The Gospel for this Sunday is continued next week and so perhaps we can await an analysis of it until then. The First reading from Nehemiah 8 is a wonderful meditation on the glory and wonder of the Word of God and it deserves our attention.

The background of the text is that Israel, in 587 BC had been conquered by the Babylonians and the survivors of that war were led into exile in Babylon. After 80 years the Persians conquered the Babylonians and Cyrus, King of Persia, permitted the Jews to return to the Promised Land. Sadly, only a small number chose to return and rebuild the ruined land and city. Among them was Nehemiah, a Royal official and Jew who led the small band back and oversaw the rebuilding of Jerusalem.

He. along with Ezra, the priest, also led a spiritual renewal which was spurred on not only by the purification of exile, but also by the rediscovery of certain “lost” or forgotten sacred Books. On one occasion the people gathered to hear the proclamation of one of the lost books and that is where we pick up the text today.

I. HUNGER for the Word of God - The text says, And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the LORD had given to Israel.

Note then that the people are hungry for the Word of God. They have gathered and now make the unified request (as one man) that the Book of the Law be brought and proclaimed to them.

The likely “book” referred to here is the Book of Deuteronomy. It would seem that the book had either been “lost” or at least severely neglected in the preaching of the time prior to the Babylonian exile of Israel. In Deuteronomy was contained not only a development of the Law but also a list of blessings for following it, and also of grave warnings for not following it. After the painful experience of exile the people gathered (as we shall see) are aware that, had they heard and heeded Deuteronomy, they could have avoided the terrible events of the Babylonian conquest and captivity of Israel.

So now, chastised and sober they are hungry for this Word from God. As the Book of Psalms says, Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word (Psalm 119:67).

Are you hungry for the Word of God? More than for money? More than for bodily food? Scripture says,

  1. Psalm 19:9 the ordinances of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.
  2. Deut 8:3 Man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD.
  3. Job 23:12 – I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food.
  4. Ps 119:162 I rejoice at thy word like one who finds great spoil.

Are we hungry for the Word like this? Well, we won’t miss a meal for our bodies, but we’ll go days without the Word. Our bodies gain weight and obesity is pandemic in our culture. But our souls too easily languish and endure famine from the Word of God and the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

E.Are you hungry for his Word? An old song says, More about Jesus in his word, holding communion with my Lord, hearing his voice in every line, making each faithful saying mine. More more about Jesus, more of his saving fulness see more of his love who died for me.

II. HEARING of the Word of God - The text says, And Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden pulpit which they had made for the purpose

Notice two things here:

ASSEMBLY – There is a communal dimension to the celebration of God’s word here. It’s not just a private celebration or reading. And while their is today in a more literate culture the possibility to read the Scriptures alone, we cannot neglect to gather with the Church and be taught the Word of God by others, especially the clergy who are trained and anointed unto this task. Scripture says,  And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Heb 10:24). Too many think that all they need is the Bible alone. But notice the proclamation of the Word is communal here. We’ll develop more of this is a future verse.

AMOUNT of time – The text says that the proclamation and explanation of this Word took place from “morning to mid-day!” This is no “say it in seven minutes sermon.” This is an extended time spent studying, praying and hearing the word of God. Many today consider a Mass that runs longer than 45 minutes to be counter-productive. Funny how we get thrilled when a three hour football game goes into overtime, but we complain when a sermon is longer than the regular time. We find so much time for other things, and our attention span is for them is long, and so little time for the Word of God and such impatience that the reflection be over sooner rather than later. Yes, we find time for everything else. Blame the preacher, and we may deserve it. But there’s usually more to the picture than just the preacher. Note what comes next.

III. HONOR for the Word of God - The text says, And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people; and when he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God; and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands; and they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.

One will note here a remarkable honor given the word through active listening. While it is true that many today, especially in the more traditional Catholic fashion see silent and passive listening as the proper, pious and respectful demeanor for the readings and sermon, this is not the cultural setting described here. Neither is this quiet demeanor the ubiquitous norm in the Church today. It is not a question of which is right or wrong, but of whether the Word of God is being honored.

Thus note that the listeners here that morning 2,500 years ago: Stood, said “Amen, Amen!” Lifted up their hands, and even prostrated themselves on the ground while the word was read. They are engaged in active listening, giving the Word undivided attention and interacting with its sounds as it resonates in their being. This is a listening that is attentive, reflective and responsive, a hearing with thoughtful attention.

