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.