Text: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:23-30)
A few days ago I came across some words of Moses of Leon, a 13 th century Jewish mystic: “and in the world to come, they are destined to behold the soul of the soul of the Torah.” Destined to behold the soul of the soul of the Torah. The soul of the soul.
It is human nature to want to get to the bottom of things, to the root, to the core, to the center. The core of the core; the center of the center. The heart of the heart.
We approach Scripture this way: searching for the core of the core, the center of the center. We recognize that the texts of Scripture often have layers of meaning—like an onion, perhaps.
People have recognized this since antiquity, even before Jesus’ time. (Otherwise the Song of Songs probably wouldn’t have made it into the Bible). Paul reads the Old Testament allegorically. Origen, in the 3rd century was very big on different levels of meaning. If the plain sense of a passage seemed “repugnant to reason,” that would mean we should look for the spiritual sense of the text.
John Cassian in the 5 th century maintained that Scripture has four levels of meaning: the literal, the allegorical, the tropological (or moral), and the anagogical (or mystical). His theory was that any passage of scripture can be interpreted in these four ways. This became standard in the Middle Ages. And, of course, modern scholarship has produced yet more ways to explore the complexities of Scripture (form criticism, redaction criticism, etc.) The texts of Scripture are indeed very rich and yield multiple levels of meaning.
I’d like to look very briefly at John Cassian’s fourfold scheme of interpretation using a verse from today’s gospel. Literal, allegorical, moral and mystical. He must increase, but I must decrease. John the Baptist referring to Jesus. At the literal level, this is fairly straightforward. Jesus and his movement will increase; John and his movement will be relegated to a secondary position.
He must increase, but I must decrease. Allegory is not everybody’s cup of tea these days, but for many centuries is was standard fare. A reader in the Middle Ages might have seen this as an allegory of Church and Synagogue. Jesus and his Church must increase; the Synagogue and the old dispensation (represented by John) must decrease.
A third level of meaning is the tropological or the moral meaning. What does the passage have to say about the way we treat one another? About good and evil?
He must increase, but I must decrease. In the moral realm, does a given action make the reality of Christ greater or less? Does it puff me up, or does it make Christ known more truly? We might find this a very useful criterion for evaluating our own actions: does Christ “increase” by what I do or say? Or is it just about me?
He must increase, and I must decrease. The mystical interpretation. The anagogical interpretation. “Anagogical”, by the way, means leading upward, leading up to heaven. The anagogical interpretation has to do with ultimate things, heavenly things, the relationship of the soul to God. The core of the core; the soul of the soul.
He must increase, but I must decrease. We often refer to God’s presence in our hearts: in a sense, the Divine Presence is the heart of our heart, the core of our core. The Bridegroom, to use John’s image, is the soul of our soul. For the Christian, the Divine Presence is something that grows within us, like the Christ child in the Virgin’s womb, we might say. Or, as Paul puts it, it is not our own life that we live, but Christ’s life in us.
He must increase but I must decrease. The heart of my heart must increase. The core of my core must increase. The soul of my soul must increase. And everything that gets in the way must decrease. The true self must increase; the false self, the egotistical self, must decrease. This is the mystical way, the anagogical way.
We see, then, that the same few words can yield several levels or modes of meaning—and that’s just using a medieval model. What is even more remarkable is the human mind itself, the mind that has the capacity to draw out these different levels of meanings, to appreciate the text in so many different ways. To appreciate the text in all its fullness: from the literal to the soul of the soul.
Now here is my point. The fourfold interpretation of scripture might be interesting, but it’s not really my point. My point is this: we human beings can come to see the wonderful richness and complexity of the text and even search out the soul of the soul of the Scriptures. So, why don’t we use this ability in other contexts, like in our relationships with one another? If we can appreciate the fullness and richness and subtlety of a text, why do we get stuck with one-dimensional, flat, cartoonish images of one another? Why do we get stuck with snap judgments, first impressions, stereotypes and other prejudicial ways of seeing one another?
Well, there is a reason: there’s probably survival value in making quick decisions about someone, whether they’re friend or foe. We’re probably hard-wired this way.
But we’ve come to a point in our history, our evolution, when there’s greater value in seeing and appreciating the fullness, the complexity of other’s humanity.
If we can look at and admire the text from different angles, if we can look to the soul of the soul of the text, as Moses of Leon put it—if we have the capacity to admire the multi-layered complexity of a text, why don’t we use that same capacity in relating to our fellow human beings? If we can look to the soul of the soul of the text, we can look to the soul of the soul of the human being before us.
The soul of our souls. The heart of our hearts. I imagine that if I were to look out at you gathered here this morning and really see the soul of your soul it might look something like what I see when I look out across the Charles River in the mid-afternoon when the sunlight is glinting off ripples of water: dazzling, almost blinding in its brilliance. C. S. Lewis said somewhere that if we were to see one another as we truly are, as God sees us, we would fall down in worship before one another.
What would we see if we truly saw one another? Dazzling light? The Light of Light? In our blindness we don’t see—yet. And yet we have some sense of this reality. We can begin to imagine what the soul of our souls looks like, the heart of our hearts. And beginning to imagine is the beginning of true vision.
He must increase but I must decrease. As Christ increases within us, we come to see ourselves and one another in the fullness of our humanity. And, we might even say, the fullness of our divinity. If we are made in the image and likeness of God, we are a better text than anything written. We ourselves are truer icons than anything we could paint.
As we search out the fullness and richness and complexity of our humanity, even to the soul of the soul, Christ, the Bridegroom, increases within us.
And that is Advent.
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