The Mass: Liturgy of The Word

A brief look at the Liturgy of The Word

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By Charles Johnston:

In the First installment of this series we looked at the Introductory Rites of the Mass, in this installment we will look at the second part of the Mass; The Liturgy of The Word.The Catechism describes the Mass in some beautiful language that I can't surpass, so I'll quote it at length;

 

CCC 1154: The liturgy of the Word is an integral part of sacramental celebrations. To nourish the faith of believers, the signs which accompany the Word of God should be emphasized: the book of the Word (a lectionary or a book of the Gospels), its veneration (procession, incense, candles), the place of its proclamation (lectern or ambo), its audible and intelligible reading, the minister's homily which extends its proclamation, and the responses of the assembly (acclamations, meditation psalms, litanies, and profession of faith).

CCC 1346: The liturgy of the Eucharist unfolds according to a fundamental structure which has been preserved throughout the centuries down to our own day. It displays two great parts that form a fundamental unity:

the gathering, the liturgy of the Word, with readings, homily and general intercessions;

– the liturgy of the Eucharist, with the presentation of the bread and wine, the consecratory thanksgiving, and communion.

The liturgy of the Word and liturgy of the Eucharist together form "one single act of worship"; the Eucharistic table set for us is the table both of the Word of God and of the Body of the Lord.

The Eucharist is described as the "source and summit of the Christian faith," by so many Church documents, Church Fathers, and Popes. Then if you were to envision the Eucharist as the peak of a high mountain, the Liturgy of The Word can be thought of as the bedrock of that mountain, and also keeping with the mountain metaphor, it is the road that winds it's way to the peak while traveling through over 4000 years of Salvation History. To see see the importance the Church places on its foundation in scripture, read the Vatican II documents Dei Verbum and Sacrosanctum Concilium.

Sacred scripture is of the greatest importance in the celebration of the liturgy. For it is from scripture that lessons are read and explained in the homily, and psalms are sung; the prayers, collects, and liturgical songs are scriptural in their inspiration and their force, and it is from the scriptures that actions and signs derive their meaning…

Sacrosanctum Concilium, Pope Paul VI 1963

Paragraph 24a

It's the Scriptures that give the Eucharist its foundation, it's the backbone of our liturgical tradition. It's the Liturgy of The Word that is the foundation of the next part of the Mass, the Liturgy of The Eucharist.

(As I mentioned in the first installment, everything I'm writing about is based upon the Ordinary Form of the Mass- also known as the Novus Ordo-, in Ordinary Time)

  • First Reading

The First reading comes from the Old Testament, that being the part of the Bible written before the incarnation of Christ, sometimes called the Hebrew Bible. These scriptures are considered the Word of God by both Christians and Jews.

Even though some people may consider the Old Testament "out of date" or even "canceled out by the New Testament," this is actually a heresy that is called Marcionism. Named after its founder, Marcion of Sinope, this heresy was condemned by many of the early Church Fathers. Ironically, Marcionism held to a Biblical canon that included only the Gospel of Luke and the Pauline Epistles, but it was St. Paul himself that tells us of the value of the Old Testament. In his letter to the romans he wrote,

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

Romans 15:4

The scriptures that Paul was referring to were the writings of the Old Testament, they are still valid, they still contain the inspirered Word of God, they are still there to offer us encouragement and hope.

(For more on the importance of the Old Testament see my post, The importance of the Old Testament)

The Old Testament readings do not follow a pattern through each book, but are placed in the lectionary to compliment and supplement the Gospel reading. The themes in the First Reading will be echoed in the Gospel that Sunday, this is why, when preparing for Sunday's liturgy, I like to read the Gospel reading first and then the First Reading, followed by the Second reading.

  • Responsorial Psalm

After the first reading comes the Responsorial Psalm. This extension of the Old Testament reading is part scripture reading, part sacred music (because preferentially the responsorial Psalm is to always be sung), and part prayer.

Praying with the Psalms is an ancient practice in the Church that goes all the way back to our Jewish roots. Today in our Catholic tradition you will find priests, religious, and the laity all around the world praying the liturgy of the hours, which is composed primarily from the Book of Psalms. If you were to travel to Israel, and visit the wailing wall, you'd find Jews praying these same Psalms, just as Jesus would've in His day.

