I suspect that most of us stumble in one way or another over the “scandal” of the Incarnation. In the “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” one of the principal documents of the Second Vatican Council, it is written, “The words of God, expressed in the words of men, are in every way like human language, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took on himself the flesh of human weakness, became like men.”
This statement is so radical that we might well ask: Did the authors really mean to say that just as God chose to come to us in mortal human flesh, so he chose the flawed vehicle of human language to reveal himself to us? Are the words of Scripture—ordinary words that are proclaimed in church, that we breathe in and out as we recite the psalms—holy because the written word of God is God’s self-communication, analogous to the Word incarnate? This is an almost unfathomable gift; and, as usually happens when we are blessed with such divine grace, we do everything we can to make it fathomable, to cut it down to size and even to reject it.
We regard language as a useful tool and have trouble accepting that God has chosen it to touch our hearts and convert us. While poets like Emily Dickinson pursue words that breathe, that strike emotional chords in the reader, most of us, most of the time, reject the incarnational power of language. Like Adam, we run and hide, opting for a safely tamed verbiage that serves not God’s ends but our own. George Orwell, in his seminal essay “Politics and the English Language,” captured the essence of this phenomenon by offering a translation of Eccl 9:11—“the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong”—in jargon that is all too common in academia and the business world: “Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success and failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”
Small children appreciate the delicious mouth-feel of silly nonsense words and savor the daunting power of a straightforward “No!” But as we grow to adulthood, we become stiff-necked people who prefer fancy, impenetrable words that make us feel professional and important. We do not care that the words have had the life sucked out of them, because they give us power to lord it over the listener. With Scripture it is just the opposite. We recognize God’s authority to say to us, “Hear, O Israel” but have to accept that we are free to listen or not, to take God’s words to heart, or not. God has left this choice up to us, and all too often we choose to opt out of the conversation.
An Ongoing Dialogue
Our holy Scripture is intended to be a conversation, that sustaining force in any love relationship, of hearing and responding to the beloved. The best way for us to grow close to God is to grow close to the Scriptures, to approach them in friendship and with respect, and also to endeavor to keep the lines of communication open on a daily basis. The observation by St. Jerome is as true now as when he wrote it over 1,600 years ago that “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”
The Scriptures are replete with assertions of God’s desire to hold us close, the omnipotent and eternal God bent on reminding us that he does not exist in some remote plane, but in our inmost selves. God’s love for us is portrayed as that of a mother for the life that is growing in her womb, or the mother willing to cuddle her weaned child who wants to be held again like an infant. Our holy writ is full of evidence that God desires to help and heal us. The prophets declare—repeatedly—that God wills to be our God, and that we are God’s people. In the Gospels we are reminded that each of us, like each and every sparrow, is worth God’s attention and concern. Threaded throughout the entire Bible, simple but stirring images convey the intimacy of God’s relationship with us. God takes us by the hand; God restores our weary spirits; even at night, while we are sleeping, God directs our hearts. Both in Isaiah and in the Book of Revelation to John we are told that at the end of time God will wipe every tear from our eyes.
And when we are overcome by tears in the here and now, the Scriptures give us hope. When Jesus meets his disciples on the road to Emmaus, after the sudden arrest, trial and execution of the man they had hoped was the promised Messiah, they are so disconsolate that they do not even recognize him. But then, beginning with Moses and the prophets, Jesus interprets the Scriptures for them, placing himself in the salvation story. When this stranger breaks bread with them and blesses it they finally recognize the risen Lord.
Like the disciples, we are asked to believe that the story of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus has not come to an end. Our job is to locate ourselves within that story and to continue to spread the word. The Emmaus narrative provides a good example of how the Bible can heal us, offering both sustenance and guidance for our spiritual journeys. No matter how dire our situation, Emmaus tells us that we can always find God in the Scriptures and in the sacrament of the Eucharist. And there is an invaluable message here for our narcissistic age. We may read and meditate on Scripture alone, and are indeed encouraged to do so, but we do not interpret it alone. Our sacred Scriptures are not only about us as individuals, but about the Christian community made possible by the sacrifice Jesus offered on the cross.
The incarnation of Jesus Christ is not only celebrated but actualized here and now for us at each Eucharist. The same is true with Scripture, if we will only sit with its stories for a while and try to silence the distracting voices within. The poet Denise Levertov once wrote that the “substance, the means of art, is an incarnation: not reference, but phenomena,” and I believe that the same is true of our sacred Scriptures. This can be difficult for us to accept; we prefer reference over phenomena because we can better control it. We place more trust in appraisal than in praise.
