Hebrews 11:24-25, 32-40; John 1:43-51, 2 Peter 1.
For four weekdays leading up to the Sunday of Orthodoxy, we inhabit, in our prayers together, the canon of St. Andrew of Crete, who in many of his odes takes us to the stories of the Old Testament, as he encourages his soul (and ours!) to repent. In some of his instruction he meditates upon the figure of Moses and so prepares us for the epistle reading upcoming in the Sunday of Orthodoxy, which also recalls the law-giver: “By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Heb 11:24-25 RSV).
Like the other Old Testament figures, Moses “won strength out of weakness” (Heb 11:34). In concert with St. Andrew, the epistle to the Hebrews, then, concentrates not simply upon the heroic acts of our Old Testament fathers in the faith, but upon how they learned, from their mortal, human condition of weakness, to rely upon God. This is true, too, of the first followers of Jesus, whose greatness consisted mostly in their obedience to Jesus, who told them, as we hear in the gospel reading for this coming Sunday, “Follow me” (John 2:1 RSV).
To follow Jesus means, above all, to pursue a life of humility, and to recognize our dependence upon the Father. So, in Ode 9 appointed for Clean Monday, St. Andrew reasons with himself:
I have reminded you, O my soul, from the books of Moses how the world was created, and from accounts throughout the Old Testament have shown examples of both the righteous and the unrighteous. But of these you have imitated the latter rather than the former and thereby have sinned against your God.
The Old Testament Scriptures, St. Andrew knows, though frequently relating past events, have also been given to us as examples and as warnings. These ancient stories put on full display both the strengths and weaknesses of the human condition, beginning with our first parents, continuing through the patriarchs and into the time of the judges and the kings. St. Andrew took to heart the method of reading laid down for us by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians. In that letter, he spoke to the Corinthians about the covenant family of Israel, and how it too was called to belong to God by means of water and a holy meal, but how some rebelled and turned away. Concerning the rebellion of Moses’ people in the wilderness, St. Paul explains, “Now these things happened to them typologically, and they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1Cor 10:11-13 RSV).
This is the template for the method that St. Andrew of Crete follows in his canon. It is not that St. Andrew and the Church fathers think that St. Paul is telling them that the OT passages have no historical value: many of them are indeed connected with space and time, with their own context; but they also point forward to the time of Christ, and the New Covenant. And so St. Andrew reads many episodes in the OT (along with some in the New) as “typologically” indicating our own dilemma: so he enters into many of the stories, seeing both warnings and encouragements for the soul, and helping us to have confidence in the God who can give us strength, during this holy time, to withstand temptation and to grow. Every one of the parallels that he draws is intended to spur us on, to direct us away from the disobedience that comes so naturally, and to move us to repentance.
Let’s consider simply the way that he speaks of the great law-giver, Moses. In Ode 5 of Tuesday’s canon, we hear about Moses from his infancy through his calling by the eternal and loving God. At the first stage, we hear of how the one who delivered the Hebrews was himself delivered, as we too have been:
You have heard, O my soul, how the waves and waters of the river formed a protective chamber for the baby Moses, allowing his basket of reeds to escape the cruel edict of the Pharaoh. The midwives, though instructed by Pharaoh to kill the male infants of the Hebrews, obeyed their God instead. Now that you, my hopeless soul, have been spared death like Moses, like him also be nourished on the wisdom of the Lord.
Waves and water, typically threatening agents, actually form a kind of womb for the infant Moses, allowing him to escape, though borne within a fragile vessel, from the slaughter commanded by Pharoah. The heroes here are the obedient midwives, who stand for life—that is, in itself, a lesson in our murderous day, where babies are killed not because it has been commanded, but simply because it is permitted when they are inconvenient! The story has a literal link with our day, then, and not simply a spiritual one. But St. Andrew pictures himself as the infant Moses, protected in a hostile world, and nourished by God, just as Moses was nourished by his mother, posing as a nurse-maid. The canon reminds us that it is not enough to simply be rescued by baptism and chrismation from the dangers of this God-defying age, but that we must drink deeply of the wisdom of the Lord, which comes to us in various places and by various means: the Scriptures, the Fathers, our time with more mature Christians, the Holy Mysteries, the council that comes at our times of confession.
St. Andrew then proceeds in the story of Moses, reminding us of his break with Egypt. In protecting a fellow Hebrew from mistreatment, Moses slaughters an Egyptian taskmaster: no doubt a sin, in itself, though partially defensible. St. Andrew, however, sees a positive aspect, for the violent action became the catalyst for Moses’ decisive break with his adoptive but idolatrous family:
By killing the oppressive Egyptian, Moses severed his bond to Pharaoh. But you, O my hopeless soul, have not even begun to attack the wickedness of your mind. If you have not accomplished even this much, how can you expect to pass through the time of repentance, which alone can drive away our sinful passions?
