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Scripture as Green Grass Nourishing the Soul

October 10, 2010

Recently I needed to translate the exegesis of Psalm 23 (= Psalm 22 in LXX) by Cyril of Alexandria for my doctoral research. I thought that it might be worth posting here, since others might find it interesting, and, as far as I know, no other translation in any modern language exists. It is not surprising that Cyril sees the shepherd in the psalm as Christ, but what I found really interesting is that he sees the green pastures as Scripture which Christ the shepherd uses to feed his church. The themes of Scripture, Spirit, and eucharist are interwoven in his interpretation of the passage. For those who are interested, the original text (and a Latin translation of the Greek) can be found in Patrologia Graeca 69.840-844. Cyril’s commentary on the Psalms is apparently lost, and only fragments survive from the catenae, medieval commentaries comprised of extracts from earlier patristic commentaries. One final word: I ask your indulgence for any errors of translation. If the English feels a bit wooden, it is partly due to my inadequacy as a translator, but also because Cyril writes fairly convoluted Greek. Here is his take on this famous psalm:

A psalm of David [PG 69.840]

The psalm at hand has the same sense to what has been said in the end of the psalm before this. For those who believe from the Gentiles, having become taught by God, according to what is written [Jn. 6:45], and having eaten and been filled spiritually, recognize the provider of the saving food, and call him ‘shepherd’ and ‘one who brings up,’ and even say that they are one due to the faith, and are perfected as one flock.

(v.1) The Lord shepherds me, and nothing is lacking for me.

Those who are enclosed through Christ in the divine enclosures and are shepherded by him boast, receiving not merely one of the saints for a teacher, as Israel received Moses, but the Chief Shepherd of the shepherds, and the Instructor of the teachers, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge [Col. 2:3]. And knowing this, they say Nothing is lacking for me. For Christ is all powerful and makes abundant the supply of his own gifts to those who recognize his advent. For he gives from his own fullness, and he provides the blessings from the Father, and is himself the source and the provider of everything good.

(v.2) Into places full of grass, there he causes me to dwell.

Since ‘The Lord shepherds me’ is language suitable to sheep, those who are shepherded by the Lord persist in the metaphor of the expression, and they speak in addition [PG 69.841] of the good things which have come to them from the shepherdly skill, calling them ‘grass’ and ‘water’. And the place full of grass is understood as the evergreen oracles of God, the holy and God-breathed Scripture which feeds the hearts of those who believe towards spiritual strength [εὐανδρίαν: manliness], and the living and life-giving water, which is the assistance [χορηγία] of the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps more importantly, a place full of grass is the paradise where we have perished, into which Christ draws us and causes us to dwell, through the water of the rest, that is, through baptism. “For if someone is not born from water and spirit, he will not enter into the kingdom of heaven” [Jn. 3:5].

(v.4) For even if I walk in the midst of the shadow of death.

And since we are baptized into the death of Christ, baptism is called a shadow and imitation of death, which it is not necessary to fear. And if the shadow of death should also mean the natural and common death, it is distinguished from the voluntary death, I mean of the soul, which is not the shadow of death, but the true death.

(v.5) You prepared a table before me over against those who afflict me.

Those from the Gentiles who believe, tasting the evangelical table, say to Christ who has set this before them, “The table which you have prepared for us, is opposed to the table of the Gentiles. For the wise ones among the Greeks, taught us nothing of what is important. But they also oppressed and afflicted us by hunger and lack of all useful instruction. But the divine and holy table, the inspired Scripture, is opposed to that destructive and unhealthy [ἄτροφος] table of those who oppress us, since it is rich and costly, and of that which is cooked, that is food, having much variety and blessing. For the admonitions in it are many and saving, and point the way to the true well-being, and lead into spiritual good health. But perhaps also those who believe say “You prepared for us a spiritual table, in order that, having eaten and been strengthened, we might be able to contend with those who then oppressed us. For the spiritual nourishment, which thoroughly strengthens the soul, causes it to resist both the unclean spirits and the teachers in error. But also “the mystical table, the flesh of the Lord,” [i.e, the eucharist] makes us strong against passions and against demons. For Satan fears those who partake of the piety of the mysteries.

(v.6) And your mercy closely pursues me all the days of my life.

For it means that those who are sanctified in Christ and made worthy of the gifts from him, will become rich partakers of joy without ceasing, so that they might touch the holy table, and also anoint  the head with oil, and drink the most excellent cup unto inebriation,. For this [PG 69.844], I think, is what is meant by being pursued by the mercy of God through every circumstance in all the days of my life. For the grace given from Christ to the saints is not taken away, and his gifts and calling are irrevocable [Rom. 11:29]. Thus, the divine Paul writes to those who have been awarded the honor that they receive an unshakeable kingdom. For they are not able to fall away from the good things that are given. For the hope of the saints is steadfast and unshaken. And the former law, having shadow and types, rather than the very image of the things, hints at the immutability of the hope of the saints obscurely. For it commands that on Sabbath no one should go out of his tent, and instead stay in it, and enjoy abiding within what has been provided. And this figure means that the saints continually abide in the dwellings above. From thence pain and grief and groaning have fled. Therefore, those who are dependent on the hope which is in Christ and who wait for the dwellings above to come say similarly that hope will entirely follow them for long lasting time. And some understand the mercy of God to be Christ himself, who pursues through his incarnation, until he seizes all those who will be saved. And plainly, since it is not from works that we are justified, but from grace and mercy of God, those who believe will rightly appeal to the mercy of God, and take refuge in his compassions.

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