Footnotes and throw-away lines can sometimes be the most fruitful parts of scripture study for me.
Consider the (seeming) aside written by St. Paul in the opening lines of his letter to Timothy heard at Mass earlier this week:
I am grateful to God, whom I worship with a clear conscience as my ancestors did…
No big deal, right? Except…
…why would Paul need to make a point about having a clear conscience since he claims to be worshiping ‘as his ancestors did’?
I suspect the truth may be tucked into the tidbit we learn from Paul a few lines later, in this exhortation to his protégé:
So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord, nor of me, a prisoner for his sake…
You kinda get the feeling that Paul wasn’t worshiping exactly as his ancestors did. Rather, he’d been proclaiming Jesus Christ as Messiah…and apparently, the message was unorthodox enough to get him jailed.
No doubt, this scripture scenario registered a bit more prominently on my radar due to the recent headlines about ISIS. Christianity may be a lot more mainstream today than it was in Paul’s time, but in some corners of the world, it can still be deemed an offense. And meditating on that fact tends to give Paul and his contemporaries a bit more flesh-and-blood – in my mind, anyway.
Surely I pay attention to the words of the epistle in a different way when I consider just how much the words cost Paul, the man.
The same goes for the Letter to the Hebrews, from which we’ve been hearing extended excerpts at daily Mass in recent days. There’s a lot of mind-bending stuff in Hebrews—sophisticated theological constructs focused on the priesthood of Christ. But it was a footnote to the Letter (in my New American Bible) that really struck a chord for me. It pointed out that
the author wrote [Hebrews] before the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
In other words, this new-order theology was being discussed (and written about) before the old order of worship had fully passed away. Jewish high priests were still offering animal sacrifices in Jerusalem…even as the members of the early Christian community were working out exactly what Christ meant for them, and how his life, death and resurrection changed—fundamentally—their relationship with God.
It’s a startling thing when you realize that we are invited to put the very same question to ourselves today.
The Spirit speaks (perhaps through the footnotes and throw-away lines we encounter in the Word of God and in each celebration of the Mass) to remind us that Christ comes to usher out the old passing order. Reminding us that Christ comes…as the most disruptive force the world has ever known.
Begging this question, certainly: Are we listening?
And if so: Then how, too, are we being changed?
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy One.