Bookmark and Share

Origen of Alexandria

Father of the Church
Born 184/5 - from Alexandria in Egypt
Died 253/4, probably Tyre, Lebanon

Origen's Life and Writings
Catechesis by Pope Benedict XVI (1 of 2)
General Audience, Wednesday 25 April 2007 - also in Croatian, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"Dear brothers and sisters
In our meditations on the great figures of the early Church, today we become acquainted with one of the most remarkable. Origen of Alexandria truly was a figure crucial to the whole development of Christian thought. He gathered up the legacy of Clement of Alexandria, on whom we meditated last Wednesday, and launched it for the future in a way so innovative that he impressed an irreversible turning point on the development of Christian thought. He was a true "maestro", and so it was that his pupils remembered him with nostalgia and emotion: he was not only a brilliant theologian but also an exemplary witness of the doctrine he passed on. Eusebius of Caesarea, his enthusiastic biographer, said "his manner of life was as his doctrine, and his doctrine as his life. Therefore, by the divine power working with him he aroused a great many to his own zeal."(Storia Eccl 6, 3, 7)

His whole life was pervaded by a ceaseless longing for martyrdom. He was 17 years old when, in the tenth year of the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus, the persecution against Christians was unleashed in Alexandria. Clement, his teacher, fled the city, and Origen's father, Leonides, was thrown into prison. His son longed ardently for martyrdom but was unable to realize his desire. So he wrote to his father, urging him not to shrink from the supreme witness of faith. And when Leonides was beheaded, the young Origen felt bound to welcome the example of his father's life. Forty years later, while preaching in Caesarea, he confessed: "It is of no use to me to have a martyr father if I do not behave well and honour the nobility of my ancestors, that is, the martyrdom of my father and the witness that made him illustrious in Christ" (Hom Ez 4, 8). In a later homily — when, thanks to the extreme tolerance of the Emperor, Philip the Arab, the possibility of bearing witness by shedding one's blood seemed no longer to exist — Origen exclaims: "If God were to grant me to be washed in my blood so as to receive the second Baptism after accepting death for Christ, I would depart this world with assurance... But those who deserve such things are blessed" (Hom Iud 7, 12). These words reveal the full force of Origen's longing for Baptism with blood. And finally, this irresistible yearning was granted to him, at least in part. In the year 250, during Decius' persecution, Origen was arrested and cruelly tortured. Weakened by the suffering to which he had been subjected, he died a few years later. He was not yet 70.

We have mentioned this "irreversible turning point" that Origen impressed upon the history of theology and Christian thought. But of what did this turning point, this innovation so pregnant with consequences, consist? It corresponds in substance to theology's foundation in the explanation of the Scriptures. Theology to him was essentially explaining, understanding Scripture; or we might also say that his theology was a perfect symbiosis between theology and exegesis. In fact, the proper hallmark of Origen's doctrine seems to lie precisely in the constant invitation to move from the letter to the spirit of the Scriptures, to progress in knowledge of God. Furthermore, this so-called "allegorism", as von Balthasar wrote, coincides exactly "with the development of Christian dogma, effected by the teaching of the Church Doctors", who in one way or another accepted Origen's "lessons". Thus, Tradition and the Magisterium, the foundation and guarantee of theological research, come to take the form of "scripture in action". We can therefore say that the central nucleus of Origen's immense literary opus consists in his "threefold interpretation" of the Bible. But before describing this "interpretation" it would be right to take an overall look at the Alexandrian's literary production. St Jerome, in his Epistle 33, lists the titles of 320 books and 310 homilies by Origen. Unfortunately, most of these works have been lost, but even the few that remain make him the most prolific author of Christianity's first three centuries. His field of interest extended from exegesis to dogma, to philosophy, apologetics, ascetical theology and mystical theology. It was a fundamental and global vision of Christian life.

