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We’re Not a ‘Religion of the Book’

Homily for the Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

“Amen, I say to you,
this generation will not pass away
until all these things have taken place.
Heaven and earth will pass away,
but my words will not pass away.

“But of that day or hour, no one knows,
neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

-Mark 13:30-32

Why did the Savior not write down his teachings? He used many words, but of all the books of Sacred Scripture he wrote none of them. There is no Gospel or epistle that has after its title, By Jesus of Nazareth.  One would think that having said that his words would not pass away he himself might have written some down!

Let’s look at how St. Thomas Aquinas deals with this question. In the third part of his Summa he offer three reasons.

First off, he didn’t write because he wanted to speak directly to the heart of his disciples. This he could do because he had the power to reach the hearts of men as the most loving, attractive, and effective of instructors, as Aquinas says:

It was fitting that Christ should not commit his doctrine to writing. First, on account of his dignity: for the more excellent the teacher, the more excellent should be his manner of teaching. Consequently it was fitting that Christ, as the most excellent of teachers, should adopt that manner of teaching whereby His doctrine is imprinted on the hearts of His hearers; wherefore it is written (Matt. 7:29) that “He was teaching them as one having power.” And so it was that among the Gentiles, Pythagoras and Socrates, who were teachers of great excellence, were unwilling to write anything. For writings are ordained, as to an end, unto the imprinting of doctrine in the hearts of the hearers.

Then he also did not want to think that what he taught could be expressed within the limits of human language:

Secondly, on account of the excellence of Christ’s doctrine, which cannot be expressed in writing; according to John 21:25: “There are also many other things which Jesus did: which, if they were written everyone, the world itself, I think, would not be able to contain the books that should be written.” Which Augustine explains by saying: “We are not to believe that in respect of space the world could not contain them . . . but that by the capacity of the readers they could not be comprehended.” And if Christ had committed his doctrine to writing, men would have had no deeper thought of his doctrine than that which appears on the surface of the writing.

And then there is the third reason, which is a great challenge to those who think that mass media and direct information are the best or only way to teach:

Thirdly, that his doctrine might reach all in an orderly manner: himself teaching his disciples immediately, and they subsequently teaching others, by preaching and writing: whereas if he himself had written, his doctrine would have reached all immediately.

St. Thomas’s awareness of the mind of Our Lord, who could have easily written down his own scriptures, is truly encouraging. The whole gist of this answer is that the Savior’s teaching is effective because it is personal and so it is passed on and shared. His law is written on the “fleshy tablets of our hearts” and is not a question of ink or carving in stone, as St. Paul reminds us, but of the Spirit of God, the Spirit of divine charity.

Now, in a media apostolate such as Catholic Answers it might seem strange to say that doctrine should not reach all immediately, but St. Thomas offers a challenge to media culture. The teacher needs to have meditated long on the law of God, which of course includes Sacred Scripture, but so as to be able by his union through love with the God of Truth to instruct the hearts of his hearers. It is not enough just to have the information “out there.” People need to hear the good news from living, breathing fellow Christians who love them enough to teach them discuss it with them.

Sure, there are persons who have discovered the Faith by their solitary study, but this discovery necessarily leads to membership in the Body of Christ, in joining in the worship established by Christ and his apostles. A Christianity based only on Bible study leads to a very incomplete and even shallow view of the mysteries of faith. If this heady attitude toward Scripture and the Christian faith were imitated, say, by children in their relationship with their parents, or by lovers in marriage, we would immediately see how distorted it is!

As St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict taught, we are not a “religion of the book.” We need to worship at the Holy Mass, and hear and not only read the sacred words, so that the Savior can reach our hearts through his action in his Mystical Body: through gestures, through song, through signs of peace, through sacred images, through sights and sounds and even odors. The written word is great; media resources are great; but we must go beyond them to kneel down and worship the Savior along with other citizens of the true Israel, the Church he founded.

May we offer the incense of our worship from hearts deeply touched by him who is himself the very Word of God!

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