3rd Sunday of Easter (Fr. Francis)
Understanding the Bible/Scriptures:
The Catholic Church exhorts all the Christian faithful to read the Bible. But it is important how we interpret it. How we interpret the Bible directly affects what we believe about Christ, about the Church, and about our faith in general. When we read the inspired Word of God in the Sacred Scriptures, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) tells us that we “must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words” (#109).
This means that we must take into account the conditions of the time and culture of the inspired authors, and “the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking, and narrating then current. . . .’For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression”‘ (CCC #110).
The Catechism mentions three criteria for interpreting the Bible. They are as follows: the unity of the Scriptures, the living Tradition of the Church, and the analogy of faith.
First, even though the Bible is made up of 73 different books, each book, each chapter, each sentence and word need to be seen as a “unity of the whole Scripture” (CCC #112). This is not some arbitrary rule made up by the Church. It is a natural consequence of God’s plan of salvation, which is to say, God’s plan of salvation is the unifying context or framework for each book, chapter, sentence, and word.
Second, the Bible needs to be read within “the living Tradition of the whole Church.” The reason for this is beautifully stated in the Catechism: “According to a saying of the Fathers, Sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church’s heart rather than in documents and records, for the Church carries in her Tradition the living memorial of God’s Word, and it is the Holy Spirit who gives her the spiritual interpretation of the Scripture” (CCC #113).
The third criteria for interpreting the Bible is to be attentive to the analogy of faith. This means that we are to interpret what we read in terms of “the coherence of truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation” (CCC #114).
We also need to be aware of the Bible’s literal and spiritual senses. The literal sense simply refers to the meaning of the words in the text based on sound rules of interpretation. The spiritual sense includes the moral teaching found in the Bible, and something called typology. Typology is fascinating, and learning about it opened up the Bible for me in a way I never imagined.
In one respect, typology is a way to interpret certain people, things and events in the Old Testament as signs or types that point to greater realities in the New Testament. It is generally associated with God’s plan of salvation and Jesus. According to the Catechism, typology “discerns in God’s works of the Old Covenant prefiguration of what he accomplished in the fullness of time in the person of his incarnate Son” (#128).
Jesus himself showed us how to read the Scriptures typologically when he explained how the Old Testament Scriptures referred to him in the Gospel story of Emmaus. In this story Jesus appeared to two of his disciples while they were walking on the road to Emmaus and lamenting his crucifixion and the disappearance of his body from the tomb.
Jesus said to 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 24:25-32).
There are many examples of typology in the Bible. For example, Adam is a type or sign of Christ (1 Cor 15:45). In the Gospel of John, Jesus is referred to as the new Moses (1:17). The flood during the time of Noah prefigures the sacrament of Baptism (1Pt 3:20-21). The manna that the Jews ate while wandering in the desert prefigures the Eucharist (Jn 6:31-35). And the Church on earth, the Bride of Christ, is also a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem (Rev 21-22).
All of the above criteria and senses that the Church uses to interpret the Bible are rooted in reason, Tradition and Christ himself.
Jesus in today’s Gospel teaches His apostles how to interpret the Scriptures.
He tells them that all the Scriptures of what we now call the Old Testament refer to Him. He says that all the promises found in the Old Testament have been fulfilled in His passion, death, and resurrection. And He tells them that these Scriptures foretell the mission of the Church—to preach forgiveness of sins to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
In today’s First Reading and Epistle, we see the beginnings of that mission. And we see the apostles interpreting the Scriptures as Jesus taught them to. God has brought to fulfillment what He announced beforehand in all the prophets, Peter preaches. His sermon is shot through with Old Testament images. He evokes Moses and the exodus, in which God revealed himself as the ancestral God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (see Exodus 3:6,15). He identifies Jesus as Isaiah’s suffering servant who has been glorified (see Isaiah 52:13).
John, too describes Jesus in Old Testament terms. Alluding to how Israel’s priests offered blood sacrifices to atone for the people’s sins (see Leviticus 16; Hebrews 9–10), he says that Jesus intercedes for us before God (see Romans 8:34), and that His blood is a sacrificial expiation for the sins of the world (see 1 John 1:7).
Notice that in all three readings, the Scriptures are interpreted to serve and advance the Church’s mission—to reveal the truth about Jesus, to bring people to repentance, the wiping away of sins, and the perfection of their love for God. This is how we, too, should hear the Scriptures. Not to know more “about” Jesus, but to truly know Him personally, and to know His plan for our lives.
In the Scriptures, the light of His face shines upon us, as we sing in today’s Psalm. We know the wonders He has done throughout history. And we have the confidence to call to Him, and to know that He hears and answers.
Fr. A. Francis HGN