Philemon of Gaza meditates Matthew’s Gospel

Philemon was a monk in the monastery of Gaza founded by Abba Seridos, relatively well known today because of the two “Old Men,” who I prefer to title “Elder,” bucking the trend of most writings, that is, Barsanuphius and John, as well as Abba Dorotheos. Barsanuphius in particular seems to have been a man with a most remarkable prayer life, and it was in an atmosphere soaked with holiness that Philemon writes. In this volume, we learn quite a lot about Philemon personally, something of his background, his baptism, entrance into the monastery and his communications with his elders. His view of himself is suitably humble, since humility is one of the major themes. The other two themes I would pick out are the love of God as seen in Jesus, and the holy Trinity.

It is a little strange to say that in reading Philemon, we are entering a world that is alien in many ways to the world we live in today, but that his writing is also wonderfully accessible, bang up to date as he meditates the deeds and sayings of Jesus, and as he looks at the way Matthew describes them. There are many things Philemon says that very much alter the way I think; sometimes this is because his meditation puts events into context in unthought of ways, but more commonly because of his love of God which sees things rather more clearly than I am used to!

Unsure quite how to give a flavour of Philemon’s outlook in terms of picking here and there to give an overview, I have decided instead to present his meditation on just one passage, Matthew 10:34–42, in which Philemon gives his understanding of Jesus’ instructions to his newly minted apostles. This was a real eye-opener!


“Whoever loves his father or his mother more than me is not worthy of me.” These words were not spoken to the crowd but only to the disciples (cf. 10:1ff); they are not spoken in the plural form but in the singular, the “whoever” is “that person who,” and are for each disciple to receive into his heart, to examine himself and his love for Jesus.

Jesus spoke these words at a particular moment, not when he called the disciples on the sea shore or from beside the tax collector’s desk, but later, when the disciples had already been with him a good time. He said this when he was sending them out on mission, which supposes that they had already acquired a certain amount of experience (10:1,5). As he sent them, Jesus was confirming that they were indeed his disciples, that he was placing his trust in them and that he loved them; and he was inviting them to see if, for their part, the trust and love were reciprocated. This is important because once they had left, they would find they were on their own without him alongside them, on a difficult mission, exposed to wolves (10:16) and hatred (10:22). In such difficulties, without him, they would be exposed to the Tempter who would weaken them with questions about their love for Jesus. It is the same for each of us: it is easy to love Jesus when he is there, but when he is not, when we don’t feel his presence, it is more difficult because the Evil One sidles up and tells us, “He isn’t there anymore; he has abandoned you; you don’t love him enough; you are unworthy of him . . .” Love for our family then rekindles in our heart and we are tempted to go back to them. Therefore, it’s prior to such a trial that Jesus calls us to consider carefully: “He who loves his father or his mother more than me is not worthy of me.” Before sending us out, Jesus broaches another important topic, one he had never mentioned before and which the disciples had not discussed, not among themselves or with Jesus: each person’s individual cross! In fact, each disciple already carries his or her own cross, though we do so secretly because it is difficult to talk about, even to Jesus. This cross is made up of secret thoughts tied to the love of money, pleasure, glory or some other attraction . . . Each disciple bears, often from well in the past, their own cross, and, according to Jesus, it turns out to be ever present; it has not disappeared. Each disciple was still carrying it, in secret, and no doubt with a certain sense of shame, not daring to confess it. However each one was now to set out with their cross on a mission; and here was Jesus talking about it! What a relief! And what grace!

What grace it indeed is to hear Jesus speak to us about our cross, and for him to speak about it as a present reality and not as a distant memory. He was so right to speak about this before the disciples found themselves on their own, without him, with their cross always on their shoulders; once alone, they would meet that most difficult moment, the moment of truth and temptation when the Evil One draws near and speaks of their cross in a tone of reproach: “What are you doing there with your cross? Are you still carrying it? Hasn’t Jesus set you free from it? Your cross makes you unworthy of him, unworthy to follow him! The others don’t have such a thing and are more worthy than you; they are following him in purity of heart. You are unworthy of Jesus. Go back to your people, who doubtless love you more than he does; go back to those who love you and who you love . . .”

This moment of temptation is wonderfully anticipated by Jesus here. What grace! He talks about our cross before Satan does, and he talks about it quite differently: “You are carrying your cross, I know, and I have chosen you just as you are; I love you as you are, with your cross. Keep going as you are, carrying your cross. Go out on mission, even though you are still carrying it; it doesn’t make you unworthy of me, but it does make you more humble, and that is very important. Your cross will be a great school of humility for you and will always make you more humble; and the humbler you are, the more worthy you are of me, worthy of the mission I am entrusting you with . . . Your cross will also be a great school of prayer for you because you will be opening up to me, always, talking to me about the passions that make it up and which crucify you . . .”

So, it is in the context of being sent on mission that Jesus speaks to us in this way, helping us to truthfully check on our heart, with our cross on our shoulders. What Jesus has not said yet, because the moment to do so had not yet come, the great secret that he will open to us, is that he will help us bear our cross, that he will help out of love for us as no family member ever could. He will help us bear it until the day when he will take the full load, but this is later because the way of humility and prayer is still lengthy; later, because it is with him alongside, beneath our cross, that we will always be discovering more of how he helps us and loves us, and how our love for him is strengthened . . . May he be blessed!


Johan Velema on The humble divinity

Hints at the Divinity of Jesus in the gospel of Mark


This paper is a summary of a book that was published in French in 2020. In this book, over against an abundance of literature emphasizing the humanity of Jesus, the author wants to bring out the divinity of Jesus. This is not to say that he denies the humanity of Jesus. But he does want to present arguments to show that that does not fully explain the mystery of Jesus’ existence.

The Author

Daniel Bourguet is a biblical scholar who, after a period of ministering in local churches, was teaching Old Testament at the protestant institute of theology in Montpellier, France. He felt called to the monastic life and he withdrew in 1991 into the hills of the Cevennes, the region of his birth. He founded a retreat centre in 1996, which is run by volunteers. Many came to pour out their hearts to him and reflect and pray in the imposed silence of the centre. For approximately twenty years,

Bourguet would lead retreats for pastors and members of a prayer network called ‘Les Veilleurs’. He published his lectures in a non-academic style even though they were rooted in a thorough study of the biblical text and the commentaries of the early church fathers. Like them, he would use the Septuagint as the foundational text, comparing the meaning of words across the Old and New Testaments. As his sources dated back to before the schism of the Eastern and Western Christian church around AD 1000, he related to monastic traditions of both East and West and incorporated these into his own thought and practice. Bourguet just recently retired from active duty to devote himself more fully to prayer and writing. A number of his books were translated into English and more biographical details can be found in the foreword to each of these translations.

The gospel of Mark

Mark wrote his gospel in Rome between 64 and 69 AD. After the death of Peter there in 64 and possibly after the death of Paul in 67 but before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The church in Rome was grieving the loss of these apostles and under great pressure from the persecution that followed the fires in Rome under emperor Nero. The church began to realize that the first generation of Christians was about to be lost and that it was important to record their stories and messages.

Mark was a Jewish Christian. This is clear from his use of Aramaic words (5:41, 7:34, 14:36). He wrote for a Latin audience, which is evident from the way he explains Jewish customs (e.g. Mark 7:3- 4) and translates the occasional Aramaic words for Latin readers (e.g. the coin in the widow’s mite, 12:42). Mark saw the apostle Peter as his spiritual father (1 Pt 5:13) and Paul mentions him as one of his collaborators (Phlm 24). The fact that Matthew and Luke used this gospel as their primary source when they wrote about the life of Jesus, demonstrates that the early church considered the gospel of Mark as authentic and trustworthy and recognized its authority.

