The document was the Pope’s reflections on the work done by the World Synod of Bishops that had met at the Vatican in October 2008 on the theme: “On the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.” What did the Pope have to say, and why is Verbum Domini important?
This apostolic exhortation calls all the People of God to renewal through the Word of the Lord, and it is eminently practical in the encouragement it offers for laity and pastors.
Pope Benedict begins his letter of encouragement and call to action with the phrase, “The Word of the Lord abides for ever.” In this simple phrase the whole of the apostolic exhortation is summarized. With this letter an invitation is extended to the entire Church to return to the animating force of our existence as a Christian people, the Word of the Lord (see Jn 1:1). By entering into history through the Incarnation, the Word of the Lord became a wellspring of grace for all to draw from eternally. It is from this font that the Pope invites us to drink. He writes, “With the synod fathers I express my heartfelt hope for the flowering of a new season of greater love for sacred Scripture on the part of every member of the People of God, so that their prayerful and faith-filled reading of the Bible will, with time, deepen their personal relationship with Jesus.”
Pope Benedict reminds us that each encounter with the Word, in holy Scripture, history, creation and worship, represents a grace-filled opportunity to strengthen and renew our faith.
Dwelling in Our Midst
The Word of the Lord is not simply a book; it is bigger and more expansive than the text of our sacred Scriptures. The Word can-not be reduced to a text. It is a dynamic living person, the Risen Christ. The Pope writes: “The relationship between Christ, the Word of the Father, and the Church cannot be fully understood in terms of a mere past event; rather, it is a living relationship which each member of the faithful is personally called to enter into. We are speaking of the presence of God’s word to us today: ‘Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age’ ” (Mt 28:20).
When we hear the phrase “Word of the Lord” manifold images should spring to mind: Jesus of Nazareth, creation, nature, salvation history, the Risen Christ, liturgy and, of course, holy Scripture.
Pope Benedict presents us with an array of practices culled from both our most ancient traditions and contemporary sources. All of these practices, when used in concert, bring us to a life-giving and profound encounter with the Living Word. By reorienting ourselves to the central reality of our faith, the living word of the Lord, we are able to realize a more authentic life in Christ.
When we understand our lives as a series of disconnected fragments we deny the unity that is inherent to a life in Christ. In this exhortation we are presented with the opportunity to understand ourselves in a new way. Pope Benedict invites us to adopt the Christian paradigm, that of the Living Word. In order to adopt this way of life we have to hear, see and touch the living word of the Lord. When we begin to think biblically, by identifying with the stories and individuals found in Scripture, our fragmented way of life gives way to a scriptural way of living that allows for a wholeness of existence in Christ. When we become familiar with the Word of God in this way, the Bible is no longer the story of an ancient people, it becomes our story.
Hearing the Word
In Verbum Domini, the Pope reminds us that hearing the Word of God can happen in many places and in many ways, but the most significant way that we encounter the Word of God is in our liturgical celebrations.
Hearing the Word of the Lord, whether during our celebration of the Eucharist, in the Liturgy of the Hours, during group or personal reading, requires preparation and attentiveness. There are myriad ways to accomplish this, from cultivating mindfulness, to reading the Lectionary texts in preparation for Mass, to Scripture studies to the ancient practice of lectio divina (sacred or holy reading). The important thing is that, whatever the practice, we come with the expectation that God will speak to us through the Word.
Seeing the Word
Just as the two disciples on the road to Emmaus recognized the risen Lord in the breaking of the bread, so, too, we are invited to see the Word of God in the Eucharist. The Pope writes: “Word and Eucharist are so deeply bound together that we cannot understand one without the other: the Word of God sacramentally takes flesh in the event of the Eucharist. The Eucharist opens us to an understanding of Scripture, just as Scripture for its part illumines and explains the mystery of the Eucharist.”
Seeing the Word involves not only a spiritual reality, it entails engaging the text using all of the means at our disposal. It is not enough to engage the Word in a spiritual sense; we are obliged to interpret it using modern scholarly techniques as outlined in the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s “Guide to Biblical Interpretation.” When these approaches are used in concert within the Church we are able to arrive at the fullness of truth. The Pope reminds us that we risk error when we divorce one approach of interpretation from the other.
Touching the Word
Just as we touch the Word of the Lord in the physicality of the Eucharist, so, too, Pope Benedict reminds us, we come into contact with the Word in the created order of the universe. He writes, “Engagement with the world, as demanded by God’s word, makes us look with new eyes at the entire created cosmos, which contains traces of that word through whom all things were made (cf. Jn 1:2).” It is not enough to see the Word in our worship, or in Scripture, we have to begin to see the Word of the Lord as the animating and sustaining force of all creation. In seeing the created order in this way, we begin to see our world through a new lens, that of the Living Word. TCA
Hearing, Seeing and Touching the Word
Hearing, seeing, and touching the Word of Life involves making a radical new commitment to God’s word. It means that we have to learn to see and use Scripture in new ways. It entails living a life immersed in Scripture so that we see our existence through God’s word and in turn engage the world around us as a biblical people, a people of the Word. This is what Pope Benedict XVI is summoning us to in his exhortation; this is the invitation before you.
Jerid Miller, M.T.S., is a Lay Ecclesial Minister in the Archdiocese of Louisville. He serves as the Director of Lifelong Formation at St. Margaret Mary Parish and is a colloquialist in the Emerging From the Vineyard project at Duquesne University.