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Psalm 23 and a Biblical Imagination for Catechesis

By Alex Fogleman

A common trend in thinking about catechesis and Christian education today is to take one’s primary cue from contemporary education theory and incorporate theological content. The logic is: If it communicates the truth of the gospel, why not communicate it in whatever way gets the point across?

We can gain much from non-Christian educators — let us seek truth wherever it may be found! — but there is a subtle temptation in this approach that bifurcates form and content, separating the kernel of Christian truth from any particularly Christian husk of teaching. In other words, the medium of catechetical teaching is thought to bear no relation to the gospel message.

Catechesis, however, names a mode of teaching as much as a kind of content. And its particular genius is to teach the faith in a way that resonates with what is being taught. Catechesis is not any form of instruction, but rather a kind of instruction that emerges out of a distinctly Christian doctrinal and sacramental logic. While not a rigid method, catechesis bends only so much until it breaks under the pressures of constant reformulation and the demands of contemporary best practices.

Patristic forms of catechesis were remarkably congruent with one another, despite some obvious and definite differences. One of the most important similarities was the way in which the early tradition viewed the task of instruction with scripturally tinted lenses. Early Christian catechesis was heavily imbued with biblical language, imagery, and metaphor.

As an example of this kind of scripturally saturated catechesis, I want to survey a selection of early Christian commentary on Psalm 23 (22 in the LXX), a text that was quickly linked with the sacraments of initiation. While this beloved psalm has provided much comfort for Christians and non-Christians alike, early Christians mined this text especially for its depiction of entrance and growth in the Christian life.

Today, as we seek to enrich our practices of catechesis, we would do well to follow the Church Fathers in reading this text as a rich depiction of biblical catechesis.

The Church Fathers on Psalm 23

In several illuminating studies of Psalm 23 in early Christian exegesis, the great patristics scholar Jean Daniélou noted several ways that this psalm was read. The earliest expositors, like Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons, read this psalm Christologically, incorporating the psalm’s language into formulations of ecclesial life and doctrine. Soon however, Christians began to interpret this psalm along two distinct but not unrelated lines of thought. Some, especially Origen, read the psalm as a mystical journey of divine ascent. Others read it more liturgically, particularly as a depiction of Christian initiation. Indeed, Daniélou calls Christian initiation the “sitz im leben par excellence” of this psalm.

Origen was one of the first to comment on the way the structure of the psalm models a journey of progress in the Christian life. The psalm’s division into two parts — the first describing the animalistic life of sheep, the second describing human life — encapsulated, for Origen, spiritual growth. The Christian is first fed on grassy food, which is a “preparatory state” for being set down in green pastures, to which the Christian comes through conversion. In the Septuagint, verse 3 can be read, “You have converted (epistrepsen) my soul.” For Origen, this signifies that the Christian

has been changed from his former estate of being a sheep under a shepherd, and has advanced from there to rational and higher things, and he has achieved this advance as a result of conversion. (Commentary on the Song of Songs 2.4.19)

Patristic catechists following Origen would take up his notion of Christian education as a liturgical journey of spiritual growth and develop it further. Eusebius of Caesarea used Origen’s stages-of-growth motif more specifically, identifying the sheep with catechumens, who were positioned along a hierarchy between those who are perfected in virtue, bearing most fully the image of God, and, on the other end of the spectrum, reptilian animals who “wallow in the depths of evil.” The sheep-like initiates feed on the holy Gospels as they prepare for baptism in the “still waters,” which will advance them from being sheep to being human (Eusbeius, Commentary on the Psalms 22.1–2).

The catechetical and initiatory reading came into even sharper focus slightly later, in a homily by Gregory of Nyssa on the Feast of the Ascension. The Cappadocian Father read nearly the entire psalm in a way that presages Christian catechesis and the sacraments of initiation. His introduction is worth quoting in full:

In this way, [David, the author of the Psalm] teaches the church that you must first become a sheep of the good shepherd, led through the good catechesis to the divine pastures and the springs of the teachings, so that you may be with him through Baptism in his death and that you may not fear such a death; for this is not death, but the shadow and the replica of death. If I walk, he says, in the midst of the shadow of death, I will not fear when evil comes, for you are with me.

