Catholics and the Bible

I was surprised to find an Anglican friend commenting, almost in throw-away mode, that Catholics don’t read the bible much, or at any rate, not as much as Anglicans do. Is that true? Certainly, the Church puts before us a great deal of scripture during the course of the year and the use of the vernacular means that no one should be put off by having little Latin and less Greek (to say nothing of Hebrew). What is often forgotten is that scripture in the vernacular is not new. The Rheims New Testament was published in 1582 and the Douay Old Testament in 1609/10, just antedating the King James version. My recollection of the Catholic homes of my childhood is of seeing copies of these Rheims/Douay bibles alongside copies of the Vulgate. They were often modest volumes, printed on thin paper in a minute type size and small enough to be secreted in a large pocket. The really radical probably had copies of Ronald Knox’s translation somewhere, but it was the old bibles that charmed me. They spoke of a faith kept alive under difficult circumstances, not quite ‘respectable’, often hidden, always slightly ‘alien’ to the mass of their fellow citizens.

Perhaps the ‘Catholics don’t read the Bible’ idea comes from the way in which different traditions approach the scriptures. Many Catholics I know can quote huge chunks of the text but glaze over if one gives them, literally, chapter and verse. That doesn’t happen with my Protestant friends, who can conduct whole conversations bandying references back and forth. Possibly, the rich devotional life of Catholics needs to be considered, too. For example, the Jesus Psalter incorporates a lot of scripture as texts to meditate on, just as the Divine Office is itself made up almost entirely of psalms and scripture readings, but neither is a lectio continua of the whole bible such as one finds in many Protestant and Reformed churches.

So, perhaps my friend was right? I don’t know. What I do know is that ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ.

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Holy Innocents

This feast is often used by Catholics to condemn the evil of abortion. I have already written something on the subject here. Today I would rather share some thoughts with you about the strange event to which the gospel refers: Herod’s murder of young boys in the Bethlehem district. The historicity of the event is often questioned, although we all know that not every villainy is documented in ways that would satisfy a court of law. What interests me, however, is Rachel ‘weeping for her children because they are no more’ (referring back to Jeremiah 31. 15 – 17).

In their original context these words relate to Israel’s experience of exile and restoration. I find unconvincing attempts to turn the words into some sort of messianic prophecy fulfilled in Jesus. I think Matthew uses the phrase to express the grief and hopelessness of Jewish mothers suffering the loss of their sons at Herod’s orders and links to Ramah because that is the place from which the Jews were gathered together for deportation to Babylon. It is, if you like, a coded message: death and destruction were not far from Jesus from the very beginning of his earthly existence as they have never been very far from any of the Chosen People.

There are a number of Jewish midrashim on ‘Rachel weeping’ which add to our sense of the universalism of Matthew’s point. In one of them Rachel moves heaven and earth and the Holy One, blessed be he, to weep with her; in another she not only weeps but argues with God and prevails upon him to rescue Israel from danger. In other words, the grief of Rachel is the grief of every generation which experiences death and exile.

Today, with so many refugees in the world and the borders of many hitherto hospitable nations being closed against them, we could spend a few moments thinking about the plight of those who, like the Master we follow, ‘have not where to lay their heads’ and whose lives are vulnerable to attack. Tyranny did not die with Herod, nor did the coming of the Prince of Peace destroy the cruelty in human hearts.

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