Scripture in your life and the life of the Church

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3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C: Jan. 23-24, 2010
Neh 8:2-4, 5-6, 8-10; Ps 19:8-10, 15; 1 Cor 12:12-30; Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21

This weekend we have the interesting situation that the Scripture readings are about… Scripture reading.

Does the Catholic Church encourage us, encourage you, to read the Scripture? Well, we might say, of course the popes and the bishops are constantly encouraging us to do different things; but if the Church really wanted to encourage us to read Sacred Scripture, then the Church would attach an indulgence to doing so.

Surprise! The Church has done that. Most people don’t know that this is the case. It is the special plenary indulgences that are attached to years, such as the Year of St. Paul or the Year for Priests, that get all the press—sometimes even in the news media. But there are conditions for indulgences that apply every day, all the time; and one of these is the reading of Sacred Scripture [#30]:

A plenary indulgence is granted to the faithful who read the Sacred Scriptures as spiritual reading, from a text approved by competent authority and with the reverence due to the divine word, for at least a half an hour; if the time is less, the indulgence will be partial.

And then it continues to say that, if there is some reason why a person cannot read, the person can gain the indulgence through listening to another person reading or through a recording. Of course, for a plenary indulgence, the usual conditions apply: receiving Communion, going to confession, praying for the intentions of the Holy Father, and being free from all attachment to sin.

But consider—especially if you ever hear anything different—how much does the Catholic Church want you to spend time reading Sacred Scripture? So much that it has made it one of the conditions by which you may gain a plenary indulgence—the remission before God of [all] temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven [CCC 1471].

45 years ago, in its document on Divine Revelation, the Second Vatican Council wrote [Dei Verbum, 21]:

The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy—the Mass—she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God’s word and of Christ’s body.

You might hear from time to time, if a non-Catholic comes to Mass for the first time, that they are surprised to learn that, every Sunday, we hear three different readings from Scripture—one from the Gospel, two from other parts—and that we respond by praying a psalm. And so much of the rest of the Mass comes directly from parts of Scripture. This will become even more obvious about 2 years from now when we will begin using the new English retranslation of the Mass, and it will become much easier to recognize those phrases and sentences from Scripture when they appear in the Mass.

The theologian and Cistercian Father Roch Kereszty has recently explained that, from the very earliest centuries of Christian worship, this Liturgy of the Word prepares us for the Liturgy of the Eucharist. He writes in part [Wedding Feast of the Lamb, p. 180]:

Just as listening to the words of a dear friend on the phone increases our desire for direct, bodily presence, so the Word of God proclaimed and explained, enkindles our faith and prepares us for the personal presence of Christ under the [appearance] of bread and wine.

Now, each time we come to Mass, our Scripture readings prepare us differently, because each time they focus on one facet, or another, another after another, of the mystery of Christ and of our life in him. Today, our readings focus upon Scripture itself. We see there:

  • the writing of Scripture;
  • the proclaiming and teaching of Scripture; and
  • the hearing and responding to Scripture.

So let us consider these three in turn.

First, the writing of Scripture. Our gospel reading today begins with the very first four verses of the Gospel of Luke, before leaping forward to the 4th chapter; and in those verses St. Luke speaks about why he is writing this Gospel, and how he went about doing it. Now there are some parts of Scripture, especially the prophets, where we read things like: “The word of the Lord came to me, saying…” And so it would seem that a sort of divine dictation was happening in those cases. But not in all parts. And what we hear St. Luke describe in those first four verses is a different sort of process: one in which he investigated—probably he interviewed, he read, he researched—and then he organized it together and he wrote it all down in an orderly sequence, as he says.

Now that process probably sounds pretty familiar to anyone who has ever written a school paper or a business report! It doesn’t sound like St. Luke was actually conscious, as he did it, that he was being guided by the Holy Spirit. But he was. The Second Vatican Council also affirmed that [11]:

In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted.

There are some Christians—and you probably know some of them—who feel rather uneasy about very much human involvement in the writing of Sacred Scripture. But one of the things that the Catholic Church understands well is that God often chooses to do his work through human beings and through material ways. It is not a lesser thing that God should work through human authors in this way; it is a greater and more glorious thing. And thus, even if St. Luke was not aware of it, the Holy Spirit was at work as the true Author through his researching and his writing.

To recognize this human element in the inspiration of Scripture does not mean asserting error. Indeed, the Council continues, from the last place I was quoting, “the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.”

Too often, over the past century, the faith of the baptized has been shaken and eroded by sensational news articles or television programs, or even by priests or other teachers, who would say things like: “Well, this wasn’t written until centuries later. The writer made that up. Jesus didn’t do that. Jesus didn’t say that. St. Paul couldn’t have written that.” Now so many people, including priests and teachers who say things like that, don’t actually understand Scripture scholarship. Somehow, something has been told to them that they pass on as certain fact; when really, for anyone who gets into the middle of that scholarship, it is clear that often it’s a theory, built on another theory, built on another theory. I love a good theory: they’re fun and interesting to talk and think about. But we should never present mere theory as fact. We should never assert mere theory that contradicts the Church Fathers and shakes the faith of the baptized. And we certainly should not turn the People of God away from the nourishment of the Word. Not for a mere theory, that often will be tossed out in just a few years. Let this never be! Let us all let go of passing theories, and feed upon the Scriptures, which have nourished and governed the whole Christian life [CCC 141] for so many, many centuries.

