origin in time, but because of the newness of their meaning . . . But for the sinner and for those who do not respect the pact of charity, even the Gospels grow old” (Homily on Numbers 9:4).

I invite you - and so I conclude - to welcome in your hearts the teaching of this great master in the faith. He reminds us with frank enthusiasm that, in the prayerful reading of Scripture and in the consistent engagement of life, the Church always renews and rejuvenates itself.

The Word of God, which never grows old and is never exhausted, is a privileged means in this regard. It is, in fact, the Word of God that, through the work of the Holy Spirit, guides us always anew to the truth in its entirety (cf. Benedict XVI, To the participants in the international congress organized to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Dogmatic Constitution on divine revelation “Dei Verbum,” in Insegnamenti, vol. I, 2005, pp. 552-553). And let us pray that the Lord may give us today thinkers, theologians, and exegetes who may discover this multidimensionality, this permanent newness of the Sacred Scripture, its newness for today. Let us pray that the Lord may help us to read Sacred Scripture in a prayerful way, to nourish ourselves truly with the real bread of life, with his Word.

7. Origen of Alexandria: his thought

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Dear brothers and sisters, the catechesis of last Wednesday was dedicated the great figure of Origen, an Alexandrian doctor of the 2nd-3rd century. In this catechesis, we took into consideration the life and literary production of the great Alexandrian master, identifying in his “triple reading” of the Bible the central impulse of his entire work.

I left aside – to take it back up today – two aspects of Origen’s doctrine which I consider among the most important and relevant: I mean to speak of his teachings on prayer and on the Church.

In reality, Origen – the author of an important and still relevant treatise “On Prayer” – constantly wove his exegetical and theological production together with experiences and suggestions related to prayer. In spite of all the theological richness of its thought, it is never a purely academic treatment; it is always founded upon the experience of prayer, of contact with God.

In his judgment, in fact, knowledge of the Scriptures requires prayer and intimacy with Christ, even more than study. He is convinced that the privileged way to know God is love, and that one does not attain an authentic “scientia Christi” without falling in love with him.

In the Letter to Gregory, Origen urges: “Dedicate yourself to the reading of the divine Scriptures; apply yourself to this with perseverance. Commit yourself to reading with the intention of believing and of pleasing God. If during the reading you find yourself before a closed door, knock, and that guardsman will open it of whom Jesus said: ‘The watchman will open it for him’. Thus applying yourself to lectio divina, seek with loyalty and unshakeable faith in God the meaning of the divine Scriptures, which is hidden deeply within them. But you must not content yourself with knocking and seeking: in order to understand the things of God, prayer is absolutely necessary. Precisely in order to exhort us to this, the Savior said not only ‘Seek and you will find’, and ‘Knock and it will be opened to you’, but he added: ‘Ask and you will receive’” (Ep. Gr. 4).

What immediately leaps to the eyes is the “primordial role” played by Origen in the history of lectio divina. Bishop Ambrose of Milan – who would learn to read the Scriptures from the works of Origen – later introduced this in the West, handing it down to Augustine and to the successive monastic tradition.

As we have already said, the highest level of knowledge of God, according to Origen, is reached through love. And so it is also among men: one really understands the other in his depths only if there is love, if one opens one’s heart.

To demonstrate this, he bases himself upon a meaning sometimes given to the verb “to know” in Hebrew, when it is used to express the act of human love: “Adam knew Eve, his wife, who conceived” (Gn. 4:1). Thus it is suggested that union in love produces the most authentic form of knowledge. As man and woman are “two in one flesh,” so also God and the believer become “two in one spirit.” In this way, Origen’s view of prayer attains the highest levels of mysticism, as attested by his homilies on the Song of Songs.

A passage from his first homily fits into this context, where Origen confesses: “Often – as God is my witness – I have felt the Bridegroom approach me in the highest degree; later he suddenly left, and I was unable to find what I was seeking. Then again the desire for him to come seizes me, and sometimes he returns, and when he appears, when I hold him between my hands, see again that he leaves me, and as soon as he vanishes I begin to seek him again...” (Hom. Cant. 1:7).

I am reminded of what my venerable predecessor wrote, as an authentic witness, in “Novo Millennio Ineunte,” where he demonstrates to the faithful “how prayer can progress, as a genuine dialogue of love, to the point of rendering the person wholly possessed by the divine Beloved, vibrating at the Spirit's touch, resting filially within the Father's heart... It is a journey totally sustained by grace, which nonetheless demands an intense spiritual commitment and is no stranger to painful purifications. But it leads, in various possible ways, to the ineffable joy experienced by the mystics as nuptial union" (no. 33).

