Friday, March 31, 2006

Making the Bible Come Alive: Scripture and the Liturgy (Part 1)

Making the Bible Come Alive: Scripture and the Liturgy (Part 1)
by Michael Barber © 2006

You’ve heard it said a million times, Christians need to read the bible. But let’s face it, the bible is a pretty intimidating book. Where does one start? Furthermore, it is full of all kinds of things that seem quite foreign to us: bloody sacrifices, confusing laws, cryptic symbols—how are we supposed to make sense of it all?

With their non-Catholic friends often able to quote chapter and verse, many Catholics often feel that they simply do not know the bible. At a recent conference I heard a Catholic speaker tell the audience: "If you have a Bible turn to John 6. If you don't have a bible, look on with your Protestant neighbor." This comment meant in jest just serves to underscore the sad reputation Catholics have for neglecting Scripture study.

Of course, the Church has always insisted on the sacred role of Scripture in the life of Catholics. The new Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The Church ‘forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful. . . to learn ‘the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ,’ by frequent reading of the divine Scripture” (CCC 133 citing Dei Verbum 25). Going on, the same paragraph quotes Saint Jerome, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”

But once again, how does Catholic Scripture study really take place. How do we make heads or tails out of the bible? Furthermore, how does the Bible “come alive” for us?

On the Road Again
In Luke 24, we read the account of the first Christian Bible study. It was the first Easter Sunday. Two disciples were on the road out of Jerusalem on the way to a village called Emmaus. It was a seven mile journey. As they walked they talked about the tragic way Jesus’ life had come to an end.

As they went along, a stranger walked along with them—it was Jesus, but they didn’t recognize him. “While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” In fact, there are other accounts of appearances of the resurrected Jesus, in which those who knew him didn’t recognize him (Jn 20:14; 21:4).

Back from the Dead
Let me just interject a side note. The failure of the disciples to recognize Jesus may seem like an accidental detail, but in actuality I think it is quite profound. Since Jesus’ day, many have claimed that the disciples of Jesus simply made up the story of his resurrection (cf. Matt 28:13-15). Yet, the claim that they failed to recognize him make it hard to believe that the story was simply invented. After all, if you wanted to convince someone that you saw someone brought back from the dead you would never say, "He didn’t even look like the same person." That would lead people to question whether or not you really had the experience. They might think it was just a case of mistaken identity. But the disciples recounted this detail because they really did see Jesus and they really did fail to recognize him. Okay, end side note. Let’s get back to the story.

Jesus Takes the Bible on the Road
The disciples were clearly devastated by Jesus’ death. It seemed that all their hopes had been dashed in one foul swoop. Jesus then tells them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Luke tells us, “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”

Jesus opened up the Scriptures to the disciples and conducted the first Christian Bible study with them there along that dusty road. Imagine having Jesus as your bible study leader! How privileged were these two disciples!

Notice also that Luke tells us which Scriptures Jesus turned to, “Moses and all the prophets.” This was probably a shorthand expression for the entire Scripture. Moses was the author of the first five books of the Bible. The other books seem to have been understood as prophetic; Joshua, Judges, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel—were understood as the prophets. David was also apparently understood as a prophet. There are also later prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, etc. By telling us Jesus took the disciples through the books of Moses and the Prophets, Luke is indicating that Jesus went through all of the scriptures with these disciples.

Open Your Eyes
What is truly amazing is that despite this incredible bible study, despite Jesus’ best theological reflection and preaching, the disciples’ eyes were still closed. When they finally arrived in the town they still failed to recognize the Lord. Luke tells us that Jesus acted as if he was going on further along the road, but the disciples urged him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent” (Luke 24:29).

Having gone inside Jesus’ identity was finally made known to them. How?
“When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight” (Luke 24:30-31).

Here Jesus repeats what he did in the Upper Room on the night before he was handed over. On that evening, Luke tells us that Jesus, “took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body which is given for you’” (Luke 22:19). The word for “given thanks” in Greek is the Greek word from which we get the word “Eucharist.” At Emmaus Jesus likewise takes bread, breaks it and gives it to the disciples—Jesus is celebrating the first post-Easter Eucharist. In fact, the phrase “breaking bread” seems to have been an early Christian term for the Eucharistic celebration (cf. Acts 2:42; 20:7).

Even though the disciples had Jesus himself with them, explaining how Scripture was fulfilled in himself, his presence was hidden from them. It was in the Eucharistic celebration that the disciples finally discovered Jesus’ presence. He was revealed to them in the breaking of the bread.

