The Liturgy

“When the Sacred Scriptures are read in the Church, God himself speaks to his people, and Christ, present in his word, proclaims the Gospel.”General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 29

These words from the General Instruction of the Roman Missal present us with a profound truth worthy of our contemplation because the words of Sacred Scripture are unlike any other texts we will ever hear in our lifetime. They not only give us information about God, they are the means God uses to reveal himself to us, as well as the means we use to know, encounter and embrace the depth of God’s love for us. It is in Sacred Scripture where we learn how to be followers of Christ and members of his body. When the Word of God is proclaimed in the liturgy, it possesses a special sacramental power to bring about in us what it proclaims.

The readings from Sacred Scripture proclaimed at Mass form the parish community collectively in its weekly gathering. Yet, the Word also affects each of us individually in different ways, as each person will hear the message uniquely because the Holy Spirit reaches into the hearts of all and places within them the message that comes from God.

One of the greatest contributions to Catholic worship since the Second Vatican Council was the revision of the Lectionary for Mass, which significantly increased the amount of scripture proclaimed at Mass. For example, the number of readings increased from two to three, and the psalm verse, once known as the “gradual,” expanded into what we know today as the Responsorial Psalm. Additionally, the one-year cycle of Sunday readings expanded to a three-year cycle. Prior to Vatican II, Catholics heard a mere 1 percent of the Old Testament and 16.5 percent of the New Testament at Mass. Today that has expanded to 13.5 percent of the Old Testament and 71.5 percent of the New Testament. The themes and interplay of these readings are arranged within a framework, moving from week to week and season to season, which aids in preaching to and catechesis of the community.

Christ, present in his Word, proclaims the Gospel

Jesus reads the Scriptures only once in the Gospels, and he does it in the context of a liturgy. Upon arrival in Nazareth, Jesus enters the synagogue, where he joins the assembly already gathered for prayer on the Sabbath. Having been handed the scroll, he stands up to read the prophecy of Isaiah and then comments on it. According to the Gospel texts, the people gathered in that synagogue are the only people ever to have heard and seen Jesus read the Scriptures aloud in a liturgical setting. How incredible for those people to have heard, with their own ears, Jesus, the Word, reading from Scripture!

In Luke’s Gospel, this is the beginning of Jesus’ preaching ministry, making his first ministerial act an act of worship. I think it is significant to note that he begins his ministry not in the temple offering sacrifice, but in a synagogue reading Scripture! And he opens his ministry by opening the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and reading, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” This is an affirmation of the earlier scenes in the Gospel where the Spirit of the Lord descended upon Jesus at his Baptism (Luke 3:22) and then guided him into the desert. (Luke 4:1) Again, the Spirit of the Lord guided him to read this passage from the scroll of the prophet, further demonstrating that the Spirit of the Lord always accompanies the reading of the Scriptures and inspires their interpretation.

The reading of this passage from the prophet becomes for Jesus the beginning of his presentation of himself to his followers, because when he reads this passage, he manifests himself as the Messiah, the anointed one. What happens in this passage is simultaneously liturgy, epiphany and theophany, because, in this seemingly insignificant passage, Jesus brings to fulfillment that which, according to the Letter to the Hebrews, the Christ confesses as he enters the world: “As is written of me in the scroll, ‘Behold, I come to do your will, O God.’” (Hebrews 10:7, cf. Psalm 40:7) Christ is the text, the beginning of the book in which the will of the Father is written.

What happened in that synagogue is the institution of the Liturgy of the Word, in the very same way that the institution of the Eucharist happened at the Last Supper. And so, by taking into his hands the scroll from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus initiated the novum testamentum (New Testament), just as he did by taking the cup at the supper, when he instituted the calix novum testamentum (the cup of the New Testament). Just as Jesus read from Isaiah and interpreted it, Christians have read and interpreted Scriptures in liturgical assemblies.

Proclaiming the Scriptures Today

By proclaiming the Scripture clearly and audibly, the original design and practice of the Early Church is expressed. It is important to understand that the Bible was written for public proclamation, not just for private devotion. By the Middle Ages, however, the public reading of Scripture was nearly abandoned when the priest and other ministers read the texts of the Mass in a low voice in Latin. By 1960, after the Second Vatican Council had been announced, but not yet convened, Pope John XXIII issued a clarification of the rubrics of the Mass, asking that the readings all be proclaimed in a clear and loud voice — and in the vernacular so that all could understand.

On the Monday after Pentecost, the Church returned to Ordinary Time, and we will observe this liturgical season until the Sunday before Advent. It’s a wonderful time to hear the stories of our salvation history proclaimed in a semi-continuous manner as we progress through the season. May this special season be a time for you to grow ever closer to the Word of God.