St Gregory of Nyssa: Are You Accomplishing Ascents in Your Heart?

Procession of the Precious Cross and Feast of the Holy Seven Maccabee Children, Solomone their Mother & Eleazar their Teacher

Gregory_Nyssa_Square.jpgTHOSE WHO are “progressing from strength to strength” (Ps. 83.8 LXX), according to the prophet’s words of blessing, and who are accomplishing good “ascents in their own hearts” (Ps. 83.6 LXX) first grasp hold of a good thought and then are led along by it towards a thought that is higher still; in this way, the ascent to the very summit takes place in the soul. So, “reaching out always to what lies ahead” (Rom. 7.14), a person never ceases to travel the good road upwards, always journeying through his lofty thoughts towards an apprehension of the things that are above.

I have said this to you, my brothers, to focus our attention on the Sixth Psalm and to keep an eye on the necessary sequence of its ordering: how it is that a discussion of “the Eighth Day” is offered to us after one “on the Inheritor” (Ps. 5 inscription). Now perhaps you are not unaware of the mystery of the “Eighth Day.” For it is inappropriate, after all, that some people’s minds are distracted towards Jewish interpretations. Those who reduce the magnificence of the mystery of the Eighth Day to being concerned with the unseemly parts of our bodies say that the law of circumcision, and the purification rites after childbirth, and things such as that are signified by the number eight. However, since we are taught by the great Paul that “the law is spiritual” (Rom. 7.14), then even if this number is contained in the laws I have mentioned, legislating both circumcision for the male and a sacrifice on the day of purification for the female, we do not reject the law or receive it in a lowly way; for we know that the true circumcision, brought to realization through the stone knife (cf. Josh. 5.2), genuinely does take place on the Eighth Day. For surely, through the rock that cuts away what is unclean, you recognize that “rock which is itself Christ” (1 Cor. 10.4)—namely, the word of truth—and you understand that the flow of this life’s affairs, which makes us unclean, will cease at the time when human life is transformed, in its elementary character, into something more divine.

So that it might be clear to everyone what is meant by these things, I will explain the work more clearly, as well as I can. The time in which we live this life, in the first formative period of creation, has reached its completion in a week of seven days. The shaping of all that exists began with the first day, and the outer limit of creation came to its final form on the seventh. “For there was one day” (Gen. 1.5), Scripture says, in which the first stage of things came to be; similarly, too, the second stage took place on the second day, and so onwards in sequence until all the works of the six days had been completed. The seventh day, which came to define in itself the limit of creation, set the boundary for the time that is co-extensive with all the furnishings of the world. As a result, no other heaven has come to be from this one, nor has any other part of the world been added to those that exist from the beginning; creation has come to rest in what it is, remaining complete and undiminished within its own boundaries. So, too, no other time has come into existence alongside that time that was revealed along with the formation of the world, but the nature of time has rather been circumscribed by the week of seven days. For this reason, when we measure time in days, we begin with day one and close the number with day seven, returning then to the first day of a new week; so we continue to measure the whole extension of time by the cycle of weeks, until—when the things that are in motion pass away and the flux of the world’s movement comes to an end—“those things” come to be, as the apostle says, “which shall never be shaken” (Heb. 12.27), things that chance and alteration will no longer touch. This new creation will always remain unchanged, for the ages to follow; in it, the true circumcision of human nature will come to reality, in the removal of our bodily life and the true purgation of our true uncleanness. Now uncleanness, in a human being, is the sin that is begotten along with our human nature—for “in sin my mother conceived me” (Ps. 50.7 LXX); but the one who purged us of our sins cleansed us completely at that time, banishing everything bloodstained and filthy and uncircumcised from the nature of all that exists.

This, then, is the way in which we interpret the biblical law about the Eighth Day, the law of purification and circumcision: namely, that when the time that is measured in weeks comes to an end, an Eighth Day will come into being after the seventh—called “eighth” because it exists after the seventh, not because it is any longer capable of numerical succession. It will remain one day continually, never to be divided by the darkness of night. Another sun will bring it into being, radiating the true light; when once it “shines out” (Eph. 5.14) on us, as the apostle says, it will never be hidden by sunset, but, embracing all things in its luminous power, it will produce light continually for the worthy, without any succession of days, and will make those who share in that light into other suns. As the gospel saying puts it, “Then the just will shine like the sun” (Matt. 13.43).

—St Gregory of Nyssa, On the Sixth Psalm

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