Scripture is meant to prepare us for the Eucharistic celebration. As we will see, the Liturgy is the proper context for Scripture. There is an inseparable bond between the Scripture and the Mass. Through the reading of Scripture we are prepared, like those early disciples, to discover Christ’s presence in the Eucharist.

Luke 24 and the Liturgy
In fact, in reading Luke 24 we see the outlines of the liturgy itself. First, Jesus opens up the Word to the disciples. He explains to them how all Scripture is fulfilled in Himself.

This corresponds to the first part of the ancient Christian worship celebration—the Liturgy of the Word. There Scripture is opened and read. The Church is careful to read first from the Old Testament (First Reading and Responsorial Psalm) and then from the New Testament (Second Reading and Gospel) to show how all Scripture is fulfilled in Christ. We will talk about this more later. Furthermore, as Jesus explained Scripture to the disciples, the priest gives a homily, interpreting Scripture and showing us how to apply it to our lives.

After preparing the disciples to recognize him through reading Scripture, Jesus celebrates the Eucharistic meal with them. This corresponds to the second part of the ancient Christian celebration—the Liturgy of the Eucharist. There we, like the disciples, discover that Christ’s real presence, though hidden, is in our midst.

The Proper Place and Time
I think many people simply assume that the bible fell out of heaven one day with all its books intact. Of course, that’s not what happened. Genesis was written long before the book of Wisdom—even longer before the book of Matthew. Matthew wrote separately from Paul, who wrote independently of John. So how and why were all these books collected together?

Keep in mind, before the printing press, books were extremely rare and expensive. Hardly anyone had his or her own personal bible. The bible wasn’t put together because Jesus needed books to sign after the Sermon on the Mount. His disciples were not running a publishing house out of Galilee. "Personal bibles" is a relatively new concept. The early Christians couldn’t take a bible home, close their bedroom door and do personal meditations on the Word. So where was the bible meant to read? Why were its books assembled?

The bible was assembled to resolve a major problem in the early Church—the early Christians didn’t know which books they could read in the liturgy, that is, at Mass. Different churches were often reading from different books. If you went to Mass in Antioch, for example, you might hear the Apocalypse of Peter read (cf. Muratorian Fragment, a. d. 200). However, if you went over to Corinth, you might be told that it was forbidden to read that book. There they might be reading different books. True, many of the books were universally accepted. St. Paul’s letters were read by virtually everyone. Nonetheless, there was quite a bit of confusion over a number of other ones: e.g., the book of Revelation was denied by many. At the same time, many were using the letter of Clement in the liturgy (cf. the Apostolic Constitutions, a. d. 390).

This was a major issue. Christians needed to know what they could read in their liturgy. Finally, to resolve the question, bishops assembled and councils were convened in the fourth century. Ultimately, the list was sent off to the pope and the other bishops for ratification. The point here is this: the determination of the canon was primarily a liturgical decision.

“The Bible” is the collection of books that can be read in Christian worship. Thus, Catholics can’t read the writings of the saints at Mass. Nor can they read papal encyclicals. Only the Scripture can be read.

The Bible therefore was put together for the liturgy. The liturgy is the proper context for the Bible.

The problem today is that many don’t recognize the Bible’s proper context. They read the Bible as if it had nothing to do with the liturgy. As we will see, by doing this, people run into all kinds of problems.

(To be continued...)


Unknown said...

Interesting, Michael - I love the Emmaus Road as a picture of the Mass (Illumination of the Word, Breaking of the Bread). I'm also interested in hearing more on the liturgy as the proper context for the Scriptures.

kkollwitz said...

Where does one start?
For me what worked was learning the scriptural support for a given distinctive Catholic belief such as Transubstantiation, or Confession. I've seen this work for me as well as adults in RCIA or Bible class, and 6th grade kids in Religious Ed. In other words, what doesn't appeal to me is taking a book at at a time and reading it through.
Catholics already know things like the Mass, the Eucharist, celibate priests, etc. This knowledge provides a ready frame (a 'cadre' in French, I find that term useful here), on which to hang the Scriptural support. Catholics love (love!) to see how the Bible supports Catholicism how it deepens their understanding, and will retain the info if they are turning the pages in their own Bible, finding the books, looking at the context, etc.
Once a Catholic gets comfortable with his own Bible as a whole by having learned the significance of many passages throughout, he is then able to study it any way he wishes, having indirectly learned a basic comprehensive confidence in his own ability to do so.