One of the things that is not always apparent with our Sunday readings is what they mean.
Another thing that is not always apparent is ‘how’ they mean.
We very often read other text for information – for facts. We read non-fiction for facts about the world; we read fiction for facts about the story we are reading, which may or may not be related to the world as it is.
Scripture offers facts but they are not the most important things scripture offers. Scripture tells us about what has been – about Jesus born of Mary; who preached and lived the nearness of the kingdom of God; was crucified, died and was buried and who rose again on the third day. Facts. Even very important facts,
But the scripture is read by us most importantly not so we might know the facts but so that our lives might be lived in response to those facts.
Scripture has us look back only to help us to live forwards. The meaning and purpose of scripture is us.
But how does Scripture ‘mean’? How does Scripture engage us with the more than the facts. These are perhaps oddly phrased questions, but stay with me!
Scripture ‘means’ in its totality.
Fundamentalists look to the letter – if the bible says it, it must be true, as true as H20 is water. They are people of the book.
Catholic Christians are people of the Word – the living Word that is Jesus Christ. And when we look to scripture that is what we look for, for it is the Word that Scripture means.
Sometimes the Word, the Son of God seems very evident – the story is about Jesus, the words are spoken by Jesus or are directly about Jesus.
But much of the Bible is not so evidently about him. The Old Testament, for example. Which is quite a big ‘for example’, as it forms the most part of the Bible.
So how does the Bible speak of Christ, of the Word? How do the readings ‘mean’.
They ‘mean’ often by allusion, one thing in the Old relates, we might say predicts or at least foreshadows, in some way anticipates, what is revealed in the New.
And it in this relationship of the Old and New Testaments something of the meaning of the Word, the Christ is revealed. Not as past event only, but as something alive and meaningful now, helping us to move faithfully to our future.
The key to the power of the Scripture is getting beneath the surface. In a particular book it is seeing not only the little passage, but the bigger picture and letting it connect with us and our world. In the Bible more broadly it is seeing the connections between the parts.
When reading a particular passage Ignatian meditation helps – using our experience of the world, and using our senses to get into the scene, into the passage.
Lectio divina is another help: a slow pondering, an attentive waiting for the word to disclose its deeper meaning for us.
But we need to find those connections between passages and books across the Canon of Scripture too. Of course we are not the first to have to do this: we have the help of those who’ve gone before. Especially we have the help of the fathers of the Church, especially – bishops and monks of the early Centuries – Augustine, Ambrose, Chrysostom, Leo, and many more.
On Sundays at Mass, the choices that have been made in putting together the sequences of readings we hear on Sunday are greatly influenced by how the Fathers read Scripture. Those sequences of readings might seem random, but they’re not. There’s a pattern.
We might have to work a little to spot the pattern. In our preparation for Mass; in how we listen and think during Mass. But that work is no bad thing. Careful faithful listening is probably a lot easier than careful faithful living – but the one helps the other.
Take the readings today. Very different, but lots in common. Let’s focus mostly on the First reading and the Gospel – which are always the most closely linked on Sundays. The testing of Abraham and the Transfiguration. Differences? One is the most shocking bleak story, for the most part, of a father told by God to sacrifice his son. The other a rather wonderful amazing story of the revelation of the glory of God in Jesus.
But they are both set on mountain tops. Peak experiences: (Ouch!) They are both stories of a father and his son; Abraham and Isaac; God the Father and God the Son. They are both stories about sacrifice – the one the father tested to see if for faith he would sacrifice his son; the other the Son in love for his Father and love for us (for us! all is for us!) ready to make sacrifice of his own life. The one ends with the son spared; the other with the son going to the Cross and there suffering for us. (For us!)
And what does it mean? Well, it means love. Love given, for us. The shocking and dark story of Abraham and Isaac (where God refuses the sacrifice) leads us to the story where God in Jesus is himself ready to suffer and die for us.
And the gospel passage ends with a question. A question found on the lips of Peter and the others. They wonder what ‘rising from the dead’ could mean. Looking back its obvious, (sort of!). It means the resurrection of Jesus. That his self-offering has a glorious outcome for him and extended to us in love.
But that question needs to come to our lips too. As we look forward what does ‘rising from the dead’ mean for us? What brings us to dying? In the context of our readings, where is faith tested in us? Where might love of God lead us? And what might the newness and the glory of the resurrection look like in our lives? The question needs to be on our lips and in our heart.
The scriptures give us answers, sure, but most of all, they set new possibilities in front of us.
Jesus took with him Peter and James and John and led them up a high mountain where they could be alone by themselves. There in their presence he was transfigured: his clothes became dazzlingly white, whiter than any earthly bleacher could make them. Elijah appeared to them with Moses; and they were talking with Jesus. Then Peter spoke to Jesus: ‘Rabbi,’ he said ‘it is wonderful for us to be here; so let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say; they were so frightened. And a cloud came, covering them in shadow; and there came a voice from the cloud, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.’ Then suddenly, when they looked round, they saw no one with them any more but only Jesus.
As they came down from the mountain he warned them to tell no one what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They observed the warning faithfully, though among themselves they discussed what ‘rising from the dead’ could mean.
Photograph is of mosaics of ‘Types’ or precursors of Christ’s self-offering in the Eucharist – the hospitality of Abraham, Abraham and Isaac – from the basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna. (c) 2004, Allen Morris