Toward the end of his short life, Anton Chekhov penned one of his shortest stories, “The Student.” Debates over Chekhov’s own faith continue; however, no one doubts that at the root of his soul sprang a human compassion that was without peer. He knew how to “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). If he had a faith, it was somehow lodged in this preternatural sensitivity. Chekhov’s claims to have abandoned the Church and her commitments are belied by his writings and their teeming tears and smiles, and “The Student” is among the most luminescent repudiations of his purported atheism.
In a few pages, Chekhov describes a seminary student returning to his rural village on a bitter early-spring evening. It is Good Friday. As he walks through the freezing fields toward his own exhausted family, the darkness and cold enwrapping the world, he passes the hut of two widows, an older mother and her daughter. They are minding a fire outside, cleaning up from their meager meal. The student, Ivan, knows them and starts a conversation. The Passion readings are on his mind, and he begins to relate to the two women the story of Peter’s betrayal of Jesus, and of his bitter remorse. The two widows, each in her own way, react with deep sorrow. Ivan walks on, strangely elated at what he has witnessed. He realizes that the story of Christ and Peter is their story too, just as it is his own—that they are all somehow implicated together with Jesus across time. The recognition fills him with joy, and “life” mysteriously surges up in his soul, now penetrating the darkness in a way that overwhelms him.
My own students often ask me to explain what “figural reading” of the Bible entails. What does it mean to understand Scripture as text ordered by the “figures”—personages, events, and objects—that point to each other, and together finally point to, and are given back in, Christ Jesus? How can one ever read the Bible in this way, especially in a world like ours, where texts are simply “about” things, or have this or that point, or derive from such-and-such circumstances? Once there were figural readers of the Bible—Origen, Augustine, Catherine of Siena. It would seem this is no longer the case.
I’ve written too much and too densely on the topic to be of much use here. I now point to Chekhov’s story.
The student, Ivan, senses that the world is one across space and time, varied and diverse to be sure, but one nevertheless. It is one because it is God’s, and everything is from God—the Scriptures included. The continuity of creation can be frightening, however, for it means that we are all part of the same terrifying burdens of experience, from which escape is barred. We are all bound to each other’s weeping. It is a bitter night that Ivan traverses, picking his way through the frozen mud.
And now, shrinking from the cold, he thought that just such a wind had blown in the days of Rurik and in the time of Ivan the Terrible and Peter, and in their time there had been just the same desperate poverty and hunger, the same thatched roofs with holes in them, ignorance, misery, the same desolation around, the same darkness, the same feeling of oppression—all these had existed, did exist, and would exist, and the lapse of a thousand years would make life no better. And he did not want to go home.
Yet this burdensome unity of times and events is also an opening, if they are seen as the sinews or skein of Jesus’s own divine life. Ivan has just heard the Gospel readings of the Passion, and their words immediately ensnare his sadness and depletion. He paraphrases the story to the widows he meets: “They took Him bound to the high priest and beat Him, while Peter, exhausted, worn out with misery and alarm, hardly awake, you know, feeling that something awful was just going to happen on earth, followed behind. . . . He loved Jesus passionately, intensely, and now he saw from far off how He was beaten.”
There, in the courtyard of the high priest, is the widow’s garden with its own fire. Ordinary people are gathered round. And there, Ivan’s own “feelings,” his own “passion,” his own sorrow come into view. Ivan continues: “[Peter] remembered, he came to himself, went out of the yard and wept bitterly—bitterly. In the Gospel it is written: ‘He went out and wept bitterly.’ I imagine it: the still, still, dark, dark garden, and in the stillness, faintly audible, smothered sobbing . . .”
The two women listening now unveil the abysmal reality of Peter’s tears. The older widow, who once worked for richer folk, is more forthright in her emotion. Her daughter, the victim of long years of beating from her late husband, is almost brute-like and withdrawn. Yet both are transported.
Still smiling, Vasilisa [the mother] suddenly gave a gulp, big tears flowed freely down her cheeks, and she screened her face from the fire with her sleeve as though ashamed of her tears, and Lukerya [the daughter], staring immovably at the student, flushed crimson, and her expression became strained and heavy like that of someone enduring intense pain.
Leaving their hovel, Ivan is taken aback. Something has happened. There has been a rumbling of God’s life that has touched the widows, and even himself, as if Jesus, turning to Peter and bringing forth the deepest tears, is still shaping the lives of these lonely and abandoned peasant women. This is not about language, or plot, or a handbook of meanings and principles: The world is not made up of words or ideas. Rather, the world’s dramas, large and small, sound just like Scripture; they are shaped like Scripture’s stories. Even our inner lives and greatest sorrows are conformed to the substance of God’s Son.
The student thought again that if Vasilisa had shed tears, and her daughter had been troubled, it was evident that what he had just been telling them about, which had happened nineteen centuries ago, had a relation to the present—to both women, to the desolate village, to himself, to all people. The old woman had wept, not because he could tell the story touchingly, but because Peter was near to her, because her whole being was interested in what was passing in Peter’s soul.
What the scriptural text and its words are “really” about we cannot tell beyond this squeezing nearness and the assurance that this is what the “Word of Life” sounds like, looks like, feels like: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life . . . declare we unto you” (1 John 1:1, 3). Ivan, in a flash, understands:
And joy suddenly stirred in his soul, and he even stopped for a minute to take breath. “The past,” he thought, “is linked with the present by an unbroken chain of events flowing one out of another.” And it seemed to him that he had just seen both ends of that chain; that when he touched one end the other quivered.
It is not that the women, or Ivan, or any one of us “looks” like Peter. The reverse is more true to what Ivan sees. It is Peter who transfigures the women, the situation, Ivan—and you and me. By seeing how Scripture is fulfilled in our own lives, we are granted a vision of the mystery of our creation, as well as the God who created us and his “quivering” Life. The student, any student, is supremely blessed to hear the Word of God in this way.
Call it the “figural” meaning of Scripture or call it something else—it matters little. Certainly, to read Scripture this way is not an abstract method. Rather, such reading and hearing is an acknowledgement of the very nature of the world, illuminated by God and throwing our lives into his light. To enter into Scripture in this way is to enter into “the life of Christ” and to participate in the Resurrection at the heart of all things.
The cold night is transfigured as Ivan continues to his village.
He thought that truth and beauty which had guided human life there in the garden and in the yard of the high priest had continued without interruption to this day, and had evidently always been the chief thing in human life and in all earthly life, indeed; and the feeling of youth, health, vigor—he was only twenty-two—and the inexpressible sweet expectation of happiness, of unknown mysterious happiness, took possession of him little by little, and life seemed to him enchanting, marvellous, and full of lofty meaning.
Ivan has been weeping: with the two widows, with his worn-out parents, with Peter. To know the Resurrection is to know weeping. And to know tears, flowing from Jesus across the years, is to know the Resurrection. God’s life is given, and given away, in the tremulous connection by which he binds our lives with his across all ages. That binding in Life is the living Word of God.
Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.