“My soul shall rejoice in the Lord, for He has clothed me with the garment of salvation; He has covered me with the robe of gladness; as a bridegroom He has set a crown on me; and as a bride adorns herself with jewels, so my God has adorned me.”
With these words from Isaiah, the priest begins the ritual of dressing prior to the Liturgy. With each item of his priestly garments, another verse from the Scriptures (Old Testament) will be recited. The verse not only relates to that item of clothing, but offers both a mystical explanation as well as a meditation for the priest himself. The priest begins the Divine Liturgy by becoming an allegory.
To understand such a statement, reflect with me on this passage from Galatians:
“It is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are an allegory. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar—for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children—but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.” (4:22-27)
St. Paul is doing nothing strange in his treatment of the Old Testament. Jews and Gentiles would be familiar with this manner of reading. It is interesting that some English translations will render this as “which things are figurative…” or “which things are symbolic…” Clearly showing that we have a hard time expressing what is going on here. In modern usage, “allegory” has come to be confined to a particular form of literary symbolism, one where one thing is meant to stand for something else. CS Lewis’ childrens’ book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, is an example of such allegory. Aslan stands for Christ. This, however, is not what St. Paul means.
St. Paul is using the term in its very broad, ancient sense, in which allegory means the use of one word in order to convey another. It is an understanding that there is a meaning hidden beneath and within a text. Indeed, it would not have been uncommon for such an approach to suggest that the hidden meaning is the “true” meaning, visible to those with “eyes to see.” It is similar to Christ’s declaration that God has purposely hidden certain things for the sake of our salvation. He does not “cast his pearls before swine.”
This same hiddenness is common throughout the Scriptures and across the history of the people of God. When God speaks with Moses on the mountain, He shows Him the heavenly (here we can say “real” and “true”) tabernacle. He then gives instructions that the earthly tabernacle is to be constructed “according to this pattern.” That structure is described in great detail in the Scriptures. However, it is clear that what is being built is important and true, because it is a reflection of the heavenly tabernacle which Moses himself saw. When Israel gathers at this earthly tabernacle, they are not there merely to be reminded of something Moses saw. Rather, the earthly representation makes present and participates in the heavenly. It is a sacramental understanding. We may also say that it is an allegory (in St. Paul’s sense). If it is seen as “merely” a human construct, it is not rightly seen. The Ark of the Covenant could be read as nothing more than a human construct, but such a reading would be deadly, as in the case of Uzzah, who wrongly touched the Ark and died.
It is impossible to read the Book of Hebrews and not see this. There, the whole of the Old Testament pattern and practice of worship is described as a shadow of something heavenly and true that is now fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Christ. Christ is seen as the true High Priest who has entered into the “tabernacle not made by hands.” There He offers the perfect sacrifice of which every previous sacrifice was only a figure. What had been hidden, as St. Paul tells us, has now been made known in Christ.
This way of doing and seeing, quite importantly, is not confined to the pages of Scripture and the practices of the past. It is engrained in our faith and our Orthodox way of life. Seated with His disciples, Christ takes bread, blesses, breaks, and gives it to them saying, “This is my Body…” The pattern is being maintained and will become and remain the heart of the Church’s worship.
The simplest way to express this sacramental revelation is: “This is that.” This is not a mere reminder of that, or a figure, or a symbol (if by that we mean something that stands in for something else). Rather, “this” truly and really is “that.”
The Incarnation of Christ teaches us not just that God became a man, but that the earth has a capacity for the heavenly. It not only has a capacity for the heavenly, but is so constructed that it cannot be rightly understood and lived in unless and until we see and regard that heavenly which is hidden within it. God has purposely hidden these “treasures” from us so that we might become the kind of persons who know how to see and find them. So, we lost paradise and came “into this world” (St. Basil’s language for the Fall). But having come into this world, we only return to paradise when we find it hidden here (where we are). That finding is the fruit of an inward repentance and the acquisition of the Spirit. I would say, carefully, that by “repentance,” I am describing turning away from the “not seeing, not seeking” way of life.
Christ said, “Ask and you’ll receive, knock and it will be opened, seek and you shall find.” What we fail to understand is that the asking, knocking, and seeking are states of the heart that must be nurtured into a way of life. Christ came to us speaking in parables. In truth, He has been speaking to us in parables since the very beginning. What was once parable continues in sacrament, and in a kind of existence that is “on earth as it is in heaven.” To see the parable is to perceive heaven and to begin to find the door by which we enter.