Again it will be granted there are different cultural expression of attentiveness,  but you can tell a lot by looking at peoples faces. But even in cultures that exhibit a prayer silence it will be noted that these same people get excited at the football game and even jump to their feet. So excitement and exuberant joy are not unknown even in cultures where religious reserve in the norm. Thus one would hope to rule out, even among the more reserved, that such reservation is a mere boredom. We want to be sure that we are simply dealing with sour-faced saints, bored believers, distracted disciples, or merely cold Christians. Thus, while reverence is expressed by many with prayerful and attentive silence, we want to be sure it is not simply the face of the “frozen chosen.”

And for those who are more demonstrative, we also want to be sure it is not a mere formulaic recitations of “amens” etc. or a sort of ego-centric, theatrical acting. Neither should one simply seek to exalt the preacher or the pew just in order to get everyone pumped up. The “amen-corner,” where it exists should be sincere.

The key point is to honor the word of God either by reverent silence or exuberant response. But in no way should the Word of God leave one bored and unmoved.

IV. HELP unto the Word of God -  The text says, The Levites also, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. And they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

So, the Word is not alone. It is explained and interpreted. We need the Church to properly understand the Word of God, to have it authentically interpreted. And while devotional reading is to be encouraged, the Word of God is not meant to be read apart from the Church. As the Protestant experiment has shown, an attempt to have the Scriptures without the Church and Magisterium from whence the Holy Spirit uttered them, is to usher in a disastrous and never-ending division. And this truth is expressed well in the story about the Ethiopian official:  So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. (Acts 8:30)

And thus the authoritative preachers of God’s word, the Bishops priests and deacons, have the task to read, analyze, organize, illustrate and apply the Word of God in the liturgical setting.

Beyond the need for authoritative teachers, there is also the pastoral assistance provided by others in the task of proclaiming the Word of God. In my own community there are excellent lectors who often read the word with such power and inflection that I hear it as I have never heard it before. Further I have a wonderful choir that often sings songs and passages rooted in the Scripture and I come to know it as never before. It’s really pressed to my heart. The congregation too, by its vivid response to the proclaimed word and the preached Words also brings forth insight and makes the Word of God an experienced reality.

V. HEARTFELT reaction to the Word of God – The text says, And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.”

Note how moved they are at what is proclaimed, they weep. And their weeping is born on the fact that they realize what their past stubbornness has gotten them and how it brought disaster, decline and exile. Had they but heard and heeded God’s Law this terrible period of Israel’s history could have been avoided.

True listening to the word of God and the desired outcome of preaching it is to bring for a response. The word of God is not only inform, its purpose is to transform. It might make you mad, sad or glad, but if you are listening to the authentic Word of God, you cannot remained unmoved. Scripture says,

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do (Heb 4:12).

VI. Heeding of the Word of God - The text that extends beyond what the lectionary appoints to today, goes on to say: On the second day the heads of fathers’ houses of all the people, with the priests and the Levites, came together to Ezra the scribe in order to study the words of the law. And they found it written in the law that the LORD had commanded by Moses that the people of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month, and that they should publish and proclaim in all their towns and in Jerusalem, “Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.” So the people went out and brought them and made booths for themselves, each on his roof, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim. And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and dwelt in the booths; for from the days of Jeshua the son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so. And there was very great rejoicing. And day by day, from the first day to the last day, he read from the book of the law of God. They kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly, according to the ordinance.

Thus, among the things they discovered is that Israel had not been celebrating an important and appointed feast day, the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths) which, while a harvest festival, was also a celebration that acknowledged the gift of the Law on Mt. Sinai. That’s a pretty symbolic thing that they had stopped celebrating that particular feast. And thus the leaders, having studied the Word of God reestablish it and command the people to observe it carefully. In this is illustrated a heeding of the Word of God.

So, notice all the respect we’ve seen for the word of God: they hungered for it, heard it, honored it, helped in it proclamation, and had a heartfelt reaction. But here’s where the real honor is given, for now they HEED it. There’s a lot of “lip service” to the word of God, a lot of praise, some even shout “Amen” in Church. But the real acid test is if we heed the Word. And old spiritual says,  Some go to Church for to sing and shout. Before six months they’s all turned out. Another says,  Some seek God don’t seek him right, they fool all day and pray at night.