Mark writes succinctly. He wants to be faithful to the eye witness accounts without adding anything. Bourguet takes the view that Mark is saying as much if not more through what he does not say or write than through what he does. He wants to leave space for the reader to contemplate the mystery that he is hinting at. The divinity of Jesus cannot be proven. Where Paul writes a whole chapter presenting arguments for the reality and significance of the resurrection of Jesus, he does not present a similar discourse for his divinity. In fact, the unspeakable mystery of how Jesus could be fully human and fully divine cannot be communicated in words of any human language. It can be received in faith, it can be contemplated, but not rationally argued. Bourguet argues that the divinity of Jesus is an idea that underlies the gospel account as a whole and is communicated in indirect ways. He identifies many of these ‘hints’ in the summary that follows.

The Paralytic – Mark 2:1-12

Mark does not mention Jesus’ name until verse 5. The first words of Jesus are thus given extra emphasis. Those first four verses are setting the scene – the four men, their paralytic friend, the crowd, the roof. Now the story really begins. This is also where the story transitions from the visible to the invisible. We are told that Jesus saw ‘their faith.’


It is a unique expression in this gospel and in the New Testament. Other passages speak of people who bring to Jesus the sick and the demon-possessed (1:32), of the mothers who bring their children to Jesus (10:13) – using the same verb ‘bring’ (prosphérô) that is used here. But only here do we read that Jesus sees their faith. Matthew does not even give all the detail about the crowd and the roof, yet he also says that Jesus ‘saw their faith’ (Mt 9:3). All this suggests that Jesus saw not just the actions but the hearts of these five men.

Mark does not specify in whom these men had faith. In God, in Jesus, in both? In chapter 11, Jesus encourages his disciples to have faith in God (Mk 11:22). But elsewhere in the gospel of Mark the same lack of specificity occurs (4:40, 5:34, 10: 52). Clearly, when the paralytic is brought down on his stretcher before the feet of Jesus, his friends have great expectations from both Jesus and God.

Bourguet then cites the apostle Paul, whom Mark had known well, who tells us that faith is a grace given by God (Php 1:29), a gift of the Holy Spirit (1Cor 12:9). By implication, when Jesus sees the faith of these men, he recognizes the work of God the Father and of the Spirit in them. This interpretation views the three persons of the Trinity as present at this scene.


In the context in which Jesus moved, forgiveness could be declared by a priest after appropriate rituals had been performed. In some situations prophets could extend forgiveness if God had commissioned them to do so. An example is Nathan who declares forgiveness to David (2 Sam 12:13). But Jesus does not use the typical prophetic formula ‘Thus says the Lord’ and he is not a priest. He simply says: Your sins are forgiven you. This passive form of the verb implies, as everyone present understood, that Jesus was saying that God had forgiven him. It referred to God without explicitly mentioning him, which would have been irreverent. It is a classic example of the divine passive – a form frequently used in the New Testament. Of course, the forgiveness that is declared is not visible to the human eye. But for the paralytic it is clear that God has forgiven him his sins.


Just as Jesus saw into the heart of the paralytic, he senses what the teachers of the law were saying to themselves. He addresses their concern but in a very delicate way. He puts their thoughts out in the open but evades their accusation of blasphemy. Jesus avoided saying directly that he was God. It would have resulted in his death and he was not ready for that yet. Later, when he stands before the Sanhedrin does he directly claim his divinity (Mk 14:61). At that point he knows he is going to die and thus even facilitates his own condemnation.

Jesus receives the paralytic by saying to him: ‘My child’. It is a warm welcome, full of tenderness. He is expressing the love of God the Father to this man, affirming him and accepting him. Elsewhere Jesus calls his disciples ‘my children’ (10:24), which was an apt description of their intimate relationship. He calls the daughter of Jairus ‘little girl’ reflecting the fact that she was only 12 years old. But here is an adult man, for carried by four friends, whom Jesus has never seen before and He calls him ‘My child’.Many translations replace this word by other terms such as ‘friend’, ‘young man’, ‘son’. But the Greek word teknon really means child and refers to an intimate relationship. Many French translations therefore use ‘my child’. The only other situation where something similar happens in Mark’s gospel is with the woman who suffered from bleeding to whom Jesus says at the end of their encounter: ‘my daughter’ (Mk 5:34). Note that Jesus is not suggesting that the paralytic should become his disciple. In fact, he sends him home later (2:11).  

But here Jesus veils his identity by the use of this special term the Son of Man. It refers to Daniel 7:13 where in a vision, Daniel sees someone ‘like a son of man’ approach the throne of God, coming into his presence and being given authority and power. Although the term son of man occurred often in the Old Testament as referring to any human being (e.g. in Ezekiel), the definite article Jesus used meant he referred to that special human figure in Daniel 7, who could enter

God’s presence. Bourguet refers to the book of Enoch and 4 Esdras to show that this term was widely understood at the time of Jesus. Jesus does not say ‘I am the Son of Man’ but when one considers the whole course of events, this conclusion strongly suggests itself. And he speaks about the authority the Son of Man has to forgive sins, which he just exercised.


Jesus then takes the next step and cures the paralytic. He says: ‘I say to you, rise’. Jesus does not invoke any authority outside himself. Jesus’ disciples will later perform similar miracles by referring to the name of Jesus (e.g. Acts 3:6). But Jesus’ word is enough in itself. It produces immediate result, just like the words of God at creation (Ps 33:9). Jesus does not touch the man, or pull him to his feet.

Most English translations will say that the paralytic got up or rose (2:12), using an active form of verb. In the Greek, however, the form of the verb is passive and refers again to the intervention of God. It really says: He was raised. There is a hint here of the resurrection of Jesus where the same Greek verb is used, again in the passive form (Mk 16:6,14).


Two miracles are happening here. The sins that are forgiven and the paralytic that is raised up. Bourguet emphasizes how the three persons of the Trinity are present and act in perfect harmony. The Son recognizes the work of the Father in the paralytic’s heart. He declares forgiveness and healing and the Father and the Spirit make both of these things happen without manifesting their presence in any other way. The Son uses the passive forms of verb effacing himself to point to the Father. The Father responds to Jesus’ words without drawing further attention to himself – effacing himself to let people’s attention remain on the Son. Each person of the Trinity exercising humility in relation to the other. When Jesus says ‘your sins are forgiven’, he refers to the Father but when he says that ‘the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ he shows the unity between the Father and the Son who act with one will in perfect harmony.

The end of the story is that the paralytic walks out the door and the people praise God. Having said that, Jesus is still at the centre of the scene. He is the one they have just seen giving a new beginning to the life of the paralytic. Mark leaves us to contemplate Jesus, to contemplate what just happened and to ponder the implications.

Restoring a Demon-possessed man – Mark 5:1-20

The Gerasene man had un unclean spirit – a multitude of them. He was a man created in the image of God but dark forces dominated him. His crying out among the tombs and his auto-mutilation were expressions of that. But his crying out on the mountains, continually, night and day, was a cry for help to God, a prayer. For mountains are the dwelling places of the gods. The God of Israel lived on the mountain of Zion, had revealed himself in the Sinai and on the Carmel. In his deepest darkness, this man desperately sought a way out. For Bourguet, he stands for all of humanity, that is controlled by destructive forces, while at the same time desiring for integrity and identity and meaning.

However deep we may fall, nothing and no one can keep a human being from praying. This prayer is what drives the Gerasene to come to Jesus and kneel before him.

Jesus crossed the lake and weathered a storm to come to the aid of this man and answer his prayer. Just like God sent Moses to Egypt because he had heard the cry of his people (Ex 3:7). When Jesus tells the unclean spirit: Come out of the man, there is a parallel with Moses, who demands freedom for the children of Israel who have been enslaved. It is as if Jesus demands freedom for all of humanity. But where Moses invokes the name of God as he speaks to the Pharaoh (Ex 5:1), Jesus refers to no other authority outside himself. As the pigs drown in the water of the lake, there is a parallel with the Egyptian soldiers drowning in the Sea of Reeds. The enemy has been overcome and there is freedom.

