Imagine if you decided to read a mystery novel or a long suspense thriller—a book by Robert Ludlum, say—three or four paragraphs at a time over 3 years. You decided as well that you were not going to read the book straight through but skip around every day, sampling passages from the beginning, middle, and end in no apparent order. In addition, you had someone exclude from your reading in advance any passages that seemed either dry or served as connections between sections.
How long might it take you to understand the nature of the story? How well would you remember the book’s subplots and minor characters? How much would you care about what was happening in the story?
Likely, you’d call it quits after a couple of weeks as you became increasingly frustrated and found the exercise pointless.
The analogy doesn’t hold perfectly, but this is like the way the Church reads through the Bible in her 3 year liturgical sequence. In the case of the daily Scripture readings, the passages are selected thematically and chosen for their powerful resonances with one another. They provide strong meat for meditation and are an ideal basis for homilies.
However, if you expect to understand the inner dynamic of the Bible through study of the daily readings alone, you’ll likely conclude, as most Catholics do, that understanding the Bible isn’t really a Catholic thing.
That’s nonsense, of course. There wouldn’t be a New Testament but for the early Church when everyone was Catholic.
This misimpression has its reasons, however, and partly this is due to the way in which we educate ourselves about the faith, including how we most often study the Bible.
As I pointed out last week, there’s more Bible reading in a Mass than in almost every Protestant service these days. People who have attended Mass for years, especially if they go to daily Mass, know the Bible intimately—even if they often don’t realize it.
Soon after my conversion to Catholicism 30 years ago I led a Bible study at my neighborhood parish, St. Louis de Gonzague, in Newburyport, Massachusetts. (Sadly, the church closed its doors in 2002.) The church was a real “townie” parish and had originally been established to serve the French speaking population in Newburyport. It was still dominated by those who were either ethnically French or Portuguese.
The people who went there turned out for everything—days of obligation, novenas, bake sales, bingo—the works. It was one of the closest communities in which I’ve ever had the privilege to participate.
Somewhat sheepishly, parishioners came out for this new program called “a Bible study” when Father Plourde announced it. Many among the group of twenty—mostly women, but with a scattering of men as well—apologized in advance for their ignorance of the Bible.
I said, “But you do know the Bible. You’ve been listening to it nearly every day since you were children?”
This seemed to give them a little courage, although they didn’t believe me. We started studying the Gospel of Luke, two or three chapters per week. I didn’t plunge them into critical theory or the history of the Church’s exegesis of the gospel. I let the story develop and speak and kept to one prime rule: we don’t so much interpret the Bible as the Bible interprets us.
As the class began to experience how the story of Jesus’ birth connects with his preaching ministry and then with his Passion, they kept happening upon the classic episodes in the story they knew already knew so well: Jesus’ baptism, the Temptation in the Desert, the parable of the sower, etc. Their faces lit up with happy recognition. They did indeed know the Bible! They had just never read it as one usually reads a book—from beginning to end.
I can’t tell you how gratifying it was to help connect the dots of one episode with another for my class and see them become inspired by the story-telling drive in the Gospel of Luke.
A lot of fine Bible study is done in a liturgical fashion, but here at Catholic Exchange we are going to major in the future on studies that treat whole books of the Bible from beginning to end. That’s often what even very committed Catholics need in order to realize the gift the Catholic Church gave to the world in the New Testament.