We are warned of the danger of failing to heed:

  1. Mat 7:26 And every one that hears these sayings of mine, and does them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.
  2. Luke 12:47 And that servant who knew his master’s will, but did not make ready or act according to his will, shall receive a severe beating. But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more.
  3. John 5:25 An hour is coming, has indeed come, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who have heeded it shall live

There is wonder in the Word of God, But only if we heed it.

8 Responses

  1. Angelo Amaral says:

    So nice Man.
    Fr. Angelo Amaral…
    Brazilian Priest.
    Diocese of Trenton.

  2. Ryan O'Shaughnessy says:

    Great opening up of the passage, thanks Msgr. Pope!

    I was wondering: I’m a missionary to college students at Ohio State and I lead a Bible study each Wednesday on the upcoming Sunday readings. I love your reflections and I’d like to incorporate them into my study. How early in the week do you publish them? Or would it be possible to get some of your reflections before Wednesday?

  3. RichardC says:

    This is one thing that I can say for sure about the bible: passages that I found incomprehensible were later turned into beautiful passages when I found someone who could explain them to me. Dr. Tim Grey, with the bible study shows he has done on EWTN, was the first one I clearly remember doing that. The writer of this blog has done that for me, as well. Others unmentioned, as well.

    Also, the Church offers an indulgence, I think a plenary indulgence, for reading the bible for an half hour.

  4. Clare Krishan says:

    Pls grant me an indulgence for blog-hogging an earlier thread
    [more on the real reason to criticize Roe http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2013/01/7679/ ]

    These Nehemiah verses are some of my favorite in the OT texts,* and for Divine Providence to have set the planets so in motion to arrange our calendar such they are to be read at the close of the USCCB’s novena for the 40th anniversary of tragedy of Roe v Wade is peculiar to say the least… consider where Ezra gathered his audience: the Water Gate is the antithesis of desert right?
    Now consider when Ezra gathered his audience: Sukkot, aka the festival of Weeks or Tabernacles (or booths like the market stalls in the souk at Marrakesh) and “commemorates the 40-year period during which the children of Israel were wandering in the desert, living in temporary shelters, its a harvest festival sometimes referred to as Chag Ha-Asif, the Festival of Ingathering” and is associated with 4 thirsty plants which very much need life-giving water: luvav date palm frond, etrog fruit, myrtle and willow (grows only when roots are steeped in a fresh running stream) http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/holiday5.html. And finally consider what Ezra asked them to call to mind: their memory and identity as God’s chosen people set free from Egyptian captivity and gifted with the Law. What action did Ezra encourage them to perform? Rebuild the Temple and gather the people in…

    Now… jump a few centuries and put yourself in the Temple with the man who’s name means ‘memory’ — Zachary — and contemplate the time of year he’s serving? Sukkoth – our Fall. With palm branches in hand he learns of a miraculous son, born 9 months later in the hill country of Ain Karim who comes to be associated with what element of God’s creation? John the Baptist, the prophet celebrated with both a solemnity of birth (nativity, our ‘midsummer nght’s dream’ longest day) and death (decollation, August 29th). Only through the Forerunner do we know the season of our Lord’s birth: their mothers were separated by two trimesters or 6 months of expectancy, thus Jesus nativity came not in midsummer but ‘in the bleak midwinter’ when water would be immobile, frozen, the arrested development of sacramental grace if you will.

    These verses should led all of us to read deeper into the theology of the body as remedy for the cantankerous concupiscence ridiculed in Aesop’s fable of the ‘Belly and the Members” (and riffed by St Paul in his epistle to the Corinthians we heard on Sunday also — and then by happy accident perhaps discover Shakespeare’s profound Catholic sensibilities on our political impasse: Coriolanus** struggle in an unbalanced fractious body politic in need of the fractal symmetry of a fructus ventris, the redemptive graces hidden in motherhood) aka Newman’s cor ad cor loquitur

    * for they led me after my own lapsed exile away from the Church back to a true understanding of the soul’s communio in the Holy Spirit in the assembly participating in the Liturgy of the Word at Mass (I read Stephen B Clark’s “Catholics and the Eucharist: A scriptural introduction”
    http://books.google.com/books/about/Catholics_and_the_Eucharist.html?id=Zs4GAAAACAAJ ]

