We continue to read from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans in daily Mass. In today’s reading, we learn that we are justified by faith apart from the Law. The debates about faith and works are often the result of varied interpretations of today’s text.
One of the sources of confusion is a failure to understand the deeper point: that we are saved by Jesus Christ. It is by being put into a saving relationship with Him that we are saved. This relationship changes us; it affects what we do and do not do. Thus our works change, but it is as a result of the relationship with the Lord. Catholics and Protestants often talk past each other on this topic. It is not simply faith, or faith and works, it is Jesus to whom we must look.
Another confusion is over what we mean by the Word of God. It does not just refer to a book we call the Bible. Reading the Bible is a good thing, but meeting the Lord there is deeper and better. Many people think of the Word of God as an “it” when in fact the Word of God is a person, Jesus Christ. Jesus did not come merely to give us information and to exhort us. He came to give us His very self. Jesus is the “Word made Flesh.”
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI made this point in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Verbum Domini.
[There is a] statement made by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews: “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (1:1-2). … Here the Word finds expression not primarily in discourse, concepts, or rules. Here we are set before the very person of Jesus. His unique and singular history is the definitive word which God speaks to humanity. We can see, then, why “being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a definitive direction.” … “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14a). These words are no figure of speech; they point to a lived experience! Saint John, an eyewitness, tells us so: “We have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14b). … Now the word is not simply audible; not only does it have a voice, now the word has a face. (Verbum Domini 11-12).
The Word of God is not merely words on the pages of a book. The Word of God is not just an idea or an ethical system. The Word of God is not just a set of teachings or doctrines. The Word of God is Jesus Christ. In order to really grasp this Word, we cannot read ink spots on a page, we must come to know Him, and experience Him and His power active in our lives.
It is dangerous to turn Scripture into an abstraction or to treat it as just a text. St Thomas Aquinas wrote, The Son is the Word, not any sort of word, but one Who breathes forth Love. Hence Augustine says (De Trin. ix 10): “The Word we speak of is knowledge with love.” Thus the Son is sent not in accordance with [just] any kind of intellectual perfection, but according to the intellectual illumination, which breaks forth into the affection of love, as is said (John 6:45): “Everyone that hath heard from the Father and hath learned, comes to Me” (Summa Prima Pars, 43.5 ad 2).
Hence we cannot really grasp Scripture unless we come to know Jesus Christ. Further, to authentically read Sacred Scripture is to encounter Jesus Christ there. Before we analyze a passage from Scripture we are summoned to encounter the One who is speaking to us.
It is surely possible for some people, even secular scholars, to analyze a Greek text of Holy Writ and translate it into English (or another language). Some scholars can analyze the idioms used or the historical context. Such research can help us to understand what a particular passage is saying on one level, but only a deep, personal knowledge of Jesus Christ can help us to know what the text really means. It is this personal, communal, historical, and ongoing encounter with Jesus Christ that distinguishes true theology from mere literary analysis or religious study.
Indeed, theologians and Scripture scholars can be dangerous if they do not personally know Jesus Christ. Knowing Jesus is not the same as knowing about Him. I might know about Jesus Christ from reading a book or from being told by someone, but this is not enough; I must know Him. Being a true authority in Scripture requires meeting and knowing the author. Do you notice that the word “author” is in the word “authority”?
Note how Pope Emeritus Benedict quotes the Prologue of John’s Gospel: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14a) and then continues on to say, These words are no figure of speech; they point to a lived experience! He also says, in reference to the passage from Hebrews 1, Here we are set before the very person of Jesus.
In the liturgical context of Scripture, this fact is enshrined in our ritual. As the priest or deacon proclaims the Gospel, the congregation stands out of respect. For it is Christ Himself who speaks to them and whom they encounter in this proclamation of the Word. At the conclusion of the proclamation of the Gospel, they acknowledge that they are encountering Jesus as they say to Him personally, Laus tibi Christe (Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ).
Scripture and the wider concept of the Word of God authentically interpreted by the Church, is not merely a book or a set of ideas. It is an encounter with a living God, the Lord Jesus Christ. The Word of God is a person, Jesus Christ.
Perhaps a couple of short stories will help to illustrate the difference between seeing Scripture as merely a text, and seeing it as an encounter with the Word made Flesh, Jesus.
- A rural Appalachian community was visited by a Shakespearean actor. They were amazed at his elegant but strange way of speaking. At one point in his public recital he recited the 23rd Psalm. His speech was elegant, the words pronounced in finest King James English and presented with great drama and flair. At the end of his recitation a strange, awkward silence filled the room rather than the usual applause. Finally, a poor farmer in the back of the room stood up and apologized, saying that the only reason no one had applauded was that they weren’t sure he was done. “See, out in these parts we say it a little different.” The poor farmer began, “The Loerd is mah shayperd …” When he finished, the room was filled with shouts of “Amen” and “Praise the Lord.” The Shakespearean actor then told the poor farmer, “I was elegant, but your words had greater power. That is because I know only the technique, but you know the author.”
- Some years ago I heard an African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) preacher address an ecumenical gathering. He said to those in attendance, “You know I heard some strange stuff in seminary! The professors said that Jesus never really walked on water, that He didn’t really multiply loaves and fishes, He just got folks to be generous. They said that He didn’t really know He was God, that He didn’t really rise from the dead. He just lives on in our thoughts or something. Can you believe they taught me that in a Christian seminary?” Throughout his description of these wretched “teachings,” the disapproval in the gathering of Protestants and Catholics was audible. As he relayed this litany of faulty scholarship you could hear people saying, “Lord have mercy!” and “Mah, mah, mah.” Then the preacher stopped, mopped his brow, looked at them, and said, “I’ll tell you what. The problem with them wasn’t that they read the wrong books, y’all. The problem with them was that they ain’t never met my Jesus!” Well the house just about came down; folks were on their feet for ten minutes praising God. The choir stood up and began this familiar chorus: “Can’t nobody do me like Jesus; He’s my Lord!”
Well, you get the point. When you’ve met Jesus Christ you just don’t doubt that He walked on the water, multiplied loaves, raised Lazarus, knew perfectly well that He was God, and stepped out of the tomb on Easter morning.
The Word of God is not merely a text; It is a person, Jesus Christ, the Logos, the Word made Flesh. Once you’ve met Him, His spoken (and later written) Word begins to make greater and greater sense and there is just no doubt that this Word is true and powerful.
I’ll let Pope Emeritus Benedict provide the concluding words to today’s post: … the Word finds expression not primarily in discourse, concepts, or rules. Here we are set before the very person of Jesus. … These words are no figure of speech; they point to a lived experience! Saint John, an eyewitness, tells us so: “We have beheld his glory, the glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”