The inspiring nucleus of this work, as we have said, was the "threefold interpretation" of the Scriptures that Origen developed in his lifetime. By this phrase, we wish to allude to the three most important ways in which Origen devoted himself to studying the Scriptures: they are not in sequence; on the contrary, more often than not they overlap.
First of all, he read the Bible, determined to do his utmost to ascertain the biblical text and offer the most reliable version of it. This, for example, was the first step: to know truly what is written and what a specific scriptural passage intentionally and principally meant. He studied extensively for this purpose and drafted an edition of the Bible with six parallel columns, from left to right, with the Hebrew text in Hebrew characters - he was even in touch with rabbis to make sure he properly understood the Bible's original Hebrew text -, then the Hebrew text transliterated into Greek characters, and then four different translations in Greek that enabled him to compare the different possibilities for its translation. Hence comes the title of "Hexapla" ("six columns"), attributed to this enormous synopsis. This is the first point: to know exactly what was written, the text as such.

Secondly, Origen read the Bible systematically with his famous Commentaries. They reproduced faithfully the explanations that the teacher offered during his lessons at Alexandria and Caesarea. Origen proceeded verse by verse with a detailed, broad and analytical approach, with philological and doctrinal notes. He worked with great precision in order to know completely what the sacred authors meant.

Lastly, even before his ordination to the priesthood, Origen was deeply dedicated to preaching the Bible and adapted himself to a varied public. In any case, the teacher can also be perceived in his Homilies, wholly dedicated as he was to the systematic interpretation of the passage under examination, which he analyzed step by step in the sequence of the verses. Also in his Homilies, Origen took every opportunity to recall the different dimensions of the sense of Sacred Scripture that encourage or express a process of growth in the faith: there is the "literal" sense, but this conceals depths that are not immediately apparent. The second dimension is the "moral" sense: what we must do in living the Word; and finally, the "spiritual" sense, the unity of Scripture which throughout its development speaks of Christ. It is the Holy Spirit who enables us to understand the Christological content, hence, the unity in diversity of Scripture. It would be interesting to demonstrate this. I have made a humble attempt in my book, Jesus of Nazareth, to show in today's context these multiple dimensions of the Word, of Sacred Scripture, whose historical meaning must in the first place be respected. But this sense transcends us, moving us towards God in the light of the Holy Spirit, and shows us the way, shows us how to live. Mention of it is found, for example, in the ninth Homily on Numbers, where Origen likens Scripture to [fresh] walnuts: "The doctrine of the Law and the Prophets at the school of Christ is like this", the homilist says; "the letter is bitter, like the [green-covered] skin; secondly, you will come to the shell, which is the moral doctrine; thirdly, you will discover the meaning of the mysteries, with which the souls of the saints are nourished in the present life and the future" (Hom Num. 9, 7).

It was especially on this route that Origen succeeded in effectively promoting the "Christian interpretation" of the Old Testament, brilliantly countering the challenge of the heretics, especially the Gnostics and Marcionites, who made the two Testaments disagree to the extent that they rejected the Old Testament. In this regard, in the same Homily on Numbers, the Alexandrian says, "I do not call the Law an "Old Testament' if I understand it in the Spirit. The Law becomes an "Old Testament' only for those who wish to understand it carnally", that is, for those who stop at the literal meaning of the text. But "for us, who understand it and apply it in the Spirit and in the Gospel sense, the Law is ever new and the two Testaments are a new Testament for us, not because of their date in time but because of the newness of the meaning.... Instead, for the sinner and those who do not respect the covenant of love, even the Gospels age".

I invite you - and thus conclude - to welcome into your hearts the teaching of this great master of faith. He reminds us with deep delight that in the prayerful reading of Scripture and in consistent commitment to life, the Church is ever renewed and rejuvenated. The Word of God, which never ages and is never exhausted, is a privileged means to this end. Indeed, it is the Word of God, through the action of the Holy Spirit, which always guides us to the whole truth. And let us pray to the Lord that he will give us thinkers, theologians and exegetes who discover this multifaceted dimension, this ongoing timeliness of Sacred Scripture, its newness for today. Let us pray that the Lord will help us to read Sacred Scripture in a prayerful way, to be truly nourished with the true Bread of Life, with his Word."

