The Liturgy of the Word
As we look ahead to the implementation of the newly translated Roman Missal, we are taking a tour of the Mass – looking at the Church's fundamental teachings concerning the liturgy and sacraments and studying the individual parts of the liturgy. In this installment, we take an initial look at the Liturgy of the Word. This part of the liturgy includes the readings from Sacred Scripture together with the responsorial psalm and the Gospel acclamation, as well as the homily, the Creed, and the Prayer of the Faithful.
We first turn our attention to the place of Scripture in the liturgy. As I have mentioned in previous columns, Scripture is not "confined" to the Liturgy of the Word. The entire liturgy is preeminently Scriptural. The composition of the prayers; the mysteries of the Lord which are re-presented in the liturgical year, especially His death and resurrection; the words and gestures of both the priest and the congregation – all these are thoroughly Scriptural in their origin and content (see Vatican II, Constitution on the Liturgy, no. 24). Yet it is in the Liturgy of the Word where we hear and respond to the proclamation of Scripture itself. On a typical Sunday, the Liturgy of the Word consists of an Old Testament reading, the Responsorial Psalm, a New Testament reading, the Gospel Acclamation and the Gospel reading, followed by the homily. Before looking at how these readings are related to one another and to us, however, let us pause to reflect on the presence of Christ in the Word proclaimed.
We should not underestimate its importance or lull ourselves into thinking that it isn't necessary to arrive at Sunday Mass in time to hear the Scripture readings. Echoing the Church's long tradition, the Church teaches us that when Scripture is proclaimed, it is Christ himself who speaks to us (see, for example, Constitution on the Liturgy, no. 7). Indeed, the Church "venerate[s] the Scriptures as she venerates the Lord's Body. She never ceases to present to the faithful the Bread of Life, taken from the one table of Christ's Word and Christ's Body" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 103; Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, no. 21). Referring to Jesus as "the Word made flesh," Pope John Paul II spoke about "the sacramentality of revelation" – the Eternal Word of God is perceived in and through the "sign" of Christ's humanity, including his words and deeds. And, just as we approach the altar to receive Christ's Body and Blood, so, too, by way of analogy, do we acknowledge the presence of Christ in the Word proclaimed (see, Pope Benedict XVI, The Word of the Lord, no. 56). Whether or not we always admit it, our hearts are hungry and our souls are thirsting for God's Word and nowhere is the Word of God set forth so richly and so effectively as in the liturgy.
In his exhortation entitled The Word of the Lord, Pope Benedict refers to the liturgy as "the home of the Word." He goes on to say that "...the liturgy is the privileged setting in which God speaks to us in the midst of our lives; he speaks today to his people who hear his voice and respond." This takes place through the action of the Holy Spirit. Scripture itself is the inspired Word of God because of the Holy Spirit, and for this reason no other writings can be substituted for Scripture during the Liturgy of the Word. And it is the Holy Spirit who opens our hearts so that we can absorb the Word and let it become truly a part of us and our daily lives, as a community of faith and as individuals (The Word of the Lord, no. 52).
Indeed, Scripture itself cannot be properly understood apart from the liturgy where the Word of God is proclaimed and explained, even as the liturgy cannot be fathomed without Scripture. In the Church's liturgy we come to see Christ, most especially in his death and resurrection, as the center of Scripture. And the Church helps us to grasp the meaning of Scripture by presenting it in an orderly way throughout the liturgical year in which the mysteries of Christ – his Incarnation and Birth, his Preaching and Miracles, his Suffering, Death, Resurrection, and Exaltation – are unfolded for us year after year. Through the liturgy we "touch" the words and deeds of Jesus which are made present to us in and through the liturgy. By participating in the liturgy, we have living contact with all that Christ said and did to save us, so much does He love us. And just as there is separation between what God says and what he does, so, too, the Word of God is intrinsically linked to the sacramental signs of the liturgy which actualize what the Word proclaims. The Word has become flesh and in the Eucharist Christ's flesh is given us as "the bread of life." And the Word proclaimed has as its one purpose to lead us to "the sacrifice of the new covenant and the banquet of grace, that is the Eucharist" (The Word of the Lord, quoting Ordo Lectionum Missae, no. 10).
We now turn to how the Scripture readings are arranged in the Liturgy. We will take as our "prototype" the Sunday EuchariSt. Except for the Easter Season, the first reading is taken from the Old Testament and most often is intimately related to the Gospel reading. Sunday after Sunday, God's eternal plan of salvation is presented to us, stretching back to creation, moving through the saving history of the Chosen People, culminating in Christ, and extending to these "last days" in which we live. By being attentive to interplay between the Old Testament and the New Testament, we discover Christ as the center of both Scripture and the saving plan of God.
At first glance, however, the second reading, often from one of St. Paul's epistles, sometimes does not seem to be "in sync" with the Old Testament reading and the Gospel. In preparing homilies, it can be a challenge to see how all three readings are related. The temptation is simply to put the second reading "in brackets" or preach on the second reading while remaining largely silent about the Old Testament reading and the Gospel. However, the "connectedness" of all three readings (together with responsorial psalm") becomes more evident when we reflect on "the inherent unity of the Bible as a whole" (The Word of the Lord, no. 57). This way of thinking about Scripture opens our minds to connections among the readings we might not otherwise see and greatly enriches our understanding of the Bible itself.
I'd like to say a word about the Responsorial Psalm. It is not just a poem or a song that serves as an interlude between the first and second reading. Rather, as the name indicates, it is our response to the Word of God. However, we are responding not with our own words and sentiments but rather with God's own Word, with songs of praise he has inspired. The Psalm chosen for the liturgy of the day helps us meditate on the reading we have heard and prepares us for what is to follow. It helps us to raise our minds and hearts in praise even as we allow the Word of God to penetrate our mind and heart. Whenever possible, the Responsorial Psalm should be chanted and the refrain should be able to be sung by the whole congregation, not just the choir.Usually, it is to be led from the ambo or pulpit. A hymn, even the noblest, should never be used as a substitute for the psalms.
The point of the Liturgy of the Word is that we encounter the Word. Thus, we need to make sure that the Word of God is clearly proclaimed. Lectors should be well trained. There is no substitute for practicing before one publicly proclaims the Word of God and for ensuring that one knows how to pronounce all the words clearly. Lectors should project their voices, reading slowly enough that the Word can be truly heard, and, above all, they should manifest a reverence for what they read. After a Scripture passage has been read, there should be a period of silence in which the assembly can absorb the Word of God. Silence should not be taken as the absence of participation. We cannot really take part in the liturgy unless there are periods of silent prayer, so that we might give the Holy Spirit the opportunity to work in us and through us.
In the next installment, I should like to focus on the homily, the Creed, and the prayer of the faithful. In the meantime, let us take our cue from St. Paul who says to us, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God" (Colossians 3:16).