The word of the day is “solid.” Today, our reading of Hebrews 5:11-6:8 emphasizes the necessity that everyone should continue to grow in faith and the knowledge of the faith. The apostle writes, “Therefore leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation…” (vs. 6:1).
As this passage begins, the apostle notes that there is much more to say about the High Priest Melchizedek. Yet, he gives up trying to explain it because he complains that his readers have become “dull of hearing” (vs. 11). The Greek word that the apostle uses means sluggish (Strong’s #3576, 174). They have become slothful in their comprehension of the teachings of the faith.
They may have been members of the faithful for twenty years. By now, they should have acquired enough knowledge to teach others. Yet over this time, they have failed to advance in their understanding. Instead, they have become content with their present elementary level of comprehension of the truths of the faith.
Not Ready for Solid Food
Paul says that they should be ready for solid food, the meat of the church’s doctrine. But they are stuck on a diet of the milk of the elementary principles of the oracles, that is, the maxims of God’s Word (vs. 5:13) (Strong’s #3051). They cannot digest solid food because it is palatable only to those who are “of full age” (vs. 5:14). It is the proper food for the “fully grown” (Strong’s #5046, 248). According to the apostle, these mature persons have developed this solid diet by “reason of use” ( 5:14). They are not dependent on others to teach them about such things as the difference between right and wrong. But by constant “practice” (Strong’s #1838, 92), they have “exercised their senses,” that is, they have trained their perceptions (Strong’s #145, 9) “to discern both good and evil” (Hebrews 5:14).
Two Reasons for the Dullness of Understanding
In our study, we can find two reasons for the dullness of the understanding of spiritual things. First, we can refuse to study anything that challenges us and takes work to understand. The Philokalia states that knowledge cannot be “acquired without effort” (G.E.H. Palmer 1981, 19). Furthermore, it observes, “To keep one’s vision intently fixed on divine things until the will acquires the habit of doing this requires considerable labor over a long period of time“ (G.E.H. Palmer 1981, 19). The mind (intellect) needs training to forego the attractions of the senses. Especially, “supernatural knowledge” requires God’s help to cleanse the mind of all earthly attachments. When the intellect is free of worldly distractions, it can focus on the love of the divine (G.E.H. Palmer 1981, 40). With the Philokalia’s teaching in mind, we can understand why the apostle says that advancement in understanding requires diligent practice.
Another reason for the dullness of mind is the over-familiarity that breeds complacency. It is possible to go from one Christmas to the next without growing in our understanding of the incarnation of the Son of God. In that case, our mind is like a knife that keeps cutting the same thing until it loses its edge. The remedy for this loss of sharpness is not a novelty. Rather, we should pay more attention to what is sung, prayed, and proclaimed and probe more deeply into its meaning. Our preparation during this Nativity Fast will be a great help for us to do that. Moreover, in general, the Mystery (Sacrament) of Confession, our priest’s guidance, learning from Orthodox teachers, and studying Orthodox writings help us advance in our knowledge and understanding of the faith.
The Philokalia states, “Everything may be understood in terms of its purpose. In general, the purpose of our life is blessedness or, what is the same thing, the Kingdom of heaven or God” (G.E.H. Palmer 1981, 43). But what about the reason for our celebration of the Feast of the Nativity? The Kontakion for today gives us food for thought: “Today the Virgin comes to the cave to give birth to the Eternal Word. Hear the glad tidings and rejoice O universe! Glorify with the angels and the shepherds the Eternal God, who is willing to appear as a little child” (Kontakion, Forefeast of the Nativity OCA website). This hymn points to the purpose of the upcoming feast–that we join the universe in glorifying the Eternal Word become flesh and that we receive Him who appears in our world as an infant child to bring the blessedness of the Kingdom to us.
G.E.H. Palmer, et. al. Trans. 1981. The Philokalia: the Complete Text Vol. 3. New York: Farber and Farber.