In this Sunday’s Mass for Sexagesima, we have in the Epistle from 2 Corinthians the mysterious description by Paul of his elevating vision of Heaven which readied him for his trials, which gave him authority, which transformed his person. He was drawn into mystery and changed. In the Gospel from Luke 8 we have the Parable of the Sower, the scattering of seed in different places where it either does well or it does not. Christ Himself explains the Parable. I’ll try to do something else this week that connects what Paul experienced and what we experience when we are drawn into mystery in Scripture.
Reading the Word of God is important. The Church provides indulgences for spending time reading Scripture “cum veneratione divino eloquio debita … with the veneration due God’s word”, not just as history or literature but, “ad modum lectionis spiritalis… as a form of spiritual reading.” Let’s call this reading or listening to Scripture “devoutly”. The indulgence concession also provides for listening to Scripture being read to you. There is a partial indulgence for devout reading of Scripture and a plenary if it is for “at least one-half hour” (concession 30).
“With due reverence… devoutly” is key. How does one do that?
First, it helps to understand it precisely as “the Word of God”. It is not mine; it is God’s. Moreover, the Word is God (cf. John 1). Christ is present in every word of the Word. We do well to begin our time with the Word with a prayer. There are many good ones. For example, looking around on the interwebs I found a prayer of an 8th century Syriac monk who teaches us also how to read while asking God for help:
O God, make my mind worthy to find delight in understanding the dispensation of Your beloved Son. O Lord, take away the veil of passions that lies over my mind, and let Your holy light shine into my heart, so that my mind may enter into the interior of the outward ink-written text, and that with the enlightened eye of my soul I may behold the sacred mysteries that are hidden in Your Gospel. And by Your grace, Lord, grant that the thought of You shall not depart from my heart by night or by day.
Contact with the text is like an unveiling of mystery. There is the outward sign, the ink, and the inward effect, which sounds sacramental. We approach Scripture reverently, with awe. When Moses approached the burning bush he was instructed to put off his sandals to tread carefully. We tread the pages of Scripture carefully too, for we are in touch with the sacred, mystery.
That prayer was in the 8th century. Some 13 centuries later, we take a clue also from Benedict XVI in the forward to his book Jesus of Nazareth – Part Two, Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem To The Resurrection. Ratzinger/Benedict touches on what I believe is behind “devoutly, with reverence”. Here’s a longish quote, which I will condense.
The background idea is that, for a long time, after the development of scientific tools of research of ancient texts – the so-called “historical-critical method” – many, if not most scholars, approached Scripture as a thing to be dissected. This method was tantamount to an iron-clad law. Scripture was (and is) for them, as TS Eliot might put it, “like a patient etherized upon a table”. They got out their tools and went to work. Let’s turn to Benedict and his critique of this method and his corrective.
One thing is clear to me: in two hundred years of exegetical work, historical-critical exegesis has already yielded its essential fruit. If scholarly exegesis is not to exhaust itself in constantly new hypotheses, becoming theologically irrelevant, it must take a methodological step forward and see itself once again as a theological discipline, without abandoning its historical character.
The tools and methods gave us a great deal, but they killed the living thing they were applied to. We need to be less like mechanics and more prayerful, to approach Scripture as a starting point for theology, not curiosity. We can’t abandon the modern tools, but we need more. Going on:
It must learn that the positivistic hermeneutic on which it has been based does not constitute the only valid and definitively evolved rational approach; rather, it constitutes a specific and historically conditioned form of rationality that is both open to correction and completion and in need of it. It must recognize that a properly developed faith-hermeneutic is appropriate to the text and can be combined with a historical hermeneutic, aware of its limits, so as to form a methodological whole. Naturally, this combination of two quite different types of hermeneutic is an art that needs to be constantly remastered.
Here Benedict refers to the reading of Scripture as an “art”, not just a method or a craft or a skill or a project. It needs the right “hermeneutic” or principle of interpretation, interpretive lens. In modern times, what came to be called a “hermeneutic of suspicion” developed in view of Scripture intended to challenge the plain reading of the texts, to force new interpretations to the fore. This pernicious approach resulted in someone, let’s say a Jesuit, reading the Bible and then spouting that what we read in Scripture about, let’s say homosexual acts, was wrong. Otherwise, there could be someone, let’s say, a German cardinal, who regarding Christ’s words about, let’s say marriage, concludes that if Christ wasn’t exactly wrong, He was right back then. This is now. Scripture has to be read differently, through the lens of our lived experience. Scripture means what it means and, surprise, it doesn’t mean what it means at the same time.
