St. Gregory of Nyssa on the Tabernacle

Of all the posts I have written for this blog, one of my most popular is the one on the Tabernacle. As a Christian, we read those OT accounts of liturgy and sacrifices and know that somehow they are fulfilled in Christ. That is what that post was designed to accomplish.

Since that time, whenever I stumble over a Church Father that addresses many of the passages I grab it and digest it to use later. Recently in teaching through Genesis and the life of Moses, I finally read St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses. If you have not read this, I promise you that it is accessible to the general audience and you don’t need an advance degree in religious jargon to understand.

Gregory like many of the Fathers of the Church read Scripture slightly different than we do today. Today we often read scientifically, meaning that we only look for the literal, historical meanings. We brush aside anything that seems to allegorically because we fear its lack of objectivity, and it seems too slippery to give us certain answers.

The Fathers read Scripture with the understanding that there are multiple layers of meaning such as images that lead us into the knowledge of Christ and His Church. Some passages present insights into the spiritual journey by images rather than didactic teaching like we might find in the Proverbs or Epistles. Even others use images to present a glimpse of the purpose and goal of all things.

What is more difficult for us is that often one passage can contain all such levels of interpretation. When Gregory looks the tabernacle for Christ, he calls this the view from above. When he looks to the tabernacle for instruction on our journey, he calls it the view from below.

Here are some things he sees “from above”

  • The pillars [that uphold the tabernacle and ark] are the heavenly powers which are contemplated in the tabernacle, and which support the universe in accord with the divine will. [These power] are sent to help those who will be heirs of salvation.

  • The Ark of the Covenant is the Face of God. By the face, he means the essence of the Godhead, which no man can see and must be covered and this is represented with the angelic wings protecting the seat of the ark.

  • The lampstand with seven lights are the rays of the Holy Spirit as seen in Isaiah.
  • The throne of mercy or seat of the ark is the place of Christ’s sacrifice (Rom. 3:25)

  • The altar of incense is the adoration eternallly given by the heavenly powers.

  • The skins dyed red are the Passion of Christ.

From Below:

  • The pillars are the support of the Church which are the apostles, prophets, teachers, etc.

  • The altar of incense is the Divine services of the Church whereby we enter into the perpetual adoration of the Godhead.

  • The laver is the baptismal font which provides the cleansing needed to be united to God.

  • The courts where the people are present are the unity and love of the believing community.

  • The skins dyed image is our own crucifixion which is the mortification of the flesh and the ascetic way of life.

He truly mines these passages for every possible aspect of the life of Faith. His words illuminate the Scripture, but it is a way of reading that assumes that reality is full of meaning. Our own stories contain images of Christ, perhaps not to the same degree as the revealed text, but Christ is present throughout.

Does Gregory’s approach confuse or help you? What kind of question would you ask a commentator like Gregory? How does it change how you view your own story?

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