The Liturgy

In last month’s column, we reflected on the composition and function of the Collect. Sometimes known as the Opening Prayer, the function of the Collect is to collect our thoughts and prayers, and each of us, for the celebration of Mass, and to focus our worship into one succinct prayer.

I invite us to turn our attention this month to the Liturgy of the Word, the part of the Mass when God speaks the message of our salvation in Christ Jesus. Before doing so, I must first mention that all Christian worship is rooted in the biblical model of dialogue. God seeks us, approaches us and initiates a relationship with us, and we respond. Therefore, now gathered as one in time and place, we open our ears to hear God speaking to us.

The readings we proclaim at Mass intentionally form the parish community collectively in its weekly gathering. The word also affects each of us individually, in different and varied ways, as each person will hear the message uniquely because the Holy Spirit reaches into the hearts of all to place within them the message that comes from God.

One of the greatest contributions to Catholic liturgy since the Second Vatican Council was the revision of the “Lectionary for Mass,” which significantly increased the amount of scripture Catholics heard proclaimed at Mass. For example, the number of readings on Sundays 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 readings proclaimed on Sundays expanded to a three-year cycle. And for those of you who like numbers — 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 that moves week to week and season to season. This ordering of scriptures refracts the entire life of Christ and the Paschal Mystery over the course of a year just like light is refracted through a prism. The arrangement of the readings aids in preaching and forms an ideal curriculum for the catechesis of the Christian Community.

The Beginnings of the Liturgy of the Word

Jesus reads the Scriptures only once in the Gospels (see Luke 4:16-21), and he does it in the context of a liturgy. Upon arrival in Nazareth, Jesus enters the synagogue, where he joins an assembly already gathered for prayer on the Sabbath. As he’s 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, and therefore, his first ministerial act was 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. 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 descends upon Jesus at his baptism (Luke 3:22) and then guides him into the desert (4:1). Again, the Spirit of the Lord guides him to read this passage from the scroll of the prophet, further demonstrating that the Spirit always accompanies the reading of the Scriptures and inspires their interpretation.

Jesus’ reading of this passage from the prophet becomes for him also the beginning of the presentation of himself to his followers. When he reads this passage, Jesus manifests himself as the Messiah, the anointed one. What happens in this passage is simultaneously liturgy, epiphany and theophany because, in this seemingly insignificant town of Nazareth, 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.

One could say that what happened in that synagogue is the institution of the Liturgy of the Word in much the same way that the institution of the Eucharist happened at the Last Supper. 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.

Today, when the Scripture is proclaimed clearly and audibly, we are doing what Jesus did in the synagogue, as well as what the Early Church originally intended and practiced. 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 language of the people.

I conclude this month’s column with a quotation from the “General Instruction of the Roman Missal,” paragraph 29:

“When the Sacred Scriptures are read in the Church, God himself speaks to his people, and Christ, present in his own word, proclaims the Gospel.”