Eating the Word of God

Back in 2017, I led a retreat at Calvary Church, Pittsburgh. My focus was on several prayer book collects we pray on Sundays this time of year. This meditation is on the collect for Proper 28, which falls today this year. I love this collect and the truth to which it points us, so I thought I’d share this meditation.

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

At ordinations, those who are being ordained make a declaration which says, in part, “I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation.” While some Episcopalians have, at times, wished to diminish the importance of scripture, the ordination service rightly sets forth the important and true belief that the scriptures are God’s word and that they reveal for us what is necessary for our salvation.

Our tradition has long permitted a wide range of teaching about how to read and interpret the scriptures. We are not confessional, so we neither require nor forbid inerrantist or literalist or allegorical readings of the scriptures. But to go too far down the road of how we read the Bible is to get away from the main point, which our collect beautifully puts before us.

It is God who caused the scriptures to be written. And why? For our learning. And then we get to what really matters. It is not the kind of learning that is about memorizing facts. This learning is different. The scriptures are meant to aid us in embracing and holding fast to the blessed hope of everlasting life. And lest we think that “everlasting life” means that the scriptures are only about the life to come, I remind you that we sometimes receive Holy Communion with these words: “The Body (Blood) of our Lord Jesus Christ keep you in everlasting life.” That is, everlasting life is not just something to enjoy in the life to come, but in this life. To put it another way, everlasting life is life in God, or the abundant life of which Jesus spoke.

This collect is perhaps most memorable for the phrase about how we are to receive the scriptures, as we ask God to help us “hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.” This prayer was freshly composed by Thomas Cranmer himself for the 1549 prayer book just 13 years after William Tyndale had been martyred for translating the scriptures into English. No one in the church in 1549 would have taken the scriptures or the ability to hear them in their own language for granted. Filled with gratitude for God’s word, Cranmer uses conventional and very rational language at first. The scriptures are spoken of like any lecture might be, we want to hear, read, mark, and learn. But then there is this wonderful image of inwardly digesting.

Those who know their scriptures well will immediately think of several places when God’s word is digested. Jeremiah the prophet speaks of his joy at discovering God’s word, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart” (Jeremiah 15:16).

Ezekiel’s vision includes vibrant imagery:

But you, son of man, hear what I say to you; be not rebellious like that rebellious house; open your mouth, and eat what I give you.” And when I looked, behold, a hand was stretched out to me, and, lo, a written scroll was in it; and he spread it before me; and it had writing on the front and on the back, and there were written on it words of lamentation and mourning and woe. And he said to me, “Son of man, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. And he said to me, “Son of man, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” Then I ate it; and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey. (Ezekiel 2:8-3:3)

And then there is Revelation:

So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll; and he said to me, “Take it and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.” And I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach was made bitter. (Revelation 10:9-10)

All these things might be in the minds of those steeped in scripture, but the word “inwardly” guards us against the slightly terrifying prospect of having literally to eat the Bible. Bitter stomach, indeed.

To speak of inwardly digesting is to place the Bible in a sacramental context. Sacraments are outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace. So too the scriptures are external, tangible books, but the real power is their inward power to reveal God’s glory to us and to change our hearts.

Let us embrace the scriptures with the zeal of those who are embracing something good once forbidden. I invite you to ponder what the scriptures mean for you. And how might you inwardly digest them so that God’s hope pervades your being, that we might dwell in God’s abundant life in this age and the age to come?

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

6 Responses

  1. Steve Teague says:

    Love it — my favorite Collect of the Church Year. Thank you for “calling it out,” for the Greater Church. May we follow the verbs of this Collect in our reading — lectio and meditatio of scripture…

  2. Rosann says:

    My favorite collect by far…and the title of the first EC book I ever read comes from it…

  3. Leslie Souleret says:

    Thank you for this post. You write in a clear, understandable way that is truly a blessing.

  4. Frances says:

    Agreed. I am saddened by the drift away from the expression of the truths that have nourished us. Generation after generation. And the prayers that have fed us. Without any need of revision.

  5. I love this Collect! As a bit of a nerd, it speaks to my need to know–and share–God’s Word. And it causes me to ponder what is confusing, concerning and underappreciated and seek to understand its meaning and application in our common life.

  6. hannell says:

    Thanks Diana. I hear Doug’s voice as I read this collect. I cad shall work on eating and injesting more of Gods words instead of having to eat my own .

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