Father THOMAS IDERGARD SJ
Homily for the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Sunday of the Word of God)
Year C: Nehemiah 2-6, 8-10; Ps 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-30; Luke 1:1-4, 4:14-21
St. Eugenia Catholic Church, Stockholm (English Mass)
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
It is often claimed that God of the Old Testament is different from God of the New Testament. The former strict and angry, the latter merciful and mild.
But this is not true. God has no shifting feelings and does not change. If God had feelings and did change, he would not be eternal and almighty, and accordingly not be God in sense of perfect being, primary cause and sustainer of existence. And throughout the history of God’s revelation to mankind, God repeatedly emphasises his immutable being outside of time: from the unveiling of his name in the burning bush, to Jesus’s assurance that his words will never pass away.
God is love, for all eternity; love as the will of the good of the other for the sake of the other, ultimately through self-sacrifice. In the relations between the divine persons and in relation to his creation. How this love is received, however varies with the mood of the receiver. For that within us and our world, which is sinful, God’s love is experienced as a judging fire. But for that, which is turning towards truth and goodness, God’s love is the warm embrace. All this is comprehensively described throughout both the Old and the New Testament.
The Bible tells the story of God’s actions in the world, i.e. the history of salvation. It is a story of a gradual strategy. In his searching for, and building a relation to, mankind after the Fall, God does not tell everything about himself at once.
If God e.g. had revealed his triune nature to the old patriarchs and the people of Israel, it most certainly would have been understood as polytheism. It was necessary for God first to establish himself as one, the One and only, in stark contrast to all other religions’ conception of divinity. When worship of the One God had become a unique obviousness of the Jewish faith, it made sense for God to reveal himself in his fullness, i.e. as triune in the One and only divine nature. This, without in any way contradicting the previously revealed; rather building upon, and completing, it.
It is the same with mercy. God first needed to establish justice by e.g. prescribing the principle of “an eye for an eye” for proportionate punishment instead of primitive revenge will. Only after that, God could reveal his mercy as something not contradicting but transcending justice; forgiveness although someone justly deserves a punishment. Once again: not contradictory, but complementary, fulfilling.
This gradual character of God’s revelation in time, presenting the truth by degrees, each one true in itself but a piece of the whole truth finally emerging, can be compared to the construction of a house, which follows a blueprint but is completed in different stages, each one faithfully expressing the blueprint.
With his Incarnation in Jesus Christ, God fully explains and fulfills everything previously revealed. Everything we humans need to know about God and our path to God is now openly exposed for everyone to embrace, or reject. With the death of the last apostle, i.e. the last eye witness envoy to the Incarnation, divine revelation is finished and ready to be carried out into the world by the Church.
Christ’s Church, founded by our Lord and by him equipped with seven sacraments and a Teaching office – the Pope and the bishops in communion with him, i.e. the successors of the apostles – is fully realized in the Catholic Church. In her alone, the apostolic faith, the apostolic office and the seven sacraments have been completely preserved. Here, all means necessary for salvation are to be found all together, in their fullness.
In her teaching through the ages, the Catholic Church deepens the understanding of God’s definitive revelation in Christ, and enables it to be applied to new challenges, but in preserved continuity with the apostolic faith. This becomes Sacred Tradition, thanks to which divine revelation can speak to me, in my particular place in time and space, while remaining identical with the faith of the apostles. Christ’s assurance that anyone listening to the apostles listens to him, means that his voice speaks through the Catholic Church when her Teaching office proclaims faith and morals fully aligned with Sacred Tradition.
The Christian Bible was compiled by the Catholic Church after her being around for 400 years, with those divinely inspired texts reflecting, confirming and anchoring the faith she already had. Therefore, the Church is the sole authority to interpret the Bible in order to formulate faith doctrine based on it. This also fulfils something first established in the Old covenant, as we heard in our first reading from the book of the prophet Nehemiah. The Teaching office constitutes one part of the body that is the Church, speaking with our second reading from First Corinthians, and enables other parts, i.e. all faithful, to make their contributions to the purpose of the whole body: to do Christ’s will in the world.
When we as faithful pray with a Bible passage we can, and shall, do individual interpretations of God’s will for personal situations or matters, within or beyond Church doctrine. The Word of God is indeed living in each one’s life. But God cannot tell me something that contradicts his will according to the definitive teaching of the Church. If this impression comes to me, I need to start all over again – not the Church.
Every statement in the Bible must also be interpreted in light of the overall message, as the key unlocking every single part; every book, chapter and passage. This message is a person: Jesus Christ. And this is exactly what Jesus says in today’s gospel, quoting the prophet Isaiah: “It is all about me!”. And he keeps saying it throughout the whole New Testament, like e.g. at the way to Emmaus on the first Easter day, or in the Book of Revelations when only the Lamb can open the scroll, i.e. explain the Scriptures.
With Christ as the key, we can distinguish statements in the Bible necessary to always believe, from statements on e.g. time related customs; statements on God’s will, from more human expressions; literal meaning from imagery. And the Church puts the key in the lock.
Our responsorial psalm, from the Book of Psalms in the Bible, today proclaimed: “The law of the Lord is perfect … [his] ordinances … are true”. This finally refers to Jesus Christ. We do not believe in Christ, God’s Truth and Justice personified, because the Bible tells us about him. We believe that the Bible speaks the truth about God and humanity, in all its different books, genres and styles of writing, because it ultimately, on every page, gives testimony to Jesus Christ. Hidden in the Old Testament, and fully revealed in the New. Amen.
 Second Vatican Council: The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, 8
 See e.g. Matthew 28:20 and John 20:21-23