And now, I return to the priest as he vests for the service. Those vestments, the “garment of salvation,” and the “robe of gladness,” are those vestments that we lost in paradise when we fell, and our eyes were opened and we saw ourselves as “naked” (and were ashamed). This re-clothing is similar to our Baptismal garment: “As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ [like a garment]. From the robe of the priesthood in the Old Testament to that of the newly-robed Christians in the New, the priest of the New Covenant is robed as Christ, who alone is our “Great High Priest.” And so this priest becomes the “allegory,” the “sacrament” and “parable” of Christ. This is that. This priest will stand where Christ alone can stand, and offer the “bloodless sacrifice.”
In St. Basil’s Liturgy, during the Litany of Supplication, the priest silently offers a prayer. In part he prays:
…accept us as we draw near to Your Holy Altar, so that we may be worthy to offer to You this reasonable and bloodless sacrifice for our sins and for the errors of Your people. Having received it on Your holy, heavenly and ideal altar as an offering of sweet spiritual fragrance, send down on us in turn the grace of Your Holy Spirit. Look down on us, O God, and observe this our worship. Accept it as You accepted the gifts of Abel, the sacrifices of Noah, the whole burnt offerings of Abraham, the priestly offices of Moses and Aaron, and the peace-offerings of Samuel. As You accepted this true worship from Your holy Apostles, so now, in Your goodness, accept these gifts from the hands of us sinners, O Lord, that having been permitted to serve without offense at Your Holy Altar, we may receive the reward of wise and faithful stewards on the awesome day of Your just retribution…
This offering is gathering together all of the offerings through the ages: the gifts of Abel, the sacrifices of Noah, the whole burnt offerings of Abraham, the priestly offices of Moses and Aaron, and the peace-offerings of Samuel. These are now offered to be received, not on this earthly altar, but “on Your holy, heavenly and ideal altar.” This is that.
This is the pattern of our life (for all of us), for we were first established in paradise as priests to offer thanks to God. What we lost, Christ has restored.
Thank you Father Stephen for creating this essay, that when read is unmasked into a beautiful expose. Never say you are “retired.☦️
A beautiful reflection but I do wonder, how much of this has been filtered through Greek Platonism. This looks like Plato to my eyes.
You say “filtered through Greek Platonism” like that’s a bad thing. It is certainly the case that by the time of the New Testament, the Hellenistic culture of the Mediterranean world had various versions of Platonism as part of its lingua franca. It certainly was already to be found (at least some claim to see it) in Jewish writings of the 2nd Temple period. It’s already in the New Testament.
We owe it to 19th century German historians (such as Harnack) that Christians have imagined some pristine Jewish culture that was sullied by contact with pagan Greeks and Romans, producing Catholic Christianity. It’s a myth (grossly distorting Judaism of the time and filled with make-believe ideas that ultimately were pushing a Germanic Protestantism).
I was recently in a Greek Orthodox Church. The chapel in the understory had icons around the wall honoring the Greek philosophers. This is not uncommon in Orthodox treatments. They are many times seen as “precursors” for the gospel, similar to the prophets of the Old Testament. They obviously have to be purified – but it is an unashamed acknowledgement of a debt by the Church.
However, to you point: St. Paul clearly uses this form of allegory as do the Fathers of the Church. We should understand and take it to be inspired. We believe that God chose the precise moment and conditions for the coming of Christ. That included the Greek language as the lingua franca of the time (even St. Paul’s letter to the Romans is written in Greek) and the culture of Hellenism as a common influence throughout the area. Christ came from Galilee, an area less “Jewish” than Judaea with far more currents in play. God knew what He was doing. Harnack and his minions did not.
Great article. Sadly, in the Catholic Church today, vesting prayers have become another thing that is “not obligatory but still considered recommended” and everyone knows how that turns out in practice.
To their credit, there are many good priests who do say them still.
P.S. Just picking a small nit here: 🙂
“CS Lewis’ childrens’ book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, is an example of such allegory. ”
Surely you mean to state that in the wrong understanding of several modern people, the Chronicles of Naria are an example of allegory? Because as I’m sure a scholar of Lewis such as yourself must know, Lewis is famously on record in his letters expressly stating that the Chronicles are not allegorical but an imaginative incarnation of Christ in an alternate world.
Tolkien criticized Lewis for writing allegory rather than myth. I think it is allegory, of a sort, and I think they are wonderful books. I would not describe the other books as allegorical – and there is, to respect Lewis’ categorization, many things about even LWW that are not. Just reaching for an example for readers.
According to the fathers, many ancient Greeks had Divine enlightenment.
