The Words of Jesus

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A Chance for Change

Written By Phyllis Tickle

The following reflection first appeared in October 2008 as part of First Sundays with Phyllis Tickle, a series of monthly blogs written by Tickle and posted on explorefaith from 2008 to 2010.

BishopToday is a day of considerable significance, perhaps even of great significance. We won’t know which descriptor is the more accurate for several months, of course, maybe even not for a few years; but for right now, there is no question that calling this Sunday a significant one is the very least we can say of it.

Today, the XII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops convenes in Rome at the Vatican. This will be, as the name suggests, the twelfth time such a council has been convoked since Vatican II, but it is its stated subject that makes this Synod so pivotal. Somewhere around two hundred and fifty bishops from around the world—four of them from the United States—representing every member-part of the world-wide Catholic Church will spend the next three weeks together in worship, in prayer, and in unfettered discussion of a central topic: The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.

By the time the Synod is called to order today, every bishop there and every one of several hundred credentialed observers, ecumenical delegates, and scholars will have read with thoughtful concentration a lengthy document entitled Instrumentum Laboris; and if that sounds to our contemporary ears a bit like the name of a medieval implement of torture, our ears would not be entirely wrong. What in actuality the Instrumentum is, is a most complete and completely developed agenda. It is, literally, a working—or laboring—document that is inclusive of all the thoughts, considerations, and questions that divisions and bishops and scholars of the Church have gathered over the past few years of addressing, locally, the assigned question of what is the Word of God among us and what does it mean when we employ that expression.

Whatever the Synod may discuss and however widely its deliberations may range, by two weeks from today, all its participating bishops must begin the even more difficult process of distilling, within their final week, all the preparatory thought of the Church and all the conversations and commentary of the Synod itself into a set of “Propositions.” Once formulated, those propositions will be sent by the Synod to the Pope, who will then assume the Herculean task of crafting from them an Apostolic Exhortation. It, ultimately, will be what Benedict XVI says to the Church in that Exhortation that determines whether today is a Sunday of just considerable or, instead, one of great, significance.

The Word of God, from the beginning of Judeo-Christianity, has been the pivot on which all else is balanced. As a phrase, it names, for both Judaism and Christianity, the Great Mystery, the inconceivable which, being beyond the grasp of what it has created, is itself beyond name. It, animate beyond gender, is both the source and the stuff of all; and within the Christian understanding, it elected, in its own own-ness, to participate in its created self and know itself as God/Man-Man/God.

These things are too hard for us. We know that. Certainly the bishops commencing their meeting in Rome this morning know that. But what they and we also know is that the Word or logos—We Christians increasingly swing over to using the Greek as if thereby we might manage to distance ourselves from this NO-THING we can not formulate—What we and the Bishops all know, then, is that the logos is not subject to the restrictions of the time it created and, as a result, is not subject to the grammar of human speech. It is not of the verbal tenses nor of the cause-and-effect, action-to-object limitations within which we are caught and from out of which we must struggle even to speak our engagement of the Word.

What is exhilarating in all of this for all Christians of whatever persuasion—and quite reverently we must say that God knows there is much that is exhilarating in every part of this Synod—is that today, in this month that on Friday, the 31st, observes the four-hundred-and ninety-first anniversary of the Great Reformation and the birth of Protestantism, we are teasingly close to doing something very like unto arriving at full-circle and maybe—just maybe—at restored balance

In preparation for the actual opening and deliberations of the Synod, Benedict XVI in May declared the time from 29 June 2008 to 29 June 2009 to be a Year of Jubilee in celebration of the two-thousandth anniversary of the birth of St. Paul. The irony is that it was Paul whom the protesting reformers of half-a-millennium ago took as the patron saint of their new movement.It was in Paul, the trained Pharisee, and in his well-argued epistles, that Luther and his fellow protestants found the intellectual and logic-driven base for overthrowing the single authority of the Church in order to replace it with the authority of Holy Writ…or, as more than one Protestant leader has observed, with a paper pope.

But now, this morning, in Rome, in the Cathedral of St. Peter’s, at the very place that Luther so yearned to change, not overthrow, the Church of his concern meets within a Pauline Year to consider again the always dynamic question of the Word of God in Christianity, both as it was incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth and as it has told itself within the pages of Scripture. The Synod does so at the very time in which the hegemony of Protestantism as a dominant form of Christianity is being successfully challenged by emerging/emergent/emersion Christianity. The Synod does so at the very time in which emerging Christianity is taking up as its organizing battle cry, “Give us Jesus…Give us the Word of God among us, not caught on a page or argued in an academy, but radical Jesus, radical Word, radical logos among us.” If today…if on this First Sunday of October, 2008…we who are Christian, whether we be Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, or emergent…if on this Sunday morning, we can cry out as one voice to God for a more perfect understanding of the Word of God, we will pray at last and truly as the Church Universal. We will pray in the company of both St. Peter and St. Paul in the company of both Luther and Calvin, and in the company of the Holy Spirit of God.

I bid your prayers this morning, my brothers and sisters in the faith. Part of us gathers in Synod this day. May what happens there sanctify all of us.

Copyright © 2008 Phyllis Tickle.