The Holy Mass: The Liturgy of the Word
Jesus began his public ministry with the reading of scripture and teaching in the synagogue (Luke 4:14-30). In particular, in Nazareth he read a scroll from Isaiah (61:1-2): “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he began, and when he finished, he explained the scripture by proclaiming the kingdom of God was at hand. Like Jesus, the Church incorporates into Mass the reading of scripture and a teaching based on it.
During the Liturgy of the Word, the first reading is usually drawn from the Old Testament, which records the history of salvation until the coming of Jesus. All those books, varying in style, genre and content, foreshadow and find fulfillment in Christ. For the Easter season, passages from the Acts of the Apostles are read. Our response to this first reading and the second is, “Thanks be to God.”
Then we pray in a responsorial fashion from the biblical Book of Psalms, the great collection of hymns and prayerful poems of ancient Israel. That type of prayer has been part of the Mass since the beginning of Christianity, and has its roots in ancient Judaism. When we pray the Psalms, we are praying as Jesus did, as Joseph and Mary did, and as the Apostles did. Saint Augustine taught that the Psalms represent the prayer of Christ, prayer about Christ and prayer to Christ.
The second reading on Sundays and solemnities is usually drawn from the New Testament letters or the visionary Book of Revelation. In this reading, we catch glimpses of how the first Christians struggled to be faithful to the Gospel amid a sometimes hostile culture, which has special relevance today. The second reading reflects our unity, not just with Christians in our parish or in our time – our faith embraces the whole Church at every period of her history.
We then stand for the proclamation of the Gospel, a word that literally means “Good News,” to recognize the arrival of the long awaited Savior, Jesus, who is himself the Word made flesh. As we rise to hear this recounting of Jesus’ own words and earthly ministry, we acclaim “Alleluia,” from a Hebrew word that means “praise the Lord.” The Church omits the Alleluia during the penitential time of Lent. Then, when we celebrate the Risen Christ at the Easter Vigil, we joyously restore the Alleluia. We make a Sign of the Cross with our thumb on our forehead, lips and heart with the silent request that the Lord be in our mind, our words and our heart. This we do when the Gospel is first announced. After receiving the Gospel, we respond with, “Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ.”
Following the Gospel, we come to the homily. This is a graced moment to share the faith. Since so much in our culture changes rapidly, it is essential that the teaching of Christ be applied to the circumstances of our day. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus similarly opened up the scriptures for the disciples before then making himself known to them in the breaking of the bread. As the Liturgy of the Word draws to a close, the homily too takes us to the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
This is the second installment of a three-part series drawn from the book that Mike Aquilina and I wrote, “The Mass: The Glory, the Mystery, the Tradition.”