Feasting on the Word
“The loving-kindness of the Lord filleth the whole world, alleluia: by the word of the Lord the heavens were established, alleluia, alleluia. Rejoice in the Lord, O ye righteous: for it becometh well the just to be thankful” (Opening Introit of the Second Sunday after Pascha).
Our purpose in life is to contemplate and adore God. The height of existence is to stand enraptured by His beauty. Yet, this is not achieved by wishful thinking. True worship is a state of being, an attitude of the soul, that comes only from cultivating the right kinds of habits, again and again. This is our exercise throughout the season of Pascha. We must strain ourselves, through each moment in the day, to behold and cherish God’s Word.
The Word of God fills and sustains the universe. When St. John began his gospel, he described Christ as the logos. “In the beginning was the ‘logos’, and the ‘logos’ was with God, and the ‘logos’ was God” (Jn. 1:1). In doing so, St. John used a word that would strike the heart of every Greek and Roman thinker of his time. The Hellenic world believed firmly in a logos (an energy or being) which wove throughout and sustained harmony in the cosmos. As they saw it, to study a subject was to study its logos, to gain an understanding of the “word” or “logic” behind something (hence, biology — ‘bios’+’logos’; anthropology — ‘anthropos’+’logos’). Christianity recognizes the logos behind everything as a person, our Lord Jesus Christ. Not only this, we recognize that this logos not only sustains all things, but is the very essence of truth, goodness, and beauty.
To be a Christian is to enjoy life, in the truest way. Afterall, God is life, and only God is truly enjoyable. Yet, how do we live this life? On the first level, we contemplate God by simply opening our eyes to reality. We percieve God by being excited about the universe, in studying science, art, music, law, and all the wonders of nature. On the deepest level, we contemplate God in the Blessed Sacraments. When we eat the Body and drink the Blood of Christ we are experiencing God in a level more intimate than anything the Greeks or pagans ever fathomed. God is available to us and our thirst is is never disappointed in Him.
God is available to us in a further way stay. He is available in the Holy Scriptures.
We must not underestimate the importance of studying scripture. In the Early Church, the Fathers chose to call the scriptures the “Word of God” because of their special connection to the Word. They are an icon of the Word. A painting of Christ tells us something special about Christ and mystically makes him available to us. The scriptures are the same. The words in the bible are crafted by men, but inspired by the breath of God. By dwelling on scripture, we tap into the heart of Christ. In meditating on the Word of God, we allow God’s heart to fill and transform our own.
Our Gospel today tells us of the Good Shepherd.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:11-16).
What does it mean, “I know my own and my own know me”? At the core of who we are is a hope to be known. This is why a child beams when mother picks her up. The adolescent looses sleep because of one glance from a boy or girl. A marriage flourishes or breaks for the same reason and the old soul in the nursing home looks for nothing more. We all want to be known, so it is no small thing that that Christ promises, “I know my own and my own know me.” God is inviting us into a relationship of knowing one another.
How well, then, do you know God? The sheep that recognize the voice of the shepherd do so only because of the time they spent with him. The other sheep remain ignorant and wander off to the wilderness. One of the fundamental tasks for a Christian is to spend time studying the Word of God. The Old and New Testament are a road map for us. The time we spend studying them is time spent breathing in the breath of God. Our minds are continually being shaped and formed by the messages around us. If the gospels are not filling our heads, something else is, and it is not of God.
The eighth chapter of the Book of Proverbs is a song about God’s Word.
“Does not wisdom call out?
Does not understanding raise her voice?
At the highest point along the way, where the paths meet, she takes her stand;
Beside the gate leading into the city,
At the entrance, she cries aloud:
‘To you, O people, I call out;
I raise my voice to all mankind…Listen!’” (1-6)
“Blessed are those who listen to me,
Watching daily at my doors,
Waiting at my doorway.
But those who fail to find me harm themselves;
All who hate me love death” (34-36).
If you read the lives of the saints you find one thing common among all of them. They loved the Holy Scriptures. St. Augustine called the bible “letters from home,” and he dedicated his adult live studying them. St. John Chrysostom urges us to know the gospels as a pharmacist knows medicine. He exhorts, “To get the full flavor of an herb, it must be pressed between the fingers, so it is the same with the Scriptures; the more familiar they become, the more they reveal their hidden treasures and yield indescribable riches.” St. John Damascene insisted, “To search the Scriptures is a work most fair and most profitable for souls. For just as the tree planted by the channels of waters, so also the soul watered by the divine Scripture is enriched and gives fruit in its season.” St. Seraphim of Sarov, who read through the four gospels weekly, taught, “In return for this exercise alone, without the addition of any other virtuous deeds, the Lord grants man His mercy.”
Should this be a surprise to any of us? The scriptures themselves are clear. “Bind [the scriptures] on your heart always; tie them around your neck. When you walk, they will lead you; when you lie down, they will watch over you; and when you awake, they will talk with you” (Pr. 6:21-22). We wonder why our life is empty. We wonder why we cannot be happy, and wander in circles with our head down, blaming this and that or him and her. There was once a man who starved to death surrounded by food. Each day, meat and bread were set in front of him, but he never took them. Instead, he withered away and died. It sounds absurd, but it is our story. The holy gospels are a banquet for our soul. Will we feast?
There is a warning in Christ’s words today.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand [on the other hand] who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.”
Who is the hired hand in your life? The hired hand is all the wrong kinds of ideas out there. The world teaches one thing and Christ teaches another. We must continually challenge ourselves. How do our beliefs hold up to the Word of God? Have our thoughts been formed by God’s way or the world’s way? There are all kinds of logos in the world which are not God’s logos. There is a bent way of thinking which influences all the newspapers, television shows, and nearly every part of our society. How can we free ourselves from their hold over our hearts? Quite simply, we must immerse ourselves in the Word of God.
“So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it” (Is. 55:11).
God’s Word is powerful. We will not be unchanged by studying the Word of God. The more time we spend immersed in Scriptures, the more they will wash over our hearts. During this time of quarantine, we have this opportunity available to us to a significant decree. While we cannot come to church to receive the Sacrament of His Body and Blood, we can sit in our homes, and partake of the Sacrament of His Word. In meditating on these inspired words, we open our souls to the Word, and receive gems of life that outshine everything the world has to offer.
Christ is Risen! This is a time for feasting. Feast on the Word of God and you will know joy.
“I am the good shepherd, alleluia: and know my sheep, and am known of mine, alleluia, alleluia” (Communion Proper from the Second Sunday after Pascha).