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.

Support SSJE

Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.

Click here to Donate


  1. Selinafrom Maine on December 11, 2013 at 14:29

    Brother Mark, how wonderful! You move from the pedagogical to the mystical so beautifully. I particularly love your analogy between reading a text as a multilayered , rich delight and experiencing people as multidimensional beings. In both cases we move from a flat , one dimensional , fixed in stone view to a dynamic, expanding, infinitely rich world. As I read, I remembered a text I read when I was studying psychotherapy theory (and practice.) The metaphor which this text used was of a kaleidoscope. As in looking through a kaleidoscope , when you look through the lens you see a pattern made up of the glass fragments inside and light. When you turn the ‘scope slightly you see a totally different pattern made up of the same fragments and light.. The person is the same in both cases but changing your angle of view or lens changes the way you see the other person. Again, I love the way this understanding opens up both psychological and theological perspective.

  2. Michelle on December 11, 2013 at 06:16

    Thank you

  3. Mary Ann Ryan on August 5, 2013 at 10:19

    Thank you, Br. Mark, for this beautiful and very powerful sermon. As a mature adult, I am for the first time reading the Bible and with my EFM group engaging in Biblical interpretation. What so many others seem to understand is brand new to me. Every insight is a gift from God. Right now, I am trying very hard to truly see God in the people I know and those I meet. “He must increase, and I must decrease.” Today you have given me a new and very personal connection to Christ our Lord and a powerful tool in my quest to love all of my bothers and sisters. God bless you and your work. Thank you.

    Mary Ann Ryan

  4. patricia on August 5, 2013 at 08:02

    The challenge seems to be greater in not knowing what to do but in HOW to do it. How do we let the “I” diminish? By understanding God’s wisdom more? In a world where we have been taught to be competitive to get into school and college or to attain a position in the workplace and where in business things are negotiated and even in families where there is competition for attention or in circles of friends….when the human soul needs and wants respect, do we just quiet ourselves, our passions, our instincts, even…and step back…how do we both let the “I” increase and “excel” in this world, if we are in the competitive business world, professionally?. Do we just choose different standards, value different outcomes?

    To me I interpret this phrase as let God’s love, example and values grow in your being, in your behavior,in your thinking,in your relationships…let it be the guiding largest most powerful force and let your ego needs, your self satisfaction, your insecurities recede. God’s way is a fulfilled way. It will work…

    I guess I have to practice and try harder.

  5. CMAC on December 5, 2012 at 08:46

    I wonder. Can we ever truly know another? We can only know as much as the other is prepared to divulge to us. I am now 78 years old and still feel that I am getting to know who I am, and that (which has surprised me) is constantly changing. I was fortunate to be married for fifty years – a great relationship – but since my husband died, I keep discovering things about him that I never recognised during his lifetime.
    I think we are shocked when we hear of a suicide. People express this shock when they say, ‘But, I never knew he/she would do this – she/he always seemed to be a happy enough person.’
    So, I continue to Wonder. I believe that only God is the Eternal Spirit who truly knows us. Christina

  6. Pablo Eduardo Martínez Mena on October 15, 2012 at 07:27

    Excelente el comentario acerca de Jn 3:23-30. sobre todo recordar que desde los primeros siglos, reconocían los padres diferentes niveles de interpretación de la Escritura, como ahora reconocemos que existen múltiples niveles para interpretar la realidad.
    Y evidentemente cuando nuestro “YO” sea capaz de menguar Cristo reinará en nuestro interior y nuestro Corazón de piedra, se convertirá en un Corazón de carne, se humanizará en toda la Plenitud de Cristo nuestra vida.

    • Editor on October 17, 2012 at 10:08

      Translation through Google –
      Excellent commentary on John 3:23-30. above all remember that from the first centuries, the fathers recognize different levels of interpretation of Scripture, as we now recognize that there are multiple levels to interpret reality. And obviously when our “I” is able to diminish, Christ will reign within us and our heart of stone will become a heart of flesh, and our life will be fully humanized in the plenitude of Christ.

  7. Anders on October 15, 2012 at 07:25

    Interesting how you brought up John Cassian, who has a lot to say regarding “he must increase I must decrease”. I see a tendency in the church to put this in the context of relationships with our Lord, spouse, family or all of humanity, often leaving out the ability to build close, intimate relationships with brothers and sisters of our immediate communities. For men at least, prevalent homophobia–often reinforced by the church–has the unintentional result of us becoming isolated from one another. From a Darwinian perspective, our day to day survival depends on surviving as the strongest individual AND group.

    John Cassian might say this group survival, and our life as a Christian community, requires intimate friends, and he outlines these six steps which I believe society and many of us clamor for:
    1)Nothing in life is more valuable than quality relationships and male friendship needs to be understood within a community complementary to, rather than competitive with marriage.
    2) We choose to value virtues, knowledge, skills, and wisdom in our friends
    above our own–therefore intimate friendship is essentially selfless.
    3) Love and peace are ultimate values in a Christian sense with no other agenda.
    4) Anger and frustration must be controlled in building intimacy.
    5) Seek the friends’ happiness and security above our own–apologize for unintended offense.
    6)Conduct friendships as though this day were our last day–telling the other that we love him and value him as a second self.

  8. elizabeth d hoffman on November 11, 2011 at 18:51

    Br Mark, Thank you for this beautiful and enlightening sermon. I especially loved your image: “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.” It captures in such a lovely cinematic image the mysticism 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.”” which you quoted in the beginning of your sermon and makes it come to life.

Leave a Comment