Plato’s shocking description in the well-known “Politia” , about the Passion of Christ:
“He will be stripped of everything except justice, because he was by nature opposed to the general formerly practices. Without wronging anyone he will be slandered exceedingly as unjust and shall be tortured for justice and will be filled with tears because of malice, but he will remain motionless until death and while he is righteous he will be considered unjust for the rest of his life. Having such dispositions the righteous one will be flogged, distorted, bound. “And from the many wounds on his face his eyes will be red and inflamed and in his last hours after he suffers every evil he will be nailed to a high tree, and you should know that it is not fair, but since he wants it that way let it be done.”
Dino, unfortunately from this non-Greek’s perspective too many modern Greeks think they are analogous to the ancient Greeks.
But the word analogue and its variants is really squishy in meaning, especially in reference to the Incarnate Jesus. The Body and Blood are Jesus not an analogy of Him or worse yet a symbol.
I can understand Lewis insistence that Aslan is not an analogy of Christ. I am not sure it is possible
Referring to the events of Numbers 16, the writer of the book of Wisdom speaks to the topic of your post [Caps mine for emphasis].
“The experience of death touched also the righteous,
and a plague came upon the multitude in the desert,
but the wrath did not long continue.
For a blameless man was quick to act as their champion;
he brought forward the shield of his ministry,
prayer and propitiation by incense;
he withstood the anger and put an end to the disaster,
showing that he was your servant.
He conquered the wrath not by strength of body,
not by force of arms,
but by his word he subdued the avenger,
appealing to the oaths and covenants given to our ancestors.
For when the dead had already fallen on one another in heaps,
he intervened and held back the wrath,
and cut off its way to the living.
For ON HIS LONG ROBE THE WHOLE WORLD WAS DEPICTED,
AND THE GLORIES OF THE ANCESTORS WERE ENGRAVED ON THE FOUR ROWS OF STONES,
AND YOUR MAJESTY WAS ON THE DIADEM UPON HIS HEAD.
To these the destroyer yielded; these he feared;
for merely to test the wrath was enough.”
-Wisdom 18: 20-25
Interestingly, as it relates to some of the discussion in the previous post, this passage contains another example of “propitiation” (the translators’ choice of word) that this context clearly shows has nothing in common with pagan notions of blood satisfaction.
I wouldn’t want to derail the thread of the conversation, and I understand you were going for a simplification to get the point across to readers, so I’ll just mention this point here in passing:
If the “Planet Narnia” thesis of the Anglican priest Fr. Michael Ward is correct (and it is difficult for anyone who has read “The Discarded Image” do deny that this is entirely plausible), then it certainly looks like it pushes the Chronicles more firmly towards the myth end of the spectrum and away from the allegory end. Fr. Ward also notes that Lewis was by nature reticent and not prone to explain things he thought would work more effectively if they were hidden and subtle (like an overarching connecting theme for the Chronicles, if he intended to embed one into the series).
Perhaps “The Pilgrim’s Regress” is the only fictional work of Lewis’ that fits comfortably into the “allegory” category, but since it is not to well known as his other works, it would probably not be very useful as an example in an article like this.
Wow. Going to need to read that again.
I’ve read Fr. Ward and it’s a very interesting thesis. I suspect that if he’s correct, it came as something of an afterthought for Lewis. I’m not sure he originally intended to write seven books. But, your point is well-taken.
God has made us carefree!
Seeking I see Light, knocking the Door has opened, asking I am given the Answer.
Make yourself a capacity! Be little.
Stop thinking about it and do it. Pretend even, until Light descends! Make room. Fade, yet sharpen your gaze on Him with desire, until Light shines through.
Believe it rather than discuss as one removed(a sin)
Gaze.Eyes.Cherub. Look at Him!!! And he will make you see.
Flame.Wing.Seraphim. Burn for Him!!! And he will fill you with Light that makes you rise up from the floor to Heaven.
Keep showing up to Him. Be honest.
Keep showing up! No matter what!
Dare to be destroyed by his Holiness because of desire for Him.. not His benefits.
Desire him above all for he is above above.
Desire. Him. Alone.
Be alone with the Alone.
Desire to be made a fitting bride knowing it is impossible for you. Desire to be HIS KIND as Adam should have, knowing it can never be by your action. Throw yourself on His Mercy with honesty and tears and chutzpah.
We are dust .. that God has made God!!!
St Ephriam, St Symeon, St Barsanuphius, pray for us!
God forgive me.
Thank you Father. Pray for me.
Wow, Father! The socks have been blown off with this blog offering! Nays and Yays. Hems and Haws. I think it only goes to show that we are “Clearly showing that we have a hard time expressing what is going on here.” I love what Michelle had to say… almost taking your words and breaking them down into something poetic… concise, succinct, understandable. I am so far from the understanding I should have. God help me. But Father… you are like a candle that lights the way.