A reflection on the readings for Sunday, January 23, 2022 — The Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sunday of the Word of God
In November, I received the best phone call a priest-uncle could hope for—“[Your niece] wants a Bible for her birthday, I don’t know what I’m doing, so could you take care of that?” An intelligent and thoughtful young Confirmation candidate, my niece was unwilling to wait until after being anointed with the Sacred Chrism to receive her religious gifts. She wanted to dive into scripture first, so she knew what she was getting herself into. Of course, priest-uncle Alex dove right in with relish. When I visited my sister’s house on Christmas Day after Masses, my niece and I sat down to show her the ropes as she got started with the Good Book. Now, she’s a 13-year-old straight-A student, so not all of my counsel was well-received; if she can take down Animal Farm and Life of Pi in a fraction of the time as her classmates, how hard can Leviticus be? The spurned advice was ok because I have to tell you, nothing in the world makes me happier than the possibility of helping another person (my own flesh and blood, no less!) fall in love with this incredible book.
I genuinely believe that accessible and high-quality resources that expose people to scripture are the key to reawakening the next generation’s love of their faith. One must look no further than the long run Fr. Mike Schmitz’s The Bible in a Year had as Apple’s most downloaded podcast (ahead of Joe Rogan even!) for evidence of the power to inspire that our holy texts still possess. Anecdotally Bible Studies are consistently the best-attended events at any parish, high school, prison, or university that I have served. Even as the credibility of priests, theologians, and lay ministers wanes in the eyes of the American public, Sacred Scripture continues to hold power even amongst the unchurched. I can cite no statistical analysis or in-depth study to prove this point, and of course, like anything, your mileage will vary, but this certainly seems to be the case.
It is because of my experience of scripture itself and its apparent resonance across generational lines that a relatively obscure papal document holds a special place in my heart as perhaps my favorite of Francis’s pontificate—the 2019 motu proprio Aperuit Illis. In this letter, Pope Francis named the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time the Sunday of the Word of God. He also refers to a low-key, super important moment in the story of Israel, Sunday’s first reading—the priest Ezra reading from the Torah to the people gathered outside of the newly rebuilt Temple. First of all, a little context. Israel has just returned from its long Exile in Babylon. After reconstruction and dedicating the Temple decades after its destruction, the priest Ezra gathers all men, women, and children old enough to understand to listen to God’s word together. This is a decisive moment decades in the making. Finally, the Jewish people could gather; finally, they had a Temple; finally, they could live their faith openly and adequately. It is telling here that Ezra concludes his hours-long reading by instructing the people not to weep:
“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.
He said further: “Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks,
and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared;
For today is holy to our LORD.
Do not be saddened this day,
for rejoicing in the LORD must be your strength!”
— Nehemiah 8: 9-10
They were crying! Can you imagine? So intense was the emotion of this moment, so deep was the devotion to scripture, that the gathered crowd was spontaneously brought to tears. Not just sniffling, mind you, but a noticeable enough response that their somber and stoic priest felt the need to remind them that this was a happy day.
However, this event was significant for reasons other than the emotions it stirred. Ezra’s reading of the Law was a pivotal event in Israel’s self-understanding and, by extension, our understanding of what it means to be a Church. At this moment, Israel begins to define itself as a holy congregation gathered around the Word of God. The Torah is more than simply a set of ancestral stories and legal guidelines; it is how God gathers his people. It is a uniting force. It was not a book meant to be read privately for the benefit of one but communally to aid in sanctifying an entire people. This is more than empty pie-in-the-sky idealism, too. The notion of Israel uniting around scripture reflects a critical element that distinguishes Israel from its former Babylonian overlords. It is possible that Ezra and Nehemiah took the idea of a communal recitation of the Torah from the Babylonian tradition of reading their creation myth, the Enuma Elish, aloud on the feast of their city god Marduk. The difference is that Babylonian mythology tells the tale of multiple warring deities locked in battle.
In contrast, the God of Israel is not simply the most vital voice in a cacophony of fighting divinities but the One True God. The recitation of God’s word should make his people one because God himself is One. This notion is captured perfectly in Aperuit Illis, as the recounting of the reading of the Torah in Nehemiah leads Pope Francis to remark that
“The Bible is the book of the Lord’s people, who, in listening to it, move from dispersion and division towards unity. The word of God unites believers and makes them one people.”
— Aperuit Illis, 4
Francis is undoubtedly referring to the ecumenical movement in part, as this Sunday invariably falls within the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Still, I imagine he is even more emphatically speaking of Unity within our own Catholic family. For too long division has been the norm, with each conflict and variant interpretation of scripture or tradition careening us towards de facto schism. Of course, this unity to which we are called is expanded upon and described in its Christian context by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, our second reading.
“As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.”
— 1 Corinthians 12:12-13
Paul identifies the centrality of unity in the Christian life. As members of the Body of Christ, unity allows the Church to properly function as Christ’s body on earth and adequately reflect the Oneness of the Triune God.
This Sunday is an opportunity to fall in love again with Sacred Scripture. To explore the depth of his love for his people by re-reading the most remarkable story ever told. To experience a new text so beautiful that the opportunity to hear it again caused the gathered crowd to weep tears of joy before Ezra, the priest. To allow it to form us into his Body at work in the world. I pray that as she prepares to receive the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of Confirmation, my niece finds as much joy in the incredible gift that is the Bible as I have and that our shared love of the Bible unites us with all of God’s children, gathered to hear his Word.
Fr. Alex Roche is the pastor of St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Laflin, Pennsylvania and serves as the director of vocations for the Diocese of Scranton. Ordained in 2012, he has a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University. He went to college with a girl who went to high school with the niece of the guy who played Al in Quantum Leap.
You can listen to his podcast at www.wadicherith.com.