the bitter scroll
Such an evocative image we heard in the reading from the prophet Ezekiel today (Ez 2:8-3:4). He is asked to eat a scroll with lamentation, mourning and woe written on it! And yet it tastes as sweet as honey. This is such a powerful liturgical, Eucharistic image. We read the Word (we hear the Word) and then we are asked to eat that Word, because not only is Jesus Word made flesh, but the Eucharist too is Word made flesh, Word made bread, Word made wine. There’s a telling choreography in a church designed such as ours is: our response to the Word is to go to the altar and consume that same Word. But then there is one more step, too, as Ezekiel is told: ‘Go speak my words.’ Listen, eat, go! That’s a nice summary of liturgical spirituality. Listen, eat, and then go in peace––“glorifying the Lord by your life”! There is something we are supposed to learn in the formation that liturgy is: that the Word always demands a response, but also that all of our actions are done as a summons of the Word. This is why in the reformed rites of the church every sacrament, including Penance and Reconciliation, is supposed to begin with a reading of sacred scripture, the Word that bears an invitation, the Word that demands a response. Even if that word is lamentation, wailing and woe, as Fr. Deiss used to tell me, the truth is always beautiful somehow. This is also then an icon of the Paschal mystery. I was thinking of Jesus’ saying, ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light’ (which was actually the verse for the gospel acclamation today).
And that ties in with the other place that this image is used in scripture. There’s a corollary to this in the Book of Revelation, chapter 10. (The Book of Revelation of course may be the only book of the Bible that can rival Ezekiel for its fantastic visions.) John sees an angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head and he’s carrying a scroll, a little one. When John asks for it, the angel tells him, ‘Take it and eat it; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey to your mouth.’ And so it was; John ate it and it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter (Rev 10:9-10). I am not exactly sure what the author intended here, or even if the author wanted to allude to this passage from Ezekiel. At first glance, it seems like a bad thing––for something to taste so sweet and yet turn bitter in the stomach. And yet, perhaps there is a cleansing, purifying quality to all this too that we shouldn’t overlook. It certainly is my experience in the spiritual life that something can start out so filled with sweetness and consolation, sweet as honey in my mouth, but that may be just the starting point, the teaser, if you will, like the kiss from the Beloved. After that a new demand is going to be made, a deeper commitment will be asked for, a time of purification and emptying (kenosis), and this may seem very bitter to the system. But some of the best medicine is cleansing, purifying, purgative, cathartic. And so even the bitterness becomes sweet because we know that it is a harbinger of an even greater sweetness.
Maybe that’s the only way to become humble like a child again, as Jesus calls for in the gospel (Mt 18:1-5), when our blind and naked beings are stripped of everything on the path of purification, when we are emptied out completely and sit waiting like one before the emperor, or like a chick before the mother hen.
We also celebrated the optional memorial of St. Teresa Benedicta today, Edith Stein. She was the brilliant Jewish woman philosopher who converted to Catholicism and joined the Carmelites, but ended up dying in the concentration camp for being a Jew. It’s an interesting fact that she is considered a Christian martyr since she was actually killed for not forsaking her Jewishness by young Nazi soldiers who probably considered themselves good Christians. Let me end with a famous quote of hers that I thought pointed back to the theme from our readings quite poignantly.