Sunday of the Word of God - a reflection

Monday, January 24, 2022 - 12:45

Fr. Patrick Fitzgerald-Lombard, O.Carm., is parish priest of the parish of St. Thomas of Canterbury, Mayfield, Sussex. He is a member of the Aylesford Community. Today, Fr. Patrick is reflecting on the readings from yesterday's Mass. Please read Fr Patrick's introduction to these reflections and please look at the readings for Sunday Mass here (these will open in a separate window for ease of reading):

“The joy of the Lord is your strength”. Yesterday we were presented with a great scene of worship from the book of Nehemiah. The reading has been edited so, as I often recommend, it would be good to read the whole passage in your Bible. There it will be clearer that this celebration of God’s word is followed by a celebratory meal just like our Mass yesterday.

Once the Jews returned from exile in Babylon they became subjects of a succession of empires,. The kings before the Exile kept records which were included in the Scriptures, our Old Testament. For the times after the exile records are more sparse and it is hard to know the history of the Jews at that time. We have the story in the twin books of Ezra and Nehemiah as well as a variety of prophets but the backstory is far from clear. We can though say that the reading this Sunday describes a religious service apart from the civil government, much as we do ourselves. At the centre of this service is the proclamation of the Word of God, the scroll Ezra lifted up above the people. There were also guides to give an explanation to the people. The final verse just after the reading says: "Then all the people began to eat and drink … and to celebrate with great joy, for they understood the words that had been explained to them."

There lies the challenge for today and these reflections aim to break down the barrier which the Bible can be. As someone said: “For many of the Catholic faithful, the Sacred Scriptures are a daunting and unapproachable mystery, replete with archaic languages and concepts, littered with names and places that could well be from a Tolkien novel.” Since the Second Vatican Council, the Bible has moved centre stage in the Church, we speak of both word and sacrament. It will take time for such a change of attitude to the engagement with the Bible to become general. Pope Francis has now dedicated this 3rd Sunday to the Word of God. A couple of weeks ago I commented on how Pope Benedict had promoted the use of the Bible in the Church. Given that the two Popes are often contrasted, I find it remarkable that the Word is so important for both of them. Pope Benedict’s approach may be more academic while Pope Francis may be more pastoral but with two very different Popes putting so much emphasis on the Word, the central place of the Word, the Bible or Scriptures, in the life of the Church must be assured.

The importance of the Word for Pope Francis may come from his Latin American background. It was there that Liberation Theology developed and it is profoundly Biblical. This we find in the Dutch Carmelite Carlos Mesters who belongs to our Rio de Janeiro Province and has lived among the people for many years. His book is now old1 but he shows how the people in the base communities read the Bible with freedom, familiarity and fidelity in a way which goes beyond academic study. More heart than mind. For the well educated though, the study is important because it opens up the reading preparing for the move from mind to heart, from reading to meditation as in Lectio Divina. We cannot leave our minds behind when we pray.

For Pope Francis, the Bible is the great story of the marvels of God’s mercy. It is fitting he says that the life of our people be constantly marked by this decisive relationship with the living word that the Lord never tires of speaking to his Bride, that she may grow in love and faithful witness. The Bible is the book of the Lord’s people, who, in listening to it, move from dispersion and division towards unity. The word of God unites believers and makes them one people. The Pope links this Sunday with this week of prayer for Christian unity. In one of his daily homilies, he reflected on the episode in Nehemiah, saying “the encounter with the Word of God fills us with joy and this joy is my strength, this joy is our strength”. The reason is because Christians “have accepted, have received the Word of God in their heart and they continually encounter the Word of God; they seek it”.

We can see this as well in the second part of the Gospel where Jesus returns to Nazareth and follows the example of Ezra by reading and commenting on a passage from Isaiah. This will continues next Sunday and we can reflect on the whole episode then. The Gospel this Sunday begins with another aspect of the Word of God as Luke sets out his aims and objectives. There is nothing to remind us that all the infancy stories come between the two paragraphs. The prologue is Luke being posh. He is writing a single sentence in his best Greek; this in itself makes a clear statement that the writer is well educated and a reliable guide so that his story is true. After the prologue, the setting will be the Temple; Luke then changes style and he imitates the Greek Old Testament known as the Septuagint. 

A complex sentence needs a close look and perhaps some old fashioned grammar3. The key statement in the Prologue is that Luke has decided that he needs to write an orderly account. Orderly is a good story, not really a biography as we understand it. He begins by inserting himself within tradition. Since others have written about the events which have been fulfilled and handed on from the beginning by eye-witnesses (as in in the Gospel) and ministers of the word (as in the Acts of the Apostles) now it will be his turn to tell the story. Luke has done his research and so he is qualified to write his own version of these events. His purpose is to confirm the teachings which Theophilus has already received so that he can be re-assured about their truth. This purpose is not to criticise past attempts but rather to build on them and retell them from his own understanding and telling them for the needs of his community. Most of them would have been Greeks like Theophilius. Luke (who does not name himself) is drawing on narratives which are themselves orderly accounts but told in a different way. Even today, a famous person can be the subject of several biographies all of which are valid but all giving a different viewpoint. So too the Gospels give us different views on Jesus, four portraits 
of Jesus which for us all come together as the one Gospel.

As the result of these opening verses, the prologue, Luke has stated his authority and his ability to tell a reliable story. This must therefore claim or even demand the attention of his readers and demand a response from them, from us. The scene is now set for his Gospel.

1 Carlos Mesters: Defenseless Flower A New Reading of the Bible, Orbis/CIIR 1989
2 See Pope Francis: Evangelii Gaudium 147. See also Aperuit Illis on the Sunday of the Word of God
3 In terms of grammar: there is a main clause and four subordinate clauses

 

Image shows a view of  Galilee from the cliff of Mount Arbel National Park and Nature Reserve, with the snow-capped Mt Hermon lit up by pink sunset light in the distance; Lower Galilee, Israel. Image credit:John Theodor (used with permission of I StockPhoto .com)