The Importance of Reading Scripture

He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures

By Fr Brian McCarthy

I would encourage you to read the Scriptures.

We hear the Scriptures read when we attend Mass, but in order to penetrate them properly they require careful, meditative, personal reading.

Although this reading is best done on one’s own, it is never done alone; one always reads in continuity with the community of believers. Otherwise the text is as it were suspended in mid-air: it cannot provide an interpretation of its own meaning.

In the encounter of the Deacon Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch on the road to Gaza, Philip hears him reading aloud from the prophet Isaiah and asks him if he understands what he is reading, to which the man replies: “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:31). This understanding, given by Christ to the apostles on Easter Sunday, when “he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures”, has informed the Church’s reading ever afterwards.

For example, how are we to understand Jesus’ statement: “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30)? At first sight it may appear simply a metaphor: Jesus and the Father are one, morally and spiritually. Indeed, at the Last Supper Jesus returns to the theme of unity: “That they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me and I in you” (John 17:21), signifying the moral unity of the whole Christian community with its Head. Yet the Church has always read the statement as applying to Jesus in a substantial sense, and at the Council of Nicaea coined the expression “consubstantial” to block off any reduction of the meaning.

When the Arians protested that the term was not to be found in Scripture, the Fathers retorted that this was indeed the case, but that they chose it precisely because it expressed the sense in which the union of Father and Son was to be understood. The restoration of this term in the 2011 translation of the Roman Missal thereby links us very directly with the faith of the early Church.
Closer to our own time, we have Jesus’ Eucharistic discourse at Capharnaum: “he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:54). This too can be read as a metaphor: Jesus’ words are food and drink for his followers, and at the beginning of his discourse they are indeed presented in that sense; but as he progresses the meaning changes and overflows, so much so that his hearers complain: “This is a hard saying: who can accept it?” (John 6:60). Hence the Council of Trent, in order to tie down the meaning of the passage, coined the term “transubstantiation” to show the sense in which the doctrine has to be understood. Subsequently too, this term has been challenged, on the grounds that it borrows ideas from Aristotelian philosophy which are not to be found in Scripture, which is true; but the purpose of the Fathers of Trent was to eliminate any reduction of the meaning to a purely metaphorical one, and that it does achieve.

Christian reading of the Scriptures is always carried out in reference to Christ, the Word of the Father. The Old Testament is always a re-reading in the light of the New, in the celebrated phrase of St Augustine: “The New is hidden in the Old, and the Old is made manifest in the New”.

The Psalms, for example, address all the states of the human psyche, and that is part of their perpetual appeal. The Church, though, has always seen in them references to Christ.
St Thomas Aquinas, in his commentary on Psalm 21 (“O God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), puts it thus: “Matters are sometimes set forth which pertain to Christ, which surpass, as it were, the power of the narrative. This very Psalm, among others, treats of the passion of Christ in a spiritual manner. And for this reason, this is its literal sense”.