Bottom line: As Scripture has three senses - literal, moral and spiritual - so our relation to God has three stages: the recognition of sin, repentance and savoring the mystery of God.
I'd like to begin with something that applies both to our overall study of the Bible and specifically to this Sunday's readings. In one of his Wednesday audiences Pope Benedict spoke about the three senses of Scripture:
First comes the "literal" sense, what the words actually mean. That is our starting point, but as the Holy Father points out, the literal sense "conceals depths that are not immediately apparent." Beneath the literal sense is a "moral" sense - what we must do to live the Word. Finally, we come to "spiritual" sense - "the unity of Scripture which throughout its development speaks of Christ."
To help understand these three senses, the Pope uses a comparison made by an ancient Scripture scholar named Origen. Origen compares the three senses of Scripture to fresh walnuts. Outside is like the green husk - bitter because the literal meaning is often difficult to grasp, living as we do so far removed from the original authors and their times.
If we penetrate the literal sense (and sometimes this requires a a lot of effort) we come to the moral sense. It is like the hard shell of a walnut. It protects the nourishing, tasty meat inside. What's inside of course has most value. We want the full, spiritual sense of God's Word. That's the meat, the heart of the matter.
This comparison of the fresh walnut can also apply to our relationship with Christ. It often begins with something like the green husk, something bitter. We get a glimpse of that bitterness in today's readings. When Isaiah sees the vision of the Holy One, he cries out, "Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among people of unclean lips." Similar to Isaiah, Peter falls at the knees of Jesus and says, "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man." And St. Paul says, "I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle." When a person senses the Lord's presence, it often comes with a recognition of sin. And that sin is not something casual, but bitter.
The recognition of sin can bring one to second stage - where a man embraces the moral life. We can see this in Isaiah, Peter and Paul. They tasted the bitter reality of their unworthiness. Fortunately, it did not lead them to despair. Rather, it led to a profound moral renewal. St. Paul said that he "toiled harder than all of them." But he quickly added, "not I, however, but the grace God that is with me." Isaiah experience moral renewal by a burning coal being placed to his lips. Peter, being Peter, took a little longer for his full conversion.
Conversion, embracing the moral life - is like the outer shell of a walnut. It protects what counts - the meat inside. Once I picked up a walnut without noticing that the shell had been slightly broken. What was inside had become spoiled and worm-eaten. So it is with us if we allow an opening for the evil one.
We need the moral life to protect what really matters - the relation to God. Keep that in mind as we begin the season of Lent this Wednesday. The practices of Lent - receiving ashes on the forehead and abstaining from meat on Ash Wednesday and the seven Fridays of Lent - these are not things that come naturally to us. They can involve a bitter taste.
But those practices remind us of the importance of the moral life. The first Scriptural words we will hear on Ash Wednesday are: Return to me. Return to me with you whole heart. This something our men will hear in a powerful way when they come to the Men's Conference on March 2.
The Lord can renew us no matter what the state of our souls. None of us has a greater sin than Peter - after three years great favor, he denied even knowing the Lord. Nor have you or I sinned worse than Paul, who persecuted the Church - Jesus' own body. But he found mercy - unparalleled grace. So shall we. We have that assurance in today's Psalm: "The Lord will complete what he has done for me; your kindness, O Lord, endures forever."
As Scripture has three senses - literal, moral and spiritual - so our relation to God has three stages: the recognition of sin, repentance and savoring the mystery of God - his love endures forever. Amen.
*The pope's audiences on early Christian writers have been compiled into one volume: Church Fathers: From Clement of Rome to Augustine. Here is the section I drew from:
Also in his Homilies, Origen took every opportunity to recall the different dimensions of the sense of Sacred Scripture that encourage or express a process of growth in the faith: there is the "literal" sense, but this conceals depths that are not immediately apparent.
The second dimension is the "moral" sense: what we must do in living the word; and finally, the "spiritual" sense, the unity of Scripture which throughout its development speaks of Christ.
It is the Holy Spirit who enables us to understand the Christological content, hence, the unity in diversity of Scripture. It would be interesting to demonstrate this. I have made a humble attempt in my book, Jesus of Nazareth, to show in today's context these multiple dimensions of the Word, of Sacred Scripture, whose historical meaning must in the first place be respected.
But this sense transcends us, moving us towards God in the light of the Holy Spirit, and shows us the way, shows us how to live. Mention of it is found, for example, in the ninth Homily on Numbers, where Origen likens Scripture to [fresh] walnuts: "The doctrine of the Law and the Prophets at the school of Christ is like this", the homilist says; "the letter is bitter, like the [green-covered] skin; secondly, you will come to the shell, which is the moral doctrine; thirdly, you will discover the meaning of the mysteries, with which the souls of the saints are nourished in the present life and the future" (Hom. Num. 9, 7).
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