    ** re: the fractus/fructus meme consider the recent movie starring “Call the Widwife”-voiceover Vanessa Redgrave and Ralph Fiennes, the ever-courteous Prof Patrick Deneen entertains more blog-hogging at http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2012/03/in-the-national-cathedral/

  5. Clare Krishan says:

    oops excessive emphasis, should have read thus
    ___”Now… jump a few centuries and put yourself in the Temple with the man who’s name means ‘memory’ — Zachary — and contemplate the time of year he’s serving? Sukkoth – our Fall. With palm branches in hand he learns of a miraculous son, born 9 months later in the hill country of Ain Karim who comes to be associated with what element of God’s creation? John the Baptist, the prophet celebrated with both a solemnity of birth (nativity, our ‘midsummer nght’s dream’ longest day) and death (decollation, August 29th). Only through the Forerunner do we know the season of our Lord’s birth: their mothers were separated by two trimesters or 6 months of expectancy, thus Jesus nativity came not in midsummer but ‘in the bleak midwinter’ when water would be immobile, frozen, the arrested development of sacramental grace if you will.

    These verses should led all of us to read deeper into the theology of the body as remedy for the cantankerous concupiscence ridiculed in Aesop’s fable of the ‘Belly and the Members” (and riffed by St Paul in his epistle to the Corinthians we heard on Sunday also — and then by happy accident perhaps discover Shakespeare’s profound Catholic sensibilities on our political impasse: Coriolanus** struggle in an unbalanced fractious body politic in need of the fractal symmetry of a fructus ventris, the redemptive graces hidden in motherhood) aka Newman’s cor ad cor loquitur heart speaks to heart.”
    Lent 2013 starts the day before Valentine’s day, and in this liturgical cycle C year we could do worse than imitate Mary, who pondered these things in her heart
    http://unbornwordoftheday.com/2013/01/01/luke-reveals-marys-inner-reaction-to-the-birth-of-jesus-a-childhood-event/

  6. Clare Krishan says:

    n.b. the Water Gate is also associated with the Pool of Siloam fed by waters of the Gihon Spring, looking out on the Mount of Olives the watershed that separates Jerusalam from the desert to its east.
    http://www.bible-architecture.info/Jerusalem.htm
    Isaeli archeologists have uncovered ancient tunnels that secured crisis-water-management in the holy citadel
    http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=484268573692
    yet the area’s fractious politics and even more precarious economic apartheid are putting these treasures at risk and those of goodwill are seeking to have the entire historic basin of Jerusalem be redefined as a World Heritage site with special status at the United Nations
    http://www.alt-arch.org/jerusalem.php

    More trivia for the biblically curious – Dvine Mercy Sunday is associated with the doubting St Thomas, an aramaic name derived from of twin or of two minds. In celebrating sukkoth, devout Jews reserve an intact palm branch where the central tip or tiyomet (תיומת, “twin”) is not split at all, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lulav#Regulations_of_the_lulav
    Consuder thus the symbolism of a Zachary preparing to enter the temple with his holy luvav – following ritual ablutions to unite himself with the Lord: one heart (not two divided) one mind (not two divided) one strength (not two divided) An image of the wisdom of the builder of very temple: Solomon’s Listening Heart that the Holy Father adjured on his fellow Germans in his address to the Bundestag:
    http://www.bundestag.de/kulturundgeschichte/geschichte/gastredner/benedict/rede.html
    „Nimm das Recht weg – was ist dann ein Staat noch anderes als eine große Räuberbande“, hat der heilige Augustinus einmal gesagt. Wir Deutsche wissen es aus eigener Erfahrung, daß diese Worte nicht ein leeres Schreckgespenst sind. Wir haben erlebt, daß Macht von Recht getrennt wurde, daß Macht gegen Recht stand, das Recht zertreten hat und daß der Staat zum Instrument der Rechtszerstörung wurde – zu einer sehr gut organisierten Räuberbande, die die ganze Welt bedrohen und an den Rand des Abgrunds treiben konnte.”
    http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2011/september/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20110922_reichstag-berlin_en.html
    “Without justice – what else is the State but a great band of robbers?”, as Saint Augustine once said. We Germans know from our own experience that these words are no empty spectre. We have seen how power became divorced from right, how power opposed right and crushed it, so that the State became an instrument for destroying right – a highly organized band of robbers, capable of threatening the whole world and driving it to the edge of the abyss.

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