Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

“Bible Sunday”
October 25, 2010, 11:14 am
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In our first reading, we heard how the King of Judah rejected and had burnt the written message that God had sent him through the prophet Jeremiah. In the second reading, St Paul speaks of how the word of God comes to human beings. These readings are offered us by the Church as a help to understand the place of the Bible in our Christian lives. This is “Bible Sunday”.

We regularly call the Bible “the Word of God”. But of course the Word of God is first and foremost the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Wisdom of God, God the Son, consubstantial and co-eternal with the Father. God’s first Utterance is Himself, his own Name, so to speak.

This Word of God is also Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, a truly human being who is at the very same time God. He is (as St Paul writes in another Epistle) “the image of the invisible God.” Jesus Christ, conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and was buried- this Jesus Christ is himself the Word of God in the fullest sense.

It is only after we have recognised this that we can begin to ask, in what sense is the Bible the written word of God? Let’s go back to St Paul’s Letter to the Romans. What Paul is saying is this: to be in a right relationship with God the Creator (to be righteous), it is necessary to be in a right relationship with Jesus Christ. This right relationship is characterised as “faith”: the willingness to trust Jesus, to trust that in Jesus God has taken the initiative towards us, to which we have only to respond positively.

This response is first and foremost in our hearts; but we give testimony to it by our words and actions. But, says St Paul, how can we respond to God’s invitation in Jesus Christ, unless we have heard of Jesus Christ? And how can we hear, if no-one tells us? And how can anyone tell us unless they have been commissioned by God to do so? “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.”

For Paul, the Word of God is communicated to human beings in the first place by preaching- by word of mouth. That is the mission he himself has been entrusted with- to preach the Good News of Jesus. but notice, in the course of his explanation, he himself appeals first to Moses, and then to Isaiah- in other words, to the Scriptures, to the Bible.

We can only make sense of what we are told about Jesus when we put it in the context of God’s dealings with humanity from the beginning of history. This context is provided by the Scriptures, which we understand as a privileged source of information about God’s purposes. By privileged, I mean that (according to the Church’s teaching) the Bible, though undoubtedly written by human beings using their human resources, is as it were UNDER-written by God himself. His creative power and Spirit have ensured that, as far as the Divine purposes are concerned, the Bible gets it right. It may reflect the obsolete scientific ideas of a by-gone age; it may reflect some inadequate historical knowledge in its authors- but as regards what God has been up to in history, it is spot-on.

The Bible is the handbook of the Church. The living tradition of preaching and teaching down the ages might for all we know be just “Chinese whispers”, each re-telling of the story distorting it a little until what emerges is almost entirely unlike what was put in at the beginning. It is the Bible that prevents this happening. The Bible preserves the words of those who first heard the Gospel, and those who lived in the centuries of preparation for the Gospel. Because of the Bible, we can have confidence in the preaching we hear today. We can have confidence in the words of Jesus, “He who hears you, hears me.”

The Christian attitude to the Bible is different from the Jewish attitude to the Old Testament, and even more from the Muslim attitude to the Qu’ran. Without Christ, the written word takes the central place. For the Jew, the Torah, the Law, is the supreme expression of the Word of God to mankind. For the Muslim it is the Qu’ran, dictated word for word to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel. In the synagogue, the Scrolls of the Torah are reserved in a Tabernacle in the way we reserve the Blessed Sacrament. Every scroll must be hand-written. It is the Text itself that is sacred, that reveals God. For us, the Bible is always secondary, pointing to the Living Christ. It derives its sacredness from him. Admittedly, some Christians seem to have an attitude to the Bible closer to that of Jews or Muslims to their Sacred Texts, so that distribution of Bibles is the most important or almost the only missionary work. That is not the Catholic approach.

The Bible does matter. St Jerome said that to be ignorant of the Scriptures is to be ignorant of Christ. The written word bears witness to the Incarnate Word. In our worship and in our preaching, we return over and over again to the Bible. In ages past, when the texts had to be hand-written, and when most Christians could not read, expertise in the Scriptures was confined to the clergy. Nowadays, with many translations and many editions, the Bible is available to almost everyone. Paradoxically, the easier the access, the more the Bible is neglected! As Ronald Knox said about the Blessed Sacrament, we seem not to value what is easily available. When King Jehoiakim heard the words of the Lord as they were read out to him, he threw them in the fire. We would never do that, of course, but we may be neglectful of God’s word in our own way.

Bible Sunday always used to be the second Sunday in Advent. For whatever reason, we now keep it some weeks earlier. But that gives us the opportunity to make a fresh resolution to read the Bible more regularly, and with more insight, starting in Advent. There is time to subscribe to one or other of the excellent Bible-reading schemes, with helpful notes, that are around. We pray that we may not only hear the Scriptures when they are read out to us, but that we may also read them for ourselves, in private. May we take note of them, become familiar with them, and so digest them that they become part of our thinking. And always let us allow them to reveal to us Jesus Christ our Lord, who with the Father lives and reigns in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


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