THe Mass in Slow Motion – The Liturgy of the Word

Every now and then it will be claimed that the Catholic Church is not a “Bible Believing Church.” Further, that Catholics do not know the Bible. Both claims register false when we look at the Mass. The Mass is filled with Scripture and Catholics know a lot more Scripture than they think they do. We may not be the sort to quote Chapter and Verse numbers but we know the scriptures. If I start to tell the story of Zaccheaus climbing the tree, or of Lazarus being raised from the dead, or of the woman at the well, or the storm at sea, or begin to quote from the Epistles, Catholics know these passages IF they go to Mass regularly. Over the period of three years the whole of the New Testament is read in the Catholic Liturgy and most of the significant passages of the Old Testament. We read A LOT of Scripture in every Mass and Catholics know more of the Bible than they think they do.

Now that the Congregation is seated, it is time to listen attenively to God’s Word. We do this in a part of the Mass called the Liturgy of the Word which in the current form of the Mass consists of and Old Testament Reading, a Psalm, a reading from a New Testament Epistle, and a reading from the Gospels. Then follows the Homily, the Creed and the prayer repsonse. In effect, readings from scripture and the chants between the readings form the main part of the liturgy of the word. The homily, profession of faith, and general intercessions or prayer of the  faithful develop and complete it. In the readings, explained by the homily God speaks to his people of redemption and salvation and nourishes their spirit; Christ is present among the faithful through his word. Through the chants the people make God’s word their own and express their adherence to it through the profession of faith. Finally, moved by this word, they pray in the general intercessions for the needs of the Church and for the world’s salvation.(cf G.I.R.M. # 55)

History of the liturgy of the word. The beginnings of this service go back the synagogue and it therefore pre-christian in origin. The Apostles attended the synagogue and were thus familiar with it. The synagogue was distinct from the Temple. The Temple was in Jerusalem and it was there alone that blood sacrifices were offered. However, after the exile especially The Jews undertook the practice of meeting in their local areas to read scripture and praise the Lord. The gatherings (or synagogues) varied in size but tended to be small groups. In fact, as we know from Scripture, Jesus himself faithfully attended the synagogue and his Apostles continued to follow his example. We read in Acts 2:46, “Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and breaking bread in their homes.

The Jewish synagogue service of the First Century may be described as follows. On appointed days, above all on the Sabbath, the community was  assembled. The Assembly was opened with the Shema which served as a kind of profession of faith. The Text of the Shema begins as thus: “Hear O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore you shall love the Lord, your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your strength…” (Deuteronomy 6:4) There was next a congregational prayer spoken by one of the members of the group appointed by the leader of the synagogue.    Passages from Holy Writ were then sung. There were two readings. The first was from the Law (Torah- the first Five books of the Bible) which was read according to a prescribed cycle of three years. Each days readings were thus prescribed much as they are today in our Lectionary. Thus, in a three-year period the whole of the Torah was read. The Second reading was from the Prophets (Nebiim). This reading was selected at will. At least by New Testament times, there seems to have been a homily also included after the readings. This is indicated in scripture (See Luke 4:16-20; Acts 12:15ff). The whole assembly concluded with the blessing of a priest (Levite) if one was present otherwise with a prayer.

The very early Christians continued to attend the Saturday Synagogue service. They celebrated the Eucharist elsewhere, usually in a home or “house-church” on Sundays. Rather quickly however, there was a falling out with the Jews who came to regard the “Nazarenes” as divisive and hence sought to expel them. Upon “leaving” Judaism, the Christians took the Synagogue service with them and combined it with the celebration of the Eucharist. Thus, we have the beginnings of the form of the mass we recognize today.

The Scripture readings in general. In the readings the treasures of the Bible are opened to the people; this is the table of God’s word. Reading the scriptures is traditionally considered a ministerial, not a presidential function. It is desirable that the gospel be read by a deacon or, in his absence, by a priest other than the one presiding; the other readings are proclaimed by a reader from among the laity. In the absence of a deacon or another priest, the celebrant reads the gospel.  The reading of the gospel is done with great reverence; it is distinguished from the other readings by special marks of honor. A special minister is appointed to proclaim it, preparing himself by a blessing or prayer. By standing to hear the reading and by their acclamations the people recognize and acknowledge that Christ is present and speaking to them. Marks of reverence are also given to the book of gospels itself. Among these are the kissing of the book, the signing of the page with the sign of the cross, and the use of incense. Likewise,  there may also be a special procession to the “Place of the Gospel” as well as the use of torch bearers to stand near the book during its proclamation. Not to be overlooked is the possibility of singing the Gospel where the skill of the priest or deacon permits it.

