17 September 2012

Power of the Word




"Say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes; and to another, 'Come,' and he comes; and to my slave, 'Do this,' and he does it."
When Jesus heard this he marveled at him, and turned and said to the multitude that followed him, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith."
Luke 7:7-9, from the Gospel for Monday of the 24th Week of the Year


In which the pilgrim meditates on today's readings and the power of the word of Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh.



The Prophets of the Old Testament can seem a pretty funny lot. Ezekiel built a little toy Jerusalem city and laid siege to it, with toy siege works, army camps and battering rams (Ez 4:1-2). Later while the city is in a relative time of peace and prosperity, he packs up all his belongings, clads himself as if for mourning, and then starts digging a hole under the wall of Jerusalem, prophesying exile. A little less whimsical, but no lesser in oddness, Hosea married a prostitute to demonstrate the infidelity of Israel and named their three children after a disastrous battle of bloodshed, "Jezreel", then "Not-Pitied" and "Not My People" all to indicate how God felt at the time (Hos 1). And my favorite Fool for God, poor Isaiah, was commanded to wander around Jerusalem naked for three years in order to demonstrate that Israel would become captives, stripped of their belongings and dignity, forced into exile (Is 20:2-4).

Theotokos surrounded by the Prophets
If we can divorce for the briefest of moments, the grave dignity of the Eucharist, Christ's words at the Last Supper seem a little silly themselves. He declares a piece of bread to be His Body and a chalice of wine to be not only His blood, but blood of a new covenant. To Gentile ears, divorced from faith, that's a little loony, and if we'd heard of it from anyone else we'd be circling a finger around our ear. To Jewish ears, that wasn't just odd, that was blasphemous (suddenly sucking the humor out of it ...). But it's important to note Christ taking everyday objects and using them as symbolic gestures of prophecy. This identifies Jesus in the office of prophet, just as other symbolic actions reveal him as king (riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, for example), and others still as high priest (CCC 436).

But the major point here is that Jesus' words and actions are symbols, but it doesn't stop there. By faith we know that Jesus' words effect what they say. When he, and the priest at the altar in persona Christi, speak the words of consecration over the bread and wine, they in truth become the body, blood, soul and divinity of our Lord. When Jesus says to sinners "Your sins are forgiven," it happens (Lk 7:47-49). The Pharisees freak out about it, because this is a power reserved for God alone. Jesus is speaking words of power as if he were in fact the voice of God. The Centurion in today's Gospel reading recognizes this. From the analogy of the power of his words over men, the Centurion confesses to Jesus the power of Christ's words over all Creation.

Jesuit Father John L. McKenzie in his book Power and the Wisdom points out how significant this is: "[Jesus' power] was the power which in the Old Testament is attributed to the word of God and to the word of the prophet, the power to effect that which it signifies." (emphasis mine) The prologue of St John's Gospel, "In the beginning was the Logos/Word" (λόγος) is often cited as bringing a Greek philosophical concept, the Logos, to bear upon the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, but far more important is that he is identified as the Word of God, a very Hebrew concept, for from the very genesis of creation, God spoke and it came into being.

When Saint Paul, then, writes that Jesus transforms the church by "cleansing her with the washing of water by the word" (Eph 5:26) he's not being poetic about learning Scripture and applying it to our lives. That's why he's so upset at the Corinthians in his letter; that they are eating separate and unequal meals is totally contrary to the word they have received and heard from Paul, which he in turn heard and received from the Lord: the institution of the Eucharist. These words were spoken once by Christ—when they're repeated and received prayerfully, it's not a new set of words, it's still Jesus talking to us, no matter what the language, the time or place they're spoken. "The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life" (Jn 6:63) The Corinthians have heard it, but they don't hear Christ, they have not been made new by this part of the Gospel, just as we should be made new by the word. When we hear the words of scripture, because they are the words of Christ, the same words he originally spoke, which are always words of creation, we are quite literally transformed. We are new creations of Christ every time we encounter the Word.

That is why it is so crucial to spend time in prayer with Scripture. Not to just learn something, but by the very act of praying the scripture in sacred reading (lectio divina) allowing ourselves to be transformed by God through his holy writ. This happens in every encounter with the word, for God promises "as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout ... so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I intends and prosper in the thing for which I sent it." (Is 55:10-11) Keep in mind, most days it is not going to feel like you are being transformed, but God promises us that it does, and that's why we must commit time to the prayerful reading of scripture every day.

However, this new creation by the Word of God is most important at the Mass and not just just during the readings, but woven into the words of the rites of the Mass and all the sacraments (PDF - USCCB Annotated Mass). Because the Words of the Mass become so familiar to us, we can easily tune them out and think we're still present, but this blocks the full effective power of the Word upon us. The flip-side of the familiarity is that we don't have to think about what's new at the Mass, we can focus on every sanctifying word and thus pray it fully; we know what's being said, so we can imbue it with every ounce of meaning we can will into it. That's the point when we truly start to Pray the Mass. So with the Corinthians, the Centurion and the Psalmist, let us truly accept ears open to the Word of God—in the Mass, in his Scripture, and in prayer—so that to do His will becomes our delight with the Law inscribed upon our hearts. Amen.

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