When I was assigned as a pastor in a suburban parish, I once found myself seeking a new recruit to proclaim the readings at Sunday Mass. One potential candidate was a successful college president who was already used to public speaking. When I first approached him I was surprised that he declined. For him, it was one thing speaking in public on matters within his competency, but quite another to speak “God’s Word,” especially at Mass.
In some sense the sentiments of the college president are not totally inconsistent with the mind of the Church. As we listen and reflect on passages from Sacred Scripture proclaimed during the “Liturgy of the Word,” it is God who is present to us in the proclaimed word. As the Second Vatican Council explains, “He is present in his word, since it is he himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church” (Sacrosanctum Concilium [SC] 7).
The Church’s use of Sacred Scripture during Mass is not confined to the “Liturgy of the Word.” Sacred Scripture is liberally used throughout the Mass, as it was before Vatican II in our liturgical books such as the Roman Missal and the sacramental rites. We sometimes forget that even the images and gestures within the Sacred Liturgy come from the Sacred Scriptures (i.e. the altar, bread, wine, kneeling, standing, incense, etc).
Article 24 in the document on the Sacred Liturgy explains:
“Sacred scripture is of the greatest importance in the celebration of the liturgy. For it is from it that lessons are read and explained in the homily, and psalms are sung. it is from the scriptures that the prayers, collects, and hymns draw their inspiration … it is from the scriptures that actions and signs derive their meaning. In order to achieve the restoration, progress, and adaptation of the sacred liturgy it is essential to promote that warm and lively appreciation of sacred scripture to which the venerable tradition of Eastern and Western rites gives testimony.”
The Scriptures are paramount throughout the liturgical year, which begins on the first Sunday of Advent and ends on the solemn feast of Christ the King.
Reflect for a moment on article 102 from this important document:
“Holy Mother Church believes that … Once each week, on the day which [the Church] has called the Lord’s Day, [the Church] keeps the memory of the Lord’s resurrection … In the course of the year, [the Church] unfolds the whole mystery of Christ … Recalling the mysteries of the redemption, [the Church] opens to the faithful the riches of the Lord’s powers and merits, so that these are in some way made present for all time; the faithful lay hold of them and are filled with saving grace.” (SC 102)
Among “the riches” referred to here is the Word of the Lord in the Sacred Scriptures which, with Sacred tradition, “form one sacred deposit of the word of God” as we will later consider in an article when we review the 1965 Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum,10). Earlier in the document On the Sacred Liturgy the Council calls for “the treasures of the bible to be opened up more lavishly, so that a richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s word.” (SC 51)
Attention was quickly given to this directive from article 51 and on April 3, 1969 when the Novus Ordo Mass (the new Mass) was promulgated, it included a rich cycle of readings including practically the entire bible to be proclaimed over a three year liturgical cycle. (In the practical order, this means that over a period of 30 years a person attending daily Mass would have heard almost the entire bible at least 10 times)!
Although one may argue convincingly that Catholics do not read Sacred Scripture, it is a stretch to suggest that Catholics are not familiar with the Sacred Scriptures. Not only are they proclaimed at holy Mass but integrated as well throughout the spoken and unspoken liturgy. Catholics bask in the Word of God when they participate in the official worship of the Church!
Catholics are also live witnesses to the Word of God in the Sacred Liturgy since our worship is much more than a mere commemoration of past events. We may recall the events and circumstances surrounding the birth and death of Abraham Lincoln or Eleanor Roosevelt or Helen Keller due to our lessons in Social Studies class. But because of God’s love for us, we not only recall but are in fact present at the Birth of Christ or at the death of Christ because of the Church’s use of Sacred Scripture in Her Sacred Liturgy.
Have you ever wondered how you might have behaved at the original birth scene in Bethlehem had you been there? The manner in which you participated at Christmas Mass this past December should answer that. How might you have experienced the event of Christ’s death had you been there? The way you participate at every Mass will answer that. The way you participate in the living reality of the Sacred Liturgy is the way you participate in the real lived event!
Our precious faith truly gives another dimension to life. It is far more real and significant than one might imagine. It is one thing to study history and contemplate past events. It is quite another to be one of those who have received the indelible mark of Christ at baptism becoming His special son or daughter; one who worships “in spirit and in truth.” (cf. Jn 4:24) And the truth is that in our worship of Christ, the past events truly become present – that’s His promise; His commitment; His gift to us.
When we take the time to really understand the Church’s Sacred Liturgy, not without the assistance of God’s Holy Spirit, “The Lord and Giver of Life,” we soon realize how beautiful it really is, not because the priest is young (or old) or because the seats are comfortable or the church building is air conditioned, but because it is the Church’s gift to us. It is Christ’s gift to us!
Regarding the successful public speaker who first declined my invitation to proclaim the Sacred Scriptures at Mass, he did finally reconsider. As it turned out, becoming a reader became one of the most faith-filled experiences of his life.
Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D. serves in the diocesan Chancery Office.