The Art of Celebration VIII: The Liturgy of the Word

The restorative, formative power of Scripture has been recognised from the Church’s beginning.

At the beginning the Church had, in writing, the scriptures of the Jewish people only – but from and in these she learnt to know Christ and to witness to Christ.

This is made most evident in St Luke’s account of the disciples meeting with the risen Lord during their long and at first sad walk to Emmaus.

It is evident too in the addresses given by the likes of Peter and Stephen in Acts of the Apostles, (cf Acts 3 and Acts 7.)

Even during the time of the composition of the New Testament certain apostolic writings were being recognised as Scripture, (cf 2 Peter 3.15-16). And by 2nd Century it seems that the Bible, as the Church knows it now, was at least well on the way to formation. Justin Martyr, c150AD, notes that at the beginning of Sunday Liturgy

the records of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as time allows

And that pattern endures to today – renewed and restored in the wake of Vatican II

What is the Liturgy of the Word about? It is most evidently a ritual in which scripture is read aloud to the congregation. But we need to be mindful that this reading is only a means to an end: the word is read so that people might hear it and take it to heart, and indeed be changed, renewed, by it.

So when we consider the Liturgy of the Word from the perspective of people’s participation in it, to the fore needs to be how what is done helps people to listen, and take it to heart.

There follows below some paragraphs from the introduction to the Missal. I have highlighted phrases which emphasise what the performance of the rite is expected to achieve.

B) The Liturgy of the Word

55.       The main part of the Liturgy of the Word is made up of the readings from Sacred Scripture together with the chants occurring between them. As for the Homily, the Profession of Faith and the Universal Prayer, they develop and conclude it. For in the readings, as explained by the Homily, God speaks to his people, opening up to them the mystery of redemption and salvation, and offering spiritual nourishment; and Christ himself is present through his word in the midst of the faithful. By silence and by singing, the people make this divine word their own, and affirm their adherence to it by means of the Profession of Faith; finally, having been nourished by the divine word, the people pour out their petitions by means of the Universal Prayer for the needs of the whole Church and for the salvation of the whole world.

Silence

56.       The Liturgy of the Word is to be celebrated in such a way as to favour meditation, and so any kind of haste such as hinders recollection is clearly to be avoided. In the course of it, brief periods of silence are also appropriate, accommodated to the assembled congregation; by means of these, under the action of the Holy Spirit, the word of God may be grasped by the heart and a response through prayer may be prepared. It may be appropriate to observe such periods of silence, for example, before the Liturgy of the word itself begins, after the First and Second Reading, and lastly at the conclusion of the Homily.

General Instruction of the Roman Missal

The congregation is invited to listen, and the listening that the celebration of the Liturgy is intended to foster is much more than dutiful listening. It is more fundamentally about personal response to, engagement with, the living Christ who is present through his word in the midst of the people.

So to the fore in our evaluation of the appropriateness, worthiness, of any celebration of the Liturgy of the Word must be not only evaluation of the quality of the proclamation, but also of the way in which the performance of the ritual allows time and space for response to, engagement with, the living Christ.

The Missal clearly considers the provision of silence as important to enable quality listening and response. Yet significant silence is invariably in short supply, if not indeed virtually absent. And in consequence we experience the Liturgy of the Word as being much more about things being read, than it is about things being pondered on, let alone responded to – by the congregation as a whole and within the liturgical action

Why is this? In part it may be an unhelpful hangover from the way the Tridentine Mass came to be celebrated – i.e. with the Liturgy celebrated in a language most often congregation did not understand, with hand missals regularly discouraged by the Church, and the congregation encouraged to its own private and often aliturgical devotions rather than participating in the Mass more regularly.

It may also be that many in the congregation are lacking confidence in praying with Scripture, and – in any case, may not many of them have got used to thinking that, after all if there is anything in these words  the priest will explain to us what he thinks we need to know in the sermon? (Sorry, ‘homily’.)

There may well be other explanations also. But when the focus is more singly on listening that listening and responding, how far we are from the vision of renewal that came from Vatican Council II and that is well provided for in the Missal’s General Intruction.

In the Eucharistic Prayer bread and wine is transformed into Christ’s Body and Blood for a hungry people. In the Liturgy of the Word it is intended that that hungry people itself be transformed through its being fed with the word so we might learn to long to become more and more like the Word, healed to become more like him, strengthened to be more like him – and more ready to take up our share in his work in the world.

– – – –

It is likely that when (if?) we begin to work to make silence a more secure and constitutive feature of the Liturgy of the Word we will need a strategy to help the congregation as a whole to use the silence with profit. We will need too a strategy of confidence-building that all members of the congregation will be ready to fruitfully consider the scripture and prayerfully respond to it.  And we will need perseverance too, to sustain the process of change until these things can become second nature to ministers and (other) congregants…

Until we do this it is sadly the case that this Liturgy of the Word is somewhat empty of meaning to many our congregations, and clerical. When the opportunity for the congregation to enter into personal and particular relationship with the living Word is frustrated and compromised, the power of God’s Word, life and energy leaches from what is offered to the congregation. And this at the very time we should have benefit of these things as we prepare for our great Thanksgiving and for our sacramental Communion with the Lord.

Reflection Questions

  • What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of the Liturgy of the Word?
  • Who in your parish community might be interested in exploring some of the challenges presented by what theGeneral Instruction of the Missal establishes as the Church’s expectations for the Liturgy of the Word?
  • What might prove to be challenges to bringing about change – where it is necessary?
  • What reasons can you suggest for addressing those challenges?
  • What strategies for renewal might be employed during Mass? During on-going formation for readers and musicians, and clergy? By way of continuing formation for the congregation more broadly?

A log with links to previous postings in this series is kept here.

Acknowledgements as

~ Excerpts from the English translation and chants of The Roman Missal © 2010, International Commission on English in the Liturgy Corporation. All rights reserved.
Commentary: (c) 2021, Allen Morris
Photograph: (c) 2015, Allen Morris. Weekday chapel, Cathédrale de la Résurrection d’Évry.

2 thoughts on “The Art of Celebration VIII: The Liturgy of the Word

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