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Doru Costache - Reading the Scriptures With Byzantine Eyes

Doru Costache - Reading the Scriptures With Byzantine Eyes



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Published by Doru Costache
many seek the Grail, others the Orthodox lectio divina. I belong with the second group and my article endeavours to point out the neglected Great Canon as epitome of Byzantine hermeneutics
many seek the Grail, others the Orthodox lectio divina. I belong with the second group and my article endeavours to point out the neglected Great Canon as epitome of Byzantine hermeneutics

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Published by: Doru Costache on Nov 10, 2008
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[Published in
XXIII (2008) 51-66]
 Doru Costache
This paper reflects a stage in an on-going research of traditional approaches to Genesis 1-3, a biblical pericope characterised by existentially meaningful suggestions and diversely interpreted in patristic andliturgical contexts. My current understanding is that beyond this variety there is a common denominator toall interpretations relevant to the ecclesial mindset, that is, the existential key
, bringing to light the spiritualreliefs of the text. Unsurprisingly therefore, this key represents the (implicit) hermeneutical tool at work throughout the Great Canon
of St Andrew of Crete
, an early eighth century Byzantine poem.In the following, the Canon will be explored in its liturgical setting and from the point of view of itshermeneutical significance to the Church. To my knowledge, the place of the poem in the history of Byzantine scriptural interpretation was never before addressed in a consistent manner, or other thantangentially, by modern scholarship
. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that – beyond itsimmediate meaning, as an expression of the author’s personal state of repentance – the Great Canonepitomises the spirit of Byzantine hermeneutics and that its interpretive method corresponds to the ultimategoal of Scripture which is existential in nature: the reshaping of life according to the divine wisdom. I hopethat in the process it will become obvious that the hitherto understanding of the Byzantine tradition asestranged from the biblical spirit has no factual……….52……….foundation, although its specific scriptural approach does not meet the rigours of contemporary biblicism.After briefly addressing the hermeneutical potential of Byzantine hymnography, to which our poem belongs, the paper introduces the liturgical context, the structure and the main characteristics of the Canon.Subsequently, it outlines the key interpretive principles active in the poem, and end by analysing a fewstanzas, which illustrate the way St Andrew interpreted the biblical narrative of Genesis 3.
A context: Byzantine hymnography
One of the prejudices disseminated in the past by scholars of eastern Christianity is that after the fifthcentury the Byzantines lost touch with Scripture and left behind forever the so-called golden age of patristic biblical interpretation
. The historical evidence attests, however, that the Byzantine fathers(notwithstanding their reluctance to return to the earlier genre of biblical commentary) did in fact takevarious other hermeneutical avenues. Noteworthy are the exegetical homily, delivered exclusively withinthe liturgical environment, and the spiritual Philokalic literature. Closer to the topic, and of greathermeneutical significance is the ecclesial hymnography, to which the analysis will now turn.The Byzantine tradition canonised its specific approach to Scripture in the form of its hymnographicalcreativity, designated as ‘poetical preaching’ and an ‘effective substitute for school and pulpit’
.Functioning as an implicit interpretive framework, hymnography has indeed made massive use of biblicalmaterial – imagery and terminology
–, thoroughly paraphrased and reorganised, in a strenuous attempt to‘speak the Scripture’ in relevant ways and not just to read it. An outcome of this endeavour was theconfirmation of Scripture as privileged language of spiritual experience. This is where the Great Canoncomes into the picture. Building upon the liturgical poetry known as
(sharp, succinct
formulation), a genre whose paternity is attributed to St Romanos the Melodist in the sixth century
, the
(norm, measure), whose……….53……….innovation is traditionally ascribed to St Andrew of Crete
, reiterates the pattern of nine scriptural odes
.Thus, already in its structural make-up, to which I will return, the Canon gives testimony to the Byzantines’familiarity with the Bible, reflecting also the ideal of ‘speaking the Scripture’.One of the Great Canon’s outstanding features, as paragon of the genre, consists in bringing together to ameaningful synthesis two aspects of the ecclesial experience, namely the liturgical mindset of the Church(with its solid scriptural component
) and the monastic contemplative tradition
. On the one hand, in linewith the liturgical spirit, the lexical building blocks of the Canon and the imagery underlying its structureare both essentially biblical. On the other, the
Canon incorporates and creatively transforms a literary genreknown to the monastic milieus, that is, the
