21 Nov 2010
“That in receiving the Word of God from hearing us, you received not a human word, but as it truly is, the Word of God, which is now at work in you who believe.” (1 Thess. 2:13) (+)
The year of our Second General Synod was 1909. The first parish in Scranton was only a little more than a decade old. The church as a formal denomination was only five years old. During the Synod, Bp. Hodur observed only his second anniversary of consecration as a bishop. Seven formal resolutions emerged from the 1909 Synod. The fifth resolution urged each member of the church to subscribe to the church newspaper. The annual cost in 1909 being $1.20, and if parishioners couldn’t afford that in one lump payment, they could pay 30¢ in quarterly installments. And the seventh and last resolution after such pressing matters as the $1.20 subscription price stated rather matter-of-factly: “Hearing the Word of God, preached according to the teachings of Christ the Lord and the apostles, has sacramental force, that is, it causes in us the same effects as does receiving the other sacraments.” This young church of ours, in the seventh of seven resolutions, had just changed well over a thousand years of Catholic tradition. It had named a new sacrament: The Word of God Heard and Preached, the sacrament we today honour with the celebration of this feast day Mass.
The sacraments have emerged in the life of the church. Sacraments such as Penance and the Holy Eucharist are directly linked to the historical Jesus, but were named sacraments as the church looked back at the life of Jesus. Others like Baptism, Confirmation and Anointing of the sick can be traced back to the biblical tradition, but again became formal sacraments only in the life of the church. Still others such as Ordination and Marriage come about even later in the life of the church, but were still inspired by the Holy Spirit who guides us. Sacraments give visible expression to the unseen mystery of Christ’s presence and power among us even now. This is why they came about after the time of the historical Jesus. They are the mystical presence of Jesus once the historical presence comes to an end. And a sacrament whose credentials reach right back to the historical Jesus, whose authenticity is as clearly linked with His ministry as the forgiveness of sins and the sharing of Holy Communion, is the Word of God Heard and Preached.
Think to yourself about the ministry of Christ. What are some of the images that come to mind? I’d have to wager that among all of the pictures we drew of Jesus before our mind’s eye, one of them had to be Jesus speaking to His contemporaries. So much of the Gospel-story is Jesus as teacher. Even today’s Gospel selection about the parable of the sower sounds so familiar because these kinds of stories are how we tend to hear the voice of Jesus. And to share His Word is a command the risen Jesus gives to the church. “‘Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole of creation.’” (Mk 16:15) This is why our church sees the Sacrament of the Word of God in the liturgical reading and explanation of the Bible. It is the real presence of God speaking to us still. It is the embodiment of God’s revelation. It is sacrament.
To signify the reverence we have for the Word of God, today’s liturgy called for us to proclaim the Gospel from amid the congregation, just as Jesus proclaimed His words from among the crowds of people. The Bible today is much more ornate than the one we usually use on Sundays, and this is to help us see the exceptional richness of the sacrament. The candles on either side of the Bible, as always in the church, represented the light of Christ, and the offering of incense symbolized the cloud of presence telling us that God is among us. But just as it is not sufficient to keep the Holy Eucharist locked away behind an ornate tabernacle door, that the Eucharist is meant to be shared and to bring us and God into Holy Communion, so with the Word of God it is not enough to just honour its presence in a gold-edged Bible. The Word of God, as St. Paul proclaims to us in today’s Lesson, “is now at work in you who believe.” To reverence the Word is not only in ceremony, but when we use it!
This is the aspect of the sacrament that led to its birth within our democratic Catholic church. We honour the voice of God that speaks to us through the Bible, and we also respect the voice of God that speaks to us through our collective authority as the body of the church. “The Word of God is alive and active,” as we read from the first words of today’s Mass. The Word reaches out to us during the Mass and we see in this the power of God to both inspire and inform us all as leaders of the church. Our church democracy is only possible when we take the Word of God off its gold-gilded pages and let it speak to us, to all of us, when we let it shape our decisions as church, when we let it work in us who believe. The authenticity of our church democracy is based on the Word of God, and this is why the sacrament was born in and of our denomination. This is why, as I quoted in November’s newsletter, right from the start of our church in 1897, and right on the pages of our original Constitution, we read: “To search for this truth through the free reading and study of the Holy Scriptures with the aid of learning, which the human spirit acquired in the course of centuries-long efforts – this is our commandment!”
As church, we are not expected to only listen politely and follow obediently. We are expected to hear, respond, act and evaluate. We are to question, challenge and eventually thus embrace the truth. A teaching that can only be maintained by resorting to authority may not be worthy of teaching any longer. The Word of God gives us the ability to explain and defend what we say and do as church, and if it can’t be, then the Word of God is our vehicle to change the church. This is our commandment. Let us cherish this great gift that is the Sacrament of the Word of God, not only with ceremony, but also by letting it inspire our church democracy, and by letting it work in us who believe throughout “the whole of creation.” For this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo