COVID-19 and The Year Of The Word

Fr Ashley Beck shares his reflections on encountering God in the Bible in our homes.

icon-home » Focus » Word in the Home » COVID-19 and The Year Of The Word

By Fr Ashley Beck

One of the best loved accounts of the appearances of the risen Jesus after his resurrection is the account in Luke’s gospel of his encounter with Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24.13-35) – the meal is beautifully captured here by the Italian artist Caravaggio.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Supper at Emmaus, 1601, National Gallery (NG172), digital image © National Gallery released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND, nationalgallery.org.uk

Traditionally the whole encounter is a foreshadowing of the Eucharist, as the disciples recognise Jesus, finally, in the ‘breaking of bread’. A reason we see as being like the Eucharist is that this recognition is preceded by reflection on the Scriptures, as in our ‘Liturgy of the Word.’ After Jesus disappears, the two disciples say to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us as he talked to us on the road and opened the scriptures to us?’

Since the closing weeks of Lent, it has not been possible for most Christians to participate in the Eucharist or other acts of worship in church. In Catholic churches, priests have continued to celebrate Mass every day, often livestreaming them to growing numbers of worshippers; clergy in other churches have similarly led acts of worship from their own homes. It is clear that modern technology has been a lifeline for many; this technology, of course, is the result of human ingenuity that is a gift from God. While people have not been able to receive Holy Communion, they have been able to participate in worship remotely.

The Second Vatican Council, in its document about liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) taught that Christ is present in the Eucharist in four ways:
            in the consecrated elements,
            in the whole assembly,
            in the person of the priest,
            in the Scriptures.

This is why in a Catholic Mass the book of the Gospel is reverenced (by bowing, using incense over it and kissing the book itself); what this means is that while we cannot experience the presence of Christ directly in our churches because they are locked, we can come close to him through the Bible we have in our homes.

This is why I think it is providential that the Covid-19 crisis has happened in this special Year of the Word, it is God who Speaks, even though many special events have had to be postponed until next year. For the Bible we read at home is the same Bible that is read in church. Alongside participating remotely in livestreamed liturgies, if we are able to do so, we have new opportunities for encountering God in the Bible.

One obvious way to do this for many is of course to focus on the daily Mass readings. Many websites such as the CBCEW Liturgy Office – http://www.liturgyoffice.org.uk/ and Universalis – http://www.universalis.com/ tell you each day what these are, so you can look them up before or after the celebration that you are watching. In my parish, I have been posting brief daily reflections on the Mass readings on our parish Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/St-Edmunds-Church-Beckenham-773012899462302/)
and website (www.saintedmunds.net)

But, as many might have more time on their hands at home we can do more than simply look at the Mass readings. We can read the rest of the book or something about the background of the book (Catholic Bibles have to have at least some explanatory notes) and there are good resources on the internet. There are some important precedents. After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70 Jewish people moved away from being people whose worship was centred on animal sacrifices to being ‘people of the Book’. In synagogue worship, and indeed in homes, the emphasis is on the Word of God, the torah and other texts of the Hebrew Bible. This shift (described, for example, in Simon Schama’s recent book The Story of the Jews) has done a great deal to give Jewish people strength in the midst of adversity across the centuries. In Deuteronomy 6.6-8 God says: ‘The words that I command you today shall stay in your heart. You shall recite them to your children, and speak of them, when you are sitting at home, when you are walking on the road, when you lie down and when you get up…’ God’s people are expected to have his Word as their constant companion. Another model for us is this picture in Nehemiah 8:3 of the people of Israel listening to the Word after they return from exile to the ruined city of Jerusalem: ‘In the presence of the men and women, and of those old enough to understand, Ezra read from the book from dawn till noon; all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.’

While it is important not to exaggerate the effects of the virus, it is a time of trial, particularly for those who are or have been ill and those who have been struggling to care for them. Surely, the Bible can come into its own now if we cannot get to church? If a family is able to pray together at home, and this is certainly happening more now, the Bible should always form a central part of what happens, and it can easily involve people of different ages.

The Bible is not with us simply to provide us with daily Mass readings. It is important that the churches respond to the current crisis partly on the basis of our moral teachings, to see what we can learn about how our society is ordered, about our priorities. The Bible is an important source for our moral teaching about society – so for example, what the prophets and Our Lord say about God’s love for the poor should inform what we say as Christians about the priorities for our country, about the need for properly resourced health services and so on.

In addition to reading more of the texts, we can honour the Bible in other ways as we are confined to our homes. Early on after ‘lockdown’ – Archbishop John Wilson of Southwark, suggested that we perhaps set up in our homes a small shrine or prayer corner as a focal point for prayer, with a crucifix, holy pictures, a rosary and other objects: a Bible should be part of that sacred space, a place where we encounter the presence of Christ – we can honour the Bible in ways similar to what we do in church (such as kissing the text).

One thing which can happen if we get to know the Bible better, is that we can renew the way we look at the world. For example, if we feel frustrated with political leaders in the current crisis, we can draw strength from Old Testament prophets like Elijah, Amos and Jeremiah, men unafraid to speak the truth to power.


Ashley Beck is Assistant Priest of the parish of Beckenham in South London, Associate Professor at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and President of the Catholic Theological Association of Great Britain. He is responsible for the new MA degree in Catholic Social Teaching at St Mary’s, the only degree of its kind in the British Isles – for details contact him at ashley.beck@stmarys.ac.uk.