The Catholic Liturgy for Word of God Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. Gospel of Matthew 4:12-23. Theme: Ignorance of Scripture is Ignorance of Christ
This Sunday, for the first time ever in the 2,000-year history of the Catholic Church, we are observing a brand-new liturgical celebration, Word of God Sunday. Pope Francis intentionally announced this last Sept. 30, which is the feast-day of St. Jerome who lived in the 4th century AD. St. Jerome was very important to Christianity because he was an extraordinary Scripture scholar. But he wasn’t always such a devoted fan of the Bible. He was at first, to be kind to his memory, only a half-hearted Christian.
When he was an academically-gifted but hedonistically-promiscuous college student in Rome, Jerome contracted a life-threatening disease. Up to this point in his life his practice of Catholicism was done mostly out of a sense of guilt after nights of partying. But during his sickness he had a dream in which he found himself before the judgment seat of Christ. Trying to put his best foot forward, Jerome confidently declared to Jesus that he was baptized and so should be let into Heaven. Our Lord replied to Jerome that he ought to think twice about that statement. He informed him that simply going through outward religious rituals without them affecting one’s life is of little to no value when it comes to where he would spend eternity!
Jesus’ words shook Jerome out of his spiritual apathy and he experienced a Holy Spirit “aha!” moment. He saw that he was not an authentic Christian because he didn’t know Christ. And he didn’t know Christ because he didn’t know the Scriptures! From that point on, Jerome embraced his faith wholeheartedly and made the decision to devote the rest of his life to the study of the Word of God. The most famous quote we have from St. Jerome comes from this experience and it goes like this: “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ”.
Pope Francis has instituted Word of God Sunday precisely to help us to avoid – or get out of - of that kind of ignorance. He wants us to realize the place that the Bible must have in the life of every Catholic Christian. He is hoping that, like St. Jerome, we will come to really encounter Christ up close and personal through Scripture. But for this to happen, we have to approach the Sacred Scriptures very differently than we do any other writings. We need to accept them as they truly are: the Word of God and not simply the words of human beings.
Sure, we can find other writings that are more beautifully composed or even more personally inspirational to us than some books of the Bible. But their advice and lessons rest upon fallible human experience and limited knowledge. The power of the Scriptures, on the other hand, is not in their literary composition or beautiful imagery. The power of the Bible is in the Holy Spirit who interacts with us through the Word of God!
The uniqueness of the Bible is that it originates in mind of God, so to speak. He inspired the various authors of the Scriptures to write down only those things that he wanted to share with us concerning himself, concerning our lives as human beings and how we should live in this world in order to be with him forever in the next. Unlike ordinary human writings, God’s Word has the power to touch the heart, to heal the soul, to enlighten the mind and to strengthen the will to do good and avoid evil.
But it seems to me that if a person is going to accept all this as true about the Bible, then there remains one vital question that must be asked and answered: how can we know that the Scriptures are truly the inspired Word of God? We can’t simply say that the Bible says it’s so! That’s just a circular argument. There is quite honestly only one sure reply and it is the reality of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. In other words, the physical historical Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead proves his Divinity because no one who is just a human being can die and then rise up from the grave on his own power.
You see, the Resurrection shows us that Jesus was not just a man, but that he was also fully God. And God does not fool or deceive us. So, the reality of the Resurrection confirms for us the reality of the Sacred Scriptures. As St. Paul teaches in his letters: if the Resurrection is not true then everything we have been taught and believe is not true, and that includes the Scriptures as the inspired Word of God. In other words, the degree to which we accept the Bible as the inspired Word of God is equal to the degree in which we accept and believe that Jesus is truly risen from the dead as Son of God and Savior.
With this in mind it seems to me that one of the best things Word of God Sunday can do for us is to send each one of us to the Bible so that we can come to this conviction about the reality of the Resurrection for ourselves. We need to find a quiet place where we will not be disturbed for a short time. Then take up the New Testament and turn to one of the four Gospels. The eye-witness accounts of the Resurrection can be found towards the end of each of them. Read thoughtfully. Think about it carefully. Pray sincerely from the heart. Ask the Holy Spirit who dwells within you to enlighten your mind.
I am totally confident that the person who perseveres in doing this will come to see that the Word of God is a shining light that disperses spiritual darkness and gloom from our lives, as Isaiah prophesied in today’s first reading. And I believe that the person who sincerely commits to this prayer-time will come to experience Jesus up close and personal and will be strengthened to respond to Jesus’ call in today’s gospel to repent. “Repent” means to change direction in one’s life; to turn around and take up a new way of thinking, a new way of acting, a new way of living. It is a renewed life that is fueled by the Word of God which enlightens us and leads us to the Kingdom of Heaven.