Fr Billy Swan
Christianity is a religion of the Word. All her teachings, creeds and prayers are based upon the inspired Word of God found in the Old and New Testaments. All that Christians believe and hold to be true, have their origins in the Scriptures. Our first duty then is to listen attentively to the Word of God and to obey what it says: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord’ (Deut. 6:4-5); ‘Let it be done to me according to your Word’(Luke 1:38); ‘The people were crowding around him, listening to the Word of God (Luke 5:1); ‘At your Word I will let down the nets’ (Luke 5:5). Only having first listened to God’s Word can we hope to live it, preach it and teach it as Jesus ask us (cf. Mark 16:15). But in order for us to prayerfully listen to God’s Word, a key realization is that this Word is one of love towards us. Here is the key to our love of God and neighbour as we are led by the Spirit to an ever greater love of God’s Word that is so central to the mission of the New Evangelization.
‘In the Beginning was the Word’
The foundational belief of the Church is that God’s Word is a word of love addressed to the world he created and directed to his chosen people. Even though ‘every creature is a word of God, since it proclaims God’ (St Bonaventure, Journey into the Mind of God, 2, 12), the countless words God has spoken through creation and history all culminate in one Word - ‘the almighty and most holy Word of the Father which pervades the whole of reality’ (St Athanasius, Against the Pagans, 40-42).
Like a child who gradually awakens to the love of its parents, God’s Word is addressed to us from outside – ‘the Word of the Lord came to Samuel’ (1 Sam. 15:10); ‘the Word of the Lord came to me’ (Ezek. 21:8). As parents exist before their child is born, so the Word of God existed before us: ‘In the beginning was the Word’ (John 1:1). Because God’s Word comes first, it waits for us to be discovered, heard and discerned. For centuries, this discernment has been the task of our ancestors in faith who concluded that God’s Word that existed from the beginning is a Word of love towards us: ‘God loved us first’ (1 Jn. 4:19). Unlike other deities of power and control, the God of Abraham and Father of Jesus Christ reveals himself as a non-competitive God who does not wish to control us but enter into a trusting relationship with us: ‘from the fullness of his love, God addresses men and women as his friends, and lives among them, in order to invite and receive them into his own company’ (Dei verbum, 2).
A Word of Love ‘Alive and Active’
This Word doesn’t just inform us of God’s love but performs it as well. The Word of God is not static but ‘alive and active and cuts more finely than any double-edged sword’ (Heb. 4:12). Here is the eternal and active love of God revealed in history and discerned by our ancestors in the faith. They discerned this love in creation, in the exodus event, the law and the prophets. The fullness of this love of God was observed by the early Christians in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. What they witnessed they put in writing and passed it on to successive generations. The Scriptures that we have inherited witness to the active love of God that they experienced and that also awaits us to encounter it when we engage prayerfully with the inspired Word. When we do so, we connect to a living stream of saving power through faith in God’s love towards us. Love then is the interpretative lens through which we read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Even passages that speak of God’s anger reveal a God who will not rest until his people becomes more perfect in love. The Scriptures display the love of God that is ever active and searching for humanity like a loving parent who longs to be united with their beloved child.
A Mother’s Conversation and a Father’s Embrace
In this light, we approach God’s Word with awe and reverence for it contains the living and transforming Spirit of God who is love. When we engage with open hearts with God’s Word, things happen. Through the Word, the Spirit penetrates our wills, our emotions, our wounds, our souls, our hearts and minds. This is the time when the Gospel light anoints our minds as we allow God’s Word to print itself upon us.
Love by nature communicates itself and awaits a response. We sense a call in the experience of God’s love that comes first. Therefore, prayerful time spent with the Scriptures is not a monologue from God but a dialogue between God and the people he loves. ‘God becomes known through the dialogue which he desires to have with us’ (Pope Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini, 1). It is a dialogue when God reminds us of his great deeds of salvation and leads us to know how his saving love is there for us too.
Pope Francis beautifully describes the maternal and paternal aspects of this dialogue. On one hand he calls it ‘a mother’s conversation’ where God engages us tenderly in language we can understand. In turn, this is also the way to preach - in a mother’s language that ‘is a kind of music which inspires encouragement, strength and enthusiasm’ (The Joy of the Gospel, 139). On the other hand, the dialogue takes place within ‘the baptismal embrace which the Father gave us when we were little…and the merciful embrace that awaits us in glory’ (The Joy of the Gospel, 144). Enfolded within this paternal embrace, God communicates to his beloved children.
‘Make my Word your Home’
The fruit of this dialogue of love is transformation and growth. Through his Word, God’s love draws us deeper into his divine life as ‘we make his Word our home’ (cf. John 8:31). No one will be left unmoved by some message that God wishes to communicate through his Word to those with open hearts. These are the expectant hearts that grow in hope from the joyful experience of the love which they have received. ‘These are the hearts who sense that each word of Scripture is a gift before it is a demand’ (Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, 142). Accepted in faith, it is the love of God contained in his Word that yields a harvest, thirty, sixty and a hundredfold’ (Mk. 4:20).
God’s Word of love is addressed to us as individuals but also as communities. Pope Francis beautifully describes the mission to preach as ‘the wonderful but difficult task of joining loving hearts, the hearts of the Lord and his people’ (The Joy of the Gospel, 143). This guards us from an overly privatized understanding of God’s love expressed in his Word and at times interpreted by preachers. God’s Word of love draws us into communion with Him and with one another. It invites us to love the word of God with the awareness that this word is a word of love for the whole people.
The Practical Side
Love begets love. If a preacher preaches without loving the Word he is preaching, it will be obvious to his listeners. If he loves the Word he preaches and if it emerges from a heart that loves God, the warmth of that love will anoint his hearers and transmit a love for the Scriptures that is infectious. The love of God communicated in preaching will be evident in his tone of voice, body language and in ‘the joy of his gestures’ (Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, 140).
Loving God’s Word leads to a desire to share the riches contained therein and simple ways this wisdom can be accessed. In parishes, this might mean taking part in a Scripture reflection or Lectio Divina group or subscribing to one of the excellent magazines that offer reflections on God’s Word. These publications invite us to become more familiar with the liturgical year and come to love the Scriptures, especially the weekday and Sunday readings. This is surely one of the first tasks of the New Evangelization – to train a whole army of Christians who know and love God’s Word, who are on fire with that Word of love they wish to share.
I conclude with a quote from Pope Francis that captures the foundation of love for God’s Word as the beginning and end of praying, preaching and teaching the Gospel: ‘Preparation for preaching requires love. We only devote periods of quiet time to the things or the people whom we love; and here we are speaking of the God whom we love, a God who wishes to speak to us…What is essential is that the preacher be certain that God loves him, that Jesus Christ has saved him and that his love always has the last word’ (The Joy of the Gospel, 146, 151).