new ardor, new methods, new expressions
It was my turn to preach and preside at Mass yesterday morning here at Camaldoli at General Chapter. It’s the first time I’ve presided at Camaldoli and I was trying to do it bi-lingual, so I had a lot of prep work. It was October 5th, so I started out by saying that liturgically we find ourselves between the feast of St. Francis (October 4) and the feast of St. Bruno, the founding father of the Carthusians (October 6), something I had never noticed before. And that seems to me to be a pretty good place for a Camaldolese. In our history we have experienced both the longing for solitude like St. Bruno, as well as missionary zeal, evangelical
zeal, even the zeal for martyrdom like il Poverello. For the most part we find ourselves in the middle of these tw poles, a place of tension, but a tension that gives great creativity. The Gospel was Jesus sending the seventy-two out to proclaim the good news, but what really struck my attention was the first reading for the Book of Nehemiah. It seemed perfect for the occasion and made it seem all the more necessary to translate the homily into Italian, as you shall see in a moment. This little story captures not only an integral moment in the history of the Jewish people; it also points to the very heart of our liturgical approach to Scripture.
This scene takes place shortly after the return from exile, when they are rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. This is a people that has only faint knowledge of the actual covenant, and has probably never read nor even heard the Law of Moses. Ezra the scribe brings forth the Book of the Law that has been re-discovered, and he reads it to the assembled people. The problem is, it is written in a language that they no longer speak! So first of all he has to translate it into their vernacular. And then Nehemiah and the Levites need to explain to them what it means. And the people are overcome with emotion at hearing these words explained to them for the first time. At first they weep, but the Levites tell them, No, this is a day to rejoice, to eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks (and allot portions for those who have nothing). And they did so––because they understood the words, the Scripture says. But they could not have understood the words unless Ezra had both read it and translated it, and they could not have understood the words unless Nehemiah and the Levites had explained it. There is an old American folk song that says that Jesus “opened the bread / and there was love inside.” And so, Ezra and the Levites broke open the Book of the Law as if it were bread, and showed them that this was indeed a covenant––there too, there was love inside.
There are several lessons to draw from this scene. The first is this: like the seventy-two that Jesus sends out in today’s Gospel,
the challenge to preachers and catechists is to remember that these ancient words of Scripture and our Tradition are written in a language that people no longer understand. And it is not even enough to translate it into the vernacular; it is also recorded in a way of speaking that people may no longer understand. As the last popes have called for, what is needed is what John Paul II called for with the New Evangelization, “a new ardor, new methods, and new expressions.” We need to open the Word and the Tradition as if it were bread and show the people that there is love inside.
A second lesson we draw is that the Word of God always demands a response; whenever it is truly heard by its very nature it elicits a response. The people of Israel wept, and then they rejoiced, and then they ate fine food and drank sweet drink and allotted portions to those who had none. We, instead, go to the altar in response, but not simply to offer bread and wine, but to lay our lives on the altar, our lives which will then be lifted up and accepted and consecrated––and then sent out like the seventy-two to spread that same saving Word, with a new ardor, new methods, and new expressions.
Finally specifically for us monastics: our own commitment to religious life has also been a response to the Gospel, to the Word, our Eucharistic offering. But perhaps religious life too, the contemplative life and specifically monastic life is written in a language that people no longer understand, a way of speaking that is in comprehensible. We cannot simply blame young people for their lack of ability to make a commitment, as is often the case. It is up to us to translate it for them, with new ardor, new methods, and even new expressions, to break it open and show them that there is love inside.
cyprian 5 oct 17