JANUARY 17, 2007: ST. ANTONY THE FIRST MONK: MARK 3:1-6

Jesus healed the man with a withered hand on the Sabbath and for this good deed his enemies plotted to destroy him. Such is the topic of today’s liturgy. Like many other passages of Holy Scripture this one too teaches more than it states. In fact, it illustrates very well the character of the Biblical text that Pope Gregory the Great described with colorful imagination and which served as a principle of Patristic exegesis.

The Divine word both exercises the cultivated by its deep mysteries and often gives consolation to the simple by its surface lessons. It contains evident teaching that nourishes the little ones while it keeps in secrete a message that ravishes the minds of subtle thinkers in admiration. Scripture is like a river, if I may say it that way, that is shallow in places, deep in others so that a lamb might wade in it and an elephant swim.(Morales Sur Job, 1, Ep. Ad Leandrum, 4, Paris 1953,.120,121)

Earlier St. Ambrose had noted the same feature of the sacred book in less imaginative terms. "Scripture is an ocean that contains deep meanings and the heights of prophetic enigmas." (Ep. 2.3 PL 16 880) He too understood many of the events and personages of Scripture as having messages at different levels for readers who approached it with distinctive capacities and gifts of faith. It was his ability to perceive these hidden meanings and to give them expression that enabled St. Augustine to overcome his prejudice against it as inferior literature and to come to accept Scripture as the inspired word of God.

On the surface our text tells us of an act of miraculous healing bestowed upon a poor cripple, in spite of severe criticism by hostile authorities. In this way it displays our Lord as possessing extraordinary powers that he employs with benevolence and mercy made all the more admirably in that it costs him deadly enmity. More subtly, and at a deeper level, it shows Jesus as possessing sovereign freedom not only to reinterpret the meaning of the Sabbath. At a still deeper level it portrays Jesus as deliberately acting to restore wholeness and health to weak man, powerless to help himself, though he knows that he risks his life in doing so. In short, Jesus willingly offers himself as a victim in order to give fuller life to miserable humanity, represented by this unnamed individual crippled from birth, no doubt, for his defect is an inherited one as the Greek word describing it indicates.

St Antony the Great, whose feast we celebrate at this Eucharist, illustrates the truth of the first part of Gregory’s saying, namely that Scripture has surface meanings that give nourishment to little ones. Indeed, Gregory notes that it is essential in certain instances for the right response to the inspired word to recognize that its literal sense is the essential message. "At times, however, [Gregory writes] the one who neglects to accept the words of history according to their literal sense, he hides the light of truth offered to him and while he laboriously desires to find some more interior content he loses what he could easily attain to on the surface." (p. 120) Antony entered Church one day for the liturgy and heard the text where our Lord tells the rich young man to sell his possessions and be free to follow him on his mission. We are told that Antony heard these words as if spoken directly to him, and convinced by the urgency of their literal import, he acted upon them. Even such a literal, surface message, to be sure, has implications that carry far beyond the surface, as we see in the subsequent history of Antony. For in acting upon the open meaning of this invitation of the Lord, Antony discovered the hidden richness of life in Christ and spent the rest of his long life exploring and assimilating them. They opened not only the Scriptures to his contemplation but the whole of creation, as he himself observed when questioned by a visiting philosopher who asked how he could live without the consolation of books: "My book, o philosopher, is the nature of the things created by God which are so many books to be read. They are supplied to my mind by God himself as often as I desire." (PL 73:172). Scripture, heard in its literal sense, opened for Antony, the hidden meaning of all creation. In this Antony is the pattern, not only of monks but of all believers who truly strive for union with God through purity of heart and who by daily fidelity make of their life a continuous prayer.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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