Word of God Sunday: Causes for Celebration
COMMENTARY: One unambiguous success from the Second Vatican Council has been the deepening of devotion to sacred Scripture by Catholics in the pew.
There is a great deal of fretting about the Second Vatican Council — and there will be more this year as the 60th anniversary of its opening falls next October. Has it been properly implemented? What does proper implementation mean?
So it is comforting that one unambiguous post-conciliar success has been the deepening of devotion to sacred Scripture by Catholics in the pew. That’s something to celebrate this Sunday, designated by Pope Francis in 2019 to be “Sunday of the Word of God.” This designation of the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time recognizes the explosion of biblical study by the Catholic faithful in recent years, and encourages that expansion.
“Easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful,” Dei Verbum (22) teaches, the Vatican II constitution on divine revelation.
That has been achieved in spades, with the last year bringing some significant new initiatives. Indeed, 2021 was known for the success of the Ascension Press “Bible in a Year” podcast with Father Mike Schmitz and Jeff Cavins, which rocketed to the top of the most popular podcast lists.
The phenomenal reach of the podcast is yet another medium for the Great Adventure Bible Timeline, which Cavins developed decades ago to provide a “big picture” look at biblical revelation by focusing on 14 key “narrative” books.
Cavins was a pioneer in new media, recording cassette sets and audio CDs in the 1990s. Now the material is digital, but the original Great Adventure Bible itself, with its accompanying timeline and charts, is still a good starting point for Catholics looking to deepen their understanding of the Word of God.
While the Great Adventure timeline approach might be decades old, there are a plethora of new resources that merit attention on Sunday of the Word of God.
Before turning to the latest offerings, it would be good to note some major achievements in recent Catholic Scripture commentaries. Two are notable for scholars and preachers of a more intellectual bent: Sacra Pagina and the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture. Both sets cover the New Testament in 17 volumes, with the former appearing in the 1990s and the latter completed in recent years.
Making expert scholarship more accessible to non-specialists was the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible series, edited by Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch, issued in booklet form book by book. An elegant one volume New Testament was published in 2010, and the Old Testament books are still being released.
Word on Fire Bible
One of the most ambitious biblical publishing projects ever attempted is the Word on Fire Bible, with Bishop Robert Barron’s team producing what they call “a cathedral in print.” The sacred text is complemented by commentaries from Bishop Barron himself, a collection of apposite quotations from the tradition, and adorned with Christian sacred art. Volume I: The Gospels was released in 2020, and Volume II: Acts, Letters and Revelation is released this week. The Bible provides an intellectual and visual feast, analogous to the Catholicism DVD series of 10 years ago.
Consider the presentation of the First Letter of Peter. The theme highlighted is suffering for Christ. There is a stunning visual schematic of the tomb of St. Peter under the Vatican basilica, evocative of the best of National Geographic. There are quotations across the millennium, including saints — Benedict, Cyril of Alexandria, Ignatius and Paul VI — as well as Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Henri de Lubac and Flannery O’Connor. All in just a few pages, including two short essays by Bishop Barron.
The Word of Fire Bible recaptures — with greater depth and more advanced publishing technology — the sort of large family heirloom bibles that were common decades ago. For example, in 1953, Father Patrick Peyton published the “Family Rosary Edition,” which included plenty of sacred art, an extensive essay on extra-biblical sources on the life of Mary, and the full text of two encyclicals on scripture — Pope Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus (1893) and Pius XII’s Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943) 50 years later. Father Peyton had a rather elevated sense of what Catholic families might wish to read!
Father Peyton’s biblical project was not unlike Bishop Barron’s in its own time, including such additional material as art essays on the principal Roman basilicas and — oddly to our tastes today — formal portraits of all the North American cardinals.
The Augustine Bible — ESV
High-quality production is evident also in the Augustine Bible, released about two years ago. While the Word of Fire Bible uses the NSRV Catholic Edition text, the Augustine Bible uses the English Standard Version (ESV), which has an interesting history. The ESV is in the tradition of the King James and Douay translations, taking as its starting point the 1971 Revised Standard Version (RSV), which is the Vatican’s preferred English translation. Published in 2001 as Protestant initiative, a Catholic Edition was approved in 2018 by the Catholic Bishops Conference of India.
It’s a handsome Bible with a literal and literary translation. It does not include significant supplementary material, but will serve well as Bible for reflection and study. It is noteworthy that this initiative has its roots in India, indicating an important contribution of younger local Church to the English-speaking Catholic world.
