Liturgy of the Word 2

The Gospels tell us stories about how Jesus and the disciples would take part in the gatherings in the synagogue on the Sabbath. At the time of Jesus it had already long been the practice of Jews to come together on that day for public reading and reflection on the scriptures. This is how Jesus grew up. He was among a people who gave the texts of the Law and the prophets honor and attention in their lives.

Those who later came to believe in Jesus through the preaching of the disciples continued this practice. They, too, read from the Law and the prophets and added some part of a letter from Paul, perhaps, and later some of the texts that were going to make up the Gospels. We continue in the same way today. So do all the synagogues and churches in the world. On the Sabbath, Jews now, as then, read from the Law and the prophets, and this is the text for the preaching. On Sunday, Christians gather and read from these Hebrew scriptures and also from their Christian scriptures, and these are usually the texts for the preaching. Jews and Christians are peoples of the book. The book, opened and read each seven days for the whole community, is handed on from one generation to the next, and in each generation it is heard fresh and alive. Among Christians, some have the custom of leaving the selection of a scripture text to the preacher. Catholics and many other churches, like most Jewish congregations, have a cycle of readings from the scripture. We call this our Lectionary: It is an order of readings for three years of Sundays. That is the book that we carry here with great honor in our procession each Sunday, that we open and read from and listen to and preach about.

Much surrounds this reading. At the beginning, we sit down and listen as a lector reads to us. The task is to give full attention to the words of the reader. What happens when this first reading is concluded? The reader announces its conclusion by saying: "The word of the Lord." And we respond with an ancient phrase that was Deo gratias in Latin and is "Thanks be to God" in English. It is a line like "Good morning" or "God bless you," an almost automatic expression, but one that reveals an attitude of thanksgiving.

And then we need some silence. Why? It helps perhaps to know an image the church uses for the liturgy of the word. It calls it a foundation. Foundation. Support. The basics. That which holds up everything else. That without which everything else is going to fall. Now, the church calls the Liturgy of the Word the foundation not just of the liturgy, but of our life. So what we are doing here is laying a foundation. Week after week, we keep at it. If we fail here, we can't hope for much anywhere else. So we take our time. That's the reason for the silence. We are not hasty about the Liturgy of the Word.

That's hard. We are people who think that silence means something is wrong. But silence here is right. Silence means we have time for this. We don't have to rush. We can let the foundation take shape and settle. We can sit back in this tiny silent time and let a single word or phrase from the reading sound again and again inside us.

That silence grows into a psalm. Whenever possible, this psalm is sung, usually with all of us alternating with a cantor or the choir. What are psalms, and why are we singing one every Sunday after the first reading? The psalms are in the Bible in a book by that name. There are one hundred fifty of them there. They had all been composed by the time of Jesus, and the scriptures show us that Jesus and his friends knew these songs well and used them in their prayer. Some psalms are songs of blessing; some, of cursing. Some are ballads telling stories; some are harsh lamentations. Some are pure praise of God; some cynical challenges to God's apparent indifference to human suffering. There are psalms like "The Lord is my shepherd" that are as well known to many Christians as the Lord's Prayer, and there are psalms we know because Jesus prayed them: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" was a psalm that he repeated on the cross. The psalms were basic texts of Jewish liturgy in Jesus' day-that is how he learned them-and they remain so today. Among Christians, they became the core of daily prayer for hermits, nuns, and monks, but for centuries many psalms were also the basic daily prayer of ordinary baptized people. In the initial reforms of the liturgy after Vatican II, a step was taken to give the psalms back to all of us. Usually our part is only one line, a short refrain. This we should be able to learn by heart so that we can sit and sing without book or song sheet. That refrain we sing is usually one line from the psalm itself. Brief as it is, it might become a tiny prayer for us during the day and week. In that way, the psalms do their ancient work: They teach us to pray. They show us how many ways we need for speaking to God. The psalm is not an easy moment in the liturgy. It seldom brings us to our feet. It takes some work, some attention. It asks that we be in for the long haul.

It's another story for the song that comes moments later. After the second reading and its silence are done, the whole assembly stands up and begins to sing alleluias. It is our procession into the Gospel reading. The Alleluia is not the only mark of special attention given the Gospel. Candles and sometimes incense accompany the person who is to read the Gospel, so that the reading may be surrounded with light and with fragrance. Every sense is involved. Before the Gospel is read, the text is announced, and we respond, "Glory to you, Lord," and as we do so, we sign our forehead, lips, and heart with the cross. With this gesture we show that the Gospel speaks to our minds, forms our words, changes our hearts. After the Gospel, the reader proclaims: "The Gospel of the Lord," and we say, "Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ." Then the reader kisses the words on the page. We saw the kiss at the beginning of the liturgy when the presider approached the holy table and kissed it. We will see it again-though often in the form of a handshake-at the peace greeting. Here this gesture of love is made for the words of the holy Gospel.

All of this-Alleluia, the standing posture we take, procession, candles, announcement of the text, tiny signs of the cross, closing acclamation, kiss-all show the place the Gospel holds in this community, this church. We surround the Gospel with such signs of reverence and affection because that Gospel is for us the saving power of God.

The homily comes then, usually as the effort of one person who has pondered the readings to see what they might mean in the life of this church. That pondering is both lonely and social. The homilist has to do this work alone, to wrestle with these scriptures, but also has to be thoroughly familiar with the life this church lives and in the life of the whole world. Gospel and world bang together in the homily.

The homilist is not the only one charged to confront the scriptures. We all have to do that. If we only meet the scriptures for a few moments each week in this place, we have little sense for how to listen, little sense for the scriptures' power and breadth. The public reading of scripture here is meant for people who have some presence to the scriptures all week long. The Bible-family edition or pocket edition-is no stranger to Catholics. If only one thing can be done in a busy life, then let it be a quiet reading at home of these texts during the week.

Silent time for reflection follows the homily, then we stand and recite one of the ancient formulas of faith, a creed, a way of summing up the belief of this church. Before we can do this, on most Sundays those who are preparing for baptism are dismissed. What is to follow-the creed, intercessions, eucharist-is for the baptized alone. This is not easy to do, to send people out of this assembly, but it is a measure of how seriously we take our baptism. It is only baptism that allows us to profess faith, ask of God what we need, and give thanks and praise through Christ.

The Liturgy of the Word concludes with prayers of intercession, called the prayer of the faithful. Sometimes it is sung, sometimes spoken. It is a litany, the kind of prayer in which our part stays the same and the leader brings, one after another, many things before us. After hearing and taking to heart the word of God, the church does something here that gets to the work of being a Christian. We intercede. We pray to God for all that this world and this church longs for. We are telling God to remember the oppressed, the suffering, the sick, the addicted, the victims of war and famine, the imprisoned, the dying, the leaders, the many, many, many troubles and needs of the whole world. Whatever else the church may be, it is an assembly that will not let God forget. It is an assembly that keeps its eyes open, because we have by our baptism taken on this work of carrying to God all the groaning of God's creation.

Copyright © 1992, Gabe Huck. Used by permission.