23 January 2022

The Word is alive!

3rd Sunday OT

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP


I have been assured by more than one Baptist friend that Catholics do not “believe in the Bible.” We do not read the Bible nor do we teach the gospel as it's found in the Bible. Apparently, we believe in “the traditions of men” and just make stuff up as we go along. We believe all sorts of nonsense that's found nowhere in Scripture, like purgatory and worshiping Mary and that we can work our way into Heaven. Even former Catholics will tell me that they left the Church for a “Bible-believing” community, one where Scripture comes first and all the trappings of religiosity are set aside. At the root of this disastrous misunderstanding of the Church's relationship with Scripture is a modernist error, namely, nominalism. I'll spare you the philosophical lecture. Suffice it to say, that our Protestant brethren do not possess a sacramental imagination. They cannot think of their faith as anything other than the intellectual assent to a written text. We, on the other hand, understand that the Word of God – while expressed in Scripture – is not limited to Scripture. The Word of God is the living, breathing Holy Spirit of Love that exists between the Father and His Son. And that Holy Spirit of Love is the soul of the Church.

Now, when I say that the Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church, I mean it literally. Each one of us here is a body and a rational soul, making us each a human person. Through baptism we have been individually incorporated – embodied – into the Body of Christ, the Church. So, from the moment of Christ's baptism in the Jordan until this very second, the Body of Christ includes every human person who has ever been baptized with water in name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the HS. And we are all united in the Spirit of Love that the Father and Son share in the Trinity. All this means that while we read, revere, and obey Scripture, we also know that the Word of God is not merely history written with ink on paper. Just words to be agreed with. The Word of God is alive in us, working out our salvation with our cooperation; animating our mission and ministry; and giving us the life we need to be perfected in Christ Jesus. Scripture is a record of how our ancestors in faith encountered the Living God and struggled to be obedient to His Word. They succeed. They failed. They rejoiced. And sometimes they despaired. But they always knew: the Word is alive. And He is always with us. His Word is fulfilled in our hearing.

Jesus amazes the men of the synagogue that Sabbath morning. Here, he – to them a mere mortal – stands up, reads a passage from Isaiah – a passage prophesying the coming of the Messiah – and proclaims, Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” He is saying to them, “I am the Messiah prophesied by Isaiah.” He is laying claim to the ancient title of Savior, claiming for himself the Sonship of the Father and the mantle of the Prince of Peace. Scripture tells us that they are amazed. I imagine that they are also shocked, dumbfounded, astonished, and maybe even scandalized. It's not an everyday thing to be a witness to the Word of God taking on human flesh! But this exactly what happens every time we hear the Word proclaimed. At Mass, the Word is given a human voice. We don't simply sit quietly in the pew and read the words on a page. We attend to the Word proclaimed. We incline our hearts and minds to the spoken Word. The Word comes alive through the air, and we receive it like the void received the first, creating Word. The Spirit of the Word speaks to the Spirit of the Church, the same Spirit speaking Himself to Himself.

If all of this isn't just going to end up sounding like a lot of esoteric theologizing, we need to answer the question, “So what?” Our Catholic understanding of the Word of God is meant to foreclose the error of using Scripture like a spiritual first aid manual – flip to the index, find the problem, look up the solution, and all is well. Scripture is not a collection of spiritual recipes, or a legal document for living correctly. Scripture records the faith-lives of those who came before us. They were called into an intimate relationship with their Creator. Being imperfect (as we are) they floundered; they ran away; they exhibited tremendous courage and cowardice; they listened and obeyed, and they ignored God and did their own thing. What their stories tell us is that no matter how far we run or how deep we dig, God always remains faithful. He never abandons us. Our failures do not and cannot turn Him away. Our victories are His first, and we share in the spoils of obedience. Scripture is essential, indispensable. And the Word of God is the breath of the Church. We live and move and have our very being in His Word. We compose new books every time we surrender and give Him thanks.  

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