Part two: Story telling/ Liturgy of the Word
Liturgy of the Word: When we gather at a friend’s home for a meal, we always begin with conversation, telling our stories. At Mass, after the rites of gathering, we sit down and listen as readings from the Word of God are proclaimed. They are the stories of God’s people.
When the Word of God is proclaimed from the pulpit, Christ is really and truly present to his people. This encounter with Christ in his Scriptures has, since the days of the apostles, occupied a central place in the liturgy, with Catholics seeking to heed St. Paul’s admonition that “Faith comes from what is heard” (Rom 10:17).
Three readings and a psalm: On Sundays there are three readings from the Bible. The first reading will be from the (Old Testament) Hebrew Scriptures. (except during the Easter season) We recall the origins of our covenant. It will relate to the Gospel selection and will give background and an insight into the meaning of what Jesus will do in the Gospel. Then we will sing or recite a psalm—a song from God’s own inspired hymnal, the Book of Psalms of the Hebrew Bible. The second reading will usually be from one of the letters of Paul or another apostolic writing (New Testament).
The second reading is followed by the Alleluia, the Hebrew word meaning “praise the Lord” used repeatedly in the Book of Revelation. Whether said or sung, the word calls the congregation to abandon our posture of sitting (a gesture of receptivity) and stand out of respect for Christ, who will become even more immediately present in the Gospel reading. The third reading will be taken from one of the four Gospels.
Some visitors to the Catholic Mass are surprised to find us reading from the Bible! We have not generally been famous for our Bible reading, and yet the Mass has always been basically and fundamentally biblical. Even some Catholics might be surprised to learn how much of the Mass is taken from the Bible: Not only the three readings and the psalm, not only the obviously biblical prayers such as the Holy, Holy, Holy and the Lord’s Prayer, but most of the words and phrases of the prayers of the Mass are taken from the Bible.
Standing for the Gospel: Because of the unique presence of Christ in the proclamation of the Gospel, it has long been the custom to stand in attentive reverence to hear these words. We believe that Christ “is present in his word, since it is he himself who speaks when the holy Scriptures are read in the church” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #7). The priest will again greet us with “The Lord be with you.” He then introduces the Gospel reading while marking a small cross on his forehead, lips and heart with his thumb while praying silently that God cleans his mind and his heart so that his lips may worthily proclaim the Gospel. In many places, the congregation performs this ritual action along with the priest. The Gospel reading concludes with the ritual formula “The Gospel of the Lord” and we respond, “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ,” again proclaiming our faith in the presence of Christ in the word. Then we sit for the homily.
Homily: In the homily, the priest follows the example of Christ on the road to Emmaus, explaining and interpreting the Scriptures. Sometimes this interpretation is biblical, sometimes theological, sometimes moral or catechetical (Lk 24:13-35). Always, however, again in imitation of the Emmaus encounter (where Christ “was made known … in the Breaking of the Bread”), it should prepare the congregation for or point us toward what is about to follow: the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
It means more than just a sermon or a talk about how we are to live or what we are to believe. It is an act of worship rooted in the texts of the Mass and especially in the readings from Scripture which have just been proclaimed. The homily takes that word and brings it to our life situation today. Just as a large piece of bread is broken to feed individual persons, the word of God must be broken open so it can be received and digested by the congregation.
Creed: Now we stand and together recite the creed. The creed is more than a list of things which we believe. It is a statement of our faith in the word we have heard proclaimed in the Scripture and the homily, and a profession of the faith that leads us to give our lives for one another as Christ gave his life for us. We do so as a testimony to our personal faith, as well as to the unity of the Faith across space and time. It is a sign of communion with Catholics in the next pew, in fourth-century Antioch and in the heavenly courts.
Notably, in the middle of the Credo, at the words, “and by the power of the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,” the congregation solemnly bows, acknowledging the pre-eminent importance of the Incarnation.
Universal Prayer: The Liturgy of the Word (our “storytelling” part of the Mass) comes to an end with the intercessions. The intercessions help us become who God is calling us to be. We are the Body of Christ by Baptism. Now, as we prepare to approach the table for Eucharist, we look into the readings, like a mirror, and ask: Is that who we are? Does the Body of Christ present in this assembly resemble that Body of Christ pictured in the Scripture readings? Usually not! And so we make some adjustments; we pray that our assembly really comes to look like the Body of Christ, a body at peace, with shelter for the homeless, healing for the sick, food for the hungry. We pray for the Church, nations and their leaders, people in special need and the local needs of our parish—the petitions usually fall into these four categories. A minister will announce the petitions, and we are usually given an opportunity to pray for the intentions in our heart, making some common response aloud like, “Lord, hear our prayer.”