03 August 2009

'Vivid & Indescribable Visions'—Holy Prophet Ezekiel

Today, 21 June on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the holy Prophet Ezekiel, who lived in the 6th c. BC. Metropolitan Augoustinos (Kantiotes) has called him ‘an exceptional personality of the ancient world’ (A Panoramic View of Holy Scripture, Vol. 1, trans. Fr Asterios Gerostergios [Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, 2001], p. 281). But it is clear, and His Eminence would not have denied, that he is much more—a most holy Seer of God. In his 1st Homily on Ezekiel (Hom. I.18), St Gregory the Dialogist writes, 'For the children of Israel had offended their Maker, and therefore served the King of Babylon in the Captivity when Ezekiel the Prophet was sent to them in captivity, which by divine grace he had made so acceptable to himself that he predicted all that would come to pass through him, and deigned to comfort the minds of his afflicted people' (The Homilies of St Gregory the Great on the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, trans. Theodosia Gray, ed. Presbytera Juliana Cownie [Etna, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 1990], p. 20). Here is the account of St Ezekiel in the Prologue, by St Nicholas (Velimirović) (The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 3, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986], p. 90):

The son of a priest from the city of Sarir, he was taken into captivity in Babylon with King Jehoiachin and many other Israelites. Living in captivity, Ezekiel prophesied for twenty-seven years. He was a contemporary of the Prophet Jeremiah. As Jeremiah taught and prophesied in Jerusalem, so Ezekiel taught and prophesied in Babylon. Jeremiah’s prophecies were known in Babylon, as were Ezekiel’s in Jerusalem. Both these holy men were in agreement in their prophecy, and they were both ill-treated and tormented by the faithless Jewish people. Ezekiel had vivid and indescribable visions. By the river Chebar, he saw the heavens open, and a cloud like fire and lightning [Ez. 1:4], and four living creatures like molten copper. One of the living creatures had the face of a man, the second that of a lion, the third that of a calf and the fourth that of an eagle [Ez. 1:10]. The human face signified God incarnate as man, the lion’s face His divinity, the calf’s face His sacrifice and the eagle’s His Resurrection and Ascension. In another image, he was shown the resurrection of the dead. The prophet saw a valley filled with the dry bones of the dead, and when the Spirit of God came upon them, they came to life and stood on their feet [Ez. 37:1-10]. He also saw the terrible destruction of Jerusalem, when the wrath of God cut down all except those who had earlier been marked with the mark, that of the Greek Tav [Ez. 9: 1-7], our letter ‘T’, which is also the sign of the Cross. The malice of the Jews did not spare this holy man. Embittered against him for having denounced them, the Jews bound him to the tails of horses and he was torn asunder. He was buried in the self-same place in which Shem, the Son of Noah, was buried.

Concerning the first vision of the Prophet Ezekiel, that of the ‘chariot of Cherubim’, with which his book begins, this has long been the subject of mystical interpretation. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan points out that already in the Talmud (2nd-5th c. AD), the Jews taught that this vision contained the key to the spiritual method—‘called Maaseh Merkava, or the “Workings of the Chariot”’—by which all of the Prophets attained their experiences (Aryeh Kaplan, Meditation and the Bible [York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, 1988], p. 38; Rabbi Kaplan cites the Tractate Chagidah 2:1).

But Andrei Orlov and Fr Alexander (Golitzin) have pointed out (in ‘“Many Lamps are Lightened from the One”: Paradigms of the Transformational Vision in Macarian Homilies’, Vigiliae Christianae 55 (2001) 281-98; available here) the astonishment of the eminent scholar of Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, on discovering the particular interpretation of this vision in the first Spiritual Homily of St Macarius the Great (The Fifty Spiritual Homilies and the Great Letter, trans. and ed. Fr George A. Maloney [NY: Paulist, 1992], pp. 37 and 38):

1. When Ezekiel the prophet beheld the divinely, glorious vision, he described it in human terms but in a way full of mysteries that completely surpass the powers of the human mind. . . .

2. And all of this which the prophet saw in ecstasy or in a trance was indeed true and certain, but it was only signifying and foreshadowing something no less hidden, something divine and mysterious, ‘a mystery hidden for generations’ (Col 1:26) but that ‘has been revealed only in our time, the end of the ages’, (1 Pt 1:20) when Christ appeared. For the prophet was viewing the mystery of the human soul that would receive its Lord and would become his throne of glory. For the soul that is deemed to be judged worthy to participate in the light of the Holy Spirit by becoming his throne and habitation, and is covered with the beauty of ineffable glory of the Spirit, becomes all light, all face, all eye. . . . (p. 37)

. . . It is privileged to be the dwelling-place and the throne of God, all eye, all light, all face, all glory and all spirit, made so by Christ who drives, guides, carries, and supports the soul about and adorns and decorates the soul with his spiritual beauty. . . .