As people ‘came to see what it was that had happened (5:14), they came to Jesus and saw the man who had been possessed ‘sitting there, clothed and in his right mind’. There are two different verbs for seeing here. The first is orao in the past tense – they came to see. The second is heoreo, which is the word to contemplate and it is in the present tense as an ongoing activity. ‘They came to see and they contemplate’ would be the literal translation. It is as if Mark invites us to consider the scene he describes and take all our time to do it. The scene is that of this totally degraded man who is now sitting by Jesus’ side, a normal human being – restored to dignity. It is a miracle too great for words. It is something too big for any human being to have done. We read that the people who considered this were afraid. They realized they were in the presence of something they could not grasp or control, a reality that was way beyond their human categories.

The discussion that ensues contrasts starkly with this contemplation. It is about the pigs and all the upset caused by Jesus’ intervention. Neither Jesus nor the man who had been possessed are asked to give their opinion on any of this. The end result is Jesus’ departure. He accepts this community decision, knowing something has irreversibly changed through the liberation of this one man. He asks the restored man to go home and renew the relationship with his family, telling them what the Lord has done for him. As always, Jesus does not draw attention to himself but gives all honour to God.

Mark then describes how the man goes around his entire region, proclaiming ‘how much Jesus had done for him’. The subtle change from ‘the Lord’ to ‘Jesus’ is another of Mark’s hints to the divinity of Jesus. The man who cried out to God in his enslavement, encounters a man who comes from afar to meet him and set him free. In the Psalms it is God who answers our cries for help (e.g. Ps 4:4, 18:7, 34:5). In the gospel it is Jesus who is sent by God to bring salvation.

Feeding the multitudes – Mark 6:30-44

Jesus wanted his disciples to have a break. They went with the boat to a quiet spot on the shore of the lake of Galilee. But when they got out of the boat, a large crowd of people were waiting for them there, eager for Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing. Mark describes how, on seeing the crowd,

Jesus is ‘moved with compassion’ for they were ‘like sheep without a shepherd’. Both these expressions are hints at the divinity of Jesus.


First, the Greek verb for ‘moved with compassion’ (splagchnizomai) is only used in the synoptic gospels and almost always with Jesus as the subject1. The only exceptions are 1) Mt 18:27 – where it is used in a parable speaking of the compassion of God; 2) Luke 10:33 – another parable, where the subject is the good Samaritan which is seen by many as an image of Jesus; 3) Luke 15:20, where the subject is the father in the parable of the prodigal son in 15:20 – again an image of God.

This Greek verb corresponds to the Hebrew verb racham. Both words refer to the organs in the belly, where the deepest emotions are felt; the Hebrew refers more specifically to the womb. Racham is used of God in 32 of the 40 occurrences in the Old Testament. The Septuagint does not translate these words with splagchnizomai, probably because it was felt to be inappropriate to use words for God that refer to the human anatomy. The conclusion seems obvious that by using this Greek verb for Jesus, the gospels hint at a correspondence between the emotions of Jesus and of God himself.

Second, Mark speaks of how the crowd seemed to Jesus like sheep without a shepherd. The image of the shepherd has significant echoes in the Old Testament, where God is often in the role of a shepherd who cares for his sheep, his people, over against the human shepherds who fail in their task (Ps 23, 77, 100, Jer 23, Ez 34). When Mark tells us that Jesus was moved with compassion for the sheep, he suggests that Jesus is in tune with God, seeing the people of Israel as God sees them. It suggests that Jesus is the good shepherd promised in Jer 23: 5 and Ez 34:23 and it hints that he is fulfilling the role God had chosen for himself from early on.

Past and Future

This gospel account of Jesus feeding the multitude links to the past as well as to the future. Concerning the past, it has precedents in the story of how God fed the people of Israel in the desert with the heavenly bread they called Manna14 (Exod 16) and in the story of how the prophet Elisha fed 100 people with 20 loaves of bread5 (2Ki 4). In these cases, however, both Moses and Elisha referred to God as the source of the bread (Ex 16:15, 2 Ki 4:43). Here in the gospel it is Jesus who is the source and he does not refer to God as providing it. He does pray over the bread, however, before he breaks it. In fact, we read that he looked up to heaven – a Jewish euphemism for looking up to God. But Jesus did not utter the kind of formula Elisha had used: ‘This is what the Lord says’.

Concerning the future, Bourguet cites early church fathers who all agree that this moment of giving bread to the crowd is intimately related to the Last Supper, where Jesus gave bread and wine to his disciples saying, this is my body, this is my blood. In the gospel of John this connection to the crucifixion was made explicit so many years later (John 6). However, many early exegetes were convinced that Jesus had already in mind what would happen to him at the time he fed the crowds. Thus for him, this giving out of bread was loaded with meaning as he prepared to give himself for the salvation of many (Mk 10:45). It was part of a process in which he would eventually give his body to be broken, ultimately bringing blessing to millions. Mark emphasizes that the disciples did not understand this at the time (6:52, 8:17).

Four actions

The essential verbs describing this miracle of multiplication are that Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to his disciples to be distributed. It is no accident that these same verbs are used in exactly the same order in the account of the Last Supper (Mk 14:22). In fact, they were taken from the oldest source Mark had available to him, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, which pre-dates his gospel. In 1 Cor 11:22-24 it is stated: the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” [ESV]

So here in Mark 6, Jesus performs the same actions. There is no consensus between commentators whether the actual multiplication happened as Jesus continued breaking off more chunks of bread or whether it happened as the disciples were distributing the pieces of bread among the people.

Bourguet follows Chrysostom in favouring this last explanation, which gives a greater role to the disciples, in whose hands the change takes place. Bourguet sees it as an empowering object lesson for the disciples of how they would offer Jesus’ message and power to thousands of people after his death and resurrection. That is in his view the meaning of the twelve baskets of left-overs, one for each disciple to take into the world. Thus Jesus does not claim any particular credit or fame. He recedes to the background and gives the disciples the experience of working a miracle even though they do not fully understand it. Bourguet emphasizes the self-effacing, humble love of God for Jesus, who in turn exercises humble, self- effacing love for his disciples.

Jesus announces his death and resurrection three times

First announcement – Mark 8:27-33

We witness in this passage a conversation about who Jesus really is. At Jesus’ question, the disciples put forward a number of answers that they have heard people give. When we carefully evaluate these answers, the conclusion must be that his disciples saw Jesus at this point as a prophet, one of the greatest – on a par with Elijah, but not as God. They could not grasp the mystery of Jesus’ divinity so easily. The declaration of Peter: ‘You are the Messiah’ refers to a long awaited figure who, however, neither in Judaism nor in the Old Testament is described as divine.

Jesus then introduces a new theme into his conversation with them. A theme that is difficult to bring up both for Jesus himself and for his disciples. It is difficult to speak of one’s own death. It is difficult to receive the words of someone who speaks about the end of their life. To alleviate this embarrassment, he speaks about it in the third person singular. He says that the Son of Man must suffer. It is presented as a destiny, fate. This was a concept well known to Latin readers. But it is not a Biblical concept. In fact, the Greek word for fate (heimarménè) does not occur in the Septuagint or in the New Testament at all. The Greek gods were subject to fate, but the God who created the world is not subject to fate. So how should we understand this word ‘must’?

