November 01, 2018

The suffering Church and the third day

By Bishop Arthur Serratelli *
Jaffa, Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel Photo by Faruk Kaymak on Unsplash
Jaffa, Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel Photo by Faruk Kaymak on Unsplash

On the Mediterranean coast, half way between modern Tel Aviv to the north and Haifa to the south, stand the ruins of Caesarea Maritima, the magnificent city that Herod the Great built between 22 and 10 B.C. Herod’s palace, built on a promontory jutting out into the sea, was an engineering marvel. The city’s 40-acre harbor could accommodate 300 ships. The city boasted a hippodrome as well as a theater with a seating capacity of 3,500.

Caesarea Maritima was one of the most important cities in the world. It was the Roman capital from which Pontius Pilate ruled the province of Judea at the time of Jesus. Paul was imprisoned here. Deacon Philip lived here. And, for the first 300 years of Christianity, Caesarea became a center of faith and study that rivaled Alexandria and Antioch. Among its most famous Christians is Origen.

Origen (184 – 253 A.D.) was a teacher, scholar, preacher, apologist, and theologian. He has rightly been called “the greatest genius of the early Church.” Like St. Paul himself whose writings influenced all subsequent theology, Origen has had an unmistakable effect on the Church’s great thinkers for centuries. Among others, St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, St. Bernard of Clairvaux and Meister Eckhart all studied his writing. Origen’s allegorical interpretation of Scripture became the preferred method of explaining the Scriptures during the Middle Ages.

As a first-class philosopher and student of Sacred Scripture, he has earned himself the distinction of being the Church’s first biblical scholar. But, he did not limit his study to Sacred Scripture. He wrote on many different topics, including textual criticism, hermeneutics, theology, asceticism and homiletics. Origen’s principal work, De Principiis, was the first systematic exposition of Christian theology ever written. With the help of seven full-time secretaries, he produced more than two thousand works. So extensive were his writings that St. Jerome remarked, “Has anyone read everything that Origen wrote?”

The catechetical school that Origen established at Caesarea Maritima boasted the largest theological library of the day. It attracted such renowned scholars as St. Gregory Nazianzus, St. Basil the Great and St. Jerome. One of Origen’s students, Eusebius of Caesarea, earned the distinction of being “The Father of Church History.” Eusebius himself provides us into a glimpse of Origen’s personal life.

According to Eusebius, Origen not only worked assiduously defending the faith, but also he lived the faith in great simplicity. He owned only one coat. He wore no shoes. He ate sparingly. He slept on the floor. He spent the night studying and praying the Scriptures. In the words of Eusebius, “he taught as he lived and he lived as he taught.”

In the days of Origen, the Church herself had to face persecution, hostility and attacks from pagan philosophers. Even within the Church, there were the interminable battles on such important doctrines as the Trinity, the Divinity of Jesus and Redemption. While, in some instances, Origen may have not understood or explained the faith correctly, he nevertheless said, “I want to be a man of the Church … to be called … of Christ.”

What a great inspiration Origen is for anyone who may find it difficult when the Church faces challenges, questions, hostility, persecution and human failure. In his commentary on the Gospel of John, he writes: 

“The Church is being built out of living stones; it is in process of becoming a spiritual dwelling for a holy priesthood, raised on the foundations of apostles and prophets, with Christ as its chief cornerstone. Hence, it bears the name ‘temple.’…It is written: You are the body of Christ, and individually members of it. Thus even if the harmonious alignment of the stones should seem to be destroyed and fragmented and, as described in the twenty-first psalm, all the bones which go to make up Christ’s body should seem to be scattered by insidious attacks in persecutions or times of trouble, or by those who in days of persecution undermine the unity of the temple, nevertheless the temple will be rebuilt and the body will rise again on the third day, after the day of evil which threatens it…” From a commentary on John by Origen, priest (Tomus 10, 20: PG 14, 370-371).

With these words, Origen offers hope to those who become discouraged when they see the Church suffering, besieged and wounded by sin. Origen presents the Church as a building being constructed, a work in progress. And, he enlarges our understanding of the Church so that we see ourselves as her members, imperfect in ourselves, yet being perfected by the grace of God. As we look forward to “the third day,” the day of the final resurrection, we pray for the Church and try to advance her holiness by striving after holiness in our own imperfect lives.
 

Bishop Serratelli is the bishop of Paterson, New Jersey.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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