Praying with the Psalms is, and was, such a common practice among the Jews that one of the last things Jesus said on the cross was a quote from the Psalms.

And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, " Eli, Eli, la'ma sabach'-tha'ni?" that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Matthew 27:46

Jesus was quoting the first verse of Psalm 22 and contrary to popular opinion, Jesus wasn't giving into despair or admitting that the Father had abandoned Him, he was praying a Psalm that begins with despair but ends with a hope for deliverance by God. Jesus was very intimately connected to the Psalms, and so should we, because they can teach us how to better pray.

The majority of the Psalms were written by king David, an ancestor of Jesus, and a foreshadowing or type of Christ. King David was described as a "man after God's own heart" (1 Sam 13:14) and since he wrote the Psalms as cries from the heart, and with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Church teaches us that the Psalms can help us to pray like King David prayed.

CCC 2579 David is par excellence the king "after God's own heart," the shepherd who prays for his people and prays in their name. His submission to the will of God, his praise, and his repentance, will be a model for the prayer of the people. His prayer, the prayer of God's Anointed, is a faithful adherence to the divine promise and expresses a loving and joyful trust in God, the only King and Lord. In the Psalms David, inspired by the Holy Spirit, is the first prophet of Jewish and Christian prayer. The prayer of Christ, the true Messiah and Son of David, will reveal and fulfill the meaning of this prayer.

Paragraph 2586 from the catechism sums up the importance of the Psalms to the life and prayer of the Church.

CCC 2586: The Psalms both nourished and expressed the prayer of the People of God gathered during the great feasts at Jerusalem and each Sabbath in the synagogues. Their prayer is inseparably personal and communal; it concerns both those who are praying and all men. The Psalms arose from the communities of the Holy Land and the Diaspora, but embrace all creation. Their prayer recalls the saving events of the past, yet extends into the future, even to the end of history; it commemorates the promises God has already kept, and awaits the Messiah who will fulfill them definitively. Prayed by Christ and fulfilled in him, the Psalms remain essential to the prayer of the Church.

  • The Second Reading

This reading is always from the New Testament, as compared to the first reading and the Psalms that was sung.

The importance of these Books and Letters of the New Testament cannot be overstated. While the Words of Christ and His teachings are found in the Gospels, the other New Testament books, written by men like Saints Paul, Peter, James and John, expand on and explain some of the teachings and actions of Christ.

The Second reading runs through each book, one at a time, and is untethered to the Gospel reading, unlike the First reading which is chosen for the lectionary to complement the Gospel reading. If you look at the Sunday readings at website for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (link here) you will notice that each Sunday the Second reading progresses through Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, and so on. While the First readings will skip between Exodus one week and Ezekiel the next, depending on that week's Gospel reading.

  • The Gospel

The Gospel reading is the pinnacle of the Liturgy of The Word. Here we hear proclaimed the very words and deeds of Christ. The Gospel reading has so much rich symbolism that it will be the longest portion of this article.

GIRM 60. The reading of the Gospel is the high point of the Liturgy of the Word. The Liturgy itself teaches that great reverence is to be shown to it by setting it off from the other readings with special marks of honor: whether on the part of the minister appointed to proclaim it, who prepares himself by a blessing or prayer; or on the part of the faithful, who stand as they listen to it being read and through their acclamations acknowledge and confess Christ present and speaking to them; or by the very marks of reverence that are given to the Book of the Gospels.

Also, during the proclamation of the Gospel we will come across the first of many quiet prayers and actions of the Priest and/or Deacon that largely goes unnoticed by the faithful. Even if they are noticed, they go unheard because the rubrics of the Mass indicates they are to be said "in a low voice."

Liturgical Cycles

You may have noticed that the Gospel readings stay in one book of the Gospels throughout a given year (with some exceptions), this is due to what we call Liturgical Cycles.

Cycles A, B, and C go through the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The Gospel of John is read around Christmas, during Lent, and during the Easter season through all three cycles.

Although there are twenty seven books in the New Testament, there are only four Gospels so every Mass, 364 days a year (there is no Mass on Good Friday, the only day of the year that there isn't), you will hear a reading proclaimed from one of these four.

All Rise

Just as we rise for the Priest during the entrance procession, we also stand during the reading of the Gospel. The reasons is respect and reverence, the Gospels contain the words of Christ, and His words deserve the utmost respect, we show this respect and honor by rising, the same way as gentlemen did in years past when a lady entered the room, or when the judge enters the courtroom.