If we say, God wanted Jesus to suffer, we make God a sadistic being. One that enjoys seeing pain in others. If we say, Jesus himself wanted to suffer, we make Jesus into someone who enjoys inflicting pain on himself – a masochist. Both answers are unacceptable. Then was it Satan who wanted Jesus to suffer? That is unlikely. In the scene that follows, Jesus perceives Satan behind the refusal of Peter to accept that Jesus might be killed. Satan surely wanted Jesus to die but not to rise again from the dead. Yet that was part of the announcement as well: ‘..and after three days rise again’. Anyway, Jesus was not subject to the demands of Satan and he was not driven by an unhealthy death wish.

The ‘must’ in this passage does not come from outside. It is a desire from within. Jesus was so in tune with God’s love for his creation and for humanity, that he himself wanted to go through the pain and suffering he announced to break the evil spell under which creation was bound. The ‘must’ represents a joint decision taken by God and Jesus together, in which either was free. It is only when we acknowledge the divinity of Jesus, which makes him an equal partner with God, that we can see here a choice on which both freely agreed. Only when we see God and Jesus in perfect communion with each other through the Holy Spirit can we make sense of this decision taken in unity. Any other solution makes God a pervert or Jesus a psychiatric patient.

The implication of this unity is that Jesus will not be the only one to suffer. God the Father also absorbs the pain and suffering that Jesus is submitted to. Many find the idea that God could suffer shocking. God is above creation and above our reach. How can God die? How can God suffer? A perfect God cannot be subject to the imperfection of suffering. In the logic of the Graeco-Roman philosophers, God could not suffer and many theologians have held this view. Bourguet makes the point that the Syriac fathers (he mentions Romanos and Makarios) were not influenced by Greek logic in the same way and held the view that God shared in the suffering of Jesus. God the Father

does not suffer physically, but feels the pain of his love being rejected. It is the logical consequence of love and of the unity between the Father and the Son.

Concerning the announcement of the resurrection, note that this verb is in an active form. The idea that someone was raised from the dead was known from the Old Testament and Jesus himself had on a few occasions brought people back from the dead. In all those situations, the dead person played no role at all. But Jesus uses here an active form, suggesting that he himself will, without outside help, rise up after his death and live again. The same turn of phrase is used in Mark 9:9 and it is not surprising that the disciples then ask each other what this rising up might mean (Mark 9:10). By contrast, later in the gospel of Mark, another verb is used and in the passive form: ‘after I am raised up’ (14:28) and ‘He has been raised’ (16:6). These passive forms, although they are often translated in active form in English, point to the intervention of God in the resurrection. Of course, we do not know what really happened during the resurrection as there were no witnesses. At any rate, no human observer could have made sense of it – it is beyond words. This paradox, where both expressions must be assumed to be true, suggests that there was a perfect harmony between the actions of the Father and of the Son at the time of Jesus’ return from the dead.

Second announcement – Mark 9:31-32

A similar paradox is found in the second announcement of the crucifixion. Here Jesus uses the term ‘delivered’: ‘The Son of Man is being delivered into the hands of men..’ (YLT) It is a passive form in the present tense. It suggests that God is delivering him into the hands of men. That is also what the apostle Paul had written before Mark in his letter to the Romans, that God ‘did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all’. Yet on at least two other occasions, Paul also wrote that Jesus gave himself up for us, using the same Greek word again (Gal 2:20, Eph 5:2). Both are true. There are simply no words to adequately express what happened here. The Father has delivered his son, who is also God, into suffering and the Son, in perfect harmony with the Father, has delivered himself into suffering as the further gospel account of Jesus’ passion clearly shows.

Third announcement – Mark 10:32-34, 45.

Bourguet links verse 45 to the third announcement of the crucifixion. The intervening episode (vs 35- 44) is just an interruption, another conversation where the disciples clearly showed that they had not understood the plan Jesus had been unfolding for them. Bourguet’s focus is on this last verse 45. It reveals Jesus as a servant, something he had never said before, and presents the idea of his death as a ransom.

First of all, Jesus says that his coming death is the reason why he has come. It was the purpose of his life on earth, the mission he had to accomplish. On the surface, his death was the result of an evil conspiracy against him. But Jesus decided to embrace this threat against him and came to accept it as the way to set people free. Many questions can be asked about this word ‘ransom’ that is only used here in the New Testament and in the parallel verse in Matthew. Bourguet follows Gregory of Nazianzus saying that the only important questions here are 1) for whom the ransom was paid and 2) what enslavement these beneficiaries were set free from.

Many had expected that Jesus would bring a political freedom. This seems to be the meaning of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:21): ‘we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel’ (where ‘redeem’ links to the concept of ransom). There was enough precedent in the Old Testament for this idea. Moses, Cyrus, the Messiah were all presented as people who would bring freedom from oppression. But Jesus had arrived at a different interpretation of the scriptures, discerning his mission in different terms. His interpretation of Psalms 118, 22, 35 and Isaiah 53 was for a Messiah who must suffer and bring freedom on a completely different set of terms. Hosea 13:14 speaks of God bringing freedom from death. Psalm 130:8 speaks of God freeing his people from all their sins. The Septuagint uses in both these verses the word ‘redeem’, which is linked to the concept of ransom. The apostle Paul quotes Psalm 130 when he says that we await the future appearance of ‘the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.’ (Titus 2:14, NIV). This verse brings together the notion that Jesus gave himself over into death, that he paid the ransom for us to free us from the power of sin and, by implication, death. Paul is also explicit here about the divinity of Jesus. It is clear in Paul’s mind that no ordinary human being could have achieved this freedom for us.

Transfiguration – Mark 9:2-8

Bourguet begins his exegesis of this passage by emphasizing the context of prayer in which this extraordinary event takes place. When Jesus leads these three disciples up the mountain, the word used is one for carrying them up, bearing them up. The Septuagint uses the same word when Abraham lifts his son unto the altar he has prepared to sacrifice him. It is not just a physical meaning, but a spiritual one: lifting towards God. Jesus lifts his disciples to God. The mountain is a place to be alone and to pray.

Jesus was transfigured – another example of a divine passive. Jesus was transformed by God, who is present at this scene all along, even if this is never made explicit. The word for transfigured is not used anywhere in the Septuagint. In the NT, Paul uses this verb when he writes about how we are transformed as we live in fellowship with Jesus and this is clearly an interior change, not visible from the outside. This use of the word metamorphoô is unique, intended to convey the uniqueness of what the disciples saw.

Heavenly nature

Mark speaks of how Jesus’ clothes are changed into a radiant white. He does not describe his face. This is significant. Isaiah does the same thing in his temple vision (Is 6). He describes how the robes of the Lord filled the temple but says nothing about his face. Psalm 104 says that God covers himself with light like a garment, again mentioning his clothes but not his face. Daniel comes closer and describes how he sees God in a vision as someone dressed in clothes white as snow and with hair like pure wool, sitting on a throne of fiery flames. Again the face is not described. No one can see the face of God and live (Ex 34). Matthew approaches this by adding that Jesus’ face on this occasion shone like the sun i.e. that the disciples could not look directly into it.

Bourguet splits the verb metamorphoô into meta which means ‘with’ or ‘in communion with’ and morphè, which means ‘form’ or ‘nature’. What the disciples see here is the other nature of Jesus that is in perfect communion with his human nature but that is not normally visible to them. Even now, we must assume that his appearance was modulated so they could bear to look at it.

We should not make the mistake of saying that Jesus, who was a man, at this point became a heavenly being, divine. The apostle Paul recites to the Philippians the common confession of the church of his day that Jesus was with God first but accepted for that divine nature to become invisible to the human beings of his day (Phil 2:5-8). The transfiguration is a moment where the disciples see the true nature of Jesus, which was hidden from their view in normal life. Seeing this puts the suffering and death of Jesus in another perspective for them. It is not just the torture and death of a loved one. It is also the victory of one stronger than death who breaks its spell forever.

