Sunday, January 31, 2010

Regarding References

One of the curious Protestant habits which I've noticed has vanished from my vocabulary since my conversion is the tendency to include the book, chapter, and verse when quoting Scripture.

I remember when I first started going to Mass after having made the decison to become Catholic, and like any dutiful Christian, I took my Bible along with me. For those Catholics who may not be familiar with Protestant worship services, any time the Scriptures are read, the reader will usually say something like, "Please open your Bibles to I Corintians 13, verses 1 to 13." One then hears about five seconds of tissue-thin pages rustling before the reader begins.

In the Catholic lectionary, which is the big book containing the Scripture readings for each day's Mass, the text prompts the reader instead to announce, "A reading from the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians." And that's it. So when it came time for the Word to be read aloud at my first Mass, I dutifully had my Bible ready to look up the chapter and verse to follow along, but was left scrambling to find the passage from memory. Little did I know that at the back of the church there is usually a supply of Missals which have all the readings, along with their specific references in Scripture, for churchgoers to follow along.

But getting back to my original point: it almost seems to be a point of pride for Protestant Christians to announce the references of their Bible quotations in their discussions with each other. Rarely have I encountered a doctrinal debate where the debaters look up each others' references on the fly. So in looking back at when I used to do this, and looking at how some of the Protestants in my current circles do this, I must wonder why.

The only conclusion I can come to, and I point the finger at myself in this as well, is that giving the Bible reference in a verbal discussion announces to your listener that you really know your Bible. And not in a subtle way; it's not as though, like Jesus, I was amazing those who heard me expound the Scriptures. Instead, by saying things like, "Paul said in I Cor. 13:1 that if he speaks eloquently but without love, he is a clanging gong," I was subconsciously broadcasting my intelligence and my wisdom and my holiness. Of course, in the grand scheme of things this means that I was actually broadcasting my foolishness and my insecurity. Like a clanging gong.

It bears mentioning that I am referring here only to verbal communication. In written communication one does have the opportunity to consult the references given to support a position on a certain doctrine, and can thus prepare a response against those references. But the staccato machine gun method of spouting off chapters and verses in a verbal discussion is pointless and even arrogant.

When Jesus quoted Scripture he did not do this. When on the cross he cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" he did not preamble it with, "Like the Psalmist said in Psalm 22, verse 1..." On the contrary; the written Word of God was so deeply internalized for Christ, the incarnate Word himself, that it was supremly natural for him to use it to express his deepest emotions.

That is the calling of every Christian, and I call out my fellow Catholics on this especially. Think of what you do just before the Gospel is read at Mass: you trace a cross on your forehead, on your mouth, and on your chest. As you do this, you say a silent prayer: "May the Word of God be on my mind, on my lips, and in my heart."

Absorb the written Word of God. Live it; breathe it. But don't feel the need to add footnotes to your conversations when you speak it.