In last Thursday’s Gospel reading in the story of Lazarus and the rich man, Abraham says to the rich man who tries to keep his five brothers out of “this place of torment,” “They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.” Jesus is saying in the context of His story that we should read the Bible in order to stay on the right path to eternity. Many of my Catholic contemporaries say that the Church prevented them from reading the Bible. I understand the basis for the statement, but I do not agree with it. In its liturgical celebrations (principally the Mass and the Holy Office), the pre-Vatican II Church served up daily “bite-sized” readings from the Law, the Prophets, the Wisdom Books, the Psalms, the Gospels and the Epistles. Where some of our Protestant friends carried the Bible to church, we carried the St. Joseph Missal that contained selected Bible readings for Mass each day. Just as the Church did this pre-Vatican II, it continues to do today.
I thought that I would use the readings from the Holy Office (or Liturgy of the Hours) for today to further illustrate the point. Here are the so-called “short readings” for the various hours:
Morning Prayer (Lauds)
Lord, we are your people and your heritage. Be always watchful for the entreaty of your servant and of your people Israel, and listen to us whenever we call to you. For it was you who set us apart from all the peoples of the earth to be your own heritage. 1 Kings 8:51-53
Mid-Morning Prayer (Terce)
Seek the Lord while he is still to be found, call to him while he is still near. Let the wicked man abandon his way, the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn back to the Lord who will take pity on him, to our God who is rich in forgiving. Isaiah 55:6-7
Midday Prayer (Sext)
If you return to the Lord your God, if you obey his voice with all your heart and soul in everything I enjoin on you today, you and your children, then the Lord your God will bring back your captives and will have pity on you. Deuteronomy 30:2-3
Afternoon Prayer (None)
Continue to have confidence, since the reward is so great. You will need endurance to do God’s will and gain what he has promised. Hebrews 10:35-36
Evening Prayer (Vespers)
Give in to God: resist the devil, and he will run away from you. The nearer you go to God, the nearer he will come to you. Clean your hands, you sinners, and clear your minds, you waverers. Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will lift you up. James 4:7-8,10
Night Prayer (Compline)
May the God of peace make you perfect and holy; and may you all be kept safe and blameless, spirit, soul and body, for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Thessalonians 5:23
* * * * *
Look at the variety in these readings all in one day. We have selections from the Law (Deuteronomy), The Prophets ( Isaiah), Historical Books (1 Kings), the Epistles (Paul: 1 Thessalonians: James and Hebrews). In addition, there are many Psalms, another reading from Deuteronomy and one from St. Matthew’s Gospel at Mass, a reading from Exodus in the Office of Readings, and some other small scriptures salted away in other places. But for present purposes, I am going to talk only about the short readings from the six hours quoted above. They all speak of relationship with God, first with the Jews and later with all of God’s people.
The reading for Morning Prayer from 1 Kings is the end of a long prayer of Solomon at the dedication of the first Temple. The whole prayer is well worth reading as it expresses the gratitude and reverence of the Jewish people to the Lord at the time when the chosen people was at its height in power, influence, and satisfaction. [When we go through and look at these “short readings,” there is nothing stopping us from looking at the context by reading a chapter or two before or after the selected reading.] The prayer reminds God that it was He who sought the relationship with the chosen people, that they claim the benefit of that relationship, and that they expect that God will listen to their prayers and answer them. You and I can make that same prayer.
The reading for the Mid-Morning prayer is from Isaiah. He writes at a time when Israel has suffered defeat and exile. Isaiah reminds us that we can restore the relationship with God if we can turn back to the Lord. The Deuteronomy reading for Midday prayer is to the same effect, promising that the Lord will bring you back if you obey the Law. Hebrews reminds us in the Afternoon Prayer that the road to God may not be easy, but if we persevere the reward will be great.
I love the reading from James in the Evening Prayer. Again, we are encouraged to return and submit to God. When James writes, “ The nearer you go to God, the nearer he will come to you.” I imagine two young lovers on a bench, and whenever the girl slides closer to the boy, he responds by sliding closer to her.
Finally, in the Night Prayer, Paul prays, just before we go off to bed, that our relationship with God will result in the Lord’s watching over us as we sleep.
This train of Bible readings teaches a unified lesson ideal for a day in Lent. It acknowledges the relationship between us was initiated by God out of love; it recognizes that we may turn our back on God from time to time; it reminds us that God is always waiting for us to return so that He can welcome us back and take care of us as His beloved child.
I intended in this piece to show how the Church puts the Bible before us in an easily accepted way to teach us the lessons of God’s love for us. You can use this approach to studying the Bible to supplement your practice of Bible reading or as your main or only Bible reading. You can use as much or as little as you choose, but to paraphrase St. James, “The nearer you go to the Bible, the nearer the Bible will bring you closer to God.”
[In terms of resources, there are many on-line sites, both Catholic and non-Catholic that can help you get more into the Bible. As in all other things on the web, there are certain pitfalls. There are some sites that proclaim that they are “Catholic,” but separate themselves from the Church by condemning Vatican II or claiming that the Latin Mass is the only valid Mass. There are non-Catholic sites that are in some way anti-Catholic. Two dependable sites that I recommend are the USCCB Daily Readings. This is published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Besides the full text of the New American Bible, Revised Edition (the translation used at Mass in the U.S.), it provides an easy way to locate the Mass readings for each day; and Universalis. This is a site originating in the UK and the readings are from the New Jerusalem Bible which is the official translation used there. This site provides not only the Mass readings but also the full text of the Holy Office.]