The 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
January 23, 2022
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
A few months ago the Pope declared that today be observed as
“Word of God Sunday.”
Sometime people get a little confused by the meaning of the term “Word of God.”
Most people think the Word of God means the Holy Scripture,
or even simply the Bible itself as a book.
Some even use that understanding to call Catholics “people of the Book.”
But that reflects an erroneous a Protestant,
and even something of a pagan, understanding.
Because the Word of God is actually the Revelation God makes to the world,
both through the prophets in the Old Covenant
and most perfectly and completely through the Word of God made flesh,
The “Word” is not merely letters written on a page,
nor is it the pages themselves put together in a Book.
The Word of God is the content and meaning, the “what,” of Divine Revelation.
So in today’s Gospel, St. Luke tells his friend Theophilus that he is
“writing down…in an orderly sequence”
“what…those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning
and ministers of the word have handed them down to us…
so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.”
Think about this.
He’s “writing down” things at least 10 to 30 years after the Resurrection.
And what he’s “writing down” is not new, and it’s not taken from other books,
but what has already been taught orally, by mouth—taught, not read.
He calls it “what has been handed down to us.”
In Latin “handed down” is translated literally by the word “tradiderunt,”
from which we derive the word “tradition.”
And he’s writing down what has been handed down by
“eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word”
–the apostles and very first disciples.
And he’s not writing something that will be new to his Christian friend,
“but so that you may realize
the certainty of the teachings you have received.”
Remember, Jesus didn’t tell the apostles to write a book,
he said, “go and teach all nations”
And so they preached for years and years.
And that’s how most people learned the Christian faith,
especially since most of the people, particularly the poor, couldn’t read.
Essentially St. Luke is talking about what the Church calls Sacred Tradition:
which begins with what was orally taught, or handed down by the Apostles,
even before one book of the New Testament was written,
and even after it was written:
surely St. John, the last of the NT writers to die,
was teaching orally after he wrote his final letter.
As St. Paul writes to the Thessalonians:
“hold the traditions which you were taught,
whether by word, or by letter of ours.”
So that from the apostles to today, the Church has taught,
in the words of Vatican II, Dei Verbum,
“Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture
form one sacred deposit of the word of God,
committed to the Church.
Holding fast to this deposit the entire holy people
united with their shepherds
remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles…”
So, we say the teaching of Jesus and the prophets and apostles,
divine revelation, the Word of God,
comes to us through two fonts: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.
Again, think about this,
Where do you think we got the New Testament?
I mean, who decided which books or letters would be included?
After all, the 27 books of the NT weren’t published together in a book
by the Apostles in the year 100AD.
And there were lots of other books or letters floating around in the early Church
that good Christians thought were on par with the letters we find in Bible.
For example, some Christians in the 2nd and 3rd centuries thought that
the letters of Pope Clement of Rome or the Didache
should be “in the Bible”
After all, both were written by 80 AD, in the lifetime of St. John,
and very clearly hand on the teachings of the apostles.
St. Clement, after all was a disciple of St. Peter.
Who decided they didn’t belong in the Bible?
Well, the Church did.
But not based on any list found in scripture, and not even based on a vote,
but based on the Tradition handed down to them.
Now, Divine Revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle, St. John.
But Tradition means not only what the Apostles personally taught,
but also what has been understood and handed down
from one generation of faithful Christians to the next,
guided by the Holy Spirit
and protected by the authority of the Pope and Bishops.
Yet nothing in Sacred Tradition is made up out of thin air.
Rather, it is rooted in apostolic teaching, and developed in breath and width,
but organically and in continuity in the context of the apostles,
especially as times change and the truly faithful Christians
apply what has been handed on before to the times they are in.
Let me give you an example of this.
Let’s consider the writings of St. Irenaeus of Lyon,
a great Bishop theologian who wrote around the year 200.
Now, St. Irenaeus wrote some things and used some terms
that are nowhere to be found in the Bible
—they don’t contradict the bible, but they aren’t specifically written down.
But they were clearly things that he had learned from the Tradition.
He was, after all, a student of beloved St. Polycarp of Smyrna,
who was a beloved student of St. John the Apostle.
So, now imagine if you lived in France in the year 200,
and you sat down with St. Irenaeus,
and asked him to explain something that confused you in Luke’s Gospel.
And Irenaeus explained it to you in a way that made perfect sense,
and just seemed to be so clearly consistent with the Christian faith.