or chapters. Consisting of a series of 250 strophes
(metrical compositions chanted vividly), the Great Canon may be indeed considered a poeticvariant of the customarily prose chapters. To grasp the import of this fact, it is worth noting that themonastic
(originating in fourth century Egypt and being part of a spiritual daily practice) wereconcise sentences (mostly belonging to the aphoristic genre but also appearing as succinct elaborations ontopics related to asceticism and contemplation) that were meant to be repeatedly pondered throughout theday. Alternatively, when transfigured into strophes the chapters composing the poem became a classicexercise of scriptural meditation – a Byzantine counterpart of the Western
–, illustrative for the process of assimilating the biblical message within the spiritual experience of the Great Lent.
The liturgical setting
According to the Byzantine order, the Canon is celebrated in the Orthodox Church in the first and the fifthweeks of the Great Lent
. In the fifth week the poem is chanted in its entirety in connection with theservice of Thursday’s matins, accompanied by the
of St Mary of Egypt and perhaps dedicated to her (since the fifth Lenten Sunday commemorates her). The order for the first Lenten week is, however, muchmore complex:……….54……….the text is divided into four portions and chanted in the evenings, from Monday to Thursday, within thegreat compline. Each portion contains nine odes of varying numbers of strophes, ending with hymnsdedicated to the Holy Trinity and the Theotokos.Within the scope of this paper, it is notable that simultaneously within the vesperal services the reading of Genesis begins in the first week of Great Lent
. This association seem to have had occurred on purpose,even if there is no direct connection between the four portions of the Canon and the scriptural pericopesread within the service of vespers. An inventory of the lexical, onomastic, historical and topographical background of the poem, no matter how superficial, proves how the poem makes abundant references toGenesis (see Table 1), along with other biblical books. This aspect is conducive to the logical inferencethat, both in its original design and the way it is celebrated in the first Lenten week, the Canon has beenappropriated by the Church from the outset – in line with the famous fourth century homilies (of SaintsBasil the Great, Ambrose of Milan, Ephraim the Syrian and John Chrysostom) on the days of creation – asa contemplative framework meant to introduce God’s people to the wisdom of biblical readings.Before exploring the Great Canon’s approach to Scripture, it will be addressed the connection betweentheology and spirituality as reflected by its poetic threads. This link corresponds to the very manner inwhich the Bible conveys theological messages in a spiritual frame and vice versa, within the broader  picture of salvation history.
Table 1
 References to Genesis in the Great Canon(first week)
Portion Ode Occurrences
Monday 1 52 73 34 35 69 1Tuesday 1 42 83 34 4Wednesday 2 33 64 15 16 1Thursday 2 43 45 1
Theology and spirituality
It has been aptly observed that the Canon summarises and intensifies the mystical purpose of Great Lent,characterised as a transformative journey
. Consequently, the Lenten context already suggests what onemight expect of it – a poetic narrative dominated by spiritual overtones, taking the Scripture as anexistential parable. The term ‘spiritual’ designates here an interpretation which makes the Bible relevant tothose seeking guidance on the way towards perfection.Along with its explicitly spiritual discourse, there can be identified in the Great Canon a series of theological statements
concerning the Holy Trinity (e.g., Monday, ode 2,
), the mystery of theincarnation (with the Theotokos as its epiphany; e.g., Monday, odes 2 and 9,
),……….56……….and the providential presence of God in creation and history (e.g., Monday, ode 5,
). The presence of theological digressions in a spiritual text is not surprising. To the Byzantine understanding,theology is spiritually determined and spirituality is theologically anchored, so that despite the quantitativeimbalance between the theological motifs and the rest of the Canon
the former are not deprived of existential significance. Theology is called here to proclaim the divine love as eternally lived by the HolyTrinity (cf. Monday, ode 7,
) and historically mediated through the Logos’ incarnation (cf.Monday, ode 4,
) as principle of the restored life and the realisation of the fullness of life. Thisaspect adds more strength to the overall positive and optimistic message of the Canon.The spiritual focus of the poem is thoroughly and diversely manifested. Building upon a long list of biblicalfigures and events, mostly drawn from the Old Testament either explicitly or simply by allusion, the Canonreiterates major ascetic themes such as conversion (cf. Monday, ode 8,
1), compunction (cf.Thursday, ode 1,
1), repentance (cf. Tuesday, ode 8,
1), tears (cf. Tuesday, ode 2,
9), prayer (cf. Tuesday, ode 9,
1), contemplation (cf. Monday, ode 4,
6),fasting (cf. Monday, ode 9,
4) and watchfulness (cf. Wednesday, ode 3,
6). Together 

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