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Mark Shea: The Four Senses of Scripture: Part 4 The Anagogical Sense of Scripture

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Jesus related the Manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16) to both the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes and to the Eucharist. PHOTO:CNS/Bob Roller

The last in the series on the Four Senses of Scripture

The last of the Four Senses of Scripture highlights the Catholic genius for taking common sense ideas and wrapping them in obscure terminology.

The word “anagogical” does not come trippingly to the tongue. Nobody says, “Whoa! Check out that sweet TARDIS!  So anagogical!” or “Wasn’t that cute like baby just so anagogical at his baptism this morning?”

So what does “Anagogical Sense” mean?  It means that sense of Scripture pertaining to our destiny in Christ.

Heaven is breaking in all around us, in the Incarnation of Jesus, and in the gift of the Holy Spirit

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Salvation has a point.  Jesus is the Way, but Ways go somewhere.  When you walk in the Way, you are on a journey and a journey has a destination.  The Christian journey ends with the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.  The Anagogical Sense of Scripture pertains to these things.

As with the Moral Sense, much of Scripture gives us straightforward didactic teaching about the Four Last Things: It is appointed unto man once to die and after that comes the judgment. We shall share with Christ in his Resurrection.  There will be a New Heaven and New Earth. We shall be judged according to our deeds, etc.

But in addition to such straightforward language, the New Testament writers mine the Old Testament for images of our eternal destiny—and remind us that this destiny is already breaking in here on earth right now.  So, for instance, Hebrews 12:22-23 tells us that we have—right now—”come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect”.

In other words, Heaven is breaking in all around us, both in the Incarnation of Jesus, and in the gift of the Holy Spirit, who is most especially at work through the sacraments and, above all, in the Eucharist.  That is why the book of Revelation speaks of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.

Unsurprisingly then, Jesus relate the Manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16) to both the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes and to the Eucharist (John 6).  The miracle takes place at Passover and looks forward to the Passover when Jesus will take another central Old Testament image—the bread and wine of Passover—and transform it into his Body and Blood that is our Way into the eternal life of the Blessed Trinity, culminating in our heavenly destiny.

Becoming heavenly is a painful process for us sinners, and Scripture shows us images of purgatorial journey as well.  So the story of the Exodus–in which God must not only get Israel out of Egypt but, far more difficult, get Egypt out of Israel—mirrors the arduous journey of the soul out of bondage to sin and growth in love and virtue in the Holy Spirit that, again, culminates in Heaven.

Of course, Heaven can be refused too.  Jesus takes an image from the Old Testament that Jerusalemites could see out their windows—the Valley of Hinnom or Gehenna, where child sacrifice was practiced in the depraved days of some of the last Davidic kings—and makes it an image of Hell’s refusal of the life of God.

To avoid such a refusal of the love of God, the Christian is called by Jesus to take up his cross and follow him.  This life of self-denial and penance for sin is ordered toward redemption, not damnation, and sends out ripples that affect those around us.  So the story of Joseph in Genesis images the redemptive work of Christ that brings the whole world to salvation.

Joseph is thrown into a pit and sold into slavery as Christ the slave was thrown into the pit of the grave.  But he is raised to new life and eventually becomes the right hand man of the king just as Jesus is raised to God’s right hand.  Yet instead of using his power to punish his brothers, he pours out blessing on them and saves them, just as Jesus turns his sufferings to our eternal good.

As with the other senses of Scripture we have seen, these examples barely scratch the surface, but they help us see how Jesus, the apostles, and the early Church read their Bibles.

Next time, in this space, we will make use of them to start looking at four models of the Church.


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