In drawing this kind of spiritual parallel, St. Andrew follows the same procedure as those who direct us to read the imprecatory psalms NOT in terms of violence against others, but violence against our own wayward characters. When we read weekly about “cutting off” the evildoers in our house, the fathers tell us to read this in terms of minding our own spiritual affairs and rooting out the sin within ourselves. Now that we know the full will of God, that he wills every sinner to repent and so to be saved, that Jesus himself “became sin” that we might show forth God’s righteousness (2 Cor 5:21), our prayers take a different turn than those under the old covenant. They hoped for justice. We know, in Christ, that mercy is even greater than judgement, and will prevail! So, then, we turn the “violence” upon our sins, “attacking” not the sinner outside of us, but within us, “the wickedness of the mind.” We have forty days in which to practice this, learning how to drive away our sinful passions; and against this foe, we should show no mercy!
St. Andrew then reminds us of God’s desire to illumine us fully. Rescued from this world, nurtured by God’s wisdom, daily practicing death to self, we hope, like many who have gone before us, to “see God.” To the eyes that are cleansed, and that go, with Jesus, to the wilderness “outside the camp” (Hebrews 13:13) to be purified, God can show himself. St. Symeon the New Theologian knew this; St. Gregory of Palamas knew this; and St. Andrew knows it, too:
“Go, my soul, and imitate the great Moses in the wilderness, that like him you may behold God present in the burning bush.”
We will remember, by our hymns, that the burning bush is a symbol of the Virgin Mary, who was virginal though a Mother, like the bush that burned but was never consumed. It is in her arms, as she presents him to us, that we see the God-Man. We are, like the elder Simeon, the recipients of this One whom she offers to us, full of grace, truth, and cleansing power. Her arms are like the tongs of the chalice, presenting Him to us, and opening our eyes increasingly to divine wonders. Especially at this time of Lent, we may pray that the Holy Spirit will show us more and more of the One who lived, died, rose again, and ascended, taking our humanity to the Father as an offering.
He bears us upon his breast, as the priest bore the names of the tribes of Israel as he entered the Holy Place; our High Priest Jesus always intercedes and always carries our humanity with him. The gift for which we long this Lent is that we shall know Him, each of us, in an intimate way, and not simply know about Him. One of the paths to this deep knowledge is to enter into times of separation from the world, and to learn constant repentance. St. Andrew’s canon is a great help as we begin this arduous, but promising journey. Like Moses, who fled Egypt, may we come increasingly to know and to adore the great I AM, the “being One,” from whom our biological and our spiritual life flows! As 2 Peter puts it, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:3-4). But this does not happen automatically. St. Peter goes on, in concert with St. Andrew, to speak about how it is important to pay heed to the Scriptures, as interpreted by the apostles (2 Peter 1:16-20), and how we must add virtue to virtue (2 Peter 1:5-8) with the help of the Holy Spirit and other Christians around us. We are on a great quest to see God face-to-face, and can have even more hope than Moses himself did, for the God-Man has come among us!
St. Andrew’s last words about the patriarch Moses indeed create in us a sense of anticipation about our quest. Not only did Moses see God, but he was empowered by Him. So we are told:
“Think of the staff that Moses stretched over the waters to divide them. It is an image of the Cross of Christ whereby you, my soul, can also accomplish great things.”
St. Andrew is, of course, only echoing Jesus, who assured the disciples that they would do “even greater things” than they might imagine (John 14:12). Indeed, the greatness of the deeds comes because of the greatness of the vision of the Lord! We return, with this reminder, to our readings for the Sunday of Orthodoxy. There we hear Jesus’ bracing words to Nathaniel, that honest Israelite who wondered how a prophet could come from Nazareth. Jesus was not offended by the skepticism, but told Nathaniel, “you will see greater things than these” (John 1:50). He then put before Nathaniel a vision greater than any vision of the Old Testament—greater than the bush of Moses, greater than the ladder of Jacob. It was the picture of the Son of Man himself, the true and only Ladder to the Father, attended by angels ascending and descending to those who pray and who try, with God’s help, to climb. During Holy Lent, we pay heed to the climbing, remember those who have gone before, give thanks for St. Andrew of Crete and the Old Testament Scriptures that he illumines for us, and bless those fathers who re-established the holy icons among us, pictures that put the hope of eternity in our hearts! We turn our face towards the life-giving Cross, knowing that even if the way is hard, we are not alone.