A Happily Harmonized Hahn

Letter and Spirit

by Scott Hahn

Doubleday, 2005

256 pages, $21.95

Available in bookstores

The two trails of Scott Hahn merge at last. As the author points out in his introduction, readers who are familiar with his popular Catholic apologetics for general audiences will be surprised by the academic weight of this book, and scholars who have studied his treatises in academic journals will notice a lighter tone despite the many footnotes.

As Hahn explains, Letter and Spirit: From Written Text to Living Word in the Liturgy of the Church is “the first book I have written for both audiences. I wrote it for those whose interest has been piqued by my popular books and are ready to go deeper in their study. But I wrote it especially for my colleagues and my students, with whom I have been exploring, for almost three decades, the relationship between Scripture and liturgy.”

Gone are the pun-filled chapter titles that pepper his popular works. And he carries from his academic world technical terms such as economy (from the Greek oikonomia, referring to God’s plan for salvation), typology and mystagogy. Hahn pulls together his two authorial voices well, marshaling the sheer enthusiasm he always displays for the intellectual treasures of the Catholic faith. He also draws upon his experience as a professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he has brought the faith alive for the convinced and the skeptical alike. As Hahn admits, his students “have challenged me, through almost 25 years of teaching, to say what I mean with ever-increasing clarity.” The reader is a beneficiary of that process.

At first glance, Letter and Spirit appears unpromising, combining as it does two topics that are rarely linked in the popular mind: Scripture and liturgy. After all, Scripture is the Bible, a book that relatively few Catholics consult regularly. Liturgy is the Mass, which Catholics must attend each Sunday, willingly or not. Where’s the connection — or the interest for the reader?

Like a good teacher, Hahn uses familiar things to draw the reader to a new perspective. As everyone knows, the readings Catholics hear at Mass are from the Bible. Yet many people in the pews (and even some priests) fail to realize that the Mass is the preferred and privileged place to hear the Word of God proclaimed and explained. The readings are not simply a “warm-up” for the “important” part of the Mass, the consecration and reception of Communion. There are not two separate movements at Mass, one in which we hear and learn, the other in which we act and receive.

Hahn argues that the most significant Second Vatican Council document has received little attention in the heated ecclesial controversies of the last 40 years: Dei Verbum, the constitution on sacred Scripture. The document led to the publication of another revolutionary book, the 1970 lectionary, which sets out the order of readings at Mass from week to week. Before the new lectionary, the Church used a one-year cycle of Biblical readings, with basically the same passage turning up at the same time each year in the Church’s calendar. The 1970 lectionary established the current three-year cycle of readings, in which significant portions of every book in the Old and New Testaments are read in a triennial period.

When other Christians claim that Catholics don’t read the Bible, Hahn points out, Catholics can rightfully turn to the lectionary to prove that they do indeed read a majority of the Bible. And, as Hahn shows repeatedly here, when they hear and learn about Scripture at Mass, they are encountering the Word of God in a context that Christians have privileged since Jesus stood up in the synagogue and read from the prophet Isaiah.

Catholics will not only learn important faith lessons from this book, but they will also realize how much they already know simply by going to Mass each week.

Maria Caulfield writes from

Wallingford, Connecticut.

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