The world of the early Christian theologians cited in the council document on Scripture—Augustine, Irenaeus, Jerome, John Chrysostom—was no less complex and turbulent than our own, and the theological disputes they contended with make those of our own day pale by comparison. But in their relationship to Scripture they had certain advantages over us. They were accomplished biblical scholars but did not lose themselves in abstraction. They had a foundational faith in the power of Scripture to do what it is intended to do that is difficult for us to maintain in a doubting age. They believed that the Scripture that God sends into our lives will return to God fulfilled.
If we make room for the words of Scripture, we become open to the possibility of experiencing what these early church fathers described as the diagnostic and medicinal power of the word of God, words with the power to change and heal us. The onus is on us to honor the words of Scripture enough to be willing to spend quality time with them and allow them to work on us. It is all too easy to lose sight of God in our busy lives. But there are remedies. A retreat with a community that prays the Liturgy of the Hours is an immersion in Scripture that can shock us into fresh understandings of familiar Bible stories. Private prayer with the psalms and readings for the day helps many people to frame their daily lives, and keep the divine and mundane in proper perspective.
Keeping Scripture Alive
There are many methods that can keep Scripture alive for us and help us when we most need healing. When struggling through a spiritual crisis, a monastic scholar might turn to the Antirrheticus of Evagrius, which suggests Bible passages to pray when facing specific temptations. It is similar to what you find if you open a Gideon Bible in a hotel room. No doubt many people unfamiliar with Scripture have found healing there, using the index at the front that guides them to Scripture for those seeking “Comfort in Time of Sorrow,” “Courage in Time of Fear” or “Peace in a Time of Turmoil.”
We can find many methods to help us pay better attention to Scripture as it is being read in church. Before worship I use a plea from the Book of Common Prayer to be delivered from “coldness of heart and wanderings of mind.” And recalling St. Paul’s axiom that faith comes from hearing, I shun the text on the page and try to listen to the Scriptures being read. If they are being read badly, all the better; it means that I have to work harder to listen. But our methods will take us only so far. When our prayer becomes perfunctory, it is often a sign that we have forgotten that it is not our acts and intentions that matter so much as God’s power to work within us.
And sometimes we are hoping against hope in this regard. Once when I was deep in a “slough of despond,” I attended the Easter Vigil in a monastery and felt as if I were an observer from Mars. But I also knew that I was in the right place, because I believed that my being present as those Bible texts washed over me could allow God’s voice to penetrate my internal darkness, whether I was aware of it at the time or not.
The love that God reveals in Scripture can help us emerge from despair and even lighten the burden of grief. Three days after my sister Rebecca died I was scheduled to serve as lector and read the story of Peter raising Tabitha from the dead (Acts 9:36-43). Looking over the text beforehand, I had a bitter moment: Why didn’t I try that in the emergency room: “Becky, get up!” But I also felt that it was important for me to read that passage on Sunday morning, even if it would be painful.
My sister had an exceptionally difficult life. Brain-damaged at birth because of medical errors, she was just intelligent enough to understand what had happened to her. This made her angry and resentful, frustrated in her often misguided and desperate attempts to fit in with others. But as she approached the age of 60, she finally figured out that, for people to like her, all she had to do was be herself. She changed so much that I doubt people who knew her as a young woman would have recognized her. She had gone from harboring a load of rage to someone whose primary virtue was gratitude.
When she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I was the angry one. She had had such a hard time coming into this world, and now she would have a hard time leaving it. I was with her every day as she received palliative radiation, and we began plans for hospice placement. I accompanied her to a weekly art class at the cancer center, where she excelled at making vibrant paintings. One day she proudly painted flowers for a new grandniece, and a day later she was dead. The cancer had spread to her lungs, her breathing became labored and her heart stopped. She was spared months of misery and decline.
A few days later, I gladly read that passage from Acts in church because it was about a resurrection, and in telling it I could honor my sister’s own resurrection story. The Bible is like that. It is there for us when we need it most. It is full of surprises, grace and the power to remove even the heavy stone that lies on a grieving heart.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 17, 2014
An earlier version of this article misidentified the person who raised Tabitha from the dead in Acts 9:36-43. It was Peter, not Paul.