Catechesis and the Liturgy of the Hours
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it states, “The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows. It is therefore the privileged place for catechizing the People of God.” Certainly we see this in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass – whether it be in the prayers, readings, gestures, or in the overall structure and arc of the liturgy. But we see this also in the Liturgy of the Hours, which is the “necessary complement” and “extension of the Eucharistic celebration.” This has been particularly evident to me the last few weeks in the Office of Readings where we have received instruction from Origen on how to read Sacred Scripture through typology, from St. Cyprian on the Lord’s Prayer, and from St. Ambrose on the Psalms.
While I could go into each one of these, I want to reflect briefly on two texts from Wednesday and Thursday in the Tenth Week in Ordinary Time. Each of these texts are excerpts of homilies by the second century priest, Origen of Alexandria. They both provide commentary on the book of Joshua – the first on the crossing of the Jordan and the second on the capture of Jericho.
In the first text, Origen makes the connection between the wonders that were performed when the Israelites passed through the waters of the Jordan and the greater wonders that occur at our passage through the waters of Baptism. He points out that,
“The ark of the covenant led the people of God across the Jordan. The priests and the Levites halted, and the waters, as though out of reverence to the ministers of God, stopped flowing. They piled up in a single mass, thus allowing the people of God to cross in safety.”
But then he addresses the Christian,
“You should not be amazed to hear of these wonders performed for men of the past. The divine Word promises much greater and more lofty things to you who have passed through Jordan’s stream by the sacrament of baptism.”
For Origen, the mysteries of the New Covenant far surpass the wonders worked in the Old Covenant. As St. Paul put it in his letter to the Colossians, these were “only a shadow” of the "substance" or "reality" that has now come in Christ. Whereas the Israelites were delivered from their physical bondage and were given the physical land promised to their fathers, when we come to the baptismal font and are initiated into the sacraments, Origen says that it is through the ministry of the New Covenant priests that we abandon the darkness of idolatry, cross the spiritual Jordan, and enter the true Promised Land. And it is there that Moses hands us over to Jesus who guides us on our journey to Heaven.
In the second text, Origen provides the key to unlocking a difficult passage in the book of Joshua that describes the capture of Jericho. In this passage, after circling the perimeter of Jericho for seven days, the horns blew, the people shouted, and the walls of the city collapsed. The Israelites then stormed the city and put to the sword all living creatures, “men and women, young and old, as well as oxen, sheep, and asses” save Rahab, the harlot who risked her life to provide refuge and safety to the Israelite spies. How is a Christian to read and understand this passage and its meaning today?
For Origen, “Jericho is often represented as an image of the world… Jericho will fall, then; this world will perish.” How? Quoting St. Paul, he says “The trumpet will sound, and the dead who are in Christ will rise incorruptible… then the Lord Jesus will conquer Jericho with trumpets and destroy it, saving only the harlot [Rahab] and her household.” This is where Origen helps us see how “in the Old Testament the New is concealed, in the New the Old is revealed (St Augustine).” He goes on to say that Jesus “will save only the woman who received his spies, that is, his apostles, in faith and obedience, and hid them on the roof of her house; and he will join this harlot to the house of Israel. But let us not bring up her past sins again or impute them to her. She was a harlot once, but now she is joined to Christ, chaste virgin to one chaste husband.”
In other words, Origen identifies the harlot Rahab with the Church who receives the witness of the Apostles and obeys their teachings, forsaking her former way of life and clinging to the Lord. Finally, he says “To assure her escape when Jericho was destroyed, the harlot was given that most effective symbol of salvation, the scarlet cord. For it is by the blood of Christ that the entire church is saved.”
There should be little doubt that Origen assumes the historical veracity of the accounts of Joshua. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out, to affirm a “spiritual” sense of Scripture is not deny a “literal” or “historical” sense. In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas states that all senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal or historical sense. However, it is important to see how the Church Fathers – in this case, Origen – find the presence of Jesus Christ and Gospel of the New Covenant concealed in the Old. For them, everything in the Old Covenant speaks of Christ.
This is a wonderful catechesis that is provided for us in the Office of Readings on reading Sacred Scripture spiritually or typologically. This is one way that the Sacred Liturgy instructs us. It not only teaches us dogmatic truths, but gives prayers, hymns, readings, gestures, and more to immerse us in these truths that we might experience them and appropriate them in our lives.