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How Sweet are Thy Words

Let me begin with a massive understatement: the Bible is not an easy book, and few, too few, are the Catholics who make the study of it a regular part of their spiritual lives.

Before we even delve into it, we are confronted by the fact that the Bible is really many books of many different styles, periods, and particular purposes, so opening it just anywhere and starting to read will probably not be the best approach for most of us.

Because it was written under the inspiration of the one God, however, the Bible is also fundamentally one book: it deals with the one history of salvation for mankind and it has one goal in view—the knowledge and the love of God, leading to an ever more perfect union with Him. Since, as the Church teaches, “the ‘study of the sacred page’ should be the very soul of sacred theology” (CCC 132, citing DV 24), there is nothing more important in theological studies and in our lifelong education as Catholics than turning and returning to the revealed Word. We should regularly set apart time for this task—or, as the saints see it, this great privilege—of reading the only words that have God as their primary author.

Why read the Bible and make it a familiar companion? There are two kinds of answers to this question. One is merely human—a literary, sociological, or cultural answer. It’s good to be familiar with the Bible stories that have formed Western culture; they are eloquent and moving, illustrating the great problems of human existence. This answer is, however, somewhat beside the point, because all great literature does this. One could make exactly the same argument for reading Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, or Willa Cather. Moreover, as both Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome observed long ago, the Bible is not always, at least for most of us, a “delightful” reading experience, the way reading a novel might be. It is full of perplexing obscurities, remote historical details, repetitions, seeming contradictions, not to mention brutalities and sensualities of a most unedifying nature. St. Benedict warned his monks away from reading certain parts of the Bible in the evening, and even the stuffed new Lectionary does not attempt to include them. It demands of us much effort if we are to crack the shell and reach the meat inside.

The other and better answer is that of faith. We read Scripture because it is what the Church claims it to be—God’s word, true and trustworthy, showing us the path of life, revealing to us something of who God is. In this respect it is unlike any other book we have. The Summa theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas is well worth studying and one can easily devote one’s entire life to mastering its contents. But Saint Thomas says in the very first question of the Summa that all his efforts are placed at the service of sacra doctrina, the “holy teaching” that God Himself communicates to us through Scripture and Tradition, safeguarded and handed down by the Church. Saint Thomas had no illusions about the relative importance of his secondary text to the one and only primary source, divine revelation. If God had wanted to reveal either the Summa theologiae or the Catechism of the Catholic Church on Mount Sinai or on the Mount of the Beatitudes, He could easily have done so. The fact that He did not should make us wonder why He persists in speaking to us through so complicated an instrument.

In the end, therefore, it is the conviction of faith that moves us, or should move us, to take up this book and persevere in reading it. Scripture rewards diligence (meaning, from the Latin diligere, a free and serious love). It opens itself to those who show perseverance.

Not surprisingly, Scripture itself expresses well the spirit we should ask the Lord to give us as we strive to read and understand His words. The longest and most elaborately crafted Psalm is 118, a hymn in praise of the law of the Lord and a plea for the grace to live according to it. The Psalm again and again mentions “thy word(s),” as in these verses: 

11 I have laid up thy word in my heart, that I might not sin against thee.

16 I will delight in thy statutes; I will not forget thy word.

17 Deal bountifully with thy servant, that I may live and observe thy word.

25 My soul cleaves to the dust; revive me according to thy word!

103 How sweet are thy words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!

105 Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.

130 The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.

160 The sum of thy word is truth; and every one of thy righteous ordinances endures for ever.

Echoing verse 160 above, Jesus prays to His Father: “Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth” (Jn 17:17). The prophet Jeremiah captures the appetite that we should have for this truthful and sanctifying word: “When I found your words, I devoured them; they became my joy and the happiness of my heart, because I bore your name, O Lord, God of hosts” (Jer 15:16). Writing to Saint Timothy, Saint Paul discusses the important role that the “sacred writings” will have in the lives of those who strive to “live a godly life”:

All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceivers and deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim 3:12–17)

Scripture is based on the two essential aspects of reality: the experience of the Holy by the holy, and the conflict of the Holy with the unholy. Its overriding goal is that we, joining the saints of the old and new covenants, should likewise enter into communion with the living God. It was written by those who became saints for those who are now striving to become saints. Scripture speaks everywhere about vice and error, but it positively teaches only virtue and truth, which it receives directly from the source. As Saint Peter writes:

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. … You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their licentiousness, and because of them the way of truth will be reviled.  (2 Pet 1:16, 19–21, 2:1–2)

This passage also begins to teach us about the need for an authorized, trustworthy interpreter of the holy writings, if they are to be a “lamp shining in a dark place,” rather than the false teaching and false prophecy that brings “swift destruction” and discredits the “way of truth.”

Consider, in conjunction with the foregoing from Saint Peter, the following from Saint John:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1 Jn 1:1–3)

What Saint John is concerned to deliver is not bits of ephemeral information or a sentimental story; he is neither a modern journalist nor a romantic novelist. John heard, saw, and touched Jesus, and reclining at table against His breast, He received the ineffable gift of the Lord Himself in the most holy Eucharist. The next day he stood beneath the gibbet of the cross and watched the same Lord spill His Blood in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world. Two days later, John and Peter saw the empty tomb. That evening, the Lord newly risen from the dead stood before ten of the apostles locked in the upper room and said, “Peace be with you,” showing them His pierced hands and side. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands . . .” It was out of these unforgettable, life-changing experiences that the beloved disciple, aided by the Spirit of truth, was able to draw forth his Gospel, Epistles, and Apocalypse.

Like all who follow the apostles, Saint John did not merely hear a word of life, He fed upon the ever-living Word of God and was transformed into a living image of Him. Jesus says: “I am the living bread come down from heaven . . . He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (Jn 6:51, 56). Jesus did not come to bring us a message; He came to give us Himself. The good news is that “God so loved the world that He gave us His only-begotten Son.” In its origin, in its content, and in its purpose, Scripture is given to us for our salvation; it orients us toward Christ, teaches us about Him, urges, reproves, and consoles, all for the sake of furthering this communion with the Word-made-flesh. That is the core message of Advent leading up to Christmas: ours is not a “religion of the book,” even if the good book is one of our most precious instruments for learning and living.

It is truly a great mercy that, as our Lord said, we are not left orphans—in any way. We are given the inspired word and ecclesiastical dogmas to form our minds and guide our steps; we are given direct access to the eternal High Priest, who took on the fragility of our flesh to raise us up to His divine glory; we are given the perfect gift that encompasses all gifts, the Holy Spirit. We are given all that we need to be holy: not slaves trembling in servile fear, but friends of God, purified of all that is not pleasing to Him.

“Blessed be the Lord our God, for He has come to His people and set them free . . . that being delivered from the hand of our enemies we may serve Him without fear, holy and righteous in His sight all the days of our lives” (Lk 1:68, 74–75).

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