|Fr. John administering the Oil of Chrism
to my Mother in 2014.
PEOPLE OF THE BOOK
(By Fr. John Winfrey circa 2013)
I have heard many speak of Christianity as “people of the book”. The phrase, of course, comes from Islam’s reference to us in the earlier parts of the Qur’an. Over the centuries, there are many who have embraced that notion because everything was boiled down to the Bible alone in the 16th century. If it’s not in the Bible, then it can’t be true. We have all heard that sort of argumentation. But are the Muslims right about us? Are we really the people of the book?
Yes and no. Yes, the Scriptures are a very important part of who we are. It is one of the many ways through which Christ reveals himself to us. My patron Saint, John Chrysostom, encouraged everyone to read the Scriptures daily — this at a time when very few could possibly own their own copy because they were so expensive as they were all hand copied. The Scriptures do indeed form a part of our “daily bread.” But we, as Christians, are not created by the Bible. While the argument that Christianity is defined by the Bible, directed by it, and finds its reason for being in it, is something that is very attractive to some, it is not a complete understanding.
|An image from the Gospel Book of Kells
As important as the Scriptures are, and they are, they were written after the day of Pentecost when theChurch was established. What establishes the Church is the life of the Holy Spirit, who is the third person of the Godhead as unique and complete as the Father and the Son. God the Holy Spirit is the one who is the source of the Church’s life. In fact, it is he who inspired those who wrote the Scriptures as well as those who selected what books would be contained in the Christian Scriptures (which only occurs in the mid-4th century).
The fact is that when we bring someone forward to be baptized, we don’t give them a Bible quiz to see if they know the Faith. We ask them to recite the Nicene Creed. The Creed can be supported by the Scriptures without a doubt. But even before we ask the candidate to recite the Creed, the priest blows into the candidate’s face showing the creative work of the Holy Spirit. (The word for spirit and breath are the same in Greek and Arabic.) Thus, it is only through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit that a person can profess the Creed. We ought not to be surprised by this for even the Scriptures say that no one can confess Christ as Lord without the Holy Spirit. In Baptism the Holy Spirit recreates us in the font and joins us to Christ, and then seals us in Chrismation. Yes, Scriptures are read in Baptism — a lot of it. But it is the Holy Spirit that makes us Christian. Even the name “Christian”, or “anointed one” refers to it; we are anointed by the Holy Spirit, changed into something entirely different.
Christianity is defined not by a book, or actually a collection of books in the Bible, but by the work of the person of the Holy Spirit. Christianity is essentially a relationship with the Living God, and even more, it is communion with the Holy Trinity being made a partaker in the life of Christ. To say we are “people of the book” denies this critical characteristic and it inclines us to think in terms of legalism.
If a book defines us, then we must learn the book in detail — like a case book of law — if we are to know who we are. We should be able to quote chapter and verse to counter everything around us. If a book defines us, then we are constrained to formalism and law. There is no joy in this because we are then merely subjects of a system of regulations.
But this is not the case, thank God! The Scriptures support us and they teach us, but not like a law. They become bread rather than legal prescript. Christians are “people of the Spirit,” if we really want to be exact.
Now, before I go too far, let me say that yes there are rules of precept in the Church. No, we don’t change the meaning of the Scripture, or say that the early Church understood things differently because they were trapped or not as enlightened or other such thing. We are faithful to what God has revealed in the Scriptures and do not alter one word of it. The rules we have are for our salvation, not as a matter of law. If someone disagrees with a rule, then the chances are he doesn’t understand its purpose and how it is applied. In these cases the only reasonable thing is to speak to one’s priest to resolve the question. One may also misunderstand the Faith and so misunderstand the rules of the Church. This is another reason why the priest should be consulted. It is silly and immature to not ask, especially if one decides to sulk and back off like a child whose feelings are hurt. Adults come forward and ask honestly, without anger or pugnacity, so they can actually clarify things. Priests also have to ask questions of those who are better informed on questions so there is no shame in doing this. It is part of being a human being, we don’t have all of the answers ourselves.
The Scriptures guide us into a deeper life in the Holy Spirit, since they were inspired by the Holy Spirit. They challenge us and comfort us. But they do so because of the Holy Spirit. You have all heard me commend the daily reading of Scriptures to you. I follow my patron Saint in this admonition and it is so easy for you to have your own copy to do this. You know that I find power in the Scriptures, but I must tell you that we are not people of the book. Never fall into that mindset. We are people of the Spirit, who is alive and a genuine person of the Trinity. We are filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit that we might live. He makes us something that we could never be. Saint Peter, the great apostle, wrote very clearly what we are, and it is not people of the book. He says:
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:9-10)
Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the Scriptures. Look for the face of Christ in the Old Testament. But never confuse looking at letters on a page with our purpose. Always remember our lives are found in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.
This blog of Fr. John's was copied and edited by me years ago. It may not be perfectly intact or exactly what he posted. I know I made some spelling and syntax corrections for sure, but beyond that I cannot remember. I do believe it represents quite accurately what he was trying to communicate. Praying it blesses many souls even in its imperfect form.
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