Last week I mentioned that I was going to use the next few Sundays to look at some aspects of the Mass. We began by looking at the fact of gathering, that we exist as a community because we are formed by the Word of God. We saw that we are called out of the world into the church. We see this pattern again in our gospel today. Jesus’s first act of preaching is to make the message of St john the Baptist’s his own. Jesus says: repent and believe the Good news. Repentance meaning leaving behind the world’s sinful life and faith in the good news means joining the church, the group of believers.
Today, I would like to look at the Word of God in the first section of the Mass, what is commonly called the liturgy of the Word. Providentially, a few years ago on the Feast of St Jerome, Pope Francis named the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time as the Sunday of the Word of God. Now naming a particular Sunday as that of the Word of God is bit like the Feast of Trinity Sunday. Every Sunday is Trinity Sunday, just like every Sunday is that of the Word of God. However, Pope Francis probably felt like a special focus on this day would help us focus on every other day.
Last week, we already spoke of the action of the Word of God in gathering us together. In the next few weeks, we will look at the action of the Word of God in generating our response that we see in our Creed, in our Prayers of the Faithful and in our offertory. And of course we will see the Word in action in the Eucharistic prayer, especially in form of dialogue between the Father and the Son and Jesus and his Church and in the movements of Incarnation and transcendence. So, today, I would just like to consider our reading scripture, and how to avoid the twin mistakes: absolutism and relativism. These mistakes are two sides of the same coin. Both in a sense deny the Incarnation.
The first thing we always have to remember when we are reading the Bible is that it is about Jesus. Jesus who is truly human and truly divine. Thus, when we read the Bible we will encounter the mystery of his person, of God become human. There will be bits that are beyond us, but just because they are beyond us does not mean they don’t count, does not mean they are not true. I believe in Ancient Rabbinic schools, students were not allowed to read certain parts of the Bible, like the beginning of Genesis and the Song of Songs, until they were sufficiently mature. We therefore have to keep praying about them, keep asking for help, in order to hear what God is teaching us.
Once we remember, though, that the Bible is about Jesus who is God become human, then we are more likely to avoid the two errors of absolutism and relativism. First, what do I mean by absolutism? I mean the misreading of parts of the Bible through an overly literal approach. However, we have to be careful here. There are some parts of the Bible that we do need to take literally. However, there are other parts that are clearly not meant to be read in this way. We don’t read poetry like we read a recipe for casserole. We are looking for different things, and in fact the very writing tells us how to read it, more of than not. It is the same with Bible.
A classic example is the creation stories in Genesis. People have often taken this literally; however, we would miss many of the central points if we read it without imagination. For example, we would assume that the author was bit stupid to talk of seven days when the sun is only created on the fourth day. This in itself is a clue that there is more going on, that it is meant to be read differently.
The second mistake is relativism. By this I mean, to relate everything to what we understand humanly now. This is to forget that Jesus is God, God who created everything from nothing, God who transcends and is Lord of Creation. Again, there are parts that we should relate to our humanity, but God alone knows creation perfectly. This mistake – of reducing everything to our experience – was a major problem in the 20th century, where lots of so-called experts, for example, denied the possibility of miracles, and denied them on the basis that we don’t see them. This obviously leads in the end to the denial of the Resurrection and the denial of the real presence of God in the Eucharist. It kills the good news. It also actually undermines our humanity, by seriously reducing it.
Both of these mistakes come, as I said, from a failure to believe in the fullness of the Incarnation. The first mistake fails to see just how fully human God becomes, such that God uses all parts of our humanity – our bodies, our stories, our songs, our poetry, our laws, our architecture – to speak to us. The second mistake is to forget that it is precisely God who becomes human. Therefore the one who created all things can walk on the water, can heal the sick, can raise the dead and can save us and give us the life of God.
Again, all of this is present in the Mass. We have readings and prayers that require sensitive understanding for us to plumb their depths, but we also have God truly become our food in the Blessed Sacrament.
So, let’s pray today that we become ever more familiar with the Bible. May God inspire us to read the inspired text with the Church. May God open our hearts to the fullness of what God wants to teach us, that we might become more familiar with God and more fluent in God’s Word, especially for our brothers and sisters.