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Bishop Strickland . . . The Living Word In God’s Written Word

August 31, 2020 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By MOST REV. JOSEPH STRICKLAND

In the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), we read this insight concerning the Sacred Scriptures, the written Word, the Holy Bible: “(I)n the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life” (n. 21).
The insight provides a key to fruitfully reading the Bible, and encountering the Lord in that reading. The Living Word, Jesus, speaks to us through the written word found in the Bible. Really understanding the Bible requires having a living relationship with the Risen Lord and, through Him and in the Spirit, with the Father. Everyone can have this kind of relationship with the Father through prayer. And, as our ability to pray increases, the more we actually read and pray the written Word of God. The two feed one another and fuel one another.
On September 30 in the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church, we remember St. Jerome, priest and doctor of the Church. After the death of Pope Damasus, Jerome, a lover of the Sacred Scripture, settled in Bethlehem. The name means the House of Bread. Of course, it is also the birthplace of the Incarnate Word, Jesus, the Christ.
There, Jerome founded a monastery and dedicated himself entirely to the study of the Sacred Scriptures. He translated the Sacred Scriptures from the original languages into Latin. That translation, called the Vulgate, was used in the Latin Rite for over 1,000 years. He also wrote wonderful, inspired commentaries on the Scriptures which are still used and are a treasure of the Church.
He said of his life work: “I interpret as I should, following the command of Christ: Search the Scriptures, and seek and you shall find. Christ will not say to me what he said to the Jews: You erred, not knowing the Scriptures and not knowing the power of God. For if, as Paul says, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God, and if the man who does not know Scripture does not know the power and wisdom of God, then ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”
That last line is often quoted. It bears serious consideration by every Christian, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” It properly connects knowing the Bible and knowing the Lord. Here are a few salient and delightful insights from St. Jerome:
“Love the Bible and wisdom will love you; love it and it will preserve you; honor it and it will embrace you. These are the jewels you should wear around your neck and on your ears.”
“Read assiduously and learn as much as you can. Let sleep find you holding your Bible, and when your head nods let it be resting on the sacred page.”
“Just as we have to dig for gold in the Earth, so we have to dig deep into Sacred Scripture for its divine meaning.”
“What other life can there be without knowledge of the Bible wherein Christ, the life of them that believe, is set before us?”
“Does one not seem to dwell, already here on earth, in the Kingdom of Heaven when one lives within these sacred texts, when one meditates upon them?”
“Read the divine Scriptures frequently; rather, may your hands never set the Holy Book down.”
“Ensure that each day you study some Scripture passage. . . . After prayer, reading should follow, and after reading, prayer. . . . Instead of jewels and silk clothing, may you love the divine Books.”
Is this something we see evident among the faithful today? How often do Catholics and other Christians read, study, and pray the Bible?
St. Paul told the Bishop Timothy who led the struggling Church of Ephesus: “From infancy you have known (the) sacred scriptures, which are capable of giving you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:15-16). 
Timothy had a fruitful relationship with the Scriptures because he had an intimate loving relationship with the Lord whom they reveal. If we want to understand the Bible — and have it change us — we need to grow in the kind of living faith that Timothy had. That kind of living faith will also grow in us as we read, pray, and study the words of Scripture. The two are inseparably connected.
Years ago, a gathering of Scripture scholars was held in Rome at the Pontifical Biblical Institute. The group encouraged what they called a “kneeling exegesis.” Exegesis is a word which refers to the study of the Bible. I love the phrase “kneeling exegesis” because it points to an important truth, only through prayer can we encounter the living Word of God in the written words of the Bible.
The Bible is at the heart of the Church’s worship, faith, and life. It is the “Book of the Church.” Christianity is not about “me and Jesus” but “me in Jesus.” Through Baptism we come to live in His Mystical Body, the Church. When God chose to reveal Himself, He did not throw a book out of Heaven. Rather, the Word was made Flesh. The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Word through whom the universe was created, became one of us. Through the Incarnation, a new creation began.
The Church is not some organizational afterthought put together after the Resurrection of Jesus. It is the plan of God for the salvation of the entire human race. The Church is the Mystical Body of the Risen Christ and the seed of the Kingdom to come. Through Baptism into His death and Resurrection, all men and women can become sons (and daughters) in the Son.
The Church is the new family into which we are reborn through the womb of that Baptismal font. We call the Church “Mother” for good reason. In the Church we live our lives in Jesus Christ, with one another, for the sake of the world. She is meant to become the home of the whole human race. It is in the Church that we come to know and understand the Bible.
God has entrusted the Bible to His Church. It was first received by the early Church in the form of the Hebrew Scriptures, which Christians call the Old Testament. Then, came the Gospels and the letters of the apostles that were “circulated” (that is what the word “encyclical” means) among the early Christian communities.
