When we want to rewrite Scripture

Italian Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, a renowned biblical scholar and former archbishop of Milan is pictured in a 1994 file photo. (CNS photo)

In preparation for Holy Week this year, I have been re-reading “A Prophetic Voice in the City” by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini (1927-2012).

Cardinal Martini was a biblical scholar most famous for his role as chancellor of the Gregorian University in Rome and Archbishop of Milan. A prolific author, his reflections in this book are a collection of spiritual meditations he offered to the priests of the Archdiocese of Caracas, Venezuela in 1993. They explore with passion and depth the life and message of the prophet Jeremiah.

In the days before the Passion, we heard a reading from Jeremiah: “I hear the whisperings of many: ‘Terror on every side! Denounce! Let us denounce him!… Perhaps he will be trapped; then we can prevail, and take our vengeance on him.’ But the LORD is with me, like a mighty champion…. Sing to the LORD, praise the LORD; For he has rescued the life of the poor from the power of the wicked!” (Jer 20:10-13).

Fascinatingly, the text (uncited in the Mass reading) follows this happy ending of praise by returning to lamentation. “Cursed be the day on which I was born…. Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?” (Jer 20: 14-18).

Cardinal Martini points out what we all instinctively feel about this tragic development in the passage: “the exegetes would like to change the order of the text … so as to end with song and praise.” But we must receive the order handed us by Scripture, along with the questions it raises.

“The Bible, in fact, is not only a pleasant spiritual nourishment, but it wants to shake us, upset us and push us to wrestle with its pages for our own purification. Our quarrel with the word touches us intimately, and continuously invites us to rethink the mystery of God and to go more in depth, beyond those forms of religious superficiality that at times seem to satisfy us”

Cardinal Martini goes on to offer an extended meditation in the following pages on the “weakness” of the Incarnate Word, expressed both in Bethlehem and Golgotha. “Why doesn’t the Lord destroy the enemies, why does he not give to his church strength, glory, economic possibilities, and the capacity to be successful in the mass media? Why must we battle every sort of difficulty?”

Jesus’s response: “Because in this way I have revealed the Father…. The hope of the nations is a weak leader, born in Bethlehem, who lived in poverty, was persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, crucified, and killed.”

This mission of the church is to participate in this pain to heal and be sanctified by it, and in so doing to accept its (and our own) weakness. Cardinal Martini points out there is nothing more frail, passive and incapable of self-determined action than the Eucharist, the greatest revelation of God’s love for humanity, “the source and summit of Christian life” as the Second Vatican Council named it.

“Perhaps a lifetime will not suffice to fully understand this lesson; we tend to attribute a certain prestige and worldly power to our ministry and to the church … but we need to know that the church is more fully itself just when it is more similar to Christ of Bethlehem, to Christ on the cross, to Christ of the Eucharist, namely more like the weak and loyal voice of Jeremiah.”

Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., a former resident of Collingswood, teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.