Many people think of the Word of God as an “it” when in fact, the Word of God is a person,Jesus Christ. Jesus did not come merely to give us information and exhortation. He came to give us his very self. He is the “Word made Flesh.”
Pope Benedict makes this point in his most recent document, the Post Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Verbum Domini. I want to give an excerpt and then reflect briefly upon it.
[There is a] statement made by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews: “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world ” (1:1-2)….. Here the Word finds expression not primarily in discourse, concepts or rules. Here we are set before the very person of Jesus. His unique and singular history is the definitive word which God speaks to humanity. We can see, then, why “being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a definitive direction ”.…. “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us ”(Jn 1:14a). These words are no figure of speech; they point to a lived experience! Saint John, an eyewitness, tells us so: “ We have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth ” ( Jn 1:14b). ….. Now the word is not simply audible; not only does it have a voice, now the word has a face….(Verbum Domini 11-12)
The Word of God is not merely on the pages of a book. The Word of God is not just an idea or ethical system. The Word of God is not just a set of teachings or doctrines. The Word of God is Jesus Christ. And to really grasp this Word can only take place when we meet Him, experience Him and His power active in our lives.
It is a danger to turn Scripture into an abstraction or just a text. St Thomas Aquinas says, The Son is the Word, not any sort of word, but one Who breathes forth Love. Hence Augustine says (De Trin. ix 10): “The Word we speak of is knowledge with love.” Thus the Son is sent not in accordance with [just] any kind of intellectual perfection, but according to the intellectual illumination, which breaks forth into the affection of love, as is said (John 6:45): “Everyone that hath heard from the Father and hath learned, cometh to Me. (Summa Prima Pars, 43.5 ad 2).
Hence we cannot really grasp Scripture unless we have met Jesus Christ. Further, to authentically read Sacred Scripture is to more and more encounter Jesus Christ there. Before we analyze a text of Scripture we are summoned to encounter the one who is speaking to us.
It is surely possible for some, even secular scholar to analyze a Greek text of Holy Writ and parse its verbs. Perhaps another scholar can analyze idioms, or the historical context. Such research can help us understand what the text is saying at a mechanistic level. But only a deepening and personal knowledge of Jesus Christ can help us to know what the text really means. It is this personal, historical, and on-going encounter with Jesus Christ that distinguishes true theology from mere religious study or literary criticism.
Indeed, theologians and Scripture scholars are dangerous if they do not personally know Jesus Christ. To “know” Jesus is not the same as to “know about” Jesus. I might know about Jesus Christ from a book or from some other person. But it is not enough to know “about” him. I must know him. To be a true “authority” in Scripture requires that we have met and know the “author.” Do you see the word “author” in “authority?”
Note how the Pope quotes the Prologue of John’s Gospel ”... “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us ”(Jn 1:14a). and then says, These words are no figure of speech; they point to a lived experience! The Pope also says above in reference to the Hebrews 1 text: Here we are set before the very person of Jesus.
In the Liturgical context of Scripture this fact is enshrined in our ritual. As the Priest or Deacon proclaims the Gospel, all the people stand out of respect. For, it is Christ himself who speaks to them and whom they encounter in this proclamation of the Word. At the conclusion of the proclamation of the Gospel, they acknowledge that they are encountering Jesus as they say to him personally: “Laus tibi Christe!” (Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ).
Hence, Scripture, and the wider concept of the Word of God, authentically interpreted by the Church, is not merely a book or a set of ideas. It is an encounter with a living God, the Lord Jesus Christ. The Word of God is a person, Jesus Christ.
Perhaps a couple of quick stories to illustrate the difference between seeing Scripture merely as a text, and seeing it as an encounter with the Word made flesh, Jesus.
1. A rural Appalachian community was visited by a Shakespearean actor. They were amazed at his elegant but strange way of speaking. At one moment in his public recital he recited the 23rd Psalm. The words were elegant, pronounced in finest King James English with great drama and flair. At the end of his recitation a strange silence filled the room. Where applause would usually follow, an awkward silence ensued. Finally a poor farmer in the back of the room stood and apologized that no one knew to applaud and that they meant no offense but they just weren’t sure he was done. “See, out in these parts we say it a little different.” The poor farmer then began, “The Loerd is mah shayperd….” When he completed the psalm the room was filled with amens and “praise the Lord”s. The Shakespearean actor then told the poor farmer, “I was elegant, but your words had greater power. That is because I know only the technique, but you know the author.”
2. Some years ago I heard a Black AME Preacher address an ecumenical gathering at a revival. And he said to the gathered, “You know I heard some strange stuff in seminary! The professors said Jesus never really walked on water, that he didn’t really multiply loaves and fishes, he just got folks to be generous. They said, he didn’t really know he was God, or rise from the dead. He just lives on in our thoughts or something....Can you believe they taught me that in a Christian seminary?!” Through his description of these wretched “teachings” the moans and disapproval in the congregation of Protestants and Catholics were audible. He built his litany of faulty scholarship and you could hear folks saying, “Lord have mercy!” and “mah, mah, mah.” And then he stopped and mopped his brow, and looked at them and said, “I tell you what! The problem with them wasn’t that they read the wrong books, y’all. The problem with them was that they ain’t never met my Jesus!” Well the house came down and folks were on their feet for ten minutes praising God. The Choir too leapt to their feet and began the familiar chorus: “Can’t nobody do me like Jesus, he’s my Lord!”
Well, you get the point, when you’ve met Jesus Christ you just don’t doubt that he walked on the water, multiplied loaves, raised Lazarus, knew perfectly well that he was God and stepped out of the tomb on Easter morning.
The Word of God is not merely a text. It is a person, Jesus Christ, the Logos, the Word made flesh. And once you’ve met him his spoken (and later written word) begins to make greater and greater sense and there is just no doubt that this Word is true and powerful.
Let me let Pope Benedict conclude as we recall his words above: the Word finds expression not primarily in discourse, concepts or rules. Here we are set before the very person of Jesus….These words are no figure of speech; they point to a lived experience! Saint John, an eyewitness, tells us so: “ We have beheld his glory, the glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
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