‘Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”’ — Luke 4:20-21

It’s interesting that the central action connecting the first reading, taken from the Old Testament Book of Nehemiah, and the New Testament’s Gospel of Luke involves something that we take for granted, something so common that we don’t necessarily even pay attention to it: reading! What a gift the written word is. What a gift the ability to read is. And what a gift it is to read aloud to others, particularly to proclaim the Word of God when gathered as a community.

We encounter the priest, Ezra, in today’s first reading, gathering together all of the people of Jerusalem old enough to comprehend what exactly was occurring, and he reads to them. “The whole people gathered as one…called upon Ezra the scribe to bring forth the book of the law of Moses which the Lord had commanded for Israel.” (Nehemiah 8:1) Ezra read aloud the words of sacred Scripture and “all the people, their hands raised high, answered, ‘Amen, amen!’ Then they bowed down and prostrated themselves before the Lord.” (Nehemiah 8:6)

Recall the impact of this action of gathering the people together in one place and reading aloud to them. No doubt only a few people in the gathered crowd could read but this public proclamation means something so much more — reading aloud gathers the people of God, who are inspired by the Spirit, to reflection, and, ultimately, mission.

In the Gospel, we read that, filled with the Spirit, the Lord Jesus enters the Synagogue in the town where he was raised and reads aloud, and even more so than just plain reading, proclaims the Scriptures. He who is the Word of God made flesh proclaims the word to God’s people, gathered together for worship and prayer.

What then can we glean from these proclamations, first from Ezra the priest and then from Jesus, the one, true, high priest of the new and eternal covenant? I think a number of things: first, on a practical level, and at the risk of sounding like a public service announcement, reading is fundamental!

The printed page has whole other worlds on it waiting to be explored. We do not read as much as we should. We live in an age of instant information. We are a very quick-paced, very visual culture now, one, not to propagate a stereotype, that likes to get its information in under 130 characters. These novels and poems that I am recommending are certainly more than 130 characters. They require, for the most part, an investment of self and a commitment of energy and interest that many sadly are not either eager, willing, or able to spend in our culture, due to time constraints, as well as the reality of having never been introduced to the joys of reading in general.

Second, reading the Word of God has power. The responsorial psalm tells us “Your words, Lord, are spirit and life.” God communicates his life to us in so many ways, most especially in the grace of the Sacraments, and, in particular, in the Eucharist, his Real Presence. But God also communicates to us in and through the inspired Word of God, found in sacred Scripture. All too often parishioners tell their priests that the Liturgy of the Word is something just to be endured. The lectors are not prepared, the psalm is sloppily sung (or mumbled through, if recited), and the priest and deacon, joyless, proclaim the Gospel, and, to top it all off, give a functional homily at best! The proclamation of God’s word is key — to paraphrase the Ethiopian Eunuch and the Apostle Philip from the Acts of the Apostles, how can we know the Lord unless someone tells us about him? The primary way we learn about the Lord as Catholics is at Mass, so the effective proclamation of the Word of God is essential for us. 

Reading is a gift! And to proclaim God’s holy Word given to us in sacred Scripture is a tremendous gift. And, hearing the Word proclaimed wisely and well by lectors, deacons, and priests can change lives! When we read at Mass, may our response and the response of the people to whom we minister be what Ezra the priest encountered: “all the people, their hands raised high, answered, ‘Amen, amen!’ Then they bowed down and prostrated themselves before the Lord” (Nehemiah 8:6), not for us but at the mighty power of God revealed in the Bible!