The heavenly nature of Jesus relates to other heavenly beings i.e. Moses and Elijah. They had both spoken with God face-to-face during their life time (Ex 33, 1 Ki 19). Bourguet asks the question whether they had not, in fact, been speaking to Jesus at the time? They were now speaking with Jesus as if no time had passed between the earthly life of Jesus and theirs.

The Disciples

Confronted with this revelation from ‘the other side’, the disciples are gripped by an immense fear – for which Mark uses a stronger than usual word and which in the Septuagint is used to describe Moses’ fear for God’s wrath (Dt 9:19). When Peter speaks, his words can be understood as an attempt to hold on to the earthly aspects of reality and the human nature of Jesus. But then there is the cloud that overshadows them, enveloping them, protecting them. The early church fathers were unanimous that the cloud represented the presence of the Spirit of God. The word ‘overshadow’ here is the same word that the angel Gabriel used when he explained to Mary how she will become pregnant: ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you’ (Lk 1:35 ESV). It is a presence that takes away fear.

The cloud unites Jesus with Elijah and Moses, and the disciples are included in the same covering. It is an amazing image of continuity between the old and the new, with the living and the dead part of the same reality under the Lordship of Jesus, who holds the future in his hands. The transfigured Jesus, the cloud and the voice that the disciples hear together, form a unique scene where the three persons of the trinity are together in a way that they can perceive.

The voice is not qualified in any way. Peter, who described this scene to Mark, could not find words for it. He just knew it was God speaking and he knew what was said. But how, he could not tell. God speaks to the disciples and focuses all their attention on Jesus. So many things could have been said, so many words could have been used – but no. The Father effaces himself to put the Son in focus.

Jesus is mentioned four times in these eight verses which, for Mark, is a whole lot and bound to be intentional. Just like Jesus effaces himself and always honours God the Father, so the Father effaces himself and honours the Son. Truly the Son is the image of his Father.

All through Mark’s gospel, the disciples have asked themselves: Who is this? Who is this man who forgives sins (2:7)? Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him? (4:41)? Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary (6:3)? The disciples had many different suggestions when Jesus asked them who people thought he was (8:27-29). When Peter had said: You are the Messiah, Jesus had not confirmed this answer (Mark 8:30). Now God himself speaks to them about Jesus: This is my beloved son. It is the answer to all the questions that have been lingering all through the gospel up to this point.

Humble divinity

When in ancient times, God had spoken to his people, it was a terrifying thing to behold. The people of Israel asked Moses to mediate for them since they were too afraid (Ex 20:18-19). None of that is here. Here, God reveals himself as a God who is near, who is present with Jesus, covering his disciples by his Spirit, speaking of love.

For Bourguet, the gospel of Mark speaks loud and clear of the divinity of Jesus. But it is a humble divinity, one that is self-effacing. A voice that can only be heard by those who humbly listen to what Jesus is saying by his gestures, even more than by his words; those who perceive the divine love that is expressed by raising up the humble, while refusing to exercise power and refusing the cheering of the crowds; love that is willing to suffer rather than rule, to achieve a freedom beyond human horizons.

Since God is beyond human understanding, beyond human words or human categories of thought, the divinity of Jesus cannot be explained or argued. If it is real, it is inexpressible and can only be hinted at. It can only confront us with the question again and again: Who is this?

This summary was prepared by Johan Velema in October 2020 and approved by Daniel Bourguet in January 2021.

Philemon of Gaza meditates Mark’s Gospel

It is a little difficult for me personally to know how to introduce this book since it’s such a tremendous work that I don’t really know where to begin. Accordingly, it seems the best thing to do might be to reproduce Daniel’s forward to it. I plan to give more of a taste of Philemon in a review of Philemon meditates Matthew. Here is Daniel’s introduction:

When Tischendorf, in 1859, made his famous discovery in the monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai of one of the most ancient manuscripts of the Bible, he left the monastery with a number of other manuscripts; one of these, which was anonymous, did not attract his attention since the Greek script led him to date it to the 11th century. He entrusted this manuscript to a monk friend, an excellent Hellenist, who passionately set about a translation which he made into Latin, as was the custom of the time. Unhappily, because of his age, this monk died before he could finish his work. The manuscript was then stored away in his monastery, there being no other monk to take up the task.

Some decades later a French monk joined the community and one day came across the manuscript. With his abbot’s authorization and helped by the Latin translation, he set to and retranslated the whole work, this time into French. A very good Hellenist and also very humble, he did an excellent job while maintaining his anonymity. It became apparent that the 11th century manuscript in fact contained a text from the 6th century,[1] written by one Philemon, a monk from Gaza who, to our knowledge, wrote nothing else. At this moment, there is no other document that mentions this author; the manuscript is the first and perhaps only thing he wrote; he is cited by no other ancient author. Today he belongs to the company of the humble who sing the glory of God in the heavenly choir, but one day this unknown’s name emerged when the translator noticed it inscribed in acrostic form in the first letter of the opening chapters. We can imagine his joy when he saw appear before his eyes, little by little, letter by letter, “Philemon of Gaza, servant of God.” His interest in the translation increased tenfold and he now had a personal interest in the author, whom he thenceforth considered to be a Church Father.

I met the translator some thirty years ago during a retreat I made in this same monastery; he showed me his work with an enthusiasm which he communicated to me, and I stayed in touch with him through the years until his death. I should own that down these many years, I have become familiar with Philemon of Gaza to the extent of my spiritual walk being significantly affected by him. I owe him a great deal, as will easily be perceived by those who know me. I give infinite thanks to the Lord for everything he has given me through this man. Before his death, the translator asked me if I would be so good as to edit the text, making me promise not to divulge his name, a promise I have respected. As the text is so lengthy, comprising a meditation of the four gospels, I am only publishing here the first gospel meditated by Philemon, which is to say, the Gospel of Mark; it’s for Philemon himself to say why he began with Mark; whatever the reason, the text is of great interest to us as one of the very rare patristic texts devoted to this gospel.

The text is a collection of meditations, not a commentary; this needs to be borne in mind. The author of a commentary endeavors to make every detail of a text clear; in contrast, the author of a meditation pauses over some one detail which touches and speaks to him. He then takes the necessary time to receive in his heart everything that this detail says to him, taking it as coming from God to help him in his life.

A meditation, then, is always very personal and is not undertaken with the intention of it being shared with others; it belongs to the intimacy of the author with God. A commentary is not intended to be personal and can therefore be passed on to others.

If and when an author sets his meditation down in writing, above all this is going to be for himself. He might pick the draft up later, deepen his thinking and further his conversation with God; whatever the case, modesty forbids that it be made known because the writing belongs to the place of intimacy with God. Philemon was one of those who was not writing for others but for himself; as indicated at the very beginning of our manuscript, his text was only discovered high on a shelf in a monastic cell where it was left long after his death, we don’t know just when. Is it perhaps the case that we are betraying him by now publishing it? If so, may he forgive us! Perhaps he would wish to give thanks with us if his meditation helps us too to meditate; he would no doubt be happy to serve us in our walk with God.

While the manuscript is from the 11th century, it is a copy of an older text; the copy was edited very well but we can’t know if any errors found their way into the original text between the 6th and 11th centuries because we have no other copy.

One part of the manuscript is badly damaged, which makes some passages impossible to read; this is the case, for example, with the meditations on the parables of the lamp and the scales (Mk 4:21-25) and the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida (8:22-26). For this reason, these passages don’t figure in the present edition.

There are a number of gaps, due mainly to the poor condition of the lower part of the manuscript. Each of Philemon’s meditations begins at the top of a page and closes at the foot of the page with a prayer, so the poor condition of the manuscript explains why these prayers are incomplete or absent. That said, we can still profit from them because we are more or less invited to continue them in our own prayers.

