What drew my attention to the shift from “tongues” to “languages” in the NRSV is that it renders invisible a vital concept in the homilies on the Psalms, the divinization of the body. The tongues in the mouths of the members of the Church spread the flames that have enlightened them in a flash of understanding. Their language, divinized, has become God’s language; their bodily tongues, divinized, God’s tongue. As Origen says in a homily on Psalm 80, God does not have a mouth; nonetheless, “it is possible for God to use the tongue of a just person as his own tongue and for God to use the mouth of a holy person, so ‘The mouth of the Lord has spoken these things.’” Recognizing that a prophet is an instrument of God whose mouth becomes God’s mouth does not eliminate the distinctive contributions of the various biblical authors, making the Holy Spirit the sole author of the whole Bible. The prophet does not become someone else, losing his or her voice, perspective, and concerns. Deborah is her genuine self in the image of God.
Origen went on to say that the eyes can serve as a scientific instrument, providing evidence from which we can wonder at the rational order of the cosmos: “But I say that a god is also employing the eyes of a just person, eyes dim so as not to see iniquity, but wide open so as to see heaven and the cosmos, because God is using them as instruments of understanding to see how whatever God made is ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31).” Indeed, the entire human body is divinized as we become Christ for others:
So God makes use of the ears of the just person and the hand, so that through the ears of the just person a holy logos [discourse] may be received, but a specious one rejected. And if you ever see the hand of a believer stretched out in generosity, do not reckon that such well-doing has come about from a human being so much as from God, who is making use of the just person’s hand to relieve those who need relief from God.... God also uses the beautiful feet of the one who proclaims good news (see Isaiah 52:7).... Blessed is that person, who entirely becomes, in all the parts of the body, through the entire faculty of sensation, an instrument of Christ, an instrument of God’s logos in such a way as to say: “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
This divinization of the human body is most fully achieved in the Church, the body of Christ. This is the body that begins to gather itself in one place at Pentecost. A careful reader trained by Origen would notice that this nucleus of the Church included “women,” along with Mary the mother of Jesus, the disciples, and Jesus’ brothers (Acts 1:14). The Church is also a politeia, resembling the Roman Empire in one respect: it is formed out of many races. These races begin to gather as they respond to other tongues at Pentecost.
Origen’s homilies exhibit a rich understanding of the Church, though not an “ecclesiology” if that only means who is in, who is out, and who is in charge of an organization. Bishops, presbyters, and deacons are servants, not a higher class, since all believers are a priesthood. Bishops are to be commended when they do well, serving sinners as compassionate healers; to be gently put in their place, as Origen does in real time in his first homily on Psalm 67; and to be endured for the sake of unity when they lord it over others. Origen sees the Church not as an exclusive group saved from the politeia, but as the vanguard of a healed politeia and, indeed, of a redeemed cosmos.
Origen understands the Church as the body of Christ, not only in terms of 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, but also in terms of Jesus’ words in Matthew 25: “to the extent you have done it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it to me.” We have an obligation, not simply to perceive every other believer as Christ, but, imitating Christ ourselves, to be Christ for that person. In his homily on Psalm 81, where he explicitly discusses the divinization of the body, Origen extends to every human being this obligation to serve Christ in another person, since all are made in God’s image. He rebukes the Roman politeia for extending privileges on the basis of social class and charges that Christians themselves all too often do the same. As imitators of Christ, those who have means assist those who do not. Those who have reached a measure of maturity meet the less advanced where they are and assist them to make progress. As all become increasingly one with God in this dynamic process, they become increasingly one with—though not the same as—each other.
The Church’s gathering as a unity in which persons of all social classes and races are Christ to each other has a profound metaphysical basis. Origen interpreted Romans 7:14 (“the law is spiritual”) to imply, among other things, that the entire biblical narrative, from creation to the eschaton, recounts, in a way that accommodates all levels of understanding, the origin of all things and their ultimate return to their source. This includes two realms: the sensible cosmos, the realm of becoming, where bodies are located in space and change with time; and the intelligible cosmos, the unchanging realm of being, which includes mathematical concepts and ethical standards. Both realms derive their being by emanating from an undifferentiated unity that is both their source and their goal.
Humanity is, in Pauline terms, a composite of body, soul, and spirit. The body belongs to the realm of becoming. The soul, by its rational nature, gives us, composite humans, access to the realm of being. Origen understood the human spirit not as some additional component but as the soul’s opening to God. This is where Aquinas got the apex mentis. This opening makes every human being the image of God and akin to God. When we are alienated by sin from each other and from God, that capacity is not expressed, leaving us spiritually dead. The Bible relates how this alienation came about and how, in the divine plan, not just the intelligible but the sensible cosmos, including the human body, are redeemed. The Christian hope, culminating in the resurrection of the body, is thus the redemption of space and time.