Origen's Doctrine
Catechesis by Pope Benedict XVI (2 of 2)
General Audience, Wednesday 2 May 2007 - also in Croatian, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"Dear brothers and sisters,
Last Wednesday's catechesis was dedicated to the important figure of Origen, the 2nd to 3rd century doctor of Alexandria. In that catechesis, we examined the life and literary opus of the great Alexandrian teacher, identifying his threefold interpretation of the Bible as the life-giving nucleus of all his work. I set aside - to take them up today - two aspects of Origenian doctrine which I consider among the most important and timely: I intend to speak of his teachings on prayer and the Church.

In truth Origen - author of an important and ever timely treatise Prayer - constantly interweaves his exegetical and theological writings with experiences and suggestions connected with prayer. Notwithstanding all the theological richness of his thought, his is never a purely academic approach; it is always founded on the experience of prayer, of contact with God. Indeed, to his mind, knowledge of the Scriptures requires prayer and intimacy with Christ even more than study. He was convinced that the best way to become acquainted with God is through love, and that there is no authentic scientia Christi without falling in love with him. In his Letter to Gregory, Origen recommends: "Study first of all the lectio of the divine Scriptures. Study them, I say. For we need to study the divine writings deeply ... and while you study these divine works with a believing and God-pleasing intention, knock at that which is closed in them and it shall be opened to you by the porter, of whom Jesus says, "To him the gatekeeper opens'. "While you attend to this lectio divina, seek aright and with unwavering faith in God the hidden sense which is present in most passages of the divine Scriptures. And do not be content with knocking and seeking, for what is absolutely necessary for understanding divine things is oratio, and in urging us to this the Saviour says not only "knock and it will be opened to you', and "seek and you will find', but also "ask and it will be given you'" (Ep. Gr. 4). The "primordial role" played by Origen in the history of lectio divina instantly flashes before one's eyes. Bishop Ambrose of Milan, who learned from Origen's works to interpret the Scriptures, later introduced them into the West to hand them on to Augustine and to the monastic tradition that followed.

As we have already said, according to Origen the highest degree of knowledge of God stems from love. Therefore, this also applies for human beings: only if there is love, if hearts are opened, can one person truly know the other. Origen based his demonstration of this on a meaning that is sometimes attributed to the Hebrew verb to know, that is, when it is used to express the human act of love: "Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived" (Gn 4: 1). This suggests that union in love procures the most authentic knowledge. Just as the man and the woman are "two in one flesh", so God and the believer become "two in one spirit". The prayer of the Alexandrian thus attained the loftiest levels of mysticism, as is attested to by his Homilies on the Song of Songs. A passage is presented in which Origen confessed: "I have often felt - God is my witness - that the Bridegroom came to me in the most exalted way. Then he suddenly left, and I was unable to find what I was seeking. Once again, I am taken by the desire for his coming and sometimes he returns, and when he has appeared to me, when I hold him with my hands, once again he flees from me, and when he has vanished I start again to seek him..." (Hom in Cant 1, 7).

I remember what my Venerable Predecessor wrote as an authentic witness in Novo Millennio Ineunte, where he showed the faithful "how prayer can progress, as a genuine dialogue of love, to the point of rendering the person wholly possessed by the divine Beloved, vibrating at the Spirit's touch, resting filially within the Father's heart".
"It is", John Paul II continues, "a journey totally sustained by grace, which nonetheless demands an intense spiritual commitment and is no stranger to painful purifications.... But it leads, in various possible ways, to the ineffable joy experienced by mystics as "nuptial union'" (n 33).

Finally, we come to one of Origen's teachings on the Church, and precisely - within it - on the common priesthood of the faithful. In fact, as the Alexandrian affirms in his ninth Homily on Leviticus, "This discourse concerns us all" (Hom in Lev 9, 1). In the same Homily, Origen, referring to Aaron's prohibition, after the death of his two sons, from entering the Sancta sanctorum "at all times" (Lev 16: 2), thus warned the faithful: "This shows that if anyone were to enter the sanctuary at any time without being properly prepared and wearing priestly attire, without bringing the prescribed offerings and making himself favourable to God, he would die.. "This discourse concerns us all. It requires us, in fact, to know how to accede to God's altar. Oh, do you not know that the priesthood has been conferred upon you too, that is, upon the entire Church of God and believing people? Listen to how Peter speaks to the faithful: "chosen race', he says, "royal, priestly, holy nation, people whom God has ransomed'.
"You therefore possess the priesthood because you are "a priestly race' and must thus offer the sacrifice to God ... But to offer it with dignity, you need garments that are pure and different from the common clothes of other men, and you need the divine fire."

