I love the Bible. I am growing to love the Church. I love to be in intense discussion about something that matters to me and to my interlocutor(s). And I love to read and write! One thing that I do not like about written words is that they can be somewhat disembodied. However, it is also true that part of who we are can be attached to written words: I have never met C. S. Lewis, George Herbert, Fr. Georges Florovsky, or Fr. Alexander Schmemann, but I feel sure that when I see them in the resurrection we will know each other, because they introduced themselves to me through their godly writings. I am sorry that I cannot see all the faces of those who may be interested in this blog: but no doubt we shall also meet one day, and already we are joined in Christ, whose work reconciles everything in heaven and in earth.
I am actually paid to do something that I love: to teach the New Testament. That is a wonderful thing, along with being an amateur musician (piano, oboe and choir), wife to an careful editor who corrects me daily, a mother of three spunky and devout young women, a grateful mother-in-law to three energetic and honourable [yes, there is a “u” there, as I was born in Canada] sons-in-law, and grandmother to five girls and four boys. In my work, I have determined never to teach the NT without reference to the entire collection of Biblical writings, for the early Church claimed the Old Testament as its Scriptures, and Marcion’s denigration of those older books was rejected in the early centuries. Besides, what a fascinating assortment of literature is found there—irresistible to someone like me who had originally planned to teach English literature!
Biblical illiteracy is a real curse, even in the Church, in our generation. People think they know the Bible, but they do not. Think back to WWII, when things were clearly different. In 1940 the British Expeditionary Force found itself isolated on the beaches of Dunkirk. The commander of the force sent a simple three-word message back to the home office—“But if not.” That three-word message was not only understood by home office, but when broadcast publically, was the catalyst for citizens, who launched across the channel every craft that could ﬂoat. The day was saved! The British people knew their Scripture, and recognized the echo of Dan. 3:17-18, where Daniel defied a godless king, assured them that God could deliver him, and said “but if not,” we will not bow to your idol. The commander was not going to give in, and they were determined to help.
Alas, very few of my seminary students are at the same level of the general public of 75 years ago. In the Orthodox Church, we are enriched by wonderful traditional hymns and prayers that echo and dwell in the Old Testament. Because of this, we might not recognize “but if not”, but we do know about the three youths in the furnace. We do not, however, read the OT very often liturgically, except for the Psalms. It is up to us to find other methods, then, to enrich our understanding, for the Gospels and epistles are chock-full of quotations, allusions and echoes of the OT, which the apostle Peter called “a lamp that must be heeded until the Day [of Jesus’ return] dawns” (2 Peter 1:19).
Who knows what Jesus is echoing when he says, “Take my yoke upon you”? Does it matter that there is a difference between the Sadducees and the Pharisees? To which scripture(s) is Jesus referring when he asks, “Where is it written that the Son of Man must suffer?” Why does Jesus speak about “angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man”? Why does Matthew connect Hosea’s prophecy about Israel, “Out of Israel I have called my son,” with Jesus? What on earth is the book of Hebrews up to when it speaks about Melchizedek? Having an intimate knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures, as Jesus and the apostles (and the fathers!) did, will help us to understand more and more of the gospels, in which we see Jesus, and the epistles, which show us how to live in Christ.
Some people find the idea of reading the OT daunting. But there is so much to explore—it is a whole world, replete with treasures and refreshment. As St. John Chrysostom put it, it is both like a fountain and a treasure, and it is there for us to read together. Please join me as I meditate upon the readings for Divine Liturgy twice a month, helped by our fathers in Christ, and exploring those parts of the Old Testament that will make these New Testament readings come to life. And shoot me a comment, question, disagreement or note, if you like—because here is one way in which written words can become more than symbols on a page, or vehicles for ideas. Though I am a longtime NT specialist and academic, I am fairly new member of the Orthodox Church (coming up to 6 years, though I have been a friend of the Orthodox for almost 20 years), and so I would certainly love to learn from my more experienced readers! God the Holy Spirit has given us this bracing collection of writings to read together, with the Church past and present, and I suspect that the reading will not only help us to see our Lord more clearly, but may draw Christian brother and sister together as well. Lamps not only show the way, but also are a rallying point for those who otherwise would remain in darkness.