“When the day of Pentecost had fully arrived, all were together in one place” (Acts 2:1). At Pentecost, with the right conditions, a gathering in prayer—the redemption of space and time—starts spreading, “catching” like a fire or like an infection. Space begins to be redeemed in Jerusalem, the location of the Temple, where God is present to humanity, the geographic analog to the human spirit. As Origen put it in a homily on Psalm 73: “Each of us, to the extent possible, builds for himself a holy place to God and builds an altar within.” When “God in his holy place” (Psalm 67:6), God is nowhere and everywhere:
God, whom neither heaven nor earth contains—for all creation is smaller than the creator—when he chooses, becomes spatially present; he becomes spatially present in a holy place, for wherever a place is defiled and profane, God cannot be there. What [not “where”]...is the holy place? That place concerning which the Apostle tells you “Do not give a place to the devil” (Ephesians 4:17), concerning which Solomon says to you “if the spirit of one having authority rises upon you, do not cede your place” (Ecclesiastes 10:4).
The “time” when time begins to be redeemed is Pentecost, “the Day of the Lord” that Christians celebrate whenever they gather. In the homilies Origen speaks about how we redeem the time:
When someone spends the day on bodily affairs, he spends it in emptiness, even when, at intervals, it is not only spent in emptiness but in something good. And may it be that most of us may not pass the whole day in emptiness, but the lesser part in emptiness, the greater part not in emptiness!
The activities that divinize the body in space also redeem time:
Times of gathering are not in emptiness, times of prayer are not in emptiness, times of looking after one’s neighbor are not in emptiness. It is not in emptiness, when, in haste and without shirking, we are zealous for our neighbor. But it is in emptiness, when I take down storehouses and build bigger ones and I say to my soul “Soul, you have goods laid up for many years, relax, eat, drink, enjoy” (see Luke 12:18–19).... Also it is not “in emptiness of mind” when the mind is engaged in understanding God, preparing itself to understand the things of God.
Those who understand that the law is spiritual perceive in the story of Israel the reintegration of scattered humanity, twice released from its captivity to the mental disturbances that separate us from each other and alienate us from the Holy Land, the ground of our being. Immediately after humanity scatters at the Tower of Babel, God begins, with the call of Abraham, the process of reintegration. This fusion of the Bible story with Platonic metaphysics began, like just about everything else in early Christianity, in Second Temple Judaism. It is most fully developed in the works of Philo, whom Origen used extensively and cited in his homily on Psalm 75. Alexandrian Jews two centuries before Philo paved the way for this fusion when they used Greek philosophical terms to translate the Hebrew Bible; God tells Moses from the burning bush that his name is “Being” (ho ōn). Biblical scholars commonly observe the same phenomenon in the work of other Second Temple Jews such as the authors of Wisdom, Hebrews, and (the preface at least) of the Gospel of John.
Origen finds it preeminently in the writings of yet another Second Temple Jew, the Apostle Paul. In Romans the whole Creation reveals and waits for God. In Second Corinthians all believers have passed through the sea out of Egypt and have been supplied with food and drink in the wilderness. In Philippians the divine Logos comes to us, meeting us where we are by taking on the form of a servant and enduring death on the cross, enabling us to stretch toward the goal of unity with God. In First Corinthians, as members of the body of Christ “in part,” we are able to know and to prophesy “in part” until, at the final consummation when God is “all in all,” we shall know even as we are known because, one with God, God will know himself in us.
This time of pandemic and mass interracial demonstrations enables us to appreciate Origen’s fusion of the Bible and Platonism in a new way. Perhaps he consistently referred to Christ’s presence with a word that ordinarily meant “epidemic” because that term best conveyed the spiritual dynamism of his thought; when the divine logos comes to humanity, it catches and spreads. Gatherings become superspreader events. In the Pentecost story in Acts, in the immediate aftermath of ignition, the Church grows exponentially, like a pandemic. Unlike the gatherings that spread COVID-19, though, or the plagues that Origen dreaded in the cities of the ancient world, Pentecost is a superspreader of healing.
Now, all of a sudden, most white Americans catch on to the way things are—our “system of justice” systematically perverts justice. Mass interracial gatherings on the streets of America and around the world demand respect for black Americans. Learning from Origen, we can perceive this “wonder”—in our hearts as well as in our streets—and as an epidemic of healing, the healing of the human politeia as part of the ongoing redemption of the cosmos. A president and attorney general, who count on holding on to power by dividing us, have good reason to worry. The contrast between the dynamics of gathering and the dynamics of scattering has never been so stark. Origen enables us to see these dynamics in a new light. His newly discovered homilies on the Psalms, like the rest of his work, are a resource the Church today should not neglect in its endeavor to spread healing and reconciliation.