1 Corinthians 9:16-23
And in the morning, a great while before day, He rose.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
I take to heart St. Paul's injunction, "Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!" who then goes on recount the different ways in which that grave responsibility binds upon him, that he has made a slave of himself for this purpose. It is a great responsibility. The Gospel ... You know, we do not take the Eucharist for granted, but I wonder how often we fail to honor the high place, the highest place, accorded by the Holy Spirit to this Book?
What Christian does not cherish that mysterious gift from God we call the Sacred Scriptures? Yes, I have heard the Protestant opinion that Catholics do not reverence and adore the Holy Scriptures. But, then, I have not seen them at Mass — where we kiss this holy book, cense it with costly frankincense, hold it aloft in procession to signify its high importance, and bow deeply when it passes by. In the context of the Roman Church, it is deemed as the highest authority inerrantly taught by the Holy Spirit. It is reverenced as being Divine Law. It is the basis for the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church. And the encyclicals of the popes read as a seamless fabric of densely woven Scripture passages. All Catholic clergy and religious pray its verses daily to sanctify the Hours. The saints have opened its pages randomly that God might speak into key decisions and give direction in their lives. From antiquity, the faithful have trusted St. Paul's declaration that the Scriptures are "the oracles of God" (Romans 3:2) and have looked to them for guidance and inspiration in their most private and intimate hours.
We all know the story of St. Augustine who sat on a park bench weeping and then heard a child over the garden wall singing (in Latin), "Take up and read! Take up and read!" And so he placed the Sacred Scriptures on his lap, let the book fall open wherever it might, and then fastened his eyes upon the first verse he saw. And that verse spoke powerfully into his life, even accusing him of his most privates sins, and touched him so profoundly that its guidance would be his direction for the rest of his life.
The Scriptures .... they are the final word in ethics and morals. They are a lamp unto our feet. They are "The Book of Life."
Mysteriously, the Word of God is a kind of Incarnation of God, The Word, that God be ever-present to us. God speaks to us through these sacred oracles, but do we hear Him? This bestselling book of all time is everywhere to be found. You cannot check into a hotel with seeing it. But reading it through from cover to cover will reveal nearly nothing. And I see that many people pick up the Bible and read it as if it were a newspaper or a history book or even a science text .... and then will criticizes it because it fell short under the canons of these other writings.
The first thing we must understand is that the Scriptures are holy. We do not "chug it down" like a glass of chocolate milk. Rather, we must sip reverently as with holy wine. We do not really know where its earliest verses came from ... from the mists of prehistory. They may precede the first instance of literature, so they are not literature. They may precede the first instance of philosophy, so they are not philosophy. They may precede the first instance of history, so they are not history. We may attempt to read through them trying to follow the plot, yet plot, or even the invention of the novel, had not occurred yet.
The earliest Fathers noticed that the Sacred Scriptures function on four levels: the historical level (events that actually happened); the spiritual or allegorical level (a veil set before deeper meanings, for example that passing through the Red Sea signifies baptism); the moral or tropological level (there is a moral to the story); and the eschatological level (events leading to a final judgment and thence to Heaven or Hell).
This crystal prism, where at least four levels function simultaneously, is a gateway, a beginning. Those who have passed through it into the myriad labyrinths of divine meaning, words of power, spiritual enlightenment, personal guidance, and more report back that, after many decades, the experience of the Sacred Scriptures remains fresh, new, and exciting. I must share with you that, this past week, when I read the simple line with which we began — In the morning, long before dawn, He rose. — that the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. But then I wondered .... How many other people, reading the very same passage, had the same experience?
The four-fold level also helps us to avoid pitfalls. Historically, people have used the Scriptures to justify slavery (Weren't there slaves in the Bible?); to justify polygamy (Didn't Jacob have multiple wives?); to justify homosexuality (Didn't David rendezvous with Jonathan in a wheat field?). But, speaking of David, shall we also say that his acts of adultery and murder are to be emulated "because they are in the Bible"? Or that incest is justified because it was practiced within King David's family or practiced between Lot and his daughters? No, we cannot pick up the Bible and read it as if it were a newspaper or magazine, much less some kind of chronicle of heroes, whom we must emulate. Indeed, we are hard pressed to find anyone in the Gospels worthy of emulation, save Jesus and John the Baptist. Certainly, Joseph and Mary did not understand Who Jesus was. Mary and Joseph's sons attempted to restrain Him because they thought Him mad. We cannot simply decide that this is "the Good Book" and therefore everything in it must be good. It is infinitely holy, and we must be prepared to touch the holy, for failing to touch it is a failure to touch the Lord Jesus Christ, Who awaits our love, our complete attention, and our touch. Here is what the Catechism has to say: "The Church 'forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful ... to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ'" (and here the Catechism, in turn, quotes from Dei verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution of Divine Revelation of Vatican II and from St. Jerome).
