The reading is from Nehemiah 8: 2–10.
2 And Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. 3 And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. 4 And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden pulpit which they had made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithi'ah, Shema, Anai'ah, Uri'ah, Hilki'ah, and Ma-asei'ah on his right hand; and Pedai'ah, Mish'a-el, Malchi'jah, Hashum, Hash-bad'danah, Zechari'ah, and Meshul'lam on his left hand. 5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people; and when he opened it all the people stood. 6 And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God; and all the people answered, "Amen, Amen," lifting up their hands; and they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. 7 Also Jesh'ua, Bani, Sherebi'ah, Jamin, Akkub, Shab'bethai, Hodi'ah, Ma-asei'ah, Keli'ta, Azari'ah, Jo'zabad, Hanan, Pelai'ah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. 8 And they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
9 And Nehemi'ah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, "This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep." For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. 10 Then he said to them, "Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength."
I think one of the problems I have with reading from the books of the prophets is that the narrative often "hides" important details. Maybe a better way to say it is that imagination takes over, and the knowledge one could take from the reading is lost among all the pretty (and not so pretty) little pictures we've drawn in our heads. This is where Frank Sheed's book, Theology and Sanity, has come in so handy over the past week. He talks about taking imagination out of the picture so it doesn't short-circuit our reasoning. He also has an excellent examination of the Trinity, which also helped me to understand this passage from Nehemiah.
The first part that struck me was the interpretation of the law to the people by the Levites:
Also Jesh'ua, Bani, Sherebi'ah, Jamin, Akkub, Shab'bethai, Hodi'ah, Ma-asei'ah, Keli'ta, Azari'ah, Jo'zabad, Hanan, Pelai'ah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. 8 And they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
The notes in the RSV indicate that the Levites needed to interpret because the Book of the Law was written in Hebrew, while the people were returning exiles from Babylon who now spoke Aramaic. While this could certainly be the case, there's still a sense of a very specific role being played here by the Levites. They "helped the people to understand"; "they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly"; "they gave the sense."
It would not be enough to simply translate the words to give a clear sense and to help people understand. One must have knowledge and wisdom. These, according to Frank Sheed, are two qualities attributed to Christ. He is the Word, which implies He is both Knowledge and Wisdom. Of course, all three persons of the Trinity poses these qualities, but they are attributed to Christ, referred to specifically in the opening of the Gospel of John, but also foreshadowed in Proverbs:
The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens;
I guess from here it's pretty easy to put the pieces together. Knwoeldge of the Word is knowledge of God, and in a real sense, God is the Law, not merely the Law Giver, but the Law itself. So when we come to know the Word and te Law, we come to know God. Of course, the Law and the Word are merely two attributes of God.
Now, by the Law, I don't mean merely the Levitical proscriptions. I mean the moral law, natural law, the sense we have internally of the rightness and wrongness of acts. To say that God is the Law is part and parcel of saying that God is Justice.
The next piece that jumped out at me was verse 10.
Then he said to them, "Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength."
When the people came to understand the Word, they began to weep. Why? Well, I can think of two reasons for weeping when one comes to the Word, and I can see both playing out simultaneously here. First, there's the sense of the restriction of the Law. We see this playing out all the time when people ask things like
"So why do we Catholics have to do X when Protestants just have to do Y?"
"Why do we have to refrain from contraception?"
"Why do we have to go to confession?"
You can almost see them dragging their feet slumping over, and pouting and saying, "But Daaaaaaaaad, WHY?"
The Law is painful because it makes demands of us, and you have to know that some of the people of Israel were in this state.
But there were others who truly understood, who took to heart this knowledge of the Law, and found in it not pain and discipline but conviction. They knew that they had aggrieved God. They had sinned against Him. And they mourned not because they had to start following the rules but because they had already failed to do so.
Conviction. This is a word I often hear Evangelicals mention. The Holy Spirit convicts us, not in the sense of Judging us but of giving us conviction that what we have done is offensive to God. The Holy Spirit gave the people of Israel, at least those disposed to hearing and knowing the Law (which is God).
But Ezra calls the people back to the good news. God has given them this day to rest, to accept the sacrifice that has been offered for them, and to share that sacrifice with thsoe who don't have anyone to prepare something for them. "Don't grieve! Enjoy what God has given you, and share it with others who don't have it!"
And so the people rejoiced. And they did so for two reasons. Some rejoiced because they could forget about the Law and just enjoy what they had. Some rejoiced because they new that other aspect of God: mercy. In this sense, the Third Person of the Trinity is made manifest. God is the Law (Justice), He is the Word (Knowledge, Wisdom), and He is Love (mercy, abundance).
This is why it's so critical for our priests to be set apart, to be steeped in the Word, and to live it. If they do not live it, they cannot truly know it. And if they don't know it, they can't teach it.
One of the arguments for the attributes of God (Love, Knowledge, Mercy) is that we cannot be given something from the Creator that He doesn't have Himself. So it is with our earthly teachers. They cannot give something they don't have themselves. If they are not holy, they cannot teach us to be holy. If they don't exhibit love and mercy, they cannot teach it to us.
Pray for our priests!