Updated: Feb 16, 2022
Sunday's readings can be viewed: [HERE]
Have you ever seen a lion in a zoo? In popular culture, we at times characterize lions as majestic creatures, but a caged lion... That's not quite as impressive. However spacious an enclosure may be, it pales in comparison to a lion’s kingdom in the wild.
To be fair, I can learn about lions from a zoo. I can see their relative size, how they sound, how they walk around or recline. I can read about them on a display. Nevertheless, my understanding of lions is woefully lacking if I give no consideration to their natural habitat.
That context of a lion's natural environment reveals much about lions that goes far beyond what can be seen in a zoo. I’m not saying we all have to go to the Savanna to see lions in their habitat—we can watch them on Animal Planet or something.
My point is: it’s on the expansive plains that a lion’s gravitas is on full display: when it roars to make its presence known; when it’s in full stride in pursuit of prey; when it’s surrounded by its pride as they gaze over their territory.
Again, I can learn some things about a lion from a zoo. But a caged lion reveals very little of its true majesty.
Now, the same is true with regard to Sacred Scripture: the Bible. Just as a lion can’t be fully understood apart from its habitat, the Bible also can’t be fully understood apart from its habitat.
Today, we celebrate The Word of God Sunday, and we're invited to meditate upon the topic of Sacred Scripture. In the interest of time, I’ll offer you just one consideration to reflect upon, which I've hinted at. Namely, the natural context of Sacred Scripture.
The natural environment for Sacred Scripture is, and has always been: the communal worship of God. It is good to cultivate a devotion to reading the Bible on one's own. For many reasons, which we can't get into now, it's a very good discipline to integrate personal reading of scripture. But the natural context of Sacred Scripture is the assembly that gathers to hear the proclamation of the Word of God; in short, the Sacred Liturgy.
You may already know this instinctively. Unless a person reads the Bible on their own regularly, they most encounter Sacred Scripture at the Mass, or at another liturgy, like baptisms, a marriages, anointings, burials, etc.
We’re doing this right now. At every Mass, there is this Liturgy of the Word, where the Ambo is the focus of our attention; followed by the Liturgy of the Eucharist, when our attention turns to the altar.
We've listened to the proclamation of Sacred Scripture, and we now reflect on them. This isn’t something new. The people of God have always done this. Our readings today give us a few examples.
In our first reading from Nehemiah, we heard: Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which consisted of men, women, and those children old enough to understand... ...He opened the scroll so that all the people might see it—for he was standing higher up than any of the people...He read out of the book from daybreak till midday, in the presence of the men, the women, and those children old enough to understand... Ezra read plainly from the book of the law of God, interpreting it so that all could understand what was read...
Sound familiar? We literally just did all of this. The Book of the Gospels was processed forward to the Ambo, which is stands higher than the rest of the Church, so that the Word of God can be proclaimed to us—the assembly—from on high. And now, I, as the priest, am interpreting the scriptures.
Later in this passage, Ezra tells the people: “Today is holy to the Lord your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep”—for all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the Law.
Why were they weeping? It’s something akin to missing food. When we’re deprived of food, we’re not weaned off of it; we don’t lose the capacity to eat. Rather, we experience hunger as a result.
Likewise, Judah experienced hunger to hear the Word of God again after so many years in exile. That’s the context for this scene. Judah was the last remaining Tribe of Israel—the other eleven had all been annihilated. When Babylon conquered Judah, the Judaeans were exiled from their own land. And they ached for seventy long years to return.
There are even Psalms that describe that anguish: By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there that our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy! (cf. Ps. 137:1-6).
In our passage today, Judah weeps because at last they’ve returned as a people, and hear the Word of God proclaimed again to the assembly. By the way, as a brief aside, I remember when we were finally able to celebrate Mass together again, after being locked down for a couple of months. It was on Pentecost Sunday two years ago. We had no music, no chant, we were socially distanced, and we were (and still are) masked. There were no bells or whistles (metaphorically, because we still used bells during the Eucharistic Prayer). There were very few people here.
But we were satisfied. After that anguish of being separated from the Mass for too long, we at last could gather again as an assembly. We could hear the proclamation of the Word again as a worshipping community. From my vantage point facing the congregation, I could see the tears in the eyes of so many people.
I’ll leave it there regarding Nehemiah.
Our gospel passage comes from Luke, and I’ll keep this somewhat brief, in the interest of time.
From chapter four of Luke, we hear: [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the Sabbath day. He stood up and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written...
...Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him.
Again, we still do this today. We gather here as an assembly. That's what synagogue means. It comes from the Greek word sunago, which means to come together or to gather together. We've gathered together to hear the Word proclaimed, and then we turn our attention to the one who comments on scripture.
This passage is spliced with the first four verses of the first chapter of Luke, where we hear Luke's stated purpose in writing it. Now to be sure, God is the true author of the entire Bible. But God chose to use human authors as his instruments, who each had full freedom in expressing what God had inspired within them.
Here, Luke writes: Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.
So this Theophilus—whoever that was—has already received these teachings, by hearing them proclaimed to the assembly—by ministers of the Word—and eyewitnesses.
Luke considers everything that has been faithfully handed on. He investigated their veracity by interviewing eyewitnesses to Jesus. And then he writes it in an orderly sequence for someone named, Theophilus. Literally, that name means, beloved of God, or beloved by God. And so, Theophilus may be an actual person, or a simple form of addressing the reader.
The point it: the content of Luke’s account has a prior context of being heard by assembly before Luke put anything into writing to be read. Theophilus already heard what Luke is recording in writing. It's like the children in this Church. Before any of them learn how to read, they will have already heard the proclamation of the Word. That's why it's so important to read to our children; so that they can become accustomed to this practice of storytelling and story-listening.
Again, the sacred Word that we hear has the natural context of the Mass. Diminishing that context is like caging a lion, and thinking that’s all there is to lions.
But in the Mass, the Lion of Judah roars majestically over his kingdom. The Word of God resounds within these walls and the Lord claims this assembly.