At this point, I yield to Philemon, asking God to bless you in your reading, that it may stimulate and feed your own meditation.

[1]The dating to the 6th century is due to the authors cited in the text, the most recent of whom undoubtedly belong to that time. It cites Dorotheos of Gaza, Barsanuphius and John of Gaza, all from the 6th century, as well as Abba Seridos, who founded the Gaza monastery at the very end of the 5th century; he entrusted to Philemon the role of gatekeeper. All this enables us to locate Philemon in the first half of the 6th century.

The humble divinity of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel vol 2

This volume stands alone but does also continue from vol. 1. Daniel provides the same introduction as before, so the theme is the same; here it is pursued as he looks at the following passages – Mk 4:35-41, the calming of the storm, 5:23-34, the woman with the issue of blood, 5:21-24 and 35-43, which is the portion of the same account concerning Jairus, 9:14-29, the healing of the boy with the unclean spirit following the transfiguration, and 16:1-8, the resurrection (and in Daniel’s view, the gospel closes here at verse 8).

It’s a little difficult to know what to say, which details to point to, there being so many that are worthwhile as we meditate Jesus’ divinity, his humble divinity as discovered by Mark and progressively by the disciples.

Perhaps in the passage on the calming of the sea, we could point to the change Daniel points to in the disciples from having no faith (said by Jesus) to “great fear.” Here they question, “Who is this whom the wind and the sea obey?” Later, when he walks on the water, Jesus gives them the answer which is here left implicit; “I am,” he says.

“Very evident in the calming of the storm is the astonishing change in the disciples from the absence of faith to great awe, a change which evidences the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. Though the disciples’ condition was without faith, as Jesus tells them, the Holy Spirit suddenly brought faith to birth in them so filling them not merely with awe but with “great awe,” uniquely in this gospel. The disciples knew this reverence, this holy fear many times (6:50; 9:32; 10:32), but never great fear as here, a fear reflecting the great miracle which turned a “great storm” into a “great calm.” Mark structured his account around these three realities, the great storm, the great calm and the great fear.”

One nice emphasis among many in the account of the healing of the woman in chapter 5 is Jesus’ humility in attributing the healing to her faith.

“After allowing the depth of his love to be seen, now Jesus evidences how humble this love is. What humility this is, to have saved the woman but now efface himself totally before her and tell her that in the end it wasn’t he that saved her but she herself. He is a humble savior, effacing himself and attributing the healing to the woman’s faith.”

When it comes to Jairus, Daniel draw attention to something Jairus would have been well aware of – the contrast between the healing of his daughter and the passages in 1 and 2 Kings when the prophets raise the dead.

“First of all, Jesus had invited him to enter the young girl’s room, in contrast to Elijah and Elisha who had allowed no one in. That Jesus had Jairus come in doubtless included the thought that he would see the differences between his and the actions of the two prophets, and so have his faith enlightened.

Jairus must have noticed the ease, the facility with which Jesus performed the miracle. With Jesus, the miracle took place “immediately.” With Elijah, it took three efforts to obtain the miracle (1 Kgs 17:21), and with Elisha, two (2 Kgs:34ff). Further, for Jesus it was enough just to take the young girl by the hand, and this act alone was decisive, while Elijah and Elisha both acted much more extravagantly. There could be no doubt that Jesus had something more than the prophets.

Then, and this is still more decisive, Elijah like Elisha had said nothing to the child. Neither of them spoke to the dead child; they spoke only to God (1Kgs 17:20,21 and 2 Kgs 4:33) meaning that the miracle was done by God himself and not by his servants. This is very evident in the two prophetic accounts, showing that God alone is able to revive the dead. What happened at the house of the synagogue leader? Jairus saw very clearly that Jesus had not prayed, had not called on God, had not even lifted his eyes to heaven. He had not asked God for the miracle but had done it himself. This could not have escaped this leader of a synagogue.”

There are many beauties Daniel brings out we might otherwise so easily pass over.

Daniel is quite clear that the boy in Mark 9 was not an epileptic! No, he had an unclean spirit, a particularly vicious one. Of greatest interest to me was Daniel’s explanation as to why the disciples were unable to “cast him out.” This, the reader will need to discover for him or herself!

Lastly, then, the Resurrection.

Daniel greatly admires Mark the contemplative and he exemplifies this in a contrast with Matthew:

“As did Matthew for his part, Mark might have transformed the metaphor by narrating a meeting between Jesus and the women, and this would perhaps have been a pedagogically sound way of approaching the reality of the resurrection. However, this is not what he did, no doubt because he understood that Jesus’ appearance is deeper and more inexpressible than any narrative, and that there was therefore no better way than by metaphor to give it expression. Matthew was right and the women had indeed met Jesus, but it went much deeper than he says, so his account is accurate but also highly reductive. What his account does not say, and which no account could ever say, is that the women had contemplated Jesus present before them but also within them, in their hearts. It is this that is beyond telling: Jesus both outside and inside the women. Matthew gives only the external, without being able to say that Jesus was at the same time present to their hearts, present as only God can be present to us while still also outside.”

Daniel focuses on this metaphor that conveys the indescribable.

The humble divinity of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel vol 1

The link in the comments below is to an article which gives a really excellent account of this book. It is a little lengthy compared with the normal practice on this website, so I will also provide a shorter account here.

There are two volumes, this, the first, looking at episodes from Mark chapters 1 to 9; in fact volume 2 does the same but also turnsto ch 16. Daniel gives an introduction to Mark’s gospel before considering 5 passages: Mark 2:1-12, the healing of the paralytic let down through the roof; 5:1-20, the possessed man out of whom came the Legion; 6:30-44, where the bread is multiplied; 8:27-33, in which Jesus announces his Passion; 9:2-8, the account of the transfiguration.

In his introduction, Daniel stresses that he will be looking constantly at the way Jesus’ divinity is made apparent by Mark. The following is essential, I think – “If we have difficulty today perceiving the divinity of Jesus, it seems to me this is because he is humble, and in our eyes humility is incompatible with the glory of divinity. It’s certainly true that Jesus is humble, and I would say doubly so, humble in his humanity as well as in his divinity because God himself is humble. This is unacceptable to anyone who thinks that God cannot be both glorious and humble. What exactly though is glory? If the most glorious of kings combines pride with his glory, the pride will tarnish the glory and diminish it. However, if he is humble, his humility embellishes and enhances his glory. Humility combines wonderfully with glory. To say that God is humble takes away nothing from his glory; on the contrary, it elevates and makes it still more magnificent. The perfect humility of Jesus beautifies his humanity and his divinity as well. On this basis, we mustn’t be given pause by Jesus’ humility but should rather welcome it as a quality which both hides and reveals his divinity.” The introduction proceeds to show a few places where Jesus’ divinity is most plainly stated before settling into demonstrating his divinity at work in our passages.

One focus of the first passage is on Jesus’ forgiveness of the man’s sins – a prerogative of God. Clearly, then, Jesus is God! The unseen God is also present – but it is indeed unseen and  humbly that he heals.

The account of the Gadarene demonstrates God’s infinite care for this one man, separated from both God and human society yet still crying out for help. Daniel sees, after the man is delivered, Jesus (God) and the man sitting silently, contemplating each other.

The multiplication of the loaves opens with Jesus conducting a retreat: “Come apart and rest a while.” The passage, in which Jesus’ actions are contrasted with Elish (2 Kgs 4) is seen to be linked to Communion in the way He broke the bread, prefiguring his passion, his death, as announced in chapter 8. Here, Daniel discusses a couple of theological issues, but the focus remains the same:  “In his great reserve and modesty, in his unfathomable humility, Jesus contents himself with saying that ‘the Son of Man is come to give his life a ransom for many.’ He goes no further, preferring to be silent. But what infinite love there is in the silence . . . After hearing Jesus announce his death to them, the disciples were silent too. Jesus had no need to speak further; each knew himself involved; each understood that it was for him that Jesus was giving his life.

