The Historic "Sunday of the Word of God" - A Reflection
Updated: Feb 2
For the first time in the history of the Catholic Church, across the world, a Sunday is being dedicated as the Sunday of the Word of God. Not that the Word of God is not at the center Catholic worship. However, at the end of the Jubilee of Mercy in 2016, Pope Francis had indicated a desire to set aside a day for the celebration, study, and spreading of the Word of God. Then on September 30, 2019, the feast of St. Jerome, Pope Francis officially instituted the 3rd Sunday of the year as the Sunday of the Word of God.
To institute the Sunday of the Word of God, Pope Francis issued an Apostolic letter titled, Aperuit Illis, meaning, “He opened their minds,” - a reference to Christ opening the minds of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. He begins, though, with a passage from the book of Nehemiah (8:9), where people gather around the Word of God as “one people.” The title of his apostolic letter itself comes from the passage of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Jesus opened the minds of the disciples to understand God's plan of salvation. It was only then that the disciples understood the meaning of the death and resurrection of Christ. Apart from the sacred texts in Aperuit Illis, there are also the scripture readings proper to the 3rd Sunday of the Year that should also guide our reflection. “The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light,” Isaiah proclaims (9:1). In today’s gospel reading Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming the word of God, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand" (Mt 4:17).
What is the significance of the Sunday of the Word of God? Was it needed? Is it relevant? Why dod Pope Francis establish the historic Sunday of the Word of God?
1. The Meaning of Our Lived Experience. The first reason for Pope Francis’ focus on the Word of God is the meaning it has had in the lives of people throughout history, and the potential it has for meaning in our lives today. There are two experiences that Pope Francis draws on heavily in his apostolic letter Aperuit Illis. First, he makes a reference to a critical event in the history of the people of Israel – the return of the people from the Babylonian exile back into the Promised Land. The people assembled in Jerusalem in the square before the Water Gate to listen to the Law. As Nehemiah read the Law, the people lent “attentive ears” (Neh 8:3) to the reading of the sacred book, realizing that in those words they would discover the meaning of their lived experience. They were able to reflect on their experience of the exile in light of God's intervention in human history and their particular lives. The people were moved to the core as the Word of God was read, and they began to weep. That’s the power of God’s word. Second, Pope Francis’ reflection on the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:12-35), is particularly meaningful. He says, “They had hoped that he would be the Messiah who would set them free, but they found themselves instead confronted with the scandal of the cross.” Jesus opened their mind to the scriptures and they discovered Christ. As Pope Francis would say, “Since the Scriptures everywhere speak of Christ, they enable us to believe that his death and resurrection are not myth but history, and are central to the faith of his disciples.” The practical implication of this first point is simple – that we do not merely read the scriptures but allow it to speak to us as Christ himself; that we reflect upon the events of our lives in light of the holy scriptures; that we take the time, like the disciples, to reflect on life, to meditate, to ask the right questions, and allow Christ the Living Word, to speak to us. Today, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of Bible study groups, of personal meditation on the scriptures, and of taking time to make an annual retreat. It is only in Christ that, as Pope Francis says, we discover the meaning of our lived experience.
2. Scripture - The Focal Point of Unity. If you understand the papacy of Pope Francis, you should know by now, that the focus of his papacy is the person of Jesus Christ and His Gospel. Partly, the reason for his focus on the centrality of Christ and the Gospel is because it functions as a unifying focal point. In a world and a church that is bitterly divided, the Word of God, particularly the Gospel, provides Catholics a unifying force. Pope Francis makes a reference to it in his Apostolic letter Aperuit illis. When the people of Israel returned from exile, Pope Francis says, “they found themselves gathered “as one” around the sacred Scripture" (Neh 8:1). Oneness and unity is also the theme of today’s second reading. Paul was pained at the division that existed in the Corinthian community. “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided?" he asks. The practical implication of the Gospel is simple. Whether it is our home, our family, our church, our society, the nation or the world, we need a common focal point to unite us wherein we can discover the meaning of our lived experience. Pope Francis is inviting us to unite around Jesus, the living gospel, the word of God.
3. Scripture, Love, Mercy! Pope Francis presents a third challenge to the Church. Let me quote his words: “Yet another challenge raised by sacred Scripture has to do with love. God’s word constantly reminds us of the merciful love of the Father who calls his children to live in love. The life of Jesus is the full and perfect expression of this divine love, which holds nothing back but offers itself to all without reserve. In the parable of Lazarus, we find a valuable teaching. When both Lazarus and the rich man die, the latter, seeing the poor man Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom, asks that Lazarus be sent to his brothers to warn them to love their neighbor, lest they also experience his torment. Abraham’s answer is biting: “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them” (Lk 16:29). To listen to sacred Scripture and then to practice mercy - this is the great challenge before us in life. God’s Word has the power to open our eyes and to enable us to renounce a stifling and barren individualism and instead to embark on a new path of sharing and solidarity.” In other words, it is the Word of God that convinces us to become a selfless people, a people of love and mercy, a people who follow the example of Christ selfless life. There simply is no other way “to be!”
Of course, as Catholics, our reflection on the Word of God would not be complete without making the connection between the Word of God and the Eucharist. As Pope Francis says, “The journey that the Risen Lord makes with the disciples of Emmaus ended with a meal. They sit down at table, and Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it and offers it to them. At that moment, their eyes are opened, and they recognize him (cf. v. 31). At every Eucharist, remember that Christ accompanies us through life. And we never forget, Pope Francis reminds us, that Mary, who “heard the Word of God and kept it,” is always with us.
I believe that a Sunday to celebrate the Word of God is a significant moment in the history of the Church. After all, the one constant reality for the people of God from their origin is the spoken Word of God. May the Word become flesh in our lives and in the world.