A look at the table of God’s Word

As Pope Benedict XVI wrote, Word and Eucharist are so intimately ‘bound together’

By Father Randy Stice

The Mass is a single act of worship composed of two parts: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The Church calls these two parts the two tables, the table of God’s Word, from which we grow in wisdom, and the table of the Body of Christ, from which we grow in holiness. In previous columns, I have looked at different aspects of the table of the Body of Christ. In this column, I want to look at the table of God’s Word, at the selection, arrangement, and power of the biblical readings proclaimed in the Mass.

The Bible has been read in the Mass from the earliest days of the Church. In a description of the Mass from about the year 155, St. Justin Martyr wrote that “the memoirs of the apostles and the writings of the prophets are read, as much as time permits.” 1 The celebration of important feasts, especially Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, and Christmas, rapidly led to the reading of specific passages on precise days. The existence of lists of biblical readings is indicated in the writings of Tertullian (died circa 225), St. Ambrose (died 397), and St. Augustine (died 430), and St. Cyprian (died 258) mentions clerics specifically entrusted with the readings during the liturgy. Initially, there were three types of lists of readings: lists of the epistles, lists of Gospel readings, and lists combining the epistles and the Gospels, the beginning of our lectionary. From the 11th and 12th century on, the combined list took precedence. 2

In our current liturgy, on Sundays and festive days the Liturgy of the Word consists of three readings plus the responsorial psalm. The first reading is from the Old Testament, the second from one of the New Testament letters or the Book of Revelation, and the third is from one of the Gospels. The purpose behind this arrangement is to bring “out the unity of the Old and New Testaments and of the history of salvation, in which Christ is the central figure, commemorated in his paschal mystery.” We have a three-year cycle of readings, designated A, B, and C, that provides “a more varied and richer reading of sacred Scripture.” 3 This year, we are hearing the readings from cycle B.

The selection of readings for Sundays and festive days is guided by two principles: the principle of harmony and the principle of semicontinuous reading. The principle of harmony acknowledges two kinds of harmony. The first kind of harmony governs the readings chosen for Ordinary Time, selecting “Old Testament texts mainly because of their correlation with New Testament texts read in the same Mass, and particularly with the Gospel text.” A second kind of harmony guides the choice of readings for the seasons of Advent, Lent, and Easter, “seasons that have a distinctive importance or character.” 4 In Ordinary Time, the principle of semicontinuous readings (biblical books are read straight through with a few omissions) governs the apostolic (epistle) and Gospel readings. The Gospel is the “high point of the Liturgy of the Word,” for which “the other readings, in their established sequence from the Old to the New Testament, prepare the assembly.” 5

The Liturgy of the Word “has as its one purpose the sacrifice of the New Covenant and the banquet of grace, that is, the Eucharist.” 6 In the celebration of the Mass, writes Pope Benedict XVI, Word and Eucharist are so intimately “bound together that we cannot understand one without the other…The Eucharist opens us to an understanding of Scripture, just as Scripture for its part illumines and explains the mystery of the Eucharist.”

He continues, “For this reason, ‘the Church has honored the word of God and the eucharistic mystery with the same reverence, although not with the same worship, and has always and everywhere insisted upon and sanctioned such honor.’” 7

Pope Benedict XVI emphasized this reverence, citing this passage by St. Jerome (died 420): “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?” 8

“The liturgy,” wrote Pope Benedict XVI, “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.” 9 Pope Francis echoes these words.  When the Scriptures are proclaimed in the Mass, we “listen to what God has done and still intends to do for us. It is an experience which occurs ‘live’ and not through hearsay…The Lord comforts, calls, brings forth sprouts of a new and reconciled life. And this is through His Word. His Word knocks at the heart and changes hearts!” 10 Understanding God’s presence and action in the Mass helps us recognize God’s activity in our lives.

1 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1345.
2 A History of Liturgical Books, Eric Palazzo.
3 Lectionary for Mass, 66.
4 Lectionary for Mass, 67.
5 Lectionary for Mass, 13.
6 Lectionary for Mass, 10.
7 The Word of the Lord, 55.
8 The Word of the Lord, 56.
9 The Word of the Lord, 52.
10 General audience of Jan. 31, 2018, and general audience of Feb. 14, 2018 (vatican.va).

Father Randy Stice is director of the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy. He can be reached at frrandy@dioknox.org.


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