Later, the “Canon” (which means “measuring stick”) was finalized within the Church. It is intended to govern her life and worship. It is the guide for her in carrying forward the redemptive work of Jesus on Earth until He comes again. It is also meant to be our own guide. But for that to become a reality, it must be read. Once a week hearing it proclaimed at Holy Mass is simply insufficient.
The early Christians received the Sacred Scriptures as a gift. They knew that the sacred words were to lead to a deeper communion of love with their source, the Living Word of God. The early theologians were mystics. The early Christian monk Evagrius of Pontus once wrote that a theologian is one who “rests his head on the chest of Christ.” The image calls to mind the beloved disciple, John, depicted as doing just that in early Christian art. It speaks of the indispensable prerequisite for any truly fruitful study of the Bible, a relationship with the Lord birthed in the intimacy of prayer.
Early Christians viewed the reading of Scripture as a way of encountering the Living Word, who gives Himself as bread to those who feed on this written Word. This practice is kept alive in the Christian monastic tradition, particularly among Benedictines in the West. It is especially evident in the writings of the early Church fathers. They wrote in a sort of stream of scriptural consciousness, moving from inspired thoughts to actual biblical quotes and back; most often without any reference to the specific “chapter and verse.” The text was living within them. To use a phrase from our childhood, they “knew it by heart.”
This way of encountering the Lord in His Word can be cultivated in our lives as well. It involves meeting the Lord in His word and being changed in that encounter. It can then help to inform a rhythmic way of life steeped in the practice of the presence of God throughout the day. Participation in the rich and beautiful pattern of the liturgical life of the Church, filled as it is with the biblical texts that are arranged for the faithful daily, helps to develop this rhythm.
This relational approach to reading and praying the Bible is referred to in Western writings as “Lectio Divina.” Here is a brief explanation.
Mother Teresa wrote: “God is the friend of silence, in that silence he will listen to us; there he will speak to our soul, and there we will hear his voice. The fruit of silence is faith. The fruit of faith is prayer, the fruit of prayer is love, the fruit of love is service, and the fruit of service is silence. In the silence of the heart God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. God is the friend of silence. His language is silence. ‘Be still and know that I am God’.”
The first step of Lectio Divina is to “hear.” This is done through lectio or reading the biblical text and listening. This kind of reading is not like what one does with a newspaper or a book. It is done “in the Spirit,” in prayerful reverence, in the grace of the encounter, learning to listen in silence. It is done from prayer, in prayer and for prayer. Lectio is listening for that whisper of God for us this day, that daily bread on the trail of our life.
Once we read and hear the text, we meditate on that word or passage, realizing that the breath of God is in that wonderful word. The same breath through which God breathed His life into Adam. That same breath that was breathed by Jesus Christ, after His Resurrection, upon His disciples. That breath is present in this wonderful treasure of His written word. When we meditate upon the word we can breathe in the very life of God.
Now, in relationship with the word we have read and meditated upon, we pray. We converse with the Lord. We offer ourselves to God, pouring ourselves out, with absolute honesty, holding nothing back. We consecrate ourselves, setting ourselves aside and telling the Lord that He is our all in all, our love, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. We make ourselves transparent and honest, offering our pain, our brokenness, our failings; we give ourselves to the One who has given Himself to us. We enter a holy exchange. Then contemplation begins.
In love with God, filled with His word, we now rest in His presence, like the beloved disciple John did at the table, placing our heads on the Lord’s chest, overjoyed to be with Jesus. Our intimacy with the Lord is a relationship where words are no longer even necessary. Nothing needs to be said because we are now in the loving embrace of the Living God. In Him we are changed, converted, transformed by love, instructed, and awakened.
This is how we pray the Bible — by falling in Love with Jesus the Lord who is the Living Word whom we encounter through the biblical text. Listening, Contemplating, Praying, and then Resting in Him, placing our head on the breast of Christ.
On July 11 in the liturgical calendar of the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, we remember Benedict of Nursia, the great founder of Western Monasticism. He wrote a rule or way of life for the brothers who followed Jesus along with him. These words are contained within it:
“What, dear brothers, is more delightful than this voice of the Lord calling to us? See how the Lord in his love shows us the way of life. Clothed then with faith and the performance of good works, let us set out on this way, with the Gospel for our guide — that we may deserve to see him who has called us to his kingdom” (1 Thess. 2:12).
These words can guide all of us as Christians, no matter what our state in life or vocation. We can all hear the voice of the Lord. He speaks to us in so many ways. We can hear His voice guiding us. One of the primary ways that happens is through the written Word of God, the Bible. The Bible is a treasure which has been given to us by the Holy Spirit. Let us open the treasure chest, read, pray, and encounter the Living Word in the written word of God.

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