And then he tells you St. Polycarp had explained it to him,
and that St. John the Apostle had explained it to Polycarp.
And 100 years later, he’s explaining to you.
But then you ask, well how does that apply to the situation today
—a situation neither John nor Polycarp or any other Apostle
had even thought about.
And then based on his knowledge and understanding
of the Tradition he had received, and of Scripture,
Irenaeus gives you a wonderful Christian answer.
And then… he writes that down.
And other great Christian thinkers read it and accept it,
both his contemporaries and then over the generations and centuries,
great Christian thinkers say, “that is truly the Christian faith.”
And then you get to the 4th century and the great theologians
St. Augustine and St. Ambrose and St. Jerome write back and forth
applying what Irenaeus wrote,
and use that to understand some other aspect of the faith more deeply,
and they circulate their teachings, and they are widely accepted
as authentically Catholic, in accord with and flowing from Tradition.
And in the 6th century St. Gregory the Great
does the same thing with Augustine’s writings.
And then in the 10th century St. Bernard of Clairvaux
does the same thing with Gregory’s writings.
And then in the 12th century the great theologian saints
Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Albertus Magnus and St. Raymond of Peñafort do the same thing.
That’s an example of how Sacred Tradition grows.
But like a tree, deeply rooted in the teaching of Christ Himself,
with a strong trunk formed by the apostles and their disciples,
and then bearing branches and leaves
in the generations of faithful Catholics.
Not like heresies, which come from outside the tree,
and grow like fungus or mold to sicken and even destroy the tree.
Now, let me pause here and make a distinction, so we don’t get confused.
There is what we call “Capital-T Tradition,” and “small-t tradition.”
Capital-T Tradition refers to Sacred Tradition
“Small-t tradition,” is not.
Rather, it is, or are, the customs, common Christian ideas, practices and piety
that are handed down in the Church.
So for example, the Rosary is a small-t tradition.
It is not revealed by God, and it is not the Word of God.
Even so, truly Catholic small-t traditions all flow from our true Faith
and reflect what we believe in Sacred Tradition.
Again, the Rosary isn’t absolutely necessary for our Faith
—the apostles didn’t use it and they went to heaven.
But it has developed over time,
flowing from a faithful understanding of Sacred Tradition
especially about the Blessed Mothers’ role
in interceding and drawing us closer to her son,
and being a mediator of grace.
So you can’t just throw it out and say it’s bad:
it’s sort of like a fruit of the tree, that you can chose to taste or not,
but it is delicious and healthy.
So there is a connection between Sacred Tradition and traditional practices, if you will.
And that connection should not be ignored or disparaged or easily discarded:
the fruit should not be unnaturally or prematurely severed from the tree.
Nowadays a lot of Catholics, and former Catholics,
think that we can change Church teachings.
But while it’s true that we can change some practices,
or change some ways we do things or talk about things,
we can never do so in any ways that are inconsistent with Sacred Tradition.
Not even a council or synod or a pope has that authority,
no more than they can change the books included in Sacred Scripture.
Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture form one deposit of faith,
they are together the handing on of the Word of God.
But this thinking is nothing new.
It’s been tried before.
Various synods and regional councils of bishops, and even popes,
have tried to ignore the Sacred Tradition
—but the Holy Spirit alive in the Church and working through faithful
Popes, Bishops and theologians and laity rejected their heresies.
And the Church went on, rooted in the Word of God.
After the Second Vatican Council, and for the last 60 years,
many in the Church have held that the Council changed Church teaching.
But it did not, and certainly it did not depart from Sacred Tradition.
So that all three popes who were actually present and active at the council
affirmed that anything that came out of Vatican II
can only be understood in light and in conformity to Sacred Tradition
—what Pope Benedict XVI called the “hermeneutic of continuity.”
Because again, councils, synods and even popes, all believers,
have to follow, defer to and obey Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition,
because they are the two and only fonts of the Word of God.
Today is Word of God Sunday.
As we enter more deeply
into the mystery of the Word made flesh in the Eucharist,
let us beg our Lord Jesus that all peoples throughout the world
may come to know and accept the Word of God.
And that all Christians may accept the fullness of the Word
that flows to us in Sacred Tradition.
And that all Catholics, whether lay, priest, bishop, cardinal or pope,
will rejoice in the fullness of the Word of God,
and recognize and reject any efforts to
twist, manipulate, change or edit that Word,
handed down from the apostles,
to generation after generation of Faithful Catholics:
the teaching of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.