“Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless,” Mother Theresa once said.
Frederick Nietzsche said: “All I need is a sheet of paper and something to write with, and then I can turn the world upside down.”
Edward R. Murrow wrote referring to Winston Churchill’s impassion speeches during the dark days of World War II: “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle to steady his fellow countrymen and hearten those Europeans upon whom the long dark night of tyranny had descended.”
The three quotes from people of very different backgrounds and ways of thinking all point to the same reflection on “words” – they have a great ability, when used well, to affect us, in many ways.
We might all think of times when we tried to put words on our ideas or to catch the right phrase that expresses our thoughts, our hopes, our desires in life, our goals even our love. As hearers of words, we can also think of those words we have heard or read that have affected, inspired, hurt, or enriched us. Indeed, words affect us in many ways.
Three years ago, Pope Francis designated this Sunday (Third Sunday in Ordinary Time) as the “Word of God Sunday.” The liturgical designation gives us the opportunity to reflect on the “Word of God.” The expression points us to God’s relationship with humanity. The spoken word is carried on our breath. The image of speech and breath is used in the beginning of Genesis to describe creation. Man’s relationship with God begins at creation, when He spoke the word and creation happened. Think back to the first creation story in Genesis, to the first day. “And God said: Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3) Then we are told: “And there was light.” (Genesis 1:3) The pattern continues – God speaks and what he says happens – culminating in the creation of man. “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…..And so it happened” (Genesis 1:28-31) God’s word gives life and goodness (cf. Genesis 1:31 “God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good.”)
God establishes his relationship with mankind first through His word. The relationship continues through time. He continues to develop that relationship. Though man falls, God never ceases to reach out, invite, and patiently wait for their return; all the while providing healing and hope.
God’s self-communication with mankind continues in many ways. He reaches out to mankind and invites us to know him, to enter deeper into communion with Him and to love Him.
In one broad sense, the “Word of God” refers to this activity of love. The “Word of God” is reflected in the Sacred Scriptures, also referred to as “The Bible.” The collected writings are held to be “inspired” by God. He invited human beings to write the texts over hundreds of years but in a mysterious way, without inhibiting their human freedom, worked with them so that the texts can really be called the “Word of God in the words of men.” (cf. Dei Verbum 13)
The “Word of God” in the Sacred Scriptures can have a great influence in our lives – indeed it can be life-giving as it inspires us, challenges us, heals us, enlivens hope and leads us deeper and deeper in to that relationship with Him who is Love.
The Letter to the Hebrews puts it this way: “Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)
The Scriptures themselves remind us of the reliability of God’s word saying: “For the Lord’s word is upright; all his works are trustworthy;” (Psalm 33:4) “The grass withers, the flower wilts, but the word of our God stands forever.” (Isaiah 40:8)
Ultimately, Jesus Himself will say: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (Matthew 24:35)
The Word of God in the Sacred Scriptures help us to hear God speak to us in the depths of our being, at the core of who we are, or in biblical expression “in our hearts.” The Second Letter of Timothy reminds us that God’s word helps us develop and grow into the image of the God who created us. He writes: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
Pslam 119 captures the concept in a more poetic expression: “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105) and “The revelation of your words sheds light, gives understanding to the simple.” (Psalm 119:130)
Jesus captures this notion in his response to the devil who tries twist the texts to his own end. Jesus refutes him and says: “It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4; cf. 4:1-11) Here Jesus himself is quoting from Sacred Scripture, from the Book of Deuteronomy. The text reads: “He therefore let you be afflicted with hunger, and then fed you with manna, a food unknown to you and your ancestors, so you might know that it is not by bread alone that people live, but by all that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)
The Word of God in the Sacred Scripture is not a dead word but alive. It continues to speak throughout the ages to everyone who is willing to listen. Jesus urges us to be active listeners. He urges us to take the Word of God to heart and to respond. His call to repentance that we hear in today’s Gospel passage is not only a call to turn back to God from sin but to open our minds to God’s way – to life in the Kingdom. Later in the ministry he will say: “… blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.” (Luke 11:28) and “Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock.” (Matthew 7:24)
The Letter of James similarly encourages us: “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his own face in a mirror. He sees himself, then goes off and promptly forgets what he looked like. But the one who peers into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres, and is not a hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, such a one shall be blessed in what he does.” (James 1:22-25)
The same “Word of God” that invites, heals, encourages and reveals reaches its culmination in Jesus Christ. He is “The Word of God.”
Saint John the Evangelist emphasizes this in the Fourth Gospel. He opens that work with the memorable words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) Jesus is the “Word.” It is He through whom we were created. It is He who perfectly reveals the Father and His Kingdom. It is He to whom the evangelist refers when he writes: “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
The celebration of this “Word of God Sunday” invites us to encounter God in His Word. We hear his word every Sunday at the celebration of the Eucharist [not only in the readings at Mass, but the vast majority of the texts and prayers are full of quotes from the Sacred Scriptures]. In fact, the liturgical cycle of readings affords us the opportunity to hear most of the biblical texts every three years.
God, who is Love, speaks to us through His Word. Today we hear him invite us saying: “Come after me.”
This and every Sunday, we have the opportunity to actively listen to the Word of God, to be raised up in love and mercy and to be led forward in faith and hope.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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