The Transfiguration is such an amazing passage it is hard to know what to say. “Hear Him!”

The last words

First a small but telling comment to do with the title. In French the title is Le dernier entretien; the word translated into “entretien” would normally be rendered in English as “discourse”, but the French could actually be translated as “chat”, and that’s really much of where Daniel’s focus is as he looks at John 14-16, where Jesus speaks to his close disciples and calls them (us) his friends. The “chat” is foundational to the church —and, says Daniel, it is as a chat rather then the frequent idea of a farewell address that the passage should be read— and, as a chat, has very largely to do with relationship, not doctrine, certainly in the way Daniel presents it. Before calling the disciples “friends”, Jesus first calls them “little children”; here is a typical paragraph presenting Daniel’s interest:

“Little children”: this puts Jesus in the position of father, not biologically of course, but spiritually. He shows us the way of genuine spiritual paternity, not arrogating to himself the title of father which he systematically reserves for God, the one true Father, before whom he always situates himself as Son. Using the term “little children” rather than “my little children” indicates his wish not to have any hold over his disciples, but without abdicating his responsibility as a spiritual father. The whole of the discourse in fact demonstrates his concern for his children, to comfort, strengthen, teach and build them up in love. He reveals himself as the perfect model of a spiritual father, to the point of giving his life for them.

The second chapter is entitled simply The Holy Spirit. Daniel makes the coming of the Holy Spirit very personal, stressing particularly that it was a strong personal concern of Jesus for his friends, for whom he wishes maximum comfort. To say that Daniel strongly and consistently emphasizes the highly personal nature of all Jesus says is probably a sufficient summary – but of course he does this in depth under the heading of each of Jesus’ statements about the Holy Spirit. (Perhaps one of the most outstanding chapters in any of his books.)

Chapter 3 is Lord, where are you going? He is going to the Father (not heaven) . . . to prepare a place; and this place where the Father is is “with you”; not the oikos, the temple; no the oikia, a house; but mone, a humble dwelling. “With this in mind, I believe that mysteriously the dwelling place of the Father is alongside the Son and the Holy Spirit in the disciple. How humble and extraordinary is the Trinity, preferring the heart of the disciple to the Jerusalem Temple and the celestial temple. It’s a miracle of divine love, God coming humbly to inhabit the heart of the disciple.” The key words here are humble and humility, the emphasis of this section.I’m sorry not to have space to do more than hint at this.

Ch 4 is titled Love and examines what Jesus says in the discourse about the love that subsists between all the parties involved, the Father, the Son, (not the Holy Spirit), and you and me, dealing with each relationship individually. Suffice to say that it’s great and here are a couple of paragraphs:- Let’s look closely at this final discourse — what is the love that is spoken about? Well, the love of the Father for Jesus, and his love for his Father, never the love of the Holy Spirit (the Holy Spirit is never in the New Testament the subject of the verb ‘love’!); Jesus also talks about the love of the Father for the disciples, and of his own love for them; and finally, he discusses the disciples’ love for him and love among themselves, but without mentioning the disciples’ love for the Father! . . . The verb for “love,” used here twice, is not agapaô but philéô; not, that is, the verb which magnificently speaks of the way God loves without expecting anything in return, gratuitously, but the verb which speaks of reciprocal love and even God’s friendship, which itself is also magnificent. . . . . This statement from Jesus is absolutely extraordinary, and a most surprising revelation for the disciples; never, in fact, had they thought of being friends of God, not so much as having the pretension. Perhaps they had never even spoken to God of their love for him? . . . No, Jesus is telling them; God has found in your heart whereof to make you his friends! What grace this is for those who knew themselves to be so little worthy of what they were hearing from Jesus’ lips! How humble is this God who binds himself in friendship to a bunch of Galilee fishermen!

The fifth chapter is simply titled More on Love and continues the same themes but tending to focus on obedience, on love in action as demonstrated in John 13, Jesus washing the disciples feet. It’s obedience that leads to humility, Daniel says, and to an increasing experience of Jesus’ love in us. There is a great deal in this chapter; I will just briefly mention the take on ‘a new commandment I give you, that you love one another’ which Daniel says is the commandment of a physician – go and do this and you will get well!

This great book closes with an Afterword which sends us to Jesus’ prayer in John 17.

Gethsemane, Watch and Pray

This great book divides neatly into two. The first takes a long meditative look at Christ in Gethsemane and reads very well along with The Silence of God during the Passion; the second looks in general at the issue of temptation.

Jesus was faced with something terrible and dark at Gethsemane, something we might not immediately notice, darker even than the approach of Satan. He cites Zechariah, “Arise, sword and strike the shepherd!” but he changes it to God saying, “I [God] will strike the shepherd.” Daniel doesn’t feel able to comment at length on this, dark as it is; instead he focuses on 1. The amazing idea that God would share these sombre events with us. 2. Our weakness, exemplified in the sleeping disciples. 3. God’s help proffered to Jesus. 4. Jesus’ trust in the Father.

Chapter 2, while a general look at temptation, examines Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Daniel frequently prefers to focus on Mark’s account of an event, and does so here, though he compares it with the other gospels; Mark is very brief but his concision says a lot, and he is always making discreet allusions to the OT, an important one here being to Jesus as the scapegoat of Lev 16. How are we to overcome temptation? In the same way Jesus overcame Satan, but armed with his help.

Our brothers, the Desert Fathers

This is not one of Daniel’s works which will immediately go to the top of the queue for publication because it is not a meditation primarily concerned with the Bible; which is not to say that it is not a great book, because it is. Daniel’s interest as always is prayer and meditation, but here it is focused on the practice of 5 of the desert fathers, Abbas Anthony, Lucius, Isaac, Moses and Sisoes, with side journeys looking at ‘matters arising.’

Of the five men discussed, Anthony and Moses are the two something of whose biographies are known; the chapters concerning these two therefore have more to do with them as individuals and their growth in faith.

The main theme with Anthony is unceasing prayer and how he arrived at this; the answer is, through many difficulties, difficulties with which Daniel makes sure we can identify. The point is made that where Athanasius’ well known account is more or less a hagiography, the apophthegms found in the two collections, the ‘alphabetic’ and the ‘systematic,’ are relatively bare of praise, presenting facts; indeed Anthony is seen to denounce his own negligence and failings. Humility is the central motif to Anthony’s life.

Abba  Moses was an extraordinary man, a violent man who was saved out of a criminal background, who we then see struggling to accept the grace of God. He was evidently a most impressive figure to those around him, and he learned to love God, a God who answered his prayers, and yet seems not to have grasped God’s full acceptance of him.

The general theme is that of unceasing prayer, and the accounts of the other men focus on this, but diverge from the way prayer practices developed into recounting some very interesting experiences, including for example Arsenius whose whole being was filled as though with fire. In a sense, these men in their solitary practices in the deserts of Egypt are indeed remote from us today, yet, as Daniel says in his introduction, ‘ by the grace of the Holy Spirit there is woven between them and us a wonderful communion, one to which we all too often pay little attention.’

Evening, morning and noon

The three times of day for meditation and praise of the title correspond to the biblical pattern, as for example in Daniel (Dan 6:10), as well as the pattern for the Fraternité des Veillieurs of which Daniel Bourguet was prior; that is, thrice daily devotions. The book looks helpfully at aspects both practical and spiritual of the devotional life; as one would expect with Daniel, the emphasis is on the enabling presence of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The first chapter has a look at monastic practice, particularly as found in the early Desert Fathers, from whom, Daniel likes to say, we have much to learn; it then turns to what he terms the “liturgy” of the book of Revelation, where liturgy means worship; it is in this liturgy, which includes the entirety of creation, that we participate in our private devotions.

