“In Sacred Scripture, God speaks to man in a human way. To interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words.” — Catechism of the Catholic Church, 109
Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire Catholic Ministries has been a most fecund source of reliable evangelization materials in recent years. What is clear is that the jewel in this organization’s crown is The Word on Fire Bible (though the 10-part series “Catholicism” is undoubtedly in the running). Volume I, which contains the four Gospels and was released in June 2020, quickly became the best-selling Catholic study Bible of our time. Deservedly so: it is a truly beautiful book filled with rich, accessible commentary and much else.
Volume II—has just been published, and it is an equally magnificent and eye-catching book, expanded (totaling 841 pages) with more excellent commentary.
Like Volume I, this second volume uses the New Revised Standard Version: Catholic Edition; it is available in leather, hardback, and paperback editions, all of which are superbly produced. Moreover, in addition to Bishop Barron’s contributions throughout, there is also present what he refers to as “a chorus of voices”—extracts from masters throughout the tradition, including Church Fathers and a host of such influential modern voices as St. John Henry Newman, G. K. Chesterton, and Pope Benedict XVI.
Barron’s own polished, erudite commentary emphasizes themes that recur in his preaching and writing; for instance, “an important spiritual truth: your life is not about you.” In one comment on Ephesians, he makes the Pauline case that rejecting the ideology of autonomy, an ideology that has such a baneful stranglehold on our contemporary culture, and surrendering to and living entirely for Christ is the path to liberation:
When we rest on ourselves and our own ego accomplishments, we live in what the spiritual masters call the pusilla anima, the little soul, the soul precisely as wide as the contours of the ego. But when we are rooted not in ourselves but in the divine power that animates the cosmos, we live in the magna anima, the great soul, whose breadth is measureless.
The generous excerpts from the tradition invariably illuminate the biblical text. As is the case in Volume I, Bishop Fulton Sheen is a memorable presence here. Drawing from the classic Life of Christ, Volume II uses Bishop Sheen’s comments on Saul’s conversion in Acts when he fell to the ground and voice said to him: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He rightly observes that “[t]he Mystical Body is Christ’s prolonged Self.” Arrestingly, Bishop Sheen continues in language that has become a justly famous ecclesiological summary:
Christ is living now! He is teaching now, governing now, sanctifying now – as he did in Judea and Galilee. His Mystical Body or the Church existed throughout the Roman Empire before a single one of the Gospels had been written. It was the New Testament that came out of the Church, not the Church which came out of the New Testament.
A unique feature of this project is its enthusiastic use of the via pulchritudinis (the way of beauty) as a path to truth. The artwork in Volume II is uniformly exceptional. Curated by Michael Stevens, the Art Director for Word on Fire Catholic Ministries (Bishop Barron knows how to surround himself with exceptional talent), the selections are a blend of the familiar (e.g., Rembrandt’s The Apostle Paul) and many less famous but certainly appealing works.
Indeed, some of the comparatively unknown paintings are especially striking. For example, William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World is a potent depiction of Christ at a door and knocking (Rev 3:20). Stevens’s essays on all of these works are models of evaluation and appreciation. Also, he was commissioned to paint The Pentacost (After Maino) for Volume II. It is an allusive, nuanced, and absorbing work that fits nicely in this collection of beautiful art.
The immensely important but theologically complex Letter to the Hebrews is a good example of the effectiveness of the multifaceted approach taken by Word on Fire. It is helpfully introduced with a brief essay by Fr. Stephen Gadberry, a Fellow of the Word on Fire Institute and a priest of the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas. The text of Hebrews is illustrated with pictures of the ceiling of the Florence Baptistry, one icon depicting Abraham and Melchizedek and another of Christ the Great High Priest, and paintings by Fra Angelico, (Crucifixion: Study), and Allan Crite, (Streetcar Madonna).
There is brief commentary on aspects of the text from St. Catherine of Siena, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Ignatius of Loyola, among others, and a masterly essay by Bishop Barron, “The New Covenant.” It is, in short, impossible not to have a deeper understanding of Hebrews with all of this brilliantly deployed guidance. This point is of course true for all of Acts, Letters, and Revelation.
The robust ambition of this undertaking is impressive. With the publication of Volume II, the entire New Testament is now done. Word on Fire will turn next to the Old Testament, with Volume III (The Pentateuch) scheduled to be released in 2023. All of the Old Testament will eventually be done. Any reader of The Word on Fire Bible, whether a faithful student of it or a good-faith seeker (who is the target reader), will be certain to keep ample space available on his bookshelf to accommodate each of these volumes as they appear. In a time when Church matters routinely bring bad news, too often very bad news, the ongoing publication of these volumes is great news and a sign of hope and encouragement.
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