Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

There was a popular scene on ancient Greek vases: a young man or god chasing a younger female (In rare instances, it was a goddess chasing a young male.)

October 5, 2008

Second Reading
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Commentary on Philippians 3:4b-14

There was a popular scene on ancient Greek vases: a young man or god chasing a younger female (In rare instances, it was a goddess chasing a young male.)

The anxious, young woman runs away from her pursuer, but she throws a glance backwards that signals “yes” though her flight clearly says “no.” (Vase painters were all male, obviously). On the reverse side of some vases, a wedding scene is depicted. Less frequently the capture itself might be recorded; the young man gently holds the future bride’s wrist and leads her away.

Ancient poetry and romantic fiction painted the same scenes, only with words. The lover is forever chasing his beloved. What did it all mean? Anne Carson writes,

Pursuit and flight are a topos of Greek erotic poetry and iconography from the archaic period onward. It is noteworthy that, within such conventional scenes, the moment of ideal desire on which the vase-painters as well as poets are inclined to focus is not the moment of the coup de foudre, not the moment when the beloved’s arms open to the lover, not the moment when the two unite in happiness. What is pictured is the moment when the beloved turns and runs. The verbs pheugein (‘to flee’) and diôkein (‘to pursue’) are a fixed item in the technical erotic vocabulary of the poets, several of whom admit they prefer pursuit to capture. (Eros the Bittersweet, 19-20)

It should be noted that the Greek word for “capture” is katalambanein. With these terms for pursuing, fleeing, and capturing along with the scenes painted on vases, Philippians 3:12b reads far more erotically than one might expect of the Bible.

In its attempt to bring diôkein into English, the “press on” of many modern translations misleads readers. It turns 3:12 into a narrative of individual endeavor, as if the scene on the vase were that of a single person running. But diôkein was originally associated with the hunting of animals, and it never lost the connotation of hot pursuit. If 3:12 were pictured on a vase, then we would see Paul striding forward and Christ fleeing, though displaying that characteristic backward glance. Turning the vase around another scene might appear. With their roles reversed, the hunter becomes the hunted. Paul has been captured by Christ. Christ’s hand rests on Paul’s wrist, and they turn to walk away together.

Fantasy? Of course. But to fantasize about communion with Christ is the point of the third chapter of Philippians. Paul’s language leads readers into visions of Christ that could only have been expressed if an impossible union were soon to take place. In 3:12, Paul’s marriage to Christ is all but pronounced in teteleiômai (“I have been made perfect”) whose nuptial connotations modern translations have hidden from readers, unintentionally to be sure. They have replaced desire for union with Christ with individual effort towards moral improvement.

For the Greeks, the wedding was a rite, a perfection of human life, and so words with tel- as their root naturally were used to refer to it. The other perfection−also in the sense of completion−was death. The ancients were very serious about the goodness of other-relatedness. If a young woman died before marriage, she would be laid out for burial in full bridal attire. She became the bride of Hades, god of the underworld. No one should be denied the human perfection of relation to another, it was thought, even if the partner is the dismal god of death, who, by the way, was frequently said in funeral speeches to have “snatched” the girl from us.

Paul is quite clear in Philippians 3:12. The wedding has not yet taken place. His life has not yet been made complete by union with Christ. Paul exists in what anthropologists call a state of liminality. He is between two worlds having a foothold in neither−just memories of the one and anticipation of the other. Both “in order to gain Christ” (3:8) and “in order to be found in him” (3:9) point to the future union of bride and groom. Christ’s open and welcoming body is not yet present. But the structures that had organized human experience, like ethnicity, age, wealth, education, social status (see 3:4-6), and especially gender as we will soon see on the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, are no longer in force.

Christian mystics know in their bones the liminality the anthropologists theorize about. Jacopone da Todi writes,

Once I spoke, now I am mute;
I could see once, but now I am blind.
Oh, the depths of the abyss in which,
Though silent I speak; fleeing, I am bound;
Descending, I rise; holding, I am held;
Outside, I am within; I pursue and am pursued.
Love without limits, why do You drive me mad
And destroy me in this blazing furnace?
(tr. Serge and Elizabeth Hughes, Jacopone da Todi: the Lauds, 261)