The second chapter concerns “Helps and difficulties in prayer.” Of course, this has to do with prayer as devotion rather than petitions, so the issue is soon raised of “distraction.” Some practical suggestions are made, but mainly the concern is why distraction occurs; interestingly, the only biblical reference to distraction is about Martha, who was distracted by many things, which Daniel takes to mean that we are distracted as a result of what he elsewhere discusses under the rubric of spiritual maladies or malaises.I don’t remember quite where, but somewhere Daniel discusses a man’s possible reactions to seeing a shapely woman sunbathing on the other side of the street — does he close the curtains over his window, or perhaps he reaches for the binoculars? The subject of our distractions will tend to reveal a spiritual malady!

The third chapter covers some of the same ground as Bible Meditation, that is, it concerns meditation, and contains some most interesting examples of meditation in action (so to speak!). There are passages and books of Daniel’s which more directly deal with the Bible, but, as always, there is a wonderful spirit to breathe in as we read.

There is what amounts to a little afterword which concludes as follows:

Without this love our devotions come to nothing. When I have my devotions, morning, noon and evening, “If I have not love, I am no more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” (1 Cor 13:1).

The question is not, “Do I pray well?”  Rather it is, “Do I love truly?”

Spiritual discipline

The title of this book in French is Un chemin de liberté, l’ascèse, A pathway to freedom, Asceticism; we considered using the word Asceticism in the translation title and as of this writing I am still not really sure whether the use of the term is attractive or repellant. An important element of the book is just that every form of spiritual discipline is a form of asceticism, and rather than focusing on some of the historical and sometimes harsh forms of ascetic behaviour, Daniel points out that as time went by, the Church Fathers continually moderated the extremes as not proving helpful, in fact concluding that temperance was best. The objective of all ascetic practice is humility, or rather, God, who looks for humility.

I would suggest that this book is in fact intensely practical from a pastoral point of view. It should be read together with Spiritual Maladies and promotes a very sound, sensible and practical approach to spiritual growth. Some elements of modern psychology may help, but there is much here that is simply more consonant with the word of God; the book really has to do with God as our Healer. I would personally highly recommend this book and, while I do that with all Daniel’s books, I would say this book is particularly valuable as a link with the Church Fathers, who are often cited, and as a guide to ‘spiritual formation.’

There are five chapters.

  1. Asceticism in the Bible. The Greek word aksesis belongs to the sporting arena; in the spiritual sense it implies the training of the body to obey the soul and help fulfill God’s word. The biblical background has mainly to do with fasting, which is stated to be for the humbling of the soul. Daniel goes through much of what is said in the Bible about fasting.

How, though, is this humbling of the soul to be manifest unless, in particular, by imposing on oneself fasting with regard to food? It is entirely natural that anyone who is deeply afflicted about having saddened the God he loves and to whom he is attached would really have no taste for food, not until forgiveness has been received. Anyone who wishes to show God his affliction will voluntarily accept the humbling of his soul in fasting. Fasting perfectly finds a place here as an expression of repentance, and even, if necessary, as an aid to experiencing the repentance more intensely. Fasting is part of the process of repentance.

The biblical expression says it clearly: fasting is the humbling of the soul. It is not a vexation undertaken to mortify the body. Fasting is directed at the soul through the body.

Further, to chastise one’s body is to take God’s place; it is to judge in place of the true judge. To humble is not the same as to punish; it is a process of penitence directed towards the only judge, from whom grace and forgiveness are hoped. The ascetic who punishes himself through his asceticism is only ignoring God, as though there were no expectation of his grace and pardon. No; fasting, and spiritual discipline generally, accompanies a person in their movement towards God in full expectation of his grace. This is fundamental!

Jesus sought to purify fasting of its various accretions of pride! A person who fasts is always more or less full of the sadness of Yom Kippur or some other sorrowful day. Setting out to seek pardon of God is to prepare to meet your judge, in uncertainty as to his mercy and grace. But here, Jesus replaces the word “God” with “Father,” even “your Father”! The meeting Jesus depicts is that of intimacy between a child and his Father “in secret.” Repentance is then filled with an immense hope, since for Jesus the word “Father” overflows with love; the quest for grace and forgiveness from the Father proceeds much more quickly than with a judge. However, the pain of having offended the Father is also much greater than that of offending a judge! The teaching of Jesus underlines here both the pain connected with fasting and the hope which prepares for joy. You, when you fast, get ready to meet your Father . . . A joyful sadness!

2. The ascetic’s warfare. Daniel looks at the practices of the monks in overcoming pride. The enemy is not the body, which is instead fortified by discipline; no it’s pride. Jesus calls us all to ascetic effort — STRIVE to enter the strait gate; he himself led the way as he strove, agonized in Gethsemane. This struggle is a necessary facet of life.

3. Asceticism and spiritual therapy. There is a discussion of the passions. The tendency was to move away from violent striving – conquering – to remedy, therapy, with the 8 passions as a major diagnostic tool, with the 3 primary passions, the love of money, love of glory, love of pleasures, all leading to the others. Ascetic effort reveals our problem – do we find giving hard? – then we find ourselves afflicted by avarice, and also reveals our lack of love for our neighbor. Discipline helps the healing process – but it is God who heals; thus, as we engage with the discipline of giving (with God!) we become free of avarice and begin to take joy in giving.

When we take hold of what Jesus reveals about God, our relation to evil as it relates to God is also profoundly changed. Before a judge we will often seek to minimize or hide our participation in wrong doing in order to avoid punishment. We will also seek the judge’s pardon but always with the fear of not receiving it, By contrast, when dealing with a physician we want to expose to him our troubles, those blunders that make us even worse. We are thirsty for his intervention, longing for him to give us a precise prescription to follow; thirsty to collaborate in our healing, longing to follow the discipline he will propose.

The healing face of God revealed in Christ leads us always greatly to desire to be brought into the light and met with. We cannot really say this of God as judge!

As long as God remains to us essentially a judge, asceticism will always have a severe and even somewhat repressive side. When we discover God the physician, it will become what it should be, a way of health, a way of liberty.

4. Asceticism and synergy.

We see that there are two forces joining together, Paul’s and Christ’s. In his ascetic discipline, compared to the running of a race, Paul is animated by his own energy, with which is mixed the energy of Christ, who gave the first impulse by “seizing” him and then never ceases to give of his strength to such a degree that, having taken hold of it, Paul never slackens. It is this combination of two forces which means we can speak of “synergy.”

It is a synergy of humility. We know ourselves nothing and yet God ascribes to us the victory!

5. The fruit of asceticism

Here, Daniel switches, nominally at least, attention away from humility to the issue of purity of heart, which has as its outcome seeing God, and fruit, the fruit of the Spirit. However, purity of heart and humility come to pretty much the same thing; it’s just that there is a change in focus in the result – what we see.

In our pride we see only our own actions; in our humility we can see the hidden activity of God. With the illumination of our understanding, finally clear-sighted, it will be given us to see God at work, marveling to discover that God chooses our acts, small as they are, to perform miracles of his providence. It is so true that what we give to our neighbor is not the same measure as they receive, simply because over and above our charity, they receive God’s. God’s giving is more just, more appropriate than ours; it engenders neither embarrassment nor shame. Human charity gives birth in the recipient to a sort of embarrassment and shame, mixed with thanksgiving; God’s charity gives rise to thanksgiving purified of all shame.

The more humble we are, the less our eyes will be fixed on what we do, and will see only the actions of God. The truly humble see only God’s charity and not their own, God’s compassion and not their own, the love of God and not their own . . . The humble person who is in God, sees only what God is doing in them.