Most American Catholics will hear the New American Bible (NAB) translation at Mass, as it is the approved translation of the U.S. Bishops. This past year brought two new commentaries on those Sunday readings.
One of the best is from John Bergsma, one of Scott Hahn’s principal collaborators at the St. Paul Institute for Biblical Theology, The Word of the Lord: Reflections on the Sunday Mass Readings. The volume for the current “Year C” was released last year. Volumes for Year B and for special feasts have also been released; Year A will follow this year.
Bergsma is one of my favorite biblical commentators; he immerses himself in the world of sometimes tedious scholarship — so his readers don’t have to. We get the benefit without the work. Consider this passage from last Sunday’s reading about Cana:
“We have found many stone vessels at Qumran, the site of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but mostly small ones, nothing on the scale of these very large jars,” writes Bergsma, an authority on the scrolls. “The household that was hosting this wedding was both wealthy and devout — wealthy to be able to afford such large stone jars, and devout inasmuch as they spent the money necessary to make ritual cleanliness possible in the household.”
This was not a foolish young couple, but a family of means who took its piety and religious duties seriously. The point is clear — even the best and honorable efforts of the rich are not sufficient for our salvation.
Bergsma’s commentary, with sections for each of the four biblical readings at Mass, will provide preachers with several homily options for each Sunday — actually for a lifetime of Sunday preaching.
Word of Fire, meanwhile, has brought out a mammoth Sunday commentary from Peter Kreeft, Food for the Soul: Reflection on the Mass Readings Cycle C. Kreeft, who published two other books last year, has devoted his prodigious mind and prolific pen to extended commentaries on each of the Sunday readings. Volumes for cycles A and B are forthcoming.
Kreeft has long made the Catholic tradition of perennial philosophy accessible to the intelligent non-specialist. He does the same here for Scripture, but the sheer quantity of material may prove intimidating for the typical parish priest — whom Kreeft takes as his audience, including both the indolent looking only to imitate, and the industrious looking to improve.
“Your homily should be heart to heart,” writes Kreeft, while providing food for the soul — and the mind. “That does not decrease the importance of the mind and intelligence but increases it. The mind the heart’s closest counsellor.”
Nevertheless, not every paragraph needs be read, but there is profit on every page. Consider his comment on Ezra, the first reading for this Sunday:
“Few people could read or write anywhere in the world at this time, so their auditory memories were far better than ours,” Kreeft writes. “Ezra was called a ‘scribe’ – that is, someone who could read and write. It was a rare and special vocation. Books, in the form of scrolls, were extremely rare and extremely expensive. There were no private libraries. No one read privately and silently; books for them were like sheet music for us: directions for live, public performance of the music. This event was like hearing a symphony orchestra for the time in your life.”
It is likely that Kreeft’s readers will come to hear many things for the first time in their lives.
St. John’s Prologue
The lectionary cycle of three years’ worth of biblical readings is a fruit of the post-conciliar liturgical reform and by wide consensus one of its more successful aspects. Yet something was lost in the reform, namely the prominence given to the prologue of St. John’s Gospel (1-18), which had been read at the conclusion of every Mass — the so-called “Last Gospel.” Any liturgical comment on the Scriptures would be incomplete without it, even though it now rarely appears in the lectionary.
Anthony Esolen has a recent book on just the prologue, suitably enough entitled, In the Beginning Was the Word: An Annotated Reading of the Prologue of John (Angelico Press). Esolen is a gifted scholar of literature and history, and is likely most widely known now for his monthly essays in Magnificat.
Aside from his comments on the theological meaning of the “most influential paragraph in the history of man,” Esolen introduces his readers to John’s poetry, and as a poet writing in foreign language, Greek.
“The lethally drab New American Bible, the one I and my fellow Roman Catholics in the United States must hear at Mass, seem to have made all poetry and sublimity their enemies,” writes Esolen, who has a polemical side.
He notes that poetry and proclamation are the proper categories in which to read John’s prologue, as it was composed “seventeen years before journalism would be invented, eighteen hundred before the realistic novel.” Reading John, or the Scriptures generally, as a news report is to miss the point. Esolen does not miss the point, and makes the magnificent prologue — one of the greatest literary works of all time — come alive anew.
It is noteworthy that these recent offerings come largely from lay authors — Hahn, Bergsma, Kreeft, Esolen — who are teaching their priests, making them better preachers. That’s another cause for celebration for this Sunday of the Word of God.