On Origen of Alexandria
"He Was a True Teacher"
VATICAN CITY, APRIL 26, 2007 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI delivered today at the general audience in St. Peter's Square. The reflection focused on Origen of Alexandria.
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Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In our meditations on the great figures of the ancient Church, today we will get to know one of the most outstanding. Origen of Alexandria is one of the key people for the development of Christian thought. He draws on the teachings he inherited from Clement of Alexandria, whom we reflected upon last Wednesday, and brings them forward in a totally innovative way, creating an irreversible turn in Christian thought.
He was a true teacher; this is how his students nostalgically remembered him: not only as a brilliant theologian, but as an exemplary witness of the doctrine he taught. "He taught," wrote Eusebius of Caesarea, his enthusiastic biographer, "that one's conduct must correspond to the word, and it was for this reason above all that, helped by God's grace, he led many to imitate him" (Hist. Eccl. 6,3,7).
His entire life was permeated by a desire for martyrdom. He was 17 years old when, in the 10th year of Septimius Severus' reign, the persecution against Christians began in Alexandria.
Clement, his teacher, left the city, and Origen's father, Leonides, was thrown into prison. His son ardently yearned for martyrdom, but he would not be able to fulfill this desire. Therefore, he wrote to his father, exhorting him to not renounce giving the supreme witness of the faith. And when Leonides was beheaded, young Origen felt he must follow the example of his father.
Forty years later, while he was preaching in Caesarea, he said: "I cannot rejoice in having had a father who was a martyr if I do not persevere in good conduct and I do not honor the nobility of my race, that is to the martyrdom of my father and the witness he gave in Christ" (Hom. Ez. 4,8).
In a later homily -- when, thanks to the extreme tolerance of Emperor Philip the Arab, the possibility of ever becoming a martyr seemed to fade -- Origen exclaimed: "If God would consent to let me be washed in my blood, receiving a second baptism by accepting death for Christ, I would surely go from this world. … But blessed are they who merit these things" (Hom. Lud. 7.12).
These words reveal Origen's nostalgia for the baptism by blood. And finally, this irresistible desire was, in part, fulfilled. In 250, during the persecution by Decius, Origen was arrested and cruelly tortured. Severely weakened by the sufferings he endured, he died a few years later. He was not yet 70 years old.
We mentioned earlier the "irreversible turn" that Origen caused in the history of theology and Christian thought. But in what did this "turn" consist, this turning point so full of consequences?
In substance, he grounded theology in the explanations of the Scriptures; or we could also say that his theology is the perfect symbiosis between theology and exegesis. In truth, the characterizing mark of Origen's doctrine seems to reside in his incessant invitation to pass from the letter to the spirit of the Scriptures, to progress in the knowledge of God.
And this "allegoristic" approach, wrote von Balthasar, coincides precisely "with the development of Christian dogma carried out by the teachings of the doctors of the Church," who -- in one way or another -- accepted the "lesson" of Origen. In this way, Tradition and the magisterium, foundation and guarantee of theological research, reach the point of being "Scripture in act" (cf. "Origene: il mondo, Cristo e la Chiesa," tr. it., Milano 1972, p. 43).
We can say, therefore, that the central nucleus of Origen's immense literary works consists in his "three-pronged reading" of the Bible. But before talking about this "reading," let us look at the literary production of the Alexandrian.
St. Jerome, in his Epistle 33, lists the titles of 320 books and 310 homilies by Origen. Unfortunately most of those works are now lost, but the few surviving works make him the most prolific author of the first three Christian centuries. His array of interests extended from exegesis to dogma, to philosophy, to apologetics, to asceticism and to mysticism. It is an important and global vision of Christian life.
The inspirational core of this work is, as we mentioned earlier, the "three-pronged reading" of the Scriptures developed by Origen during his life. With this expression we are alluding to the three most important ways -- not in any order of importance -- with which Origen dedicated himself to the study of Scripture.
He read the Bible with the intent to understand the text as best he could and to offer a trustworthy explanation. This, for example, is the first step: to know what is actually written ...
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