This article first appeared at: stpaulcenter.com
You’re in church, and you’ve just heard a reading from the Old Testament and a reading from one of the letters in the New Testament. They must be very important, because there’s a special place for reading them at the front of the church, and there’s a special list of which readings go with which days.
But now it’s time for the Gospel, and everything is amped up a notch. The congregation stands. The church fills with alleluias. A procession forms, with the huge and ornate Gospel book at the front, flanked by candles, coming right into the center of the congregation. And there, in the middle of the people, the priest—not a lay reader—reads the Gospel for the day.
Obviously, this is something tremendously important to the Church. We don’t surround something with ceremony unless it means a lot to us. Going to the drug store is something we’re willing to do in jeans and a T-shirt. Getting married is something we plan for months. You can tell what we consider important by the ceremonies we surround it with.
We can tell that Scripture is important in the Church because it’s surrounded with ceremonies. And we can tell that the Gospel has a special importance because the ceremonies are especially impressive. When the Gospel is read, the candles are lighted.
It’s easy to forget that importance today because Bibles are everywhere. You can walk into a dollar store and get a Bible for a dollar. It will be a Protestant Bible, missing a few books and printed in tiny type, but it’s there. If you want to have a Bible, nothing prevents you from owning one and reading it whenever you like. Even if you don’t have the book itself, the whole text is online on a thousand different sites. If you can’t read, there are plenty of audio versions of the Bible. You can have as much Scripture as you like, any time you want it. This is one of the wonders of modern civilization.
But sometimes it makes us forget the meaning of “Scripture.”
Picture a world where everything is proclamation. For the rich and privileged, there are books, but for most people, information comes from what they hear. In a world like that, what’s the place of Scripture?
There are many books, of course. There are the great works of pagan literature, like Homer’s epics or Sappho’s lyrics. There are the works of philosophy, like Plato’s dialogues or Aristotle’s treatises. There are works of good Christian writers, like St. Hippolytus of Rome or St. Ignatius of Antioch.
None of those things are Scripture. That doesn’t mean some of them aren’t good. St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote very inspiring letters, and any Christian can profit by reading them—or by hearing them read.
But when Christians meet and hear the Word of God, there are only certain books that can be proclaimed in the liturgy. That’s what the canon of Scripture is: it’s the list of books that can be proclaimed in the liturgy. That’s what makes the books of Scripture different from any other books. And that’s why we show them such respect. These are the books that can be read to the people with authority. They tell us the truth that God wanted us to hear. Then, after the Liturgy of the Word, we go on to the Liturgy of the Eucharist—the covenantal rite that makes the Scriptures holy.
This is what Christians have always meant by “Scripture.”
How the Fathers Read the Bible: Scripture, Liturgy, and the Early Church
– Mike Aquilina – Emmaus Road (Paperback)
“You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me.”—John 5:39
It takes some real imagination to go back fifteen or twenty centuries to an age when ordinary people didn’t have Bibles. But if we don’t put in that work, we’ll misunderstand the early Christians completely.
The early Christians didn’t live in our world, and their encounters with Scripture happened in one main context: the liturgy. That was where they heard Scripture. And just as important, that was where they heard Scripture interpreted.
In How the Fathers Read the Bible: Scripture, Liturgy, and the Early Church, Mike Aquilina takes readers back to the first centuries of Church life to show how the liturgy became the home of—and the interpretative lens for—Scripture. Aquilina shows how, both then and now, Scripture is only understood through the life of the Church—and in particular, through the liturgy.