“The relationship between the Risen Lord, the community of believers and sacred Scripture is essential to our identity as Christians.” — Pope Francis, Aperuit Illis
One of the truly encouraging results of the Second Vatican Council is the increased engagement with the Bible by lay Catholics, particularly the New Testament. Bible study groups are widely available at the parish level, and many individual Catholics have incorporated Bible reading into their daily spiritual practices. The market has responded with number of excellent Bibles with reliable and insightful Catholic commentary. The Navarre Bible (with commentary complied by the faculty at the University of Navarre), the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible (edited by Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch), the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture (a series edited by Peter Williamson and Mary Healy), and The Didache Bible (with commentary based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church) are all excellent. It is impossible not to benefit from the reading of and reflection on any of these volumes.
Bishop Robert Barron and his Word on Fire Catholic Ministries have now entered this area in rather spectacular fashion with the The Word on Fire Bible, Volume 1, which contains the four Gospels and will be available on Monday, June 15th. What is immediately striking about the book is simply how attractive it is. Eschewing traditional thin paper, this volume is substantial, with matte-coated paper that is very sturdy. It is solidly bound and has a handsome cover of leather. This book is, in short, a remarkably beautiful object.
Bishop Barron emphasizes that the WOF Bible is not just a “study” Bible; its purpose is rather evangelical. That is to say, it works to introduce readers to Jesus Christ in order to change their lives. (Consistent with the breadth of Bishop Barron’s evangelical focus over the past few years, these target readers have little or no contact with any Christian church.) This evangelical purpose is thoroughly achieved in a way familiar to those who have read Bishop Barron’s books, watched his Catholicism series, or listened to his homilies and podcasts. As for the translation, Bishop Barron uses the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition.
This volume has expected and unexpected features. The Gospel texts are surrounded by very astute commentary, informed by rich scholarship that is obvious but unobtrusive, from Bishop Barron. He provides, moreover, penetrating longer essays on major topic and events. In “Jesus’ Most Challenging Sermon,” to select one example, Bishop Barron comments on one of these challenges regarding the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence, specifically the revulsion of many Jews when Jesus first preached (in John’s Bread of Life Discourse) about eating his body and blood:
So what does Jesus do when confronted with this objection? One would think that, in order to mollify his opponents, he would take the opportunity to soften his rhetoric, to offer a metaphorical or symbolic interpretation of his words, so as at least to answer the most obvious difficulties. Instead, he intensifies what he had said: “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” The Greek term translated here by “eat” is not the usual phagein but rather trogein, a word customarily used to describe the way animals devour their food. We might render it “gnaw” or “chomp.” Therefore, to those who are revolted by the realism of his language, Jesus says, essentially, “Unless you gnaw on my flesh . . . you have no life in you.”
Also, his essay on the wedding at Cana is among the most theologically rich that one is likely to encounter. All of these essays are very cogent.
But it is not just Bishop Barron’s voice that deepens our understanding of the Gospels in this volume. There are quotations from what Bishop Barron calls “a chorus of voices from the great theological and spiritual tradition in or to sing the meaning of the Scripture.“ Discerningly selected passages from ancient and modern masters—Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton, and others—are deployed to elucidate familiar and sometimes difficult passages. One instance is on the submission of Jesus to baptism (Matthew 3:13-17), where an extract from Fulton Sheen’s Life of Christ is illuminating in Sheen’s inimitable rhetorical way:
When he went down into the river Jordan to be baptized, he made himself one with sinners. The innocent can share the burdens of the guilty. If a husband is guilty of a crime, it is pointless to tell his wife to worry about it, or that it is no concern of hers. It is equally absurd to say that our Lord should not have been baptized because he had no personal guilt. If he was to be identified with humanity, so much so as to call himself the “Son of Man,” then he had to share the guilt of humanity. And this was the meaning of the baptism by John.
A novel and extraordinarily exquisite feature of the WOF Bible is its embrace and effective use of the via pulchritudinous (the way of beauty): numerous works of Christian art are reproduced along with lucid explanatory essays by Michael Stevens. Duccio’s Christ Entering Jerusalem, Raphael’s Transfiguration, Grunewald’s The Isenheim Altarpiece, and many other familiar works appear. (There are also a few impressive but less prominent works that are arresting — for example, Karoly Ferenczy’s The Sermon on the Mount.) The art is not presented as an afterthought in, say, black-and-white pictures; rather its use here, with color reproductions, is integral to the project. It is, as Bishop Barron explains, “all designed to introduce the seeker to Christ through the aesthetic splendor that he has inspired.” This emphasis on the intimate link between beauty and belief has long preoccupied Bishop Barron, as his concise and absorbing book Heaven in Stone and Glass: Experiencing the Spirituality of Great Cathedrals from 2000 attests.
The WOF Bible can be read for private devotion or in a group. It is the ideal version to give to anyone who is seeking to know and come into deeper friendship with the Lord. This is so whether that person is already Catholic or someone who is not but open to a Catholic understanding of the Gospels. As with all aspects of Bishop Barron’s evangelization work, the WOF Bible is intellectually rigorous yet utterly accessible to the alert reader. Given the quality of the work we have come to expect from Word on Fire, it is not hard to imagine Bishop Barron and his capable staff sitting down and figuring out how to prepare and publish a volume of the Gospels that will be among the best available.
And this exemplary project is just getting started. According to Word on Fire, the expectation is that the rest of New Testament is scheduled for publication in June 2021. In the years that follow, several Old Testament volumes are planned.
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