As far as I remember I’ve always been a practising Catholic. By practising I mean going to church regularly, making confession regularly, attending catechesis regularly. It was quite an achievement considering it was happening in a communist country officially irreligious and openly anti-clerical. But before I reached the age of seventeen I’d never had the Bible in my hands, and had never read it on my own. First of all I’d never been interested in it; secondly it wasn’t easy to buy one in a communist country. So when my faith turned from customary to personal at the age of seventeen I requested my parish priest to help me buy my own Bible. Two weeks later he called me to his office and handed me over a big brown envelope with a brand new copy of the Bible. That moment completely changed my life, albeit I realised that many years later.
Since I got my first Bible I’ve read the book several times from cover to cover. At my first reading I didn’t understand much of it. But those bits I did understand cast new light on my life. It was like a dialogue with someone giving me bits of advice, helping me to understand my life and myself, answering the questions I had. Consequently it’s led me to changing my attitudes, my approach to people and the world, and resetting my priorities. Nothing and nobody has ever had greater impact on my life than the Bible.
Today’s first reading describes a religious gathering of the residents of Jerusalem. Forcefully moved to Babylon as exiles from their homeland, after living there for decades, they had been granted permission to return and to rebuild their city. Their lives were far from easy and comfortable. They had to face personal, social and defensive challenges, with obstructions from Persian officials. Many of the residents wondered if they had made a right choice, leaving the relative comfort behind in Babylon and returning to the land of their ancestors. At the aforementioned gathering Ezra the priest proclaims the word of God, reading from the book of the Law, bringing comfort, consolation and support to the people battered by adversities. Something similar happens in the synagogue in Nazareth, as we heard in today’s gospel: Jesus reads the prophecy of Isaiah, and proclaims the prophecies were being fulfilled at that very moment.
The part of the world we live in is relatively safe and comfortable, compared to countries plagued by wars, natural disasters and unimaginable poverty. But we’ve got our own problems, anxieties and adversities. The news rarely brings good tidings, deepening that subconscious feeling that our world goes to the dogs, and that our lives are pretty miserable.
What I’m going to say now might sound like another completely useless and hopelessly simplistic piece of advice given by a clergyman. Let me recall one bit from the letter of St Paul to the Romans: ‘faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.’ The word of God, contained in the Bible, is not a thing of the past, done and dusted. That word is living and effective, with power to spark hope, to rouse faith, to kindle love. That word can counterweigh all the doom and gloom thrown upon us. Like the people of Nazareth we can be certain that the words of Jesus: ‘this text is being fulfilled today even as you listen’ are as true today as they were there and then. St Augustine as a non-believer, heard a child’s voice in a garden chanting: ‘take and read.’ He followed that call and subsequently became a Christian. Let me re-echo that call: ‘take and read.’ Believe me: you will not regret that.