3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sunday of the Word of God
Cathedral of Mary Our Queen
January 23, 2021
Introduction: The Sunday of the Word of God
When someone whom we respect gives us advice, we usually act on it. When someone makes an impassioned plea for a worthy cause, we usually respond. When someone who is a force of nature speaks, we usually listen. But God’s Word is more powerful than respected, passionate, & forceful personalities.
A case in point: When the Word of God came to Jonah, he dropped everything and walked through Nineveh proclaiming a message of repentance, a message which everyone heeded, both “the great and the small.” In the Gospel, Jesus repeated Jonah’s message of repentance, but now, the One who proclaimed that message was not merely a prophet but the Word made flesh. His call to repent remains a summons for us, not only to reform our outward behavior, but to refocus our whole lives–to change our vision, our attachments, and our loves. And why? Because we are attracted to the One who spoke those life-giving words. We recognize in Jesus ‘the compellingly royal presence of God who speaks to us.’ So too, the living presence of the Word of God at the heart of Jesus’ existence prompted Andrew, Simon, James and John to abandon their nets and their boats—and even their dear father, Zebedee — and to follow Jesus into an unknown future.
Thus, one of the clearest messages which today’s Scripture readings deliver is this: the power, the efficacy, of the Word of God itself – its power to transform our lives, its power to change the course of our lives. And what an appropriate message it is on this Sunday, designated by Pope Francis as “The Sunday of the Word of God”. It is a day which aims to help us grow in our appreciation of the Word of God that is proclaimed day after day in the life of the Church. With this in mind, I would like to consider briefly 3 questions about the Scriptures: First, why is Scripture unlike any other writing, no matter how beautiful? Second, how are we to understand the Scriptures? Third, what role does Scripture play in the Church’s life and in our personal life?
Scripture Is Unlike Any Other Book
What, then, sets Scripture apart from any other book in the history of the world? The first answer to that question is that Scripture is the Word of God in written form. After proclaiming a Scripture reading during the celebration of Mass, the lector says, “The Word of the Lord” and the deacon says, “The Gospel of the Lord”. These brief phrases indicate our belief that God is the ultimate author of Scripture. Now, it is not as if he had composed the Bible all at once and emailed it to us. Rather, the Lord communicated his word patiently, over time, using human authors – indeed an amazing variety of human authors with very different styles. Through these authors and their humanity, God communicated his living Word to us. If you examine a Bible, you will see it made up of two parts: First is the Old Testament, which includes some twenty-three books – books that chronicle and celebrate the Lord’s relationship with the Jewish people, and foretell the coming of the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. Second is the New Testament, which includes twenty-seven distinct writings, the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the letters of Paul, Peter, John, and Jude. These unfold the life, death, and exaltation of Christ and the earliest days of the Church. Readings from both the Old and New Testaments are proclaimed at Mass each Sunday.
This amazing array of authors spanning many centuries had one thing in common: The Holy Spirit inspired the sacred authors to write all that we find in the Bible. Again, it is not as if the Holy Spirit dictated each word to these authors, but rather the Spirit breathed God’s saving truth and love into what they wrote. Accordingly, we believe that the Scriptures are divinely inspired and without error. While Scripture celebrates the wonders of nature and recounts historical events, the Bible was not meant to be a history book or a science book in the modern sense. Rather, the Books of Scripture communicate unerringly what God wants us to know and to take to heart for our salvation.
How to Understand the Scriptures
But how are we to understand Holy Scripture? Sometimes it is difficult to understand! What are we to make of so many literary styles, historical events far removed from us, events that defy rational explanation, attitudes at odds with modern sensibilities, not to mention a vocabulary that is very different from the way we normally speak? Perhaps the first thing to say is that we need to take Scripture on its own terms. Reading Shakespeare, for example, we must find our way back to Elizabethan England. Reading Scripture, we find ourselves reliving what the ancient Israelites went through; we find ourselves at the feet of Jesus listening to his words as we share by turns the exhilaration and bafflement of Jesus’ first followers. Indeed, to grasp the original meaning of Scripture and its meaning for our lives, we may need the help of reliable Scripture commentaries.
Above all, we need to pray to the Holy Spirit, who first inspired the biblical texts, the same Spirit who brings Scripture alive for us when we read it prayerfully.
For, as Pp. Francis points out, when we read Scripture with the help of the Holy Spirit, we more easily detect the voice of Christ speaking in every passage – giving unity to the whole of Scripture while weaving together strands of our fragmented lives. What happened centuries ago, suddenly lights up our 21st century experience, guides us along our spiritual journey, and leads us toward our heavenly homeland. As we study Scripture and pray over it, we encounter the towering presence of Christ, the Word of God who assumed our humanity in order to redeem us, the One whose heart continues to speak to our hearts.
The Role of Scripture in the Church’s Liturgy and in the Spiritual Life
Finally, what role does Scripture play in the Church’s life and in our spiritual lives? First, we are a people who live “by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” We give thanks that the God who made us has revealed himself to us both in Holy Scripture and in the Tradition of the Church, that is, the living transmission of the Gospel message in and through the Church. The II Vatican Council taught that when Scripture is proclaimed in the liturgy, it is Christ himself who speaks to us, that is, Christ is present in the word proclaimed. When we look closely at the prayers that comprise the Mass and the Sacraments, we will see that they are woven from the golden strands of Sacred Scripture. For example, when I consecrate bread and wine to become Christ’s Body and Blood, the words I use are drawn from the Gospels, from Christ’s own words, words handed on by the Apostles, words cherished and repeated thru the centuries. So coming to Mass should be like a “surround-sound” experience – for we are indeed surrounded on every side by the living Word of God.
Yet, even the experience of liturgical prayer, as important as it is, is not enough. We must also spend some personal time making the Word of Scripture our own. How much more we would derive from Mass if, before we arrived, we would prayerfully read and reflect on the Scriptures to be proclaimed. I can tell you from personal experience that reading Scripture prayerfully each day, what our Tradition calls, “lectio divina”, is an important means of spiritual growth. When we sit quietly and slowly ponder just a few verses from the Bible, placing ourselves in God’s presence and listening for the voice of the Lord Jesus, we experience the power of God to change our hearts and redirect our lives. This is especially true when we read God’s Word in the presence of the Bl. Sacrament: the Lord’s Eucharistic radiance lights up the very Word we are pondering and floods our minds and hearts with the grace we need to be his disciples. Private devotions should also be rooted in the Scriptures, as for example, the Rosary, a devotion based entirely on prayers from the NT and episodes from the life of Christ…
All of which brings us back to Nineveh and to the shore of the Sea of Galilee. As we listen to the voice of Christ and sense his presence in the Scriptures, we too can experience the power of God’s Word that propelled Jonah to preach and we too can be convinced to repent as did the residents of Nineveh. So too, we can feel more profoundly the attractiveness of the Gospel and, like the first apostles, be captivated by the majestic Presence of the One who calls us, in the midst of our daily lives, to follow him and to be his disciples. May God bless us and keep us always in his love!