Yes, we are granted the high privilege to sip holy wine. And we must not falsely believe that any wine, or grape juice, will suffice. We must read the Bible as it was written. For the Lord Jesus and His Disciples, the Sacred Scriptures were the Hebrew Scriptures translated into Greek, for these were the verses they taught and lived by and constantly quoted. The New Testament was written in Greek, inspired by the Holy Spirit in terms of Greek language and sensibilities. The mind cannot be divorced from language. The nexus between what we call reality and the language that describes it is a very, very fine line. And the sensibilities of the language become the sensibilities of our apprehension. You know, we lived many years in Haiti, and one of the things that troubled me there is that the children were taught Creole (pigeon language), which is one of the most primitive languages you can imagine, barely having tense, lacking most of the nuances you would expect from language in terms of voice and mood. It is truly a crude language. Now, guess what happens to the brains that are trained in that language. They lack the ability to solve any problems but the simplest ones. I grew sick of hearing the brave words, "We were giving them their dignity! Their self-esteem!" Well, isn't that the story of the past half-century: give everyone self-esteem, but take away the real tools anyone needs to do anything. Of course, the crime in Haiti was that insisting on French, which was taught anyway, would also have opened up a whole world of opportunity to the Haitians if only measured in jobs! For it would have opened the whole Francophone world to them.
Now, I understand that it is not possible to learn Greek, say, for the elderly, whose minds are past such tasks of memorization and ordering. In that case then we must seek out Bible study that is led by someone competent in Greek. As for the rest of us, I do not dispute that the chores of memorization ahead will be considerable, but two great blessings await us. First, the worldwide web provides all that we need to succeed at this and for free! Second, we do well to remember a truth that is easily forgotten: whether or not we carry through with this sacred trust, our brains will fill up anyway. If you direct your mind to football, it will fill up with football. If you direct it to soil science, as we do here, then it will with soil science. Direct it toward .... less wholesome places, and you will become garbage. But direct it toward the holy, and you will become holy. Better to make yourself a storehouse of divinity than ... anything else I can think of! And learning Greek all happens in a matter of weeks. I know people who took a month in the summer to learn Greek, and four weeks later were reading, pronouncing, and understanding Greek! Yes, they had to refine it from there, but they succeeded! They had made it to the other shore! They had made that very great difference between not knowing the Scripture and knowing them, reading them in the language in which they were written!
The rewards are endless. For suddenly the noise and attitudes and intruding tonalities one hears in translation cease. The hidden agendas that translators wield (sometimes unwittingly) disappear. Out-of-place figures of speech and vain strivings "to be relevance" depart. And you are left with a direct experience of the holy. In this morning's Gospel reading, you sit alone in the quiet of St. Mark's spare and mysterious words, aware of infinite depth before you. The first words of verse 35, indeed, pull us down into these depths:
|Και πρωι 'εννυχα λιαν.|
Anastas. We know this word. It is written upon many icons (such as the one above in this reflection). It is arguably the most important word in the history of human language. Anastas. It is the first thing you say when you wake up on Easter Morning:
The words coming next in Mark's Gospel, in verse 36, "Peter and the others followed Him," and in verse 37, "Everyone is searching for you," point ahead to, first, the formation of the Church, and, second, to all salvation history. Truly, Everyone is searching for Him ..... and will for all time!
How many times have we been told that we are surrounded by Heaven, but do not see it; that the deep depths of God lie all around us, but we pass them by; that He speaks into our heart, but we do not hear Him? How startling then that all of this should be in full motion while we are reading the Bible but do not notice!
I could tell you that many key passages of the Bible are mistranslated or misleading in English — for example, that Peter's "three-fold confession of love" (Jn 21:15 ff.) is actually a three-fold denial of the Lord's love. Or that St. John the Baptist eats insects when in fact he is a vegetarian who eats manna. Or, as in the Gospel we are reading this morning, that the Lord Jesus throws Himself down to the ground in the Garden of Gethsemane, a desperate and fearful man, when, in fact, He is ritually practicing His Resurrection and Ascension here in the First Chapter of that same Gospel.
And since we are in Gethsemane, let us press on to the Cross, to one of the most misunderstood passages in all the Gospels. But first let me ask: Who among us does not know what is meant when he or she hears, "O, say, can you see?" There are still those in this country who will jump to their feet upon hearing these words, yes, and place his hand upon his heart. And there was a time when every Christian understood what was meant by the two words, the "Our Father" or the "Glory Be." During my own lifetime tens of millions of people understood which prayers were meant by simply saying two words: the Pater Noster; the Gloria Patri; the Ave Maria; or three words, the Credo in Deum.
Can we, therefore, credit the Lord Jesus Christ with knowing that the words `o Theos `o Theos refers to a prayer: "My God, My God, Why has thou forsaken me." After all, people of the first century knew what to pray when you said only one word: Shema, the greatest prayer of the Hebrew Scriptures. But our understanding of the "My God, My God" (the Deus, Deus Meus), which is Psalm 22, comes to us today from Hollywood film directors, not from competent scholars and students of the Bible. Everyone standing at the foot of the Cross understood exactly what Jesus was saying: He was praying Psalm 22, `o Theos `o Theos, which ends by predicting that the ends of the earth and a people yet-to-be-born will fall down and worship Him — an audacious prophecy made by a friendless, nameless beggar who did not own a grave to put his dead body. Yet, today you will drive into any town or city in this country, and the first thing you will notice are church steeples, where people everywhere fall down to worship Him. And who are these people yet to be born? Are they not us? And where are the ends of the earth? Are they not here, wherever the worldwide web reaches people, .... so unimaginably distant from first-century Jerusalem in every way?
If what I have shared this morning has shed light,
has taught you things that you did not know before today,
my brothers and sisters,
let me say that
"The Word is very near to you.
Let it also be in your heart and on your lips!"
And the treasures I have shared are only the beginning.
Dig for them!
The tools that you need are everywhere to be found.
And they will cost you nothing.
What they will procure for you is beyond value,
incommensurably beyond all price,
even your life.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.