Before reading this chapter, ask yourself or share with a few friends: Do I pay enough attention to the readings? Do I sense the presence of Christ as I listen to the readings?
Liturgy of the Word
The Mass is frequently spoken of as being in two parts: liturgy of the Word and liturgy of the Eucharist. Each has its own ‘table’. The ‘table’ for the liturgy of the Word is the lectern where the readings are proclaimed and then commented on during the homily.
On Sundays the first reading, frequently from the Old Testament, is chosen to match or lead up to the gospel. It’s sometimes difficult to understand as it comes from a completely alien culture and there’s no opportunity to ask questions. Just a one-off listening does not do justice to any passage of Scripture. It helps greatly to go over the readings prior to attending the Mass as I said in the previous chapter. The readings can be found in a Missal or on the internet. A commentary is a valuable help, a study course in Scripture even better.
During the Easter Season, the Acts of the Apostles is read. This is a valuable history of the Church of the first century.
The psalm response is just that – a response to the first reading, frequently in the form of a prayer or an expression of an appropriate human emotion such as joy, regret for sin or thanksgiving. If the response is sung, it’s even more effective. It has been said that in the scriptures God speaks to us but in the psalms we speak to God.
The second reading, frequently from Paul’s letters, is a sequence of readings Sunday by Sunday, taking one letter at a time. These too can sometimes be difficult, but, again, it helps to read them beforehand. This reading is not chosen to match the gospel but has great value in its own right.
There are a few occasions when Paul can be interpreted as being anti-feminine, but we must not let these few occasions prejudice us against the wonderful enlightened insights that this ‘Apostle to the Gentiles’ gives us.
Word (Patrick Negri, 2003)
Through most of the year the gospel is introduced with the alleluia verse, a joyous little burst of song. In fact, it is essentially a sung verse preceded and followed with the Hebrew word ‘Alleluia’. When it is not sung, it should not be used though this directive is rarely observed. The words of the verse always lead into the gospel. Saint Irenaeus (second to third century) said, “We are a risen people and Alleluia is our song.” This neat succinct phrase wonderfully captivates the Christian stance towards life.
The gospel is the most important of the readings and features a part of Jesus’ life or his teachings. The standing posture highlights the importance of this reading. Sometimes the book is carried in procession and incensed, sometimes candles are held alongside the lectern. We sign ourselves with the sign of the cross on our foreheads asking for enlightenment, on our lips asking for help to pass on the good news to others, and on the heart which the gospel must touch if it is to be effective.
Many scholars now believe the New Testament was written to be read at the Sunday Eucharist. In those days few people could read or write let alone possess a copy of these writings which had to be laboriously copied by hand, so most would only have known the gospels as they were read at the Sunday Eucharist.
During his life, Jesus’ teaching was welcomed by the people; it contained ‘food for thought’. His inaugural teaching was in the synagogue at Nazareth and Luke says, ‘All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.’ (Luke 4:22)
The two disciples on their way to Emmaus exclaimed, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the Scriptures to us?’ (Luke 24:32)
Jesus did not belong to the ruling class, nor was he a priest; he had no particular standing within the community. His authority was an inner authority. He spoke with conviction.
We can be confident of following the teachings of a man who taught not to make himself popular or to make money or to become famous. He taught at great risk to his own life, and, in fact, lost his life in teaching as he did. Though it may be the voice of the priest or deacon you hear proclaiming the gospel, it is Jesus who is speaking to your heart.
As followers of Jesus we need to have a thorough grasp of Jesus’ instructions about how to live mature Christian lives and be able to apply those teachings to the particular circumstances of the twenty-first century.
The homily helps us to make this application, giving us some ideas to pursue in our own way. The homily can never give us a complete exposition of the gospel passage but at least it should point the way along our spiritual journey.
I always have a short silent pause after the homily and ask the people to reflect for a moment on the readings that we have heard. A short reflection time allows the word of God to be digested, allowing the people to apply the homily to their own lives. [When I first began to do this I had a little hassle with the collectors who were used to taking up the collection immediately after the homily was finished. They still jumped up even though I had said “We’ll pause for a moment or two to reflect on the readings”. I had to ask them to restrain their enthusiasm until I said, “Now we’ll have the collection.”].
We live in a completely different era to that of the first century but Jesus’ teachings are so unique and universal that they can apply to any era and any race of people.
It would be beyond the ability of most people to absorb all that is in these three readings and understand them fully. However, it’s important to listen as attentively as possible and it may be sufficient to pick up a thought, a word or a phrase, that catches your attention and that you can hold on to. That Word may be just what you need at this time – in this way it may be said to be ‘speaking to you’. It may be a word of consolation for pain that you are experiencing, a word to guide you at this particular time of your life or it may be a word challenging you to some difficult task. Take that word with you and reflect on it frequently during the day. Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31 – 32)
Jesus feeds our spirits with his teachings which are saturated with truth. We have to admit they are extremely difficult to put into practice and what can easily happen is that we select those we like and which are not too difficult, and then kid ourselves we are good Christians. The challenge of the liturgy of the Word is to try to follow all Jesus’ teachings. But we’re not expected to do this just by our own efforts. Jesus himself provides the energy we need when we make the effort, and the energy comes from the very words that challenge us. Jesus’ words are food that nourishes our spirits. When we take these words to heart and resolve to abide by them, then we find in them all the help we need.
The Council of Vatican II says:
The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since from the table of both the word of God and of the body of Christ she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life, especially in the sacred liturgy. (Decree on Revelation, 21; emphasis mine)
This is perhaps a truth that we need to be much more aware of, namely, that the presence of Christ in the liturgy of the word is a real presence. An attentive listening to the Scripture readings is an important part of our spirituality, as is an honest effort to follow them in our daily lives.
We profess the Nicene Creed which was forged out of long, sometimes fierce debate by theologians in the early centuries. We acknowledge belief in God, Father of all the living, creator of the universe and everything in it. We believe in Jesus as God’s Son who took on human flesh, came into this world, was put to death and raised by the Father into a new life. We believe Jesus was fully divine and fully human. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the eternal love between the Father and the Son.
We believe in the Church as one, holy, catholic and apostolic. Note the small ‘c’ for catholic. Because ‘catholic’ means universal, the phrase refers to the world wide Church, not just the Roman Catholic Church. The Nicene Creed is the belief of all the mainstream churches.
We don’t do justice to the Doctors of the Church of the early centuries who battled over every word and phrase, when there is just a mindless recitation by rote which is what happens in most parishes. ‘Full, conscious and active participation’ is achieved better by singing our faith, and there are some excellent sung versions available and easily sung by parish congregations. Being an intellectual exercise, the Creed is a left brain activity and can become dull. It needs to be balanced by some right brain singing to enliven it.
Prayers of Intercession
The Eucharist is not just an inward-looking event. It looks out to the world around us and holds up to the Lord the injustices, the inequalities and the violence that abound. We pray for the needs of others, for the sick and the deceased and whatever other needs the parish is aware of.
Prayers of intercession are an important part of our spirituality; they keep us from becoming too insular and too focussed on ourselves. Good spirituality looks both inward and outward.
A healthy spirituality takes notice of all the human tragedies resulting from natural disasters such as earthquakes, droughts and hurricanes; it pays attention to the victims of war and violence. In the petitions we pray for good governance of Church and state, for good relationships between countries and for an end to discrimination of all kinds. We pray for the coming of the kingdom of God on earth.
These prayers conclude the Liturgy of the Word.