Sunday of the Word of God

[Homily.  January 23, 2022]

On Sept 30, 2019, the Feast of St. Jerome, Pope Francis decreed through his Apostolic Letter Aperuit Illis that the third Sunday in Ordinary Time, which is today, would henceforth be the Sunday of the Word of God.[i]   Pope Francis’ intention is not just to set one Sunday aside for a once-a-year appreciation of the Scriptures but through this special Sunday to make every day a special day for listening to, pondering, and embodying the Word of God in our lives as it is gifted to us in Scriptures. 

Through Scriptures One Understands Jesus

“Aperuit illis” is Latin for “he opened their minds for them.” Pope Francis drew inspiration for his Apostolic Letter from one of the final scenes in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus explains the importance of the Scriptures to his disciples:

“He said to them. ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and in the prophets and psalms might be fulfilled.’   Then he opened their minds [“aperuit illis”] to understand the scriptures” (Lk 24:44-45).  Here, Jesus himself was interpreting the scriptures embodied in the Mosaic Law, the prophets and the psalms that were referring to himself.  It frames a culminating statement of the gospel according to Luke:

“And he said to them, ‘Thus it is written that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached in his name to all the nations beginning from Jerusalem”  (Lk 24:46-47).   The Messiah would be a suffering Messiah.  He would die.  But on the third day rise.  In his name, the message of salvation would be preached not only to the Jews but to all nations.  Beginning from Jerusalem.  In the Acts of the Apostles, from Jerusalem, the message of salvation goes beyond the Jewish Christian communities to all the nations.

Through Jesus One Understands the Scriptures

It is through scripture that one understands Jesus, but it is also through Jesus that one understands the scriptures.  When the two disciples were on their way to Emmaus disillusioned, depressed and defeated because of the scandalous crucifixion of their Messiah, Jesus tells them, “’Oh how foolish you are!  How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke!  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the scriptures” (Lk 24:25-27).

Through the scriptures then we come to our ever deeper encounters with Jesus.  Prior to the synoptic Gospels, the Gospels according to Mark, Matthew and Luke, there was no expectation in scriptures of a suffering Messiah.  Prior to John’s Gospel there was little insight into the profound union between the Father and the Son, the Word who from the beginning was with God, was God, through whom all things were made, and was made flesh.  Many of his own rejected him.  “But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God.”  In allowing Jesus to help us in his Spirit to understand and appreciate the scriptures, we enter into deeper dialogue with him as to who he is for us; we also come to deeper insight into who we are to him.

A More Profound Encounter with the Father

 As through him, we come to a more profound encounter with the Father, not only in such as the image of the Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son (cf. Lk: 15:11-32), but also in many of the Psalms, which in our use of scriptures begin to express our own deepest sentiments before God:

O God, you are my God, for you I long.
For you my body yearns.
For you my soul thirsts,
Like a land parched, lifeless and without water.
So I look to you in the sanctuary
To see your power and glory.
For your love is greater than life;
My lips offer you worship.  (Ps 63:2-4)

Or:

Where can I hide from your spirit?
From your presence, where can I flee?
If I ascend to the heavens you are there;
If I lie down in Sheol you are there too!
If I fly with the wings of dawn
and alight beyond the sea
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand hold me fast….  (Ps 139: 7-10)

Or: 

Turn away your face from my sins;
Blot out all my guilt.
A clean heart create for me, God;
Renew in me a steadfast spirit.
Do not drive me from your presence,
Nor take from me your Holy Spirit.  (Ps 51:11-13)

The Book of the Lord’s People

In Aperuit Illis, Francis invites us to a contemplation of the Promulgation of the Law in Nehemiah 8.  This is described in our first reading for today.  After the Babylonian exile, and after Nehemiah had led the Jews in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, the people are gathered in Jerusalem for the celebration of the Feast of the Tabernacles.  All the people, men women and children, are together in the open space before the Water Gate.  Ezra, the priest-scribe, begins reading “the Law” – the Torah – from daybreak to midday.  “Ezra read plainly from the book of the law of God, interpreting it so that all could understand what was read.” (Neh. 8:8).  He ended with the instruction, “’Today is holy to the Lord your God.  Do not be sad. Do not weep’ – for all were weeping as they heard the words of the law.  He said further, ‘Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to the Lord.  Do not be saddened.  For rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength” (Neh 8:9b-10).  They were weeping for joy in the Word of God.  Through Ezra’s public reading and explanation of it they had each individually heard and appreciated it.

For Pope Francis, the people in Jerusalem rejoicing in and celebrating the public reading of the Torah expresses the spirit of the Sunday of the Word of God:  “The Bible cannot be just the heritage of some, much less a collection of books for the benefit of a privileged few.  It belongs to all those called to hear its message and to recognize themselves in its words.  At times, there can be a tendency to monopolize the sacred text by restricting it to certain circles or to select groups.  It cannot be that way.  The Bible is the book of the Lord’s people, who, in listening to it, move from dispersion and division towards unity.  The word of God unites believers and makes them one people.” (AI, 4).

Three Invitations from Pope Francis

On this Sunday of the Word of God, let us as Francis suggests, first, do what we can to make the Word of God more accessible to people.  Helping people get material copies would be a first step, that each may own a bible, but also helping them use the Bible for entering into a life-transforming dialogue with Word of God. This may mean sharing with them how we go to the scriptures daily, how we allocate time for this, how we read, pray over, meditate, contemplate and act on the Word of God in our lives.  Let us, second, be grateful for the dialogue that God initiates in our lives through the Word of God and treasure the passages of Scripture through which we know he is speaking to us as we to him.  One such passage may be: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Lk 9:23); another may be: “I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Mt. 9:13).  What are your favorite passages of the Bible?  Finally, third, let us embody and bear witness to its teaching.  The Lord’s words, “Love one another, as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34), cannot leave us cold and barren.  Neither can, “Whatever you have done or not done to one of these the least of my sisters and brothers, that you have done or not done to me” (cf. Mt. 25: 40. 45).  What we hear in the Word of God transforms our lives.   

Francis considers the Transfiguration (Mk 9:2-8) a New Testament parallel to the celebration of the Reading of the Law in the Book of Nehemiah.  Before his enthralled apostles, Jesus is transfigured in the company of Isaiah, representing the prophets, and of Moses, representing the law.  The voice from the cloud also addresses us, “This is my Beloved Son.  Listen to him” (Mk. 9:7b).  God speaks his Word to us; God speaks his Son.[ii]  We are each invited to listen. 

And respond. 


[i] Francis.  Aperuit Illis: Instituting the Sunday of the Word of God (AI).  Apostolic Letter Motu Proprio, 20 September 2019. Cf:  <https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/motu_proprio/documents/papa-francesco-motu-proprio-20190930_aperuit-illis.html&gt;

[ii] “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these times he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word.  When he had accomplished purification from sins, he took his seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high, as far superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs” (Heb 1:1-4).

About Joel Tabora, S.J.

Jesuit. Educator
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