What Ratzinger calls for is not a hermeneutic of suspicion but rather a hermeneutic of faith. The latter also seeks to “read between the lines” but from a different starting point and for a different reason.
Back to Ratzinger who thinks that the historical-critical method can be properly applied so long as it is checked and corrected and guided:
But it can be achieved, and as a result the great insights of patristic exegesis will be able to yield their fruit once more in a new context …. I would not presume to claim that this combination of the two hermeneutics is already fully accomplished in my book. But I hope to have taken a significant step in that direction. Fundamentally this is a matter of finally putting into practice the methodological principles formulated for exegesis by the Second Vatican Council (in Dei Verbum 12), a task that unfortunately has scarcely been attempted thus far.
The key here is Benedict’s reference to the Fathers of the Church, “patristic exegesis”. The Church Fathers were theologians, teachers, mostly bishops, from the time of the Apostolic and Sub-Apostolic age (those who knew the Apostles and their immediate successors) into what secular scholars call “Late Antiquity”, roughly the late 3rd century through the 7th century up to the early Medieval period. The writings of the Fathers are sometimes divided into those before and after the Council of Nicea (AD 325). There are many of these writers. You know the so-called Great Fathers of the East and West, respectively, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea, John Chrysostom, as well as Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory I. What distinguishes their approach to Scriptures is that they believed they were in contact with Christ, present in the inerrant Word of God, and that they were charged by God to teach the Truth for the sake of the salvation of souls. In short, after a long ramble, they read Scripture “devoutly”.
For Benedict this is the corrective that must be applied to the approach of, let’s call it, “curiosity” and “suspicion”. It also helps us to understand our roles in sacred liturgical worship.
It is one thing to attend the Vetus Ordo (or Novus) and then pick apart how it is celebrated (properly or sloppily) or to be caught up and then caught in the details: “They move the book to the other side. That’s really cool.” We can then find out more about why that was done. That still isn’t necessarily a full, conscious, and active participation in the movement of the book. When we have assimilated the gesture – and all gestures in Mass are Christ gesturing by means of our hands – so that we in the moving of the book are also opening our minds and hearts to the content, the Person, about to be proclaimed as sacrificial offering to the Father, that’s when we are doing what the Fathers did, that makes all the technical stuff we know worth something more than a few points on Catholic Trivial Pursuit night.
Let’s circle back to beginning our reading of Scripture with prayer. We recently had the image of heaping hot coals on the head of those who do us wrong by being kind to them, giving them what they need in charity. Here’s another hot coal image which pertains to this topic, namely that contact with Scripture is a sacred and mysterious undertaking, not to be trifled with. It’s sandals off time.
In the Vetus Ordo, before the priest or deacon reads or sings the Gospel, he bows low, even kneels in the case of the deacon, and recites two prayers. Only the second of these made it into the Novus Ordo. The first prayer has a reference to Isaiah receiving from God his mission as a Prophet (Isaiah 6). Isaiah was given a vision of Heaven. He deeply understood his unworthiness and described himself as a man of “unclean lips” (v. 4). One of the Seraphim (the highest of the angels) flew to him and placed a burning coal from the heavenly altar on his mouth. After that Isaiah was emboldened to say, “Send me!”
First, there came the purification, the preparation. After, there was the commissioning, the speaking.
Here are the two prayers which precede the reading of the Gospel in the Vetus Ordo, in which every baptized Catholic might participate with the tongue of his heart as the priest bows low before the altar, being burned, being charged:
Cleanse my heart and my lips, O almighty God, who didst cleanse the lips of the prophet Isaiah with a burning coal, and vouchsafe, through Thy gracious mercy, so to purify me, that I may worthily announce Thy holy Gospel. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Give me Thy blessing, O Lord. The Lord be in my heart and on my lips, that I may worthily and in a becoming manner, proclaim His holy Gospel. Amen.
Perhaps you could slightly alter this prayer by saying, “that I may fruitfully read/hear Thy Holy Gospel”.
For your preparation for Holy Mass, try previewing what you are going to hear on Sunday, maybe even for several days in advance. For your continued contact with transforming mystery, you might then review what you heard for several days. Day in, day out. Week in, week out. Constant contact. Devout encounters with the Word. You can perform this also as a work of mercy, through the gaining of indulgences.