INTERPRETING SCRIPTURE “SYMBOLICALLY”
“…Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can this be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’” (Jn 3: 9-15)
I recently received a comment, under a reflection I posted about the healing of the blind man in Bethsaida (Mk 8: 22-26), in which I related this healing to my own blindness and healing-process today, in Christ. The comment read as follows: “Thank you! …But the symbolic interpretation didn’t satisfy me. I’m interested in the real reasons for these actions of Christ.”
In response to this comment, I’d like to point out that the “symbolic” meaning of an event in the past of Salvation History (the word “symbol” coming from the Greek verb συμβάλλω, ”to bring together”), does inform our understanding of the “real reasons” for God’s actions in the present. In traditional Church-exegesis, the cross-referencing of related symbols throughout Salvation History “brings together” the higher meaning of that past with the higher meaning of the present, revealing that, throughout the continuum of our historical time, there is One God speaking to us, in His favored symbols, in His language. Thus Christ Himself explains ”symbolically” an event from the past, in the passage quoted above; the lifting up, by Moses, of the bronze serpent in the wilderness (Numbers 21: 9), bringing it together with His own being lifted up on the Cross. In other words, He’s “explaining” (or “exegeting,” in terms of traditional “exegesis,” or interpretation of Scripture) the “reason” of both events, in terms of the ever-connected, one “reason” or “Logos” of the One God throughout all of Salvation History, – to save us from the “snake-bites” of that serpent who elevated himself onto a tree at the very beginning of time, in the garden. God has intentionally, “reasonably,” taken that “symbol” of the Evil One, (of the serpent in the tree), and repeatedly highjacked it for our salvation, throughout history.
“Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this?” – the Lord says to us today, when we divorce ourselves from the traditional exegesis of the Church, and seek a meaning separate from the continuum of Salvation history, revealed in the favored, repeated symbols of the language of our One God. “We” speak of what “we” know, Christ says with the Church, to Nicodemus, and bear witness to what “we” have seen, throughout Salvation History. Help us see, O Lord, according to the Scriptures, and glory be to You.