Sometimes you just don’t recognize the profound importance of someone in your life until they are gone. That happened for me last week upon hearing that a professor from graduate school had died of cancer at age 73. Dan Harrington was an internationally distinguished Scripture scholar, editor of the journal New Testament Abstracts and the Sacra Pagina series of books. He earned a doctorate in biblical languages and cultures from Harvard, taught Scripture to theology students like us, and preached every Sunday for over twenty-five years in Catholic churches he served as priest. A couple generations of students are grieving Along with family and many friends. Dan had all the “bells and whistles” of the finest academic pedigree.
More importantly, Dan was genuinely humble and disarmingly approachable. You learned that upon first meeting. You learned that Dan passionately loved God. And, you discovered that Dan stuttered. He once wrote: “My love for the Bible goes back a long way. I stutter – I always have and I guess I always will. As a young boy I read in a newspaper that Moses stuttered. … The Bible never grows wearisome or stale for me. I am deeply in love with the Bible as God’s word.” Dan taught us as a master teacher with impeccable skill and as an ordinary human being who struggled with limitation to bring ourselves, our experiences, our personal strengths and limits, as well as a deep sense of community to biblical studies.
Yes, Dan modeled for us the best methods of literary, historical, and theological analysis. More, he showed us that the Bible is not meant to be “an object of antiquarian research or words on a page (no matter how sacred).” He would insist: “In the encounter between the reader and the text the ‘word of God’ comes alive. Something can and does happen. In that encounter— whether it takes the form of silent or oral reading, literary analysis, or preaching—the word of God comes alive for me. I see analogies, points of contact, between what the biblical text describes and my life. As I discover and articulate those analogies I develop a language for thinking and talking about the experience of God and about human existence. This in turn shapes my way of living and how I interact with others.”
Perhaps his most profound imprint was in helping others comprehend that the “Word of God” is not identical with the text of the Bible. It is a living Word through which we enter a personal and communal encounter with the Holy One. “From the Bible we come to know the God of our religious tradition and what it means to be God’s people. We meet Jesus of Nazareth whom we confess to be the Word of God. In and through the Word/word, God tells us who God is and what God wants us to be and do.” Dan understood his craft in the context of his faith. “The encounter with God through the Bible cannot be programmed or forced. God takes the initiative in this relationship and leads us where God wants us to go.
More than anything, Dan explicated his love for an ancient, simple and effective framework of engaging with the Bible. Such “divine” or spiritual reading is known by its Latin name, lectio divina. There are four steps in lectio divina:
• Reading – what does the text say?
• Meditation – what is God saying to me through this text?
• Prayer – what do I want to say to God on the basis of this text?
• Action – what difference, challenges, or possibilities does this text open up?
In 1997 Dan expressed himself in words characteristically simple and distinctly apt for celebrating his life: “In the midst of these wonderful activities (which are my greatest joy) I occasionally stutter. And this brings me back to where my spiritual journey with the Bible began. Though I am slow of speech and tongue like Moses, I still hear the words of Exodus 4:11-12: “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.”
May he rest in peace!