Jun 17, 2024

Gregory of Nyssa


Of the 39 Old Testament books, none is more difficult to interpret than the Song of Songs. It has no obvious religious content, and God’s name never appears in the text. On the surface, the book reads as a romantic interplay between a bride and groom, bordering on sensuous at times. Olympiada was a fourth century Christian who asked her pastor for help in interpreting this obscure book. Gregory of Nyssa (335-395) was known as one of three “Cappadocian fathers” who led the church during the Arian controversy when Christ’s divinity was under siege. Basil was the outgoing, politically savvy one, Gregory of Nazianzus the skillful orator, and Gregory of Nyssa the deep thinker. Gregory came to be associated with Nyssa when his brother Basil appointed him bishop of this small town in modern Turkey. Gregory determined to respond to Oympiada’s request with a series of 15 sermons during Lent in 391 AD. Gregory interpreted Song of Songs as primarily allegorical, extolling the love shared between Christ and his church. His second homily was an exposition of Song of Songs 1.5-8 that included the verse, “Tell me, you whom I love, where you graze your flocks and where you rest your sheep at midday” (1.7). These words for Gregory called to his mind imagery of the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd.” John testified in his gospel to Jesus as the good shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep. “You exchanged your life for my salvation,” he said in his sermon. Gregory prays in the middle of his sermon:

O good Shepherd…show me the place of peace, lead me to the good grass that will nourish me and call me by name so that I hear your voice. Answer me, for you are the One my soul loves. I call you ‘the One my soul loves’ because your name is above every name…How could I not love you when you loved me so much? Even though I was stained dark with sin, you laid down your life for the sheep of your flock. A greater love cannot be imagined…Show me where you pasture your flock, so that I can find that saving pasture too, and fill me with the food of heaven without which no one can come to eternal life and run to the spring and fill myself with the drink of God. You give it, as from a spring to those who thirst…You will make me lie down, sleeping at peace and taking my rest in light unstained by any shade…Show me how I should sleep and, how I should graze, and where the path is to my rest. Do not let me fall away from your flock and become lost. O good shepherd, who carries the whole flock on your shoulders. Amen.
Prayer adapted from Gregory of Nyssa, Commentary on the Song of Songs, Hellenistic Press, 1987. Cap 2, PG 44, 802.

Rev. Dr. Peter James served 42 years as the senior of Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, VA — 21 years in the 20th century and 21 years in the 21st century. He retired in 2021 and now serves as Pastor-in-Residence at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Even as a pastor, prayer came slowly to Pete. Read Pete’s story.