Scripture for Lifeby Paul Zilonka, C.P.
Each time we celebrate the Eucharist, we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” This familiar petition from the Lord’s Prayer is appropriate just before we receive the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, the bread of life, which surpasses all earthly food. But that prayerful yearning for daily bread would also be just as suitable earlier in the Mass as we listen to the sacred scriptures which the lectionary prescribes for this particular day.
In the closing days of Vatican II, more than two thousand bishops approved the Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) on November 18, 1965. Though two years had passed since the promulgation of the Constitution on Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium), these documents are linked together by the richly evocative biblical metaphor of “the bread of life.” Towards the end of Dei Verbum we read, “The church has always venerated the divine scriptures as it has venerated the Body of the Lord, in that it never ceases, above all in the sacred liturgy, to partake of the bread of life and to offer it to the faithful from the one table of the word of God and the Body of Christ.” (DV 21). (italics added)
This sentence vividly reminds us how the church always reads its sacred scriptures with a sense of community in mind. While there is no doubt that God speaks to us as individuals when we meditatively read the stories and admonitions of the Bible privately, the early church was born with a Bible in its cradle.
The proclamation of the scriptures of the Old and the New Testaments within the celebration of the Eucharistic liturgy is one way many Catholics across the world regularly hear the word of God. Regrettably, the greater multitude rarely has an opportunity with any frequency. Sacred scripture also plays an important part in the celebration of each of the sacraments of the church, in the Liturgy of the Hours, and in other Services of the Word creatively drawn up for specific occasions. However, the Eucharistic context for experiencing the Bible has its roots in the earliest days of the Christian community.
By the time of Jesus’ birth, the Hebrew scriptures had already become an organized collection of Mosaic law, prophets, and other inspirational writings. When Jesus grew up as a child in Nazareth, local synagogues in Galilee may have followed a lectionary style with a weekly reading of successive selections from Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These first five books were collectively inscribed on the scroll known as Torah (“tradition”). A second complementary passage followed. It was drawn from the biblical texts associated with the “former and later prophets.” This broad selection of scriptures included both the oracles of and stories about some people who claimed to speak to the community of believers with the authority of God over a period of several hundred years after the establishment of David’s kingdom about 1000 B.C.
The Gospels frequently mention how Jesus participated in synagogue worship. Indeed, in the Gospel according to Luke (4:16-21), Jesus proclaims a Spirit-filled passage from Isaiah 61 and then claims to the amazement of all that “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This same sense of fulfillment explicitly reverberates through most of the New Testament documents which frequently say that something related to Jesus happened in order that “the scriptures might be fulfilled” (Matthew 1:22; Luke 24:44; John 19:36; Acts 13:27).
This biblical treasure was both a divinely inspired inheritance and a “written partner” with which Paul the Apostle dialogued in his preaching and writing. Made firm by his experience of the risen Lord, Paul ingeniously showed how the Hebrew scriptures proclaimed that, through faith in Christ, the Gentiles to whom he was sent could now share in the promise of salvation first given to Israel.
Other followers of Jesus brought together collections of the words and deeds of Jesus in the four Gospels. Paul and the evangelists used a variety of literary forms of their own time, such as parables, discourses, lists of virtues, or pastoral emendations to apply a teaching of Jesus to a new development in the rapidly changing church. But even while recounting the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth in what appear to be simple straightforward stories, the evangelists never forgot his saving death and glorious resurrection. Easter’s glory was always the lens of faith through which they recalled the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth.
The early Christian communities of Jews and Gentiles eventually joined their celebration of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:18, 20) with aspects of the synagogue service which focused on the proclamation of the scriptures of the Law and the Prophets, to which the continuous reading of a Gospel was now added. Paul’s pastoral letters were meant to be read at the public assembly of the believers (“the church in your house” Philemon 1:2). This integral celebration of the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist, which is our contemporary form of the Mass, clearly reflects this most ancient tradition dating to the origins of our church.
The final chapter of Dei Verbum was entitled “Sacred Scripture in the Life of the Church.” This title clearly affirms that scripture is, first of all, a treasure of the whole faith community, rather than simply a personal possession. Hopefully, we all have a copy of the Bible for ourselves so that we can meditatively read it whenever we wish, alone or with others, in prayer, faith-sharing, or perhaps discussion of some interesting background which deepens our understanding of the richness of the text, especially those passages which may at times seem obscure.
The fact that no new books have been added to the New Testament for about nineteen hundred years almost guarantees that some of the ancient images and outdated associations mentioned in its pages will become even more remote to future generations. Newer translations alone cannot overcome this chronological gap. That is why serious research of the original context of a passage, as well as preaching thoroughly grounded on the biblical text as understood within the faith community today, both play an important role in helping the members of the church to be nourished by scripture, the bread of life.
“...Such is the force and power of the word of God that it is the church’s support and strength, imparting robustness to the faith of its daughters and sons and providing food for their souls. It is a pure and unfailing fount of spiritual life.” (DV 21) How can we better enable scripture to nourish our spiritual growth? Everyone has a part to play. We need excellent preparation for those who proclaim the scriptures publicly in worship. Those who preach must give prayerful attention to the Lord as they diligently compose insightful homilies attuned to our own challenges as Christ’s disciples.
Finally, all of us can learn from the temptation story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry the solution to the real hunger we have in life. “The tempter approached and said to him: ‘If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.’ He said in reply, ‘It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:3-4)
A note from the Web publisher: Paul Zilonka, C.P. blogs at Zilonkaworld