Thus, on the one hand, "girded" and in "priestly attire" mean purity and honesty of life, and on the other, with the "lamp ever alight", that is, faith and knowledge of the Scriptures, we have the indispensable conditions for the exercise of the universal priesthood, which demands purity and an honest life, faith and knowledge of the Scriptures. For the exercise of the ministerial priesthood, there is of course all the more reason why such conditions should be indispensable. These conditions - a pure and virtuous life, but above all the acceptance and study of the Word - establish a true and proper "hierarchy of holiness" in the common priesthood of Christians. At the peak of this ascent of perfection, Origen places martyrdom. Again, in his ninth Homily on Leviticus, he alludes to the "fire for the holocaust", that is, to faith and knowledge of the Scriptures which must never be extinguished on the altar of the person who exercises the priesthood. He then adds: "But each one of us has within him" not only the fire; he "also has the holocaust and from his holocaust lights the altar so that it may burn for ever. If I renounce all my possessions, take up my cross and follow Christ, I offer my holocaust on the altar of God; and if I give up my body to be burned with love and achieve the glory of martyrdom, I offer my holocaust on the altar of God" (Hom in Lev 9, 9).

This tireless journey to perfection "concerns us all", in order that "the gaze of our hearts" may turn to contemplate Wisdom and Truth, which are Jesus Christ. Preaching on Jesus' discourse in Nazareth - when "the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him" - Origen seems to be addressing us: "Today, too, if you so wished, in this assembly your eyes can be fixed on the Saviour. "In fact, it is when you turn the deepest gaze of your heart to the contemplation of Wisdom, Truth and the only Son of God that your eyes will see God. Happy the assembly of which Scripture attests that the eyes of all were fixed upon him! "How I would like this assembly here to receive a similar testimony, and the eyes of all - the non-baptized and the faithful, women, men and children - to look at Jesus, not the eyes of the body but those of the soul!... "Impress upon us the light of your face, O Lord, to whom be the power and the glory for ever and ever. Amen!" (Hom in Lk 32: 6)."

Origen - Homilies on Saint Luke's Gospel (n 21 ; PG 13, 1855 ; SC 87)

In the prophet Isaiah we read the following words: “A voice cries out in the desert: Prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight his highway!” (cf. Is 40,3). The Lord wants to find a way into your hearts by which he can enter and walk. Prepare this way for him; make his highway straight... What kind of way are we going to prepare for the Lord? A material way? But how could God's Word make use of a way like that? Wouldn't it be better to prepare an interior way for the Lord and to draw some straight, connected roads into our hearts? Yes indeed! This is the way for the Word of God to enter in and settle within the human heart that is able to receive him.How great man's heart is! How broad and spacious so long as it is pure! Do you want to understand its greatness and breadth? Take a look at the range of divine knowledge it contains. Here is a heart that says so itself: “God gave me sound knowledge of existing things that I might know the organization of the universe and the force of its elements, the beginning and the end and the midpoint of times, the changes in the sun's course and the variations of the seasons. Cycles of years, positions of the stars, natures of animals, tempers of beasts, powers of the winds and thoughts of men, uses of plants and virtues of roots” (Wsd 7.17-20). You see, the heart of man which encompasses so many things is by no means small!...Well then, if it isn't small and if it can grasp so many things, we can prepare a way for the Lord in it and make straight a highway where the Word and Wisdom of God can walk (1Cor 1,24). Prepare a way for the Lord by means of a good conscience; level the road for the Word of God to walk within you without obstacle and give you understanding of his mysteries and of his coming.