So St. Luke’s words give us an insight into the writing of Scripture. We turn then to the picture of the proclaiming and the teaching of Scripture that we find in both the first reading and the gospel reading. We hear in those readings that both Ezra and Jesus read the Scripture aloud, and the people listened as they read. This, of course, is a picture of the handing on Scripture. “Handing on”: the literal root of the word “tradition,” the Latin tradere, to hand on, to give over. Jesus was even literally handed a scroll which he read from, and he handed it back. Everyone who has ever received anything from the Scriptures has had it handed to them from someone else: even if that someone else was merely a publisher and a bookstore!

Now, in Ezra and Nehemiah’s time in the 5th century B.C., and in Jesus’ time in the first century, writing was precious; not very many people could read; reading aloud was a necessary way to hand things over. But even today, when books cost less and literacy is high, there is great value in reading aloud the Scriptures so that they can be heard—which is why we do it at every Mass. When the Scriptures are read aloud well—when they are read slowly, and with the right kind of emphasis and rhythm, so that those who are listening can really take them in—the Holy Spirit speaks through that reading to individual hearts. No one has to wait until the homily! Indeed, I’m not going to say a thing in this homily about the second reading: but I bet that a lot of you heard the Holy Spirit speaking to you as the second reading was read. He speaks through that reading.

But also, in these pictures of Ezra and Jesus, we see that an explanation was given. Ezra interpreted what he read so that all could understand. Indeed, not only Ezra, but also Nehemiah and at least 13 Levites: we read that they were instructing the people. They moved among the people; they translated; they paraphrased; they explained; they interpreted. And similarly we heard that Jesus sat down to teach.

While some Christians believe that each person can discover the truth of the Scripture entirely on their own, simply by looking around us we can see what disagreements, what false conclusions, what disunity this has led to. We all benefit when we are helped by the guidance of the Church’s Magisterium. The guidance of the Church can help us to learn the conditions of the sacred writers’ time and culture. It can help us to understand the literary genres they used as they wrote [CCC 110]. And the teaching office of the Church can also help us to apply the principles recommended by the Second Vatican Council [CCC 112-114]:

  • to be attentive “to the content and unity of the whole Scripture”
  • to read the Scripture within “the living Tradition of the whole Church”; and
  • to be attentive to the way that the truths of the faith all fit together.

And this why good Scripture scholarship and good theology is so important; and why we present this in homilies and in classes—classes like the “Quick Journey through the Bible” that was just concluded; classes like Deacon George Ames’ Wednesday night Bible study that has just resumed, on the Letter to the Hebrews.

So the writing of Sacred Scripture leads to the proclaiming and teaching of it; and that leads us to the hearing of it and responding to it. In the first reading, we heard such response from the people. We heard that they listened attentively; that when Ezra opened the scroll, they all rose; then they bowed down and prostrated themselves as they heard the words of the law. And then we heard that they were all weeping. Weeping? Why were they weeping? They had returned from exile in Babylon; and probably while they were there, they had not had the whole of the Scriptures with them, and they did not have the whole of it presented to them. So now, as for the first time in years, they hear the whole presented to them, surely they weep from joy; but they also weep from sorrow at realizing that they were not fully keeping this law, this instruction, that God had given to them.

Of course, in Jesus’ case, when the gospel reading continues next week, we will hear that the people responded in a different way: they tried to throw him off a cliff! And surely that stands as a warning to homilists and lectors everywhere!

The Scripture aims to have an effect in us. It is living; it is active [Heb 4:12]; and through it the Holy Spirit shines a light for us on our own hearts and lives. Through it, the Spirit illuminates those dark parts that need to change, and lights the path ahead for us to walk forward [Ps 119:105]. The Scripture is a means by which God is at work in us, to build us up and give us a heritage among all those who are sanctified [1 Thess 2:13; Acts 20:32].

Jesus told the people in that synagogue in Nazareth, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” In your hearing! In your hearing the Scripture has been fulfilled. What fulfillment of the Scriptures does the Holy Spirit aim to achieve in your hearing today? What does he aim to achieve in your heart today? What realization; what strengthening; what comfort; what challenge; or what change? The Scripture has been written, and proclaimed and taught, for just such a purpose. Have we heard it? Will we respond?

Our Lord Jesus will soon make himself truly present on this altar. And as Father Kereszty writes, may “the hearing of the Word of God lead us to receive the incarnate Person of the Word into our lives.”

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Published in: on January 23, 2010 at 11:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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