History of the cycle of readings. In the choice and number of readings in the liturgy a great variety has prevailed and still prevails. The different rites of the Church still have in use different cycles or readings. This is true as well with the revived Traditional Latin Mass which follows its own schedule of readings distinct from the new Lectionary. It is interesting to note however, that many protestant churches have been impressed with the new lectionary of the Catholic Church and make use of its schedule in their own services. One general rule seems to have always been that there be at least two readings one of which would always be from the Gospels. Likewise, the readings were always biblical. The arrangement of the synagogue service, as has been noted was taken into the Christian Church. It was adapted however. Now a Gospel reading was gradually paired with an Old Testament passage. However, at more festive times of the year such as Eastertide there seems to have been an increasing inclination to replace the Old Testament reading with one from the New Testament  other than the Gospel. This began to affect masses at other times of the year as well. However, at first there seems to have been merely the addition of a third reading resulting in a schema similar to the one we have today. However, for some reason this number dropped to two leaving the general schema as a reading from a New Testament Epistle and a Gospel reading. This remained the case until the liturgical changes of the Second Vatican Council which restored the three-reading schema. According to the testimony of the Fathers of the Church, the service of readings stressed reading the books of Holy Scripture straight through in the form of a “Lectio continua.”(That is to say, the passage this week picks up right where we left off last week.) However, strict adherence to this setup was not exacting. Just as is the case today, this system was often broken into by feast days whose occasion demanded a special and appropriate passage. These feast days tended to multiply and thus break up the continuous reading. Likewise, liturgical seasons played a role in shaping the lectio continua. Thus, through the centuries this strict lectio continua was eroded and became less recognizable although it still existed to some extent. Today, it has been restored to some extent. This is particularly true with regard to the Gospels. However, the first reading is chosen to back the theme of the Gospel and hence its selection is “arbitrary.” The epistles  have returned to a rather strict lectio continua both on Sundays and weekdays.

Today, the lectionary today provides for a three year cycle for the Sunday readings and a two year cycle for weekdays. The first reading comes from the Old Testament and is chosen to parallel the Gospel passage. The second reading is taken from the epistles of the New Testament and  sometimes from the book of Revelation. The Third reading of course is
taken from the Gospels. Each cycle relies especially on one of the Gospels. Cycle A relies on Matthew. Cycle B on Mark. Cycle C on Luke. All three of the cycles also draw on St. John’s Gospel. The weekdays draw from all the Gospels and Books of the Bible giving special emphasis to passages not covered on Sundays. The lectionary presents a broad sweep of the Scriptures. The Sundays readings alone present to the Catholic over 7000 verses of scripture over three years. Nearly the whole of the New Testament is covered in the Lectionary as well as the most significant portions of the Old Testament.

In the next post. We’ll talk a little more about the repsonsorial psalm.

This video depicts the Gospel being Chanted. It is rare today in most parishes to hear this but on Solemn Feasts it is appropriate if the Deacon is able to chant well.

3 Replies to “THe Mass in Slow Motion – The Liturgy of the Word”

  1. Quote from this article: “This video depicts the Gospel being Chanted. It is rare today in most parishes to hear this but on Solemn Feasts it is appropriate if the Deacon is able to chant well”

    Of course it is rare to day. When the ,lessons went into the vernacular chanting them was discouraged if not outright forbidden. It was suggested that new tones would be forthcoming and indeed, 44 years later, they are now being published and they are really the old tones.

    But they will still be rarely heard because of sentniments like yours that they are “appropriate” (not required as in a Latin High Mass even in the Novus Ordo). They are reserved by implication to “Solemn Feasts” (chanting is done best if it is done frequently – in pre-Vatican II days it was done at every Sung Mass which in most parishes meant every day). The killer is when you say “it is appropriate is able to chant well”. Is this a rubric or your opinion. What contitutes chanting well? In the old liturgy where the chanting was required.about 95% of the priests and deacons could chant reasonably well. The lessons aren’t a perfomance. You are ensuring that 95% of the deacons will be afraid to try.

    1. Yeah, I surely don’t mean to limit the chanting of the Gospel by my remark. It would be nice to have chanted every Sunday as you suggest at least at the principal Masses where other parts of the Mass are sung. I further agree that the Chanting of the reading is not hard. Hence most if not all clergy can be trained to do it reasonably well.

  2. Monsignor Pope,

    Your “Mass in Slow Motion” paper to me is so revealing for despite the almost 20 years that I have been involved continuously in weekly Bible Studies and at least twice weekly participation in the Holy Mass as a core servant leader in a Catholic Community, it is only now that I have known these details and history of the Liturgy of the Word. Thanks to you and thank God for your enlightenment Monsignor.

    The reason I humbly write you Monsignor is this: I want to be clarified on whether the Liturgy of the Word (the matching readings for each day of the week) is open to be changed or reconfigured by anybody in say a Christian community in order to fit it to a chosen umbrella theme like say “Stewardship” and have such reconfigured set of readings (departing partially from the set readings by adding or removing particular readings) be imposed for use on members of the community. The claimed rationale is in order to instill said theme to each member of the community using the Liturgy of the Word as the platform for such. What are the dangers in doing this and what benefits, if any, can be gleaned from such practice ? Is there a “formula” or prescribed method in configuring the set of readings for particular days ? If ever such is allowed, who SHOULD be doing this ? What authority or qualifications are needed to be allowed to do such ?

    I hope you can help me Monsignor on my humble request for enlightenment.

    Thank you and God bless Monsignor.

    Ernesto R. del Rosario

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