A tiny, white leather-bound New Testament was among my children’s books growing up. The size of a sliver of grocery store cake, it had a white silk ribbon for marking fragile pages smaller than my Old Maid cards. Moving the ribbon about among the pages felt precise and like something an adult might do. I practiced my letters in red marker in inside cover. It was the only Bible in my house growing up—we were not Christians and we did not read it.
After I became a Christian in my 20s, a Catholic, I’d like to tell you I wore out my Bible, reading, studying and absorbing it. But I didn’t. When as a Catholic I heard the theological concept of Sola Scriptura “Scripture Alone,” it sounded sparse and cold. It sounded like an untouched Bible on the back of the shelf. Something with a pretty ribbon but not of much use.
Martin Luther gave the Christian world the phrase, nay, injuction, Sola Scriptura. Luther was a Catholic priest preparing a series of sermons on the Psalms in Wittenberg in 1513 when he was struck by Psalm 22. It begins, My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me? Catholics and other Christians have heard these words on countless Good Fridays. What did Luther hear? He hear Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, the Incarnate Word, God Himself, express desolation at the hour of his death. God despaired. What Luther heard in Psalm 22 was Mercy.
Meanwhile in 16th century Europe, the Catholic Church was selling indulgences, tickets out of purgatory, a bit of a boost to heaven, so to speak. A possibly apocryphal little ditty is said to have been recited as the monks strode about, “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.” Salvation was for sale.
Reading Psalm 22, Martin Luther realized Jesus died for his disciples at the foot of the cross and for the good thief and the bad thief, for those who crucified him and for all of us thousands of years later. When Christ rose three days later, he purchased the salvation of humankind, once, for all. Our salvation has been won. There is no need to purchase release from purgatory. Luther’s epiphany was a stark contrast to the Catholic Church’s selling of indulgences, and for Luther, brought into question its authority in all realms.
To be fair, it is a misconception that Christians had no access to scripture before the Reformation. While the printing press was invented in 1440, the literacy rate in Europe was very low. The average person did not own a Bible, and could not have read it anyway. In England the 16th century, it is estimated 90% of men and 99% of women were illiterate. However, the common person had access to Scripture through the Mass, through churches decorated with stories from the Bible and a strong tradition in Catholicism of preaching in the vernacular.
The issue for Luther was authority, and the Catholic Church placing itself as the arbiter of salvation between God and man. Regarding this arrangement, Luther wrote, “Through this perversion of things it has happened that the knowledge of Christian grace, of faith, of liberty, and altogether of Christ, has utterly perished, and has been succeeded by an intolerable bondage to human works and laws.”
As an aside, The Anglicans did not get involved in the matter until much later. In 1545, the Catholic Church convened the Council of Trent as reaction to the Reformation. The Catholic Church declared, “. . . that regarding authority, Roman Catholicism gives equal veneration to the Scriptures and the traditions of the Church, written and unwritten.” Here is where the central difference between Catholicism and Anglicanism emerged (beyond Catholics eventually descending to of the use styrofoam coffee cups after services while Anglicans would persevere with porcelain). The central position held by the Anglican Church throughout the centuries is that the ultimate authority is Sola Scriptura—Scripture alone.
Three years after his encounter with Psalm 22, Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. In 1520, seven years after Luther’s experience with Psalm 22, he wrote “On the Freedom of a Christian.” Luther had been engaged in a public debate with the Catholic Church for some time. As a result, had been asked to write a conciliatory letter to Rome acknowledging the Church’s authority.
Instead, Luther wrote, “One thing, and one alone, is necessary for life, justification, and Christian liberty; and that is the most holy word of God, the Gospel of Christ, as He says in John 11:25: ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he that believeth in me shall not die eternally.’” Luther would be excommunicated the same year.
Luther continued, “For if the touch of Christ was healing, how much more does that most tender spiritual touch, nay, absorption of the word, communicate to the soul . . . ?” Luther compares the word—absorption of the word—to an encounter with the living Christ. How much more healing, he asks, does absorption of the word communicate to the soul than that the woman with an issue of blood touching the hem of Christ’s garment (Matthew 9:19-21), or Jesus restoring sight to the blind man (Mark 8:22-26). That’s how close Christ’s healing presence is to us. How close Christ himself is to us. As close as our Bible. That’s warmth, not chill.
I’m not suggesting the Bible is a sort of magical amulet and that if we sleep with it under our pillows all will be well, friendships restored, depressions cured and the lame rising up to walk. I am saying a vast, profound encounter with Christ is immediately accessible to us. I am suggesting we dust off our Bibles.
Luther wrote, “If we cleave to the words of faith — to God’s promises, we become penetrated and saturated by their virtue.” If we absorb the Word of God, if we allow it to change us, God will fill us with every good thing. We will say with St. Paul, “It is not I but Christ who lives in me.”
Evangelical Christians have spent centuries honing to perfection one question to annoy others with the utmost effect: “Do you know Jesus?” I have been on the receiving end of that question as a godless heathen and as a Roman Catholic. I never quite knew what it meant, except that there was some fun I was having I shouldn’t be, or, like this potentially insufferable essay, the question was a recommendation that I should read my Bible more.
We Episcopalians tend to evangelize by leaving people alone or handing them a cup of coffee, but at the risk of inciting the wrath of every atheist, agnostic and Catholic who has ever endured it, allow me to ask the same question in a somewhat more nuanced way.
Do you know the God who became flesh so that he might demonstrate the depths of his mercy, a God who allowed himself to experience the mortal fear of death in the Garden of Gethsemane, the pain of crucifixion and the hollow depths of abandonment? Do you know that Jesus loves you unto madness? As you are? Sinning or not, reading scripture or not?
When a Christian says Merry Christmas, she means, The Word became flesh and dwelled among us —the same Word present in the pages of our dusty Bibles, a Word on the precipice of changing everything we understand about this world and the next.
Another dull thing Christians say? God loves you. He became flesh to prove it. Merry Christmas.