Next he comforts with the staff of the Spirit (for the comforter is the Spirit) and spreads the mystical table that he has prepared in the presence of the table of the demons; for they were the ones who through idolatry oppressed the lives of men; in its presence is the table of the Spirit. Then he anoints the head with the oil of the Spirit; he adds to this wine that gladdens the heart and that produces sober inebriation in the soul, which raises the thoughts from what is temporal to what is eternal; for he who has tasted such inebriation completes that which is left unfinished through an untimely death, continuing the sojourn in the house of God for length of days. (In ascensionem Christi oratio 324.3–22; trans. in Hans Boersma, Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa [Oxford University Press, 2013], pp. 179–80)

In this passage, nearly every sentence of the psalm narrates the journey of catechesis and mystical initiation into the life of the Church: from doctrinal catechesis to baptism in Christ’s death to chrismation and the reception of the Eucharist. Here, two streams of thought regarding the liturgical and spiritual meanings of the psalm converge into a cohesive and tightly argued theology of catechesis, which has as its aim the mystical, “sober inebriation” of eternal life in the house of God. Hans Boersma summarizes Gregory’s approach by describing catechesis and the initiating sacraments as “an ecstatic transposition.” Through these sacraments the Holy Spirit “transposes one into a new kind of existence, that of ecclesial life” (Embodiment and Virtue, p. 181).

Feasting on the Word

Later patristic tradition continued the sacramental and catechetical interpretation of Psalm 23. Especially interesting is to note the continuity of referring the “verdant pastures” of the psalm to the spiritual teaching of the Church. A homily on Psalm 23 attributed (probably falsely) to Augustine begins:

To you, dearly beloved, who are hastening toward the baptism of Christ, we are handing over this psalm in the name of the Lord, to be learned by heart; so we must explain its inner meaning, with divine grace to enlighten us. (Sermon 366.1)

The Augustinian catechist explains the eternal nature of this instruction, in contrast with the fleeting nature of literal grass:

The pastures that this good shepherd has prepared for you, in which he has settled you for you to take your fill, are not various kinds of grasses and green things, among which some are sweet to the taste, some extremely bitter, which as the seasons succeed one another are sometimes there and sometimes not. Your pastures are the words of God and his commandments, and they have all been sown as sweet grasses. (Sermon 366.3)

Around roughly the same period, two figures who hotly opposed one another on Christological issues agreed on the spiritual interpretation of the “green grass” as spiritual doctrine. Theodoret of Cyrus and Cyril of Alexandria read this passage in remarkably similar ways. For Cyril, the “place full of fresh grass” refers to the “evergreen oracles of God, the holy and divinely inspired Scripture” (Exposition of the Psalms 22.2). Theodoret likewise said that the green pastures of Psalm 23:2 should be understood as “the sacred teaching of the divine sayings” (Instruction on Psalm 22.2). Because Christ can be linked figuratively with the “good shepherd” of John 10:14 and Ezekiel 34, Theodoret saw a figurative sense in which the green pastures could be connected with God’s Word:

After calling the provider of the good things a shepherd, it was right for him also to use figurative language in mentioning the sheep’s food. Now, he calls green pasture here the sacred teaching of the divine sayings: first he rears us in the word, and then offers us the more mystical food. (Instruction on Psalm 22.2)

When Psalm 23 speaks of green pastures, then, the fathers did not hesitate to interpret this as the catechesis of God’s Word. Reading this psalm in the context of sacramental initiation into the Church, they understand this text to speak of the pre-baptismal catechesis that fed the Christian in preparation for rest in the still waters of baptism, the mystical table of the Eucharist, and ultimately eternal life in the household of God.

Catechizing with the Church Fathers Today

At the Institute for the Renewal of Christian Catechesis, one of our primary goals is to help churches not only renew catechesis but renew a scriptural imaginary for catechesis. We especially desire to see local churches use the biblical, historical, and theological resources at our disposal in creative ways, challenging the modern hegemony of market-driven strategies, technologically generated methods, and the general disdain of the old for the new. Contemporary modes of education pursue techniques that prioritize pragmatism and quantifiable results, but the Church Fathers invite us to teach the faith in ways that emerge out of patient readings and re-readings of Scripture. They provide a model for conceiving of Christian instruction in a way that attends to the very logic and language of Scripture and the sacramental life of the church.

To return to the Fathers as a resource for catechesis is not to look backward for the sake of nostalgia (though that’s not necessarily a bad thing). The return in this case provides useful allies who were just as concerned as we are today to build up the Church in a manner that was faithful to God’s revelation in Christ and in the Church. They aspired, as we do, to see Christians deeply formed in the faith, inhabiting the world of Scripture as an all-encompassing, life-transforming, altogether new existence.

May we go and do likewise.

Alex Fogleman is director of the newly founded Institute for the Renewal of Christian Catechesis and a doctoral student at Baylor University.


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