During my second semester, I decided to fulfill a theology requirement with a course called “Introduction to Biblical Literature.” I figured it would be useful for me to take a class that would force me to read the Bible–something Catholics hardly do. And by now, I consciously wanted to get to know my faith and where it came from.
The reading assignments were tedious, and I sometimes hated them, but I ended up getting so much out of the class. I not only learned about Christianity as an academic subject, but the things I learned informed my practice of Catholicism and impacted my spiritual life. (That’s the beauty of a Jesuit education–what one learns inside the classroom is impactful outside it–and I’m so glad I decided to stick with the Jesuits.)
In class, we looked at the Bible as literature, which (I was thrilled to discover) is the way that the Biblical writers intended it to be read. The Old Testament stories were just that–stories meant to impart some kind of message through symbolism, allusion, and other literary devices. The Gospel writers too had messages they were trying to convey. For example, the writers of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) were trying to portray Jesus as the new Moses. Jesus came “out of Egypt” during a time at which first-borns were ordered to be killed; He miraculously fed the people bread from Heaven (loaves and fishes); and He brought the new Law (Golden Rule, law of service of neighbor). Whether or not these specific instances really occurred in Jesus’ life is fairly irrelevant. What is important is that these writers had a goal in writing these allusion-heavy stories into the life of Jesus: they were trying to legitimize Him to the Jewish population, who at the time was skeptical of his importance. By portraying Jesus as the new Moses they could show that Jesus was a part of the natural progression of the Jewish faith. Clearly, having a knowledge of the historical and cultural context, as well a knowledge of the Old Testament, are crucial for a person to have to reach this understanding of the New Testament.
(Like I said in an earlier post, I am not sure if my analysis or history here is correct or if everyone will agree with it. Please let me know what you think and correct me if I seem wrong. I’d like to know, how do you look at the Bible?)
So the authors of the Bible didn’t intend for the book to be read literally. Rather than containing a certain historical truth about Jesus or God, the stories pointed at a greater Truth about God and the way He works in the world. This fact gave me a sense of relief, and I wondered, “Why don’t priests talk more about this in Church? They have studied these things (for far longer than a single semester!) so why aren’t they helping the congregation to better understand the readings we hear at Mass every Sunday? Where’s the historical context that is so necessary to truly understanding the passage’s message?” (A few weeks ago at Mass, I was thrilled when my priest brought up historical context and its importance when reading an allegory in the book of Revelation. I was so excited.)
I read close to three-fourths of the Bible in class and soon began hearing some of those passages at Mass. They now contained so much more meaning because I was able to recognize the historical context, authorial intent, and symbolism that were key to unearthing the real message.
Another aspect of class really helped me to have a greater appreciation of the most important part of Mass, the sacrificial offering, or the Eucharist.
My professor introduced us to a key cultural practice of pre-Israelite times in the Middle East. It was customary for the community to take a lamb–a young and innocent animal without blemish–and symbolically put the sins of their community on that lamb. The lamb would then be sent away from the village and into the wild, taking the sins of the people with it, and thus freeing the community from the things that prevented it from prospering and living in peace.
This ritual was incorporated into the growing Jewish tradition as seen in Biblical examples from Exodus and Isaiah. In Exodus, the blood of the sacrificial lamb slaughtered by Moses and the Israelites in Egypt allowed for the Israelites to escape the sinful bondage in Egypt and live in freedom. In Isaiah, the “suffering servant” figure is “like a lamb led to the slaughter” (Isaiah 53:7) and he “gives his life as an offering for sin” (Isaiah 53:10).
This idea of the sacrificial lamb continued into Christianity as well. Jesus is often referred to as the Lamb, the one who “takes away the sins of the world.” It was only through His sacrifice–His death and resurrection–that sin could be done away with and that the peaceful and prosperous Kingdom of God could be realized on Earth.
Having not known before the history or significance behind the sacrificial Eucharist and the references to Jesus as Lamb, I began to have a whole new appreciation for a part of the Mass that had always seemed a little dry. The Eucharistic prayer and consecration had previously been hard for me to pay attention to, and the Lamb of God, the song sung right before Communion, was never one of my favorites because I didn’t understand the true meaning.
But after taking that religion class, the consecration and Lamb of God song became the most moving parts of the Mass for me. The fact that the sacrificial ritual of slaughtering the unblemished lamb is still practiced and continues to hold meaning after 5,000 years is almost too much for words. A tradition with this much longevity, one we still renew every Sunday at Mass through the sacrifice of the Eucharistic meal of Jesus body and blood, clearly holds a tremendous amount of spiritual power.
That’s one thing I learned to love about the Catholic Church: the traditions last. But I never would have reached this new awareness of my desire and appreciation for tradition within the Catholic Church if it weren’t for my Biblical literature class.
The Mass I attend at Georgetown is fairly traditional, and during Lent, the choir sings the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God in Latin. The combination of the mystical, unintelligible words and my new understanding of the tradition behind it left me to find tears in the corners of my eyes once or twice.
Questions for reflection:
What religious rituals are your favorites? Why? How have you come to better understand your faith’s rituals and where they come from?
How do you look at your religion’s Scripture and the Truth it conveys?
Part 7 will hopefully be posted tomorrow, but I’m driving to Georgetown tomorrow, so I’m not sure if I’ll have time. I’ll post as soon as I can.