Catholics have a reputation for not knowing the Bible. In years long past, Catholics were sometimes told not to read the Bible on their own for fear they might misinterpret it. That ended in 1943 when Pope Pius XII wrote a document called Divino Afflante Spiritu where he encouraged Catholics to read the Bible. Yet even today, while families might have Bibles at home, they aren’t often read.
Whether or not individual Catholics read the Bible on their own or not, the Bible is an important part of our faith and at Mass. The first half of the Mass is centered on the Bible. At Sunday Mass there is always a reading from one of the gospels, a reading from a New Testament Letter or Revelation, a psalm, and a reading from the Old Testament or Acts. Daily Mass has one less reading. When it comes to the Eucharistic prayers, portions of these prayers are direct quotes from the Bible.
So, the Bible is always read at our Sunday liturgy as well as daily Masses, funerals, and weddings. At these liturgies the readings are followed by a homily to interpret the readings for us.
The way the readings are picked from the Bible for Masses changed some following the Second Vatican Council but there has always Bible readings at Mass. It goes back to Jesus’ time. We see how scripture was a regular part of the service when Jesus himself read from Isaiah in today’s gospel.
We see the scriptures held in high regard even in today’s first reading set around the 5th century B.C. The Jews had returned home following the Babylon Exile only to find Jerusalem and the Temple destroyed. These were important parts of their Jewish identity but one thing was not taken away, the scripture.
We hear in this reading how they assembled the people and Ezra read from the Law “from daybreak till midday” and “the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law.” In listening “attentively”, they realized how they had gone astray in sin and desired to turn back to the Lord. (They listened attentively for an entire morning so I don’t want to hear any compliments when Mass goes for one hour.)
Prior to Vatican II, people would often pray a rosary during Mass. We don’t do that now because we realize we need to listen attentively to God’s Word.
Do you listen? Do you listen attentively?
In the first reading, we can see something of how we read scripture at Mass. As Ezra read, he “stood on a wooden platform” that was “higher up than any of the people.” Today, we have our ambo, sometimes called a pulpit, as a place of distinction, raised higher so all can see as God’s Word is read.
The first reading today tells us that Ezra also interpreted what he read “so all could understand what was read.” This is what the homily is supposed to do today, to interpret, to break open the Word to be relevant in our lives today.
Even in today’s gospel reading we hear Jesus offer such an interpretation of the passage He read from Isaiah, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” One sentence yet a powerful sentence for the Jewish who had waited centuries to see this passage fulfilled.
So, I hope you see the place the Bible has at Mass. We come to Mass to be fed by the Eucharist but we are first fed with God’s Word. It is a sacred time when the readings are proclaimed.
While we hear the Bible at Mass, we should also read it on our own. Sometimes when people go to read the Bible they think they should read it from cover to cover in order. That’s the way we read most books but the Bible is not like most books.
If you are just starting to read the Bible on your own, a good way to start is to read the same readings we use at Mass. You can find them online or in books like the At Home With the Word books we give out. Some people read it before coming to Mass as a way to open themselves to what they will hear at Mass. Another option if you have a hard time reading on your own before Mass is to wait until after Mass when you hear the scriptures explained in the homily and then read it for yourself. If you do this, I note that sometimes at Mass we don’t read every verse. You might look at the verses in between that aren’t read at Mass.
Another good way to begin reading the Bible is to start with the gospels. Just pick whatever Gospel you feel drawn to and begin reading it. I’m not talking about reading in one sitting. I suggest starting with five or ten minutes. As you read, when a verse moves you, stop and mediate on it. You might go back and reread the same verses a couple of times to further your mediation. Somedays you might read a page or two, others you might only read a paragraph. It is not about how much you read. The point is to listen attentively to God’s Word, to open your heart to the Lord.
The Bible is important. It is essential. It is God’s Word to us.