In the normal course of daily life, have you ever had the experience of unexpectedly turning onto a street of gold, or of wandering past Monet painting in the park, or of realizing that the music streaming from the open window next door is that of Beethoven working out what will become his Ninth Symphony? Hyperbole aside, have you ever suddenly, inexplicably, found yourself in the presence of something wondrous and grand?
When I read that tonight’s Vigil of the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity here at Saint John’s Abbey would also be the occasion of the Presentation of the Final Volume of the Saint John’s Bible, I knew it would be something special. But when I ceased my studies on this normal Saturday afternoon and walked toward the Abbey Church I didn’t realize that walking into Vigil would be like unexpectedly turning onto a street of gold. If you have known the heart-stopping feeling of being in the presence of something wondrous and grand, then you can imagine how charged the atmosphere was.
I won’t try to describe the feeling of watching the artist process toward the altar carrying the final folio. Or the breathless silence as the final cross was gilded by the Abbot and another monk. Or the applause that went on and on after the Abbot lifted the completed folio from the altar and held it aloft for all to see. Or the voices of the National Catholic Youth Choir that soared to impossible heights as they, and all of us, sang the Te Deum. Or the incense that enveloped the altar, the folio, the monks, the congregation, the choir…
But for all the beauty and solemnity and import of the occasion, the most affecting part for me was perhaps the simplest, the most ordinary, the thing that happens every single day in the course of ordinary liturgical life – the proclamation of Sacred Scripture. The scripture reading this evening was not read from a bound Bible, or from a lectionary marked at the proper place with a length of ribbon. Rather, it was read from the hand-written vellum of the Saint John’s Bible. As the Abbot read, and as in the midst of the reading he paused to carefully turn the two-foot-tall page, I realized I had never before heard scripture proclaimed from a hand-written manuscript. I immediately felt connected to the innumerable generations whose encounter with scripture was hearing it proclaimed from pages and scrolls produced and preserved by hand from within their, or a nearby, community.
As I type this, my Bible lies to my right, open to the Gospel of Mark, which is the class I am taking here at Saint John’s. The typeface is clear and easy to read. The binding is hardback and sturdy. I feel blessed beyond measure to have this sacred text so near at hand. I am also blessed beyond measure – we all are – by those who over the centuries have so carefully preserved for us the sacred Word of God. This evening’s Vigil reminded me that every encounter with scripture is a wondrous and grand occasion – better than a turning onto street of gold, finer than encountering Monet in the park – ever illuminating our hearts, and ever binding us to the innumerable generations who have, with expectant ears, listened to the proclamation of scripture, and to the generations of unnamed artisans and scribes who, with skillful hands and diligent hearts, have carefully penned for us the pages through which we encounter the Word of God, living and true.
All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness…
II Timothy 3: 16-17
Postscript: If you are not familiar with the Saint John’s Bible, you can link to the site here.