Gabrielle Smith said one of her biggest takeaways from listening to “The Bible In a Year” podcast was a better understanding of the Old Testament and its role in the context of her Catholic faith.
Smith is finishing up the final episodes of the podcast, developed by Ascension and hosted by Father Mike Schmitz and Jeff Cavins, which guides Catholics through the Bible in a year’s worth of daily episodes featuring Scripture passages, reflections and guided prayers.
“It really showed me that you need the Old Testament to make sense of who Jesus is and what our faith is about,” said Smith, a member of St. Clare of Assisi Parish in Ellisville, where she serves as a core team member with the youth group. “When you get to the Gospels, there’s a deeper appreciation for how Jesus fulfilled these prophecies” found throughout the Old Testament.
Smith’s experience reiterates the Christian understanding of the role of the Old Testament: the prophecy of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, who is the fulfillment of the promise God made to His chosen people of Israel.
God speaks to us through time
God has had a persistent presence throughout history, long before the arrival of Jesus on earth. Take a look at the introduction to the Book of Hebrews:
“In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days He has spoken to us by a Son, whom He appointed the heir of all things, through whom also He created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by His word of power” (Hebrews 1:1-4).
“We talk about the fact that God works in history,” said Dominican Father Kevin Stephens, assistant professor of Old Testament at Aquinas Institute. “The Old Testament in a certain sense is, in fact, how God worked in history.”
The Old Testament is significant because it communicates how God remained active in the history of mankind. It also reveals God’s plan to send His Son Jesus as part of His salvific plan.
Through the readings of the Old Testament, we gain a wealth of insight into the teachings of God over a long period of time, Father Stephens said.
The role of the prophets
The words of the prophets of the Old Testament give insight into what was to come with the arrival of the Messiah, Jesus. But we shouldn’t forget that the events of the prophets’ lives also prefigure the events of Jesus’ life, said Father Charles Samson, assistant professor of biblical theology at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary.
Jeremiah prophesied against the corruption within the temple courts. He accused God’s people of their false religion and idolatrous practices.
“Not only was he ridiculed and exiled, but he was put into prison in a cistern and sank into the mud,” Father Samson said. “And where was that? A stone’s throw away from where Jesus was put into a cistern near Mount Zion for the same reason,” the night before He was handed to the Romans.
Jesus Himself points to the acts of the prophets’ lives to encourage people to find Him there, Father Samson said. In the Gospel of Matthew, He makes a reference to Jonah when He is asked for a sign by some of the scribes and pharisees. Jonah’s restoration after three days inside a great fish prefigures Jesus’ own resurrection:
“But He answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here’” (Matthew 12:39-41).
The Old Testament in the liturgy
One of the major documents of the Second Vatican Council, “Dei Verbum,” emphasized that God reveals truth through Scripture and the Church. Since the time of Vatican II, the Church has called for more exposure to the Old Testament, said Father Stephens.
Within the context of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Word is — for the most part — two-thirds Old Testament readings, which include the first reading and the responsorial Psalm.
The Old Testament authors understood that they were writing for a future audience — the Christians identified with the New Testament Church. In Hebrews, there are the examples of Abel, Enoch, Jonah and Abraham, who see God’s promise from a distance:
“These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13).
“They were able to see Jesus, but dimly,” Father Samson said. “The prophets saw from afar Jesus, who would come.”
The dialogue of Old and New
The Old Testament generally includes an origin or example, whereas the New Testament is the fullness of that. But the relationship between the Old and New Testaments is stronger than origin and fulfillment — the two are consistently in dialogue with one another, said Father Stephens.
“You might have a Gospel reading of Jesus feeding the people, and then Elijah providing food for a widow,” he said. “The Old Testament is also the source of the New Testament reading. So when Jesus healed the leper and tells him to clean himself, the Old Testament will be the law that Jesus is quoting.”
Relating the Old Testament to our lives
In a recent talk to the youth ministry group at St. Clare, Smith shared how she learned more about the people of Israel in the Old Testament from listening to “The Bible In a Year” podcast.
“I see how the story of the people of Israel is my story,” she said. “There are times where I haven’t trusted Him and had my doubts. But I see how God was still there with Israel, even when they didn’t trust Him. They were exiled and had to stay in the desert longer … and they needed that exile to learn from that. I saw how that parallels to my own life in some ways.”
>> The Old Testament and Holy Week
The readings from the Old Testament for Holy Week give a deeper understanding of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection.
Palm Sunday: Isaiah 50:4-7
Monday of Holy Week: Isaiah 42:1-7
Tuesday of Holy Week: Isaiah 49:1-6
Wednesday of Holy Week: Isaiah 50:4-9a
Good Friday: Isaiah 52:13-53:12
The reading from Baruch at the Easter Vigil is a shortened version of how God has worked in salvation history: Baruch 3:9-15, 32 and 4:1-4