Understanding the sacraments: The Word of God in the liturgy – a closer look

The performance character of and the sacramentality of the Word are two aspects not fully appreciated today

By Father Randy Stice

In a previous column, I introduced the new Lectionary Supplement and briefly discussed aspects of the Word of God in the liturgy. In this column, I would like to look more closely at the Word of God in the Church’s liturgy.

In formulating the principles for reforming the liturgy, the Second Vatican Council noted the “educative and pastoral nature of the Liturgy,” that although it “is principally the worship of the divine majesty, it likewise contains much instruction for the faithful” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, no. 35). Thus, to manifest more clearly “the intimate connection between words and rites,” it stipulated that “In sacred celebrations there is to be more reading from holy Scripture, and it is to be more varied and suitable” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, no. 35).

In The Word of the Lord, Pope Benedict XVI reflects on the role of God’s Word in the life and mission of the Church, which he called “the home of the word” (no. 52). “The liturgy,” he continues, “is the privileged setting in which God speaks to us in the midst of our lives; he speaks today to his people, who hear and respond. Every liturgical action is by its very nature steeped in sacred Scripture” (no. 52).

In this exhortation, Pope Benedict XVI explains the power of God’s Word in the liturgy, which is “the continuing, complete and effective presentation of God’s word. The word of God, constantly proclaimed in the liturgy, is always a living and effective word through the power of the Holy Spirit. It expresses the Father’s love that never fails in its effectiveness towards us” (Lectionary for Mass, no. 4).

The pope highlights two specific aspects of the Word’s power. The first is what he calls the performative character of the Word. “In salvation history there is no separation between what God says and what he does. His word appears as alive and active (cf. Hebrews 4:12), as the Hebrew term dabar itself makes clear” (no. 53). Old Testament examples of the power of God’s Word include Genesis 1:3, Psalm 33:6 and 9, and Isaiah 40:26. God, says Pope Benedict XVI, manifests this same power in the liturgy: “In the liturgical action, too, we encounter his word, which accomplishes what it says” (no. 53).

The second aspect of the Word’s power is what Pope Benedict XVI calls the sacramentality of the Word. This grew, he says, out of “reflection on the performative character of the word of God in the sacramental action and a growing appreciation of the relationship between word and Eucharist” (no. 56).

Pope Benedict XVI explains the sacramentality of the Word “by analogy with the real presence of Christ under the appearances of the consecrated bread and wine” (no. 56). Just as “we truly share in the body and blood of Christ” in sacramental communion, so also “the proclamation of God’s word at the celebration entails an acknowledgment that Christ himself is present, that he speaks to us” (no. 56). The pope illustrates this with the words of St. Jerome, who describes how we should approach both the Eucharist and the Word of God: “We are reading the sacred Scriptures.

For me, the Gospel is the Body of Christ; for me, the holy Scriptures are his teaching. And when he says: ‘whoever does not eat my flesh and drink my blood’ (John 6:53), even though these words can also be understood of the [eucharistic] Mystery, Christ’s body and blood are really the word of Scripture, God’s teaching. When we approach the [eucharistic] Mystery, if a crumb falls to the ground we are troubled. Yet when we are listening to the word of God, and God’s word and Christ’s flesh and blood are being poured into our ears yet we pay no heed, what great peril should we not feel?” (no. 56). The performative character of the Word and the sacramentality of the Word are two aspects of the Word of God that are not sufficiently appreciated today. For this reason,

Pope Benedict XVI says that it is important that we be educated “to discover the performative character of God’s word in the liturgy” so that we can recognize God’s activity both in salvation history and in our individual lives (no. 52). And a more profound understanding of the Word’s sacramentality, he says, “can thus lead us to a more unified understanding of the mystery of revelation, which takes place through ‘deeds and words intimately connected’; an appreciation of this can only benefit the spiritual life of the faithful and the Church’s pastoral activity” (no. 56).

This Lent may we come to know and experience more deeply God’s presence and power in his Word.

Father Stice is pastor of St. Mary Church in Athens and directs the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy. He can be reached at frrandy@dioknox.org.

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