The Sacred Vessels of the Word
Isaiah the Prophet writes: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” (Is. 55:10-11) God chooses human vessels to sail God’s Word throughout history.
On the eve of the Incarnation, St. John the Evangelist summarizes the prophecy of Isaiah: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” (Jn. 1-4)
God created man in His image and likeness. Male and female, He created them. He bid them to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. Families would have carried the pristine Divine imprint of the Word until their mysterious divinization in eternal glory. After the Fall, families expanded into nations and nations participated in familial duties as vessels of the Word. As peoples spiraled into the horrors of evil and false worship, God identified the Chosen People—the Twelve Tribes of Israel—as His vessel to advance the Word in history.
God chooses the Israelites—the most insignificant of all peoples—as the vessel of His Word to show forth His might. The Chosen People were, at once, a reliable and unreliable vessel of God’s Word. There was always an admixture of fidelity and sanctity with apostasy and sin. The Scriptures document personal and communal fidelity and infidelity, with God’s ongoing intervention.
Abraham is our father in faith and the father of many nations. The infidelity of the Chosen People leads to the Babylonian Exile. But God rescues His wayward spouse and restores her to Jerusalem. Jerusalem becomes the seedbed for the Word of God in the fullness of time. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” (Jn. 1:14) Jesus is the Word, true God and true man.
The Gospels reveal the three years of the public ministry of the Word. The Sacred Vessel of His human nature fulfills the Old Testament. Some faithfully receive the Word. Most reject Him. But the Cross and Resurrection introduce a new era. The vessel of the Word is no longer the Chosen People. The vessel of the Word is the Church born of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
Like the Chosen People, the Church is one. With the Chosen People, she is holy, set apart from the nations, and possessed by God. But unlike the Chosen People, the Church is universal, the leaven of all peoples and all nations. The Twelve Apostles called by Jesus replace the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The dogmatic revelation of the Word ceases with the death of the last Apostle. The Church is apostolic and is the vessel of the Word until the end of time.
As with the Chosen People, saints and sinners comprise the Church. God desires His Church to remain human, wounded by sin, but redeemed and elevated by God’s grace. As with the Chosen People, God guarantees the protection of God’s Word and the continuing purification of our understanding of His Word. But unlike with the Chosen People, the guarantee comes with the clarity of the fullness of God’s self-revelation above all, the Blessed Trinity, the first mystery of our faith.
God guides the Church in her duties as the vessel of His Word through history. He respects our freedom. He allows us to make mistakes, but He repeatedly directs our attention to the Deposit of Faith we have received from the Apostles. The Deposit of Faith organically grows but cannot change (cf. Dei Verbum, Vatican II). God promises that His Church is the infallible vessel of the Word.
The Church codifies the traditions verbalized in the Gospels and establishes the canon of the Scriptures. Bishops and priests under the guidance of the Vicar of Christ, the pope, help navigate history: “the Barque of Peter” as the vessel of the Word. Jesus offers His Divine guarantee against a definitive shipwreck. “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the [gates of hell] shall not prevail against it.” (Mt. 16:18) Like the sacred vessels at Mass, the Church’s teaching authority is merely a guardian and vessel, never a master of the Word.
The Church is the vessel for the study of doctrine and theology. The raw material of theology includes the dictionary of God’s Word: Scriptures (above all the Gospels), the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Sacraments. Like a game of Scrabble that helps expand our vocabulary, theological studies under the guidance of the Church develop our understanding of the Faith.
Church councils and synods play the continuing game of theological Scrabble throughout history. The Church uses theologically precise words that properly advance and express our understanding of revealed mysteries, such as “Trinity,” “Purgatory,” “Transubstantiation,” “Immaculate Conception,” and “Assumption.” The lexicon of God’s Revelation is rooted in Tradition and Scriptures. But the Scrabble of Faith does not allow changes that misspell or misrepresent the words of Revelation. The Church is at once the spotless Bride of Christ and, in our fallen humanity, a wounded vessel of His Word. The path of the Word is a patient interplay of God’s grace and the sacred vessels of fallen human nature. As the Word follows the meanderings prophesized by Isaiah, temporary detours need correction. Simple Catholics help redirect the path of the Word by holding fast to the Faith.
Through faithful and holy lives cooperating with His grace, His Word will “accomplish His purposes and prosper in the thing for which He sent it.”
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