December 5, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — Each Advent season, the Church begins a new liturgical year. The traditional Roman rite enables one to feel this decisive moment more forcefully because of its ancient one-year cycle of readings — for, unlike the two- and three-year cycles of readings in the Novus Ordo, designed by and for Scripture scholars, the Vetus Ordo uses the same readings each year, and repeats them often, in order to plant more deeply and memorably in the heart certain carefully chosen central passages of the Word of God.
Yet it has never been the intention of the Church or the advice of the saints that Catholics should come into contact with the Bible only during the liturgy, even if this is the privileged moment of its proclamation. Indeed, part of the problem with the new lectionary is that it seems to have been built on the assumption that lay Catholics would never encounter Scripture anywhere else except at Mass, so as much as possible had to be crammed into Mass. (Regrettably, some important passages that used to be in the Mass got removed, but that’s another story.)
In reality, the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours — especially in Matins or the Office of Readings — has always been the Church’s way to read through the books of Sacred Scripture, and Vatican II encouraged the laity to take up this practice. The Church has also encouraged lectio divina, the prayerful study of God’s word.
In 1965, a French Dominican, Fr. T.G. Chifflot, published a lovely book called Water in the Wilderness: Understanding the Bible. In it, he offers six points of orientation, six important truths about Scripture, that offer us encouragement in making a concrete plan for reading Scripture as part of our daily Christian regimen, and give us sound principles always to bear in mind as we approach this unique book.
1. The Bible is a sacred history.
It is not metaphysics; it is a history, the history of a people. But as its protagonist is the Eternal One, it is necessarily unlike any secular history. It is the history of a “love affair” between the Infinite and the Finite. And so it evokes all the grandeur and beauty of God and all the misery, horror, desperation, and darkness of fallen man.
2. The Bible is a promise.
The People of God has a history, and it is a forward-moving history, a journey toward a goal, a promised land. It is a book of hope that springs from past deliverance and longs for future fulfillment. There is thus always a tension in the text; it is not “merely” about the past, nor is it simply “news” about the present or “predictions” of the future. It is about all time in its purposeful movement — the past and the future breaking into the present, the present stretching toward eternity.
3. The Bible is the book of Christ.
The written word of God is about the personal Word of God, Jesus Christ, Son of the Father, who breaks into history as the Messiah or Anointed One. Saint Jerome famously says: “To be ignorant of Scripture is to be ignorant of Christ.” Pope Leo XIII adds: “In its pages His Image stands out, living and breathing; diffusing everywhere around consolation in trouble, encouragement to virtue and attraction to the love of God.” Blaise Pascal likewise speaks of “Jesus Christ, whom both Testaments concern: as the expectation of the Old, as the model of the New, and as the center of both.” As Saint Augustine says, the Old Testament is the New Testament hidden under a veil, while the New is the Old now made manifest. This being so, the Old Testament is thoroughly Christian, because it tells of the preparation of the chosen people for their Messiah, their unconquerable Davidic ruler. Since Christianity is the fulfillment of the Jewish religion, all that belonged to the Jews now belongs by right to us, including the Hebrew Scriptures (see Dei Verbum 14–16).
4. The Bible is the book of the Church.
The Church opens the Bible for us:
There exists a close connection and communication between Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while Sacred Tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity . . . Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. … [T]he task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office [Magisterium] of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. (Dei Verbum 9–10)
History has borne abundant witness to this last claim: wherever the authority of the Catholic Church has been assailed or rejected, the authority of Scripture has grown progressively weaker, in some instances disappearing altogether. Conversely, wherever Scripture is accepted as divine truth, there is an awareness, bright or dim, of some supernatural reality called “the Church,” and a desire to belong to it, as if implicitly recognizing that a book by itself doesn’t make a religion. John Henry Newman made a similar observation in regard to Marian devotion, saying in his Letter to Pusey that, as a matter of historical fact, wherever the cultus of the Virgin Mary was abandoned, sooner or later faith in the very divinity of Christ was abandoned. Because of the ineffable mystery of the Incarnation, Mother and Son can never be parted, no more than Father and Son.
5. The Bible is a mirror.
It holds up to us a mirror that reveals who we are, where we have come from, what we are destined for. It is a sword that penetrates the secret places of the heart: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12).
6. The Bible is the book of prayer.
The Bible is full of prayer; it is about men of prayer and their faithful worship, as well as men who are unfaithful and idolatrous. It shows us the pattern of life and the false paths of death. It gives us the words of so much of our liturgy. The Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours consists chiefly of psalms, canticles, and short readings; the traditional Roman Missal is shot through with scriptural verses from Introit to the Last Gospel. Unlike the new Lectionary, a repository of artificially segmented texts, and unlike the new Missal, a stripped and shivering product of rationalism, the great Missale Romanum is a living testament of Tradition, saturated with Divine Revelation, resonant, fragrant, irreducibly complex, united to the Word of God as bone of its bone and flesh of its flesh.
Traditional Catholics have no need to feel “left out” of the movement to “recover” the Bible, for our Faith was already there, and it goes deeper than the moderns. Generations upon generations have been nourished and informed by the Word of God expressed with vibrant diversity and density in the liturgy itself, in architecture and the other plastic arts, in sacred music and religious hymns, in Catholic culture and its customs. Wherever the traditional Faith has been strong, the Bible has received the devotion its holy content deserves, the veneration its saving message demands.
Advent is the special season when we recall the historical coming of the Word made flesh and prepare to receive Him anew in our hearts at Christmas. It is therefore very appropriately a time to start up or to intensify one’s lectio divina, which has always been part of traditional Catholic spirituality. Let us do our part to live a fully Catholic life — not the truncated version that modernity sought to produce, but the robust life of faith practiced by our ancient and medieval forefathers, rooted in the Word of God and the sacraments of the Church.