We come, at last, to one of Origen’s teachings about the Church, and more precisely – within this – about the common priesthood of the faithful. In fact, as Origen affirms in his ninth Homily on Leviticus, “this matter concerns all of us” (Hom. Lev. 9:1).

In the same homily, Origen – referring to Aaron’s ban, after the death of his two sons, against entering the Holy of Holies “at any time” (Lv. 16:2) – admonishes the faithful in this way: “This shows that if anyone enters at any time within the sanctuary without due preparation, not clothed in the priestly garments, without having prepared the prescribed offerings and obtained God’s favor, he will die. [...] This matter concerns all of us. He orders, in fact, that we know how to approach the altar of God. Or do you not know that the priesthood has also been conferred upon you, upon the whole Church of God and the community of believers? Listen to how Peter speaks of the faithful: ‘Elect race’, he says, ‘royal, priestly, a holy nation, a people that God has acquired’. You therefore have the priesthood, because you are a ‘priestly race’, and thus you must offer sacrifice to God. [...] But in order that you may offer this worthily, you need garments that are pure and distinct from the common clothing of other men, and you need the divine fire” (ibid).

Thus on the one side the “girded loins” and the “priestly garments” – meaning purity and honesty of life – and on the other the “lamp always alight” – meaning faith and knowledge of the Scriptures – present themselves as the indispensable conditions for the exercise of the universal priesthood, which demands purity and honesty of life, faith and knowledge of the Scriptures.

Clearly these conditions are all the more indispensable for the exercise of the priestly ministry. These conditions – of an upright way of life, but above all of the acceptance and study of the Word – establish a true and proper “hierarchy of sanctity” in the common priesthood of Christians. Origen places martyrdom at the peak of this journey of perfection.

Still in the ninth Homily on Leviticus, he alludes to the “fire for the holocaust,” meaning faith and knowledge of the Scriptures, which must never be extinguished upon the altar of those who exercise the priesthood. He then adds: “But each one of us has within himself” not only the fire, but “also the burnt offering, and from his burnt offering he lights the fire of the altar, that it may burn forever. If I renounce everything that I possess and take up my cross and follow Christ, I offer my holocaust on the altar of God; and if through charity I hand over my body to be burned and attain the glory of martyrdom, I offer my holocaust on the altar of God” (Hom. Lev. 9:9).

This untiring journey of perfection “concerns all of us,” so that “the gaze of our hearts” may be directed to the contemplation of Wisdom and Truth, which is Jesus Christ.

In preaching upon the words of Jesus in Nazareth – when “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed upon him” (Lk. 4:16-30) – Origen seems to be addressing us: “Today as well, if you want it, in this assembly your eyes can be fixed upon the Savior. In fact, when you turn the deepest gaze of your heart toward the contemplation of Wisdom, of the Truth, and of the only Son of God, then your eyes will see God. Happy the assembly of which Scripture attests that the eyes of all were fixed upon him! How greatly I desire that this assembly would receive a similar testimony, that the eyes of all – of the unbaptized and of the faithful, of women, men, and children – would look upon Jesus, not with the eyes of the body, but with those of the soul! [...] The light of your face is impressed upon us, O Lord, to whom belong glory and power unto ages of ages. Amen!” (Hom. Lk. 32:6).


The previous cycle of Wednesday general audiences, begun by Benedict XVI on March 15, 2006, and dedicated to the twelve Apostles and to the disciples named in the New Testament, is found on the Vatican’s website. In order:

> Christ and the Church

> The Apostles, Witnesses of Christ'

> The Gift of "Communion"

> Safeguarding the Gift of Communion

> Communion in Time: Tradition

> The Apostolic Tradition of the Church

> The Apostolic Succession

> Peter, the Fisherman

> Peter, the Apostle

> Peter, the Rock

> Andrew, the Protoclete

> James, the Greater

> James, the Lesser

> John, Son of Zebedee

> John, the Theologian

> John, the Seer of Patmos

> Matthew

> Philip

> Thomas

> Bartholomew

> Simon the Cananaean and Jude Thaddaeus

> Judas Iscariot and Matthias

> Paul of Tarsus

> St Paul's New Outlook

> St Paul and the Spirit

> St Paul and the Church

> Timothy and Titus

> Stephen, the Protomartyr

> Barnabas, Silas, and Apollos

> Priscilla and Aquila

> Women at the Service of the Gospel
Tags: benedict xvi, education, faith and reason, gnosticism, historical, patristics, theological notebook

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