The Alleluia 

The cantor, or choir, leads the people in the singing of the Alleluia. Alleluia, also translated as hallelujah, comes from a Hebrew expression that means "praise the Lord." It is believed to have been chanted by the Levitical Priests during Temple liturgies in Jerusalem.

Found throughout the psalms, notably in Psalm 150 and in Tobit's prayer of praise, in which he describes the New Jerusalem with the words "hallelujah."

The streets of Jerusalem will be paved with beryl and ruby and stones of O'phir; all her lanes will cry 'Hallelujah!' and will give praise, saying, 'Blessed is God, who has exalted you for ever.'

Tobit 13:18

Interestingly, the only time hallelujah appears in the New Testament is in Saint John's vision of heavenly praises. These praises are mirrored, and joined by us in the Mass.

After this I heard what seemed to be the mighty voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying, " Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God… And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God who is seated on the throne, saying, "Amen. Hallelujah!" And from the throne came a voice crying, "Praise our God, all you his servants,you who fear him, small and great." Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying, "Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.
Revelation 19:1,4-6

So we see that hallelujah was proclaimed by King David in the psalms, chanted by the priests in God's temple, envisioned to be sung by the "great multitude" in Saint John's vision of heaven, and according to Tobit it could be considered the anthem of the New Jerusalem (also heaven).

Is it any wonder that we joyfully sing the alleluia before reading the words of The Word made flesh? The turning point of history, the moment that divides time, when God came down from heaven and clothed Himself in human flesh, all for the redemption of mankind. Really we should sing alleluia just thinking about it, and not just in Mass but even when walking down the street!

The Priest's Blessing

As the people sing the alleluia, the Deacon rises and bows his head before the presiding Priest and asks for his blessing.

The deacon says: Your blessing, Father.

The Priest says in a low voice: May the Lord be in your heart and on your lips, that you may proclaim his Gospel worthily and well, in the name of the Father and of the Son ✠ and of the Holy Spirit.

The Deacon signs himself with the Sign of the Cross and replies: Amen.

Alternatively, if there is no Deacon present then the Priest would bow at the altar and silently pray:

Cleanse my heart and my lips, almighty God, that I may worthily proclaim your holy Gospel.

Candles 

This one is a hit or miss, you may or may not see this at your local parish depending on availability of altar servers, a deacon, and the preference of the pastor, but I will mention it here because of its beautiful symbolism.

According to the GIRM, the altar must have at least two candles on it, or beside it, during Mass. That is a must, but processing with the candles and moving them to the ambo is optional.

GIRM 117. The altar is to be covered with at least one white cloth. In addition, on or next to the altar are to be placed candlesticks with lighted candles: at least two in any celebration, or even four or six, especially for a Sunday Mass or a holy day of obligation. If the diocesan Bishop celebrates, then seven candles should be used. Also on or close to the altar, there is to be a cross with a figure of Christ crucified. The candles and the cross adorned with a figure of Christ crucified may also be carried in the Entrance Procession. On the altar itself may be placed the Book of the Gospels, distinct from the book of other readings, unless it is carried in the Entrance Procession.

Just as everyone rises, the altar servers will remove two candles from the altar, and place them by the ambo (the stand at which the readings are proclaimed). These candles serve the purpose of symbolizing the light of Christ that enters in the procession, is placed on the altar, and then moved to the ambo, where the light of Christ will shine forth through His very words. They are then moved back to the altar to be a witness to the sacrifice of Calvary that is made present on the altar.

Sign Before The Gospel

After greeting the people, the Deacon, or Priest, says,

A reading from the Gospel according to N.

At these words he makes the sign of the cross on his forehead, lips, and chest. This is a prayer through movement, much as the sign of the cross is itself a silent prayer, or genuflecting before the tabernacle.

We mimic this movement, and in doing so we are praying that God's word be always on our mind, on our lips, and residing in our hearts.

After The Gospel 

After the usual response from the people, the Deacon or Priest, kisses the book of the Gospels and says quietly,

Through the words of the Gospel may our sins be wiped away.

This should be our prayer in our hearts at all times. By reading and meditating on the Word of God we may be conformed to be more like Him.