3. The four animals that bore the chariot were a type of the leading characteristics of the soul. For as the eagle rules over all the other birds and the lion is the king of the wild beasts and the bull over the tamed animals and man rules over all creatures, so the soul has certain dominant powers that are superior to others. I am speaking of the faculties of the will: conscience, the mind and the power of loving. For it is through such that the chariot of the soul is directed and it is in these that God resides. (p. 38)

So for St Macarius, the vision of the Chariot which the Prophet Ezekiel has recorded is not merely an external vision that the Christian may be vouchsafed to see, but an experience in which he is called to participate within his own soul, whether or not he is able to see it. Furthermore, it is an experience open to all Christians, and not merely, as in the Kabbalistic tradition, a select few.

Of course, St Macarius’s is not the only ‘valid’ interpretation of this vision. The four living creatures, for instance, have long been understood by the Fathers as symbols of the Evangelists. Thus, in Against Heresies III.11.8, St Irenaeus of Lyons writes, ‘For the Cherubim have four forms (Ezek. 1:6,10) and their forms are images of the constitution of the Son of God. . . . The Gospels then are in accord with thesse animals on whom sits Christ Jesus’ (Robert M. Grant, Irenaeus of Lyons [London: Routledge, 1997], p. 131). In his 2nd Homily on Ezekiel, St Gregory the Dialogist is even more emphatic, ‘What, however, is meant by the four living creatures if not the four Evangelists?’ (Hom. II.18; Homilies, p. 29).

The vision of the Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekiel 37:1-14 is one of my favourite passages in Scripture. Met. Augoustinos calls special attention to it, pointing out that it is ‘read as a prophecy after the Epitaphio is carried around in procession on Great Friday’ (p. 286). His Eminence notes that it was read by Venizelos and others in light of the ‘resurrection’ of the Greek nation—‘But in general this prophecy is a witness of the power of the word of God, which raises spiritually dead souls from the grave of sin. In addition, it is proof of the resurrection of the dead on the day of judgment’ (p. 286).

Finally, in Ez. 44:1-3, we read of a vision that is commonly understood in the Church as a prophecy of the Mother of God:

Then he brought me back by the way of the outer gate of the sanctuary that looks eastward; and it was shut. And the Lord said to me, ‘This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no one shall pass through it; for the Lord God of Israel shall enter by it, and it shall be shut. For the prince, he shall sit in it, to eat bread before the Lord; he shall go in by the way of the porch of the gate, and shall go forth by the way of the same.’

Thus, this prophecy (i.e., Ez. 43:27-44:4) is read at Vespers of the Feast of the Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple, and the following hymn by George of Nicomedia is sung at the Lity (The Festal Menaion, trans. Mother Mary & Archim. Kallistos [Ware] [South Canaan, PA: STS, 1998], p. 169):

Today let heaven above greatly rejoice and let the clouds pour down gladness at the mighty acts, exceeding marvellous, of our God. For behold, the Gate that looks towards the east, born according to the promise from a fruitless and barren womb, and dedicated to God as His dwelling, is led today into the temple as an offering without blemish. . . .

In conclusion, here is the ‘Hymn of Praise’ for the Holy Prophet Ezekiel in the Prologue:

The vision of Ezekiel, by God's will:
Wide, wide, immense field,
Overfilled, overfilled with the bones of the dead,
And a voice from heaven to Saint Ezekiel came:
Son of man, these bones do you see?
Living guests on earth were they at one time
At My table, I served them well
But very few of them worthily repaid Me.
Will they come alive, these dead bones?
The prophet became frightened, over to melancholy gave himself:
Lord, Lord, that You can know,
They must arise, if You command.
A rumble and shock and trembling then began,
The resurrection of the dead, the prophet, a miracle saw!
The bones rose up and bone next to bone lay
Then flesh, then sinews and the skin tightened,
At this miracle, the terrified prophet gazed
And glorified God with his heart and soul.
What the prophet of God discerned in the spirit
The resurrected Lord clearly showed.
When the Spirit wills, the dead will resurrect,
As in a new garment, all in a living body
And with Christ, the faithful will rejoice,
To reign eternally, in His kingdom.


Ian Climacus said...

One, to me, of Orthodoxy's many great joys is its celebration of the Old Testament righteous as Saints : a wondrous thing.

And thank you [as always -- I'd comment more but I'd keep saying the same thing! :D] for a fascinating and challenging -- the participation of the soul in the experience of the vision -- look at the writings and explanations of Church Fathers on the Holy Prophet Ezekiel, his vision and his life.

Finally, I remember the first time I heard Ezekiel 44:1-3 explained as a prophecy of the Theotokos: so clear for me to see now, but never had it explained that way before. Thanks and praise be to God!

Ian Climacus said...

Oh -- and thanks for the wondrous hymn from the Prologue.

Justin said...

Thank you for the post... cool water for the soul!