Immersed in Christ: January 31, 2021
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time in Year B
God Speaks to Us
If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts. (Responsorial: Psalm 95)
Do you ever ask for an interview with God? Do you think he would grant it?
In the Entrance Antiphon we ask God to “gather us together” from all different cultures (“nations”). This says three things; 1. We see a value in “assembling” with others. (The word “church” means “assembly”). 2. We not only accept; we desire to mix with people of other nations and cultures. This follows from what we ask for in the Opening Prayer: “to love all people as you love them.” 3. We gather as unified by something distinctive that we have in common, something different from any particular culture. It is the truth we all see by faith, the way of looking at ourselves, the world and God that has been revealed to us by Jesus Christ.
What do we gather to do? To “proclaim your holy name and glory in praising you.” We in particular need to praise and thank God, because through faith in his revealed word we have received the gift of knowing God as he truly is, in a way beyond all human power to know him. Jesus said, “No one knows… the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” To know God the Father as one’s own Father, you have to be God the Son, the “only,” the unique Son of the Father. But this has been granted to us because we are “sons and daughters in the Son.” We know the Father as Jesus does, because we share in his divine life and his own unique, personal divine act of knowing the Father. “Because we are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” This is our experience of being through grace. It is perhaps the deepest experience we have. We need to be aware of it. 1
That is one of the reasons we assemble for Mass. To become aware and keep ourselves aware of who we are, of what we are privileged to know; and of the ensuing possibility of praising God uniquely that makes it our duty to do so. It follows that we need to praise and serve the Father with the perfection of the Son. The Prayer leaves no doubt about what that means: “May we serve you with our every desire and show love for one another as you have loved us.” This is the greatest praise we can give to God.
“You Speak to Us”
This sounds strange to us until we realize that we do exactly the same thing! How many of us prefer to let a priest or teacher tell us what the Bible says instead of reading it for ourselves?
We justify this by the fear of “private interpretation” instilled into us for centuries after the Protestant Reformation, when the hierarchy’s distrust of an uneducated laity made them discourage Scripture reading. But all that has changed. At Vatican II the bishops were emphatic about it:
For in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets his children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it remains the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons and daughters, the food of the soul, the pure and perennial source of spiritual life.
The Church “earnestly and specifically” urges “all the Christian faithful” to learn by frequent reading of the Sacred Scriptures the “excelling knowledge of Jesus Christ.” “For ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” 3
We have the assurance of Scripture that God speaks to each of us:
O God, from my youth you have taught me,
It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’
Now concerning love… you do not need anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love.4
The problem is not that God does not speak to us, but that we are unwilling to read his words to hear what he is saying.
A New Teaching
Mark 1:21-28 tells us that Jesus teaches “with authority, not as the scribes.”
We know that, like Jesus, the Church teaches “with authority. But what we are not always aware of is that the position taken by any individual in the Church, including bishops and the Pope, is not necessarily the teaching of the Church.
The technical word for the official teaching authority in the Church is the “magisterium.” This includes the bishops and all who teach in their name and as united with them, including theology professors, religion teachers and preachers in the pulpit. But the Church is careful to distinguish between the extraordinary use of this authority in “infallible” clarifications of doctrine, and the “ordinary magisterium” of official teachers who are doing the best they can to apply Church teaching to the problems of the day and to express it in words their particular listeners can understand. They might be addressing second-graders, college professors, or the general public, which differs from country to country and from diocese to diocese. The magisterial teaching of a bishop in a pluralistic or predominately non-Christian diocese might be much more carefully nuanced, for example, than that of a bishop who has only cradle Catholics in mind. Or is fixated on some single issue of local politics.
Even more important are the prejudices and limitations of every human teacher in a particular time and place. Bishops have supported the burning of heretics by the Inquisition, slavery, racial segregation, and some moral standards we find appalling today. It was commonly taught in the period before Vatican II that to miss Mass on one single Sunday was “grave matter” and “mortal sin.” You could “go the Hell for a hamburger” if you ate one on a Friday. This was the unquestioned teaching of the “ordinary magisterium.”
Recognizing the difference between perennial Church doctrine and current interpretations, the Second Vatican Council urged clergy and laity alike to exercise constant vigilance over what is being taught by words and customs:
This Synod urges all concerned to work hard to prevent or correct any abuses, excesses or defects which may have crept in here or there, and to restore all things to a more ample praise of Christ and of God. 5
The first test is conformity to Scripture. It simply is not safe to live only by second-hand knowledge of the word of God. Everyone needs to learn from Jesus himself, who taught “with authority, and not as the scribes.”
“I want you to be free”
Most people just won’t “take the time” to read or reflect over Scripture. In 1Corinthians 7:32-35 Paul says, essentially, that this is idolatry.
The married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided… The married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband.
Paul might be a little idealistic when he says that, by comparison, “the unmarried… are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit.” Would that were always so! But his point is that to be “divided,” whether between pleasing a spouse or a boss, or to be “anxious” about any “affairs of the world,” is to have other “gods”—other values, preoccupations and priorities—alongside of God. This is idolatry:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
The essence of the lay vocation is to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world; that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations... in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. 6
But the authenticity of the lay vocation depends on being able to do this with an undivided heart, focused as single-mindedly on God and the things of God as the most contemplative monk or nun cloistered in a monastery. This means, among other things, that the laity have to take time to read and reflect on the word of God. Otherwise they will have nothing to take into the marketplace except what they are marketing.
Why is every literate Christian obligated to read the word of God?
Decide when, where and how long you will read from Scripture each day.
1 Matthew 11:27; Galatians 4:6. 2 Exodus 20:19. 3 On Divine Revelation, nos. 21, 25, quoting Philippians 3-8 and St. Jerome. 4 Psalms 71:17; John 6:45; 1Thessalonians, 4:9. 5 The Church, no. 51. 6 Vatican II, The Church, chapter four.