The Homily

By means of the homily the mysteries of the faith and the guiding principles of the Christian life are expounded from the sacred text, during the course of the liturgical year; the homily, therefore, is to be highly esteemed as part of the liturgy itself; in fact, at those Masses which are celebrated with the assistance of the people on Sundays and feasts of obligation, it should not be omitted except for a serious reason.

Sacrosanctum Concilium, Pope Paul VI 1963

Paragraph 52

GIRM 65. The homily is part of the Liturgy and is strongly recommended,[63] for it is necessary for the nurturing of the Christian life. It should be an exposition of some aspect of the readings from Sacred Scripture or of another text from the Ordinary or from the Proper of the Mass of the day and should take into account both the mystery being celebrated and the particular needs of the listeners.

I've heard it said that the homily is not a very important part of the Mass, its "just Father's opinion. Everybody has an opinion, so why does his matter so much?" But this sentiment couldn't be more wrong.

First, our priests are called father because they are the spiritual fathers of the parishes that are our spiritual families, I'd hate for my children to disrespect what I had to say and brush it aside so easily. That being said, priests are not infallible, so if he says something that sounds off, or maybe espouses an opinion that is heterodox, approach him afterwards and discuss it, but whatever you do don't just start talking about him behind his back.

Second, the homily is a very important part of the Mass that is mentioned in both the GIRM and Sacrosanctum Concilium.

One reason why the homily is important, so important that it can't be omitted except for a "serious reason," can be found in Luke 24. In the story about the road to Emmaus, Jesus recounts several scriptures and then explains the meaning of many prophecies concerning Himself to His disciples, before having a Eucharistic meal with them. If this structure sounds familiar, it's because it is, and we see it at every Mass we attend. I thought it was just me, the first time I read the story of Emmaus after becoming Catholic, I thought I'd had an epiphany, but then I read the catechism and seen it right there,

CCC 1347 Is this not the same movement as the Paschal meal of the risen Jesus with his disciples? Walking with them he explained the Scriptures to them; sitting with them at table "he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them."

After the homily a brief moment of silence is "appropriately observed."

If you're like me you probably thought Father just took a micro nap in his chair, or was lost in thought, but this silence is actually prescribed in the rubrics of the Mass. Its a moment for all of us to meditate and reflect on the Gospel reading and how it was presented to us in the homily, along with any challenges issued by the homilist to better live our Christian lives.

The Creed

GIRM 67. The purpose of the Symbolum or Profession of Faith, or Creed, is that the whole gathered people may respond to the word of God proclaimed in the readings taken from Sacred Scripture and explained in the homily and that they may also call to mind and confess the great mysteries of the faith by reciting the rule of faith in a formula approved for liturgical use, before these mysteries are celebrated in the Eucharist.

All rise again to profess our faith. Usually in the form of the Nicene Creed, although the Apostles Creed may also be uses, especially in Masses for children.

The Creed deserves its own series of articles, and I wrote four just about the four marks of the Church that are recited in the Creed (Available at this link). There have also been many great books written about the Creed, and its specific articles of faith.

I'd only like to point out something that I find remarkable; we profess our belief in God the Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit, and in doing so we profess belief in the natures of these three Persons of the Holy Trinity.

By far, the longest section is the part about who Jesus is, and what He done. But there isn't even one mention of His teachings. This isn't because the Church, or even the Father's of the First councils of Nicaea and Constantinople (where the Nicene Creed was debated and promulgated), were unconcerned with the teachings of Christ, it's because by having a correctly formed belief in the "ousia" or being of Christ helps us to better understand and have correct opinions on the teachings of Christ. That's because His teachings flow from His being, and to know one helps demystify the other.

The Prayers of The Faithful 

We remain standing while the Priest or Deacon read off a series of prayer intentions to which we make the usual response, "Lord, hear our prayer."

This is a time for us to join in the prayers of our parish, our diocese, our nation, and the Church universal. This is not a time to mindlessly drone back the response without any prayer or meaning behind it, we are to pray along, not just repeat the words.

The prayers follow a pattern on most days, as laid out in the GIRM,

GIRM 70. As a rule, the series of intentions is to be

a. For the needs of the Church;

b. For public authorities and the salvation of the whole world;

c. For those burdened by any kind of difficulty;

d. For the local community.

After the prayers, the people sit while the gifts are prepared and brought forward to the altar.

This ends the Liturgy of The Word.

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