ALONG the WAY
By Deacon Charles Rohrbacher
September 30th is the feast day of St. Jerome, the fifth century Church Father and scripture scholar. A priest of Rome, it was Jerome who was asked by the Pope to translate the Old and New Testaments into Latin from the original Hebrew and Greek and it was his translation, the Vulgate, which was the official Roman Catholic translation of the Bible until the Second Vatican Council.
Jerome was a complicated, contradictory and oftentimes curmudgeonly figure in our tradition who frequently entered into oftentimes verbally intemperate polemics with his fellow Christians. His polemics are, I think, best set aside, but what he has to say about sacred scripture merits our attention. He boldly declared that, “Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ,” which is at once challenging and compelling.
By ignorance, I think that Jerome is not so much talking about a lack of academic formation in the scriptures—as necessary and indispensable as biblical scholarship is for our understanding of the sacred text. Rather, I think he is speaking primarily of how a failure on our part to enter personally and deeply into the word of God is an obstacle to truly knowing Jesus, the incarnate Word of God.
Despite the provision of a rich selection of the sacred scriptures in our liturgies since the Second Vatican Council and a truly remarkable flourishing of biblical scholarship in our Church during the last century, I think that as a community of disciples we continue to struggle with the ignorance of scripture that Jerome warns us about.
As I grow older as a disciple, I find that when I examine my own ignorance of God’s Word I find that it is not because of a lack of intellectual formation on my part. Rather, the problem is spiritual. On the surface, I have simply become slack and am reluctant to move beyond my own spiritual mediocrity. But at a deeper level I know that my interior resistance to God’s word is because I desire to jealously protect my autonomy. There are areas in my life where I do not want the word of God to penetrate. What those areas are differ for each person but I think we all struggle with this to various degrees.
This is what Jesus is teaching us when he told the disciples:
“Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who build his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock” (Matthew 7:24-25)
When I hear the words of God and fail to act on the word, I am ignorant of Christ. Identifying and acknowledging those areas in my life in which I resist God’s word is a step forward, but I want to take the next step, which is to “hunger and thirst for righteousness” and surrender myself to the Master. This means to allow him to direct my thoughts, judgments, actions and outlook in everything by entering into the truth, goodness and beauty of his word and longing for the fulfillment of his word in the Kingdom of God.
In this personal entry into the word of God, I find that rephrasing Jerome’s dictum in more positive language is helpful: “Knowledge of scripture is knowledge of Christ.” In scripture the language of knowing and being known is utilized to speak of the intimate relationship between a husband and wife, in which spouses are indissolubly united and become “one flesh.” Marital life and love is, at its core, a lifelong school of mutual surrender and giving and receiving, of knowing and being known; it is a mystery so fruitful, blessed and life-giving that it brings forth new life.
So too with the word of God. As in married life, knowledge of God’s word is a transforming participation in the mystery of love, and communion of love, between Christ the Bridegroom and each of us who make up the Church—his Bride. And as in married life, knowledge of the word of God is the wellspring of life and of new life, for every disciple, for the Church and ultimately, for the entire world.
Understood in this nuptial way, the Word of God is at once deepening our intimate communion with the Lord while binding us more and more closely to him, as we allow his word to shape and transform our minds and hearts.
To know Christ in his word means to love Christ with both humility and joy in his holy word. We see this expressed in signs and symbols when we gather to read the holy gospel, in which Christ speaks in the midst of his rejoicing people.
A Coptic Orthodox monk, Fr. Matta al Meskeen (Matthew the Poor Man) writing about how to read the Bible, concluded after noting the various signs of reverence with which the gospel is proclaimed in the ancient tradition of his Church:
“He who has tasted the power of the Gospel in his life does not consider this excessive, but does even more to show his veneration.
There are those who always fast to read the Gospel.
There are those who, when they read the Gospel alone, always kneel.
There are those who always read it with weeping and tears.
God’s directions to us are most often given through the reading and hearing of the Gospel, when we are in a state of humility and when we pray with an open heart.”
(p.37, The Communion of Love, Matthew the Poor, St.Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1984)
Deacon Charles Rohrbacher is the Office of Ministries Director for the Diocese of Juneau. Phone: 907-586-2227 ext. 23.