Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Word before the text

Read I Thessalonians 2:7-13

When hearing the expression “The Word of God,” one often thinks of the Bible, of the written text we call the Sacred Scriptures. This is quite normal, but it is good to remember that this “Word” existed before any text was written. The last verse of today’s reading reminds us of this fact.

Paul praises the Thessalonians because they have received his teaching not as a “human word” but as the “Word of God.” Yet Paul had no text to show them at that time. In fact, this letter to the Thessalonians is the first text of what would eventually become the New Testament. During the following years, new texts would be added: Paul’s other letters, and letters from other Apostles, as well as the writings of the four Evangelists, the story of the Acts of the Apostles, and John’s vision which we call the Book of Revelation. Yet before any of these texts were written, Paul was proclaiming the Word of God.

To what then is he referring? He is referring to the stories the other Apostles have taught him and to his own conversion experience when he met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. That is the content of his preaching and teaching. The stories about Jesus that are being shared, the reflection of the young Christian community as it gathers to pray and celebrate the Lord, this is what makes up the Word of God before the New Testament was written. The Church, God’s own people, is the cradle in which was born the New Testament.

If the Church gave birth to the Scriptures, it is normal that the Church also be the place where this text is proclaimed, studied and prayed. This is not to say that one shouldn’t read the Bible alone. But it reminds us that, even when we do read it alone, the community which gave birth to the text remains the community of understanding and interpretation which can hand it on in faithfulness.

My grandmother had a box of photographs. When we opened this box, we wanted her near us, for she alone knew the stories “behind” the pictures: she could name the people in the pictures and explain their meaning. Pictures are like footprints left by people and events that, though they belong to the past, still have an impact on our lives today.

The Bible is like a box of pictures giving witness to the great adventure we call Salvation history; and the Church is like my grandmother who took the pictures, who understands their meaning, who uses them to help us enter into the living story of wonderful characters, the first of which is the Lord Jesus himself.

Believing in the “Word of God” is more than recognizing the truth of a text. It means entering into the living history which the text is telling, in communion with the Church which gave it birth.

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