The Art of Celebration X: Structural relationships and the Liturgy of the Word

If the title of this blog has not put you off then its length might, and yet it is a really important subject. I hope you’ll find that it is worth engaging with.

The revision of the Liturgy following Vatican Council II, about which more below, did truly great things in helping Catholics become more familiar with the Scriptures – but… And the ‘but’ is about the extent to which that opening up has really helped us Catholics come to a fuller appreciation of the Bible as a whole, or principally of the Gospels, maybe some of the more accessible passages in the Prophets, and maybe the psalms.

Vatican Council II asked that:

The treasures of the bible are to be opened up more lavishly, so that richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s word. In this way a more representative portion of the holy scriptures will be read to the people in the course of a prescribed number of years.

Sacrosanctum Concilium 51

The revised Lectionary for Mass does fulfil that expectation. A full description of what was done and why can be found in the Introduction to the Lectionary for Mass. I will offer a far briefer account here, but also talk about some of the challenges still presented if we are to be well nourished by the Word of God and to benefit from the full richness of the treasures of the bible.

To be honest in was not going to be difficult to improve on the Lectionary for the pre-Conciliar Mass. It was a one year lectionary; it included had very few readings from the Old Testament, with readings on most days being Epistle and Gospel only. And being a one-year cycle what was heard was a narrative of the life of Jesus drawn pretty much from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (John was heard mostly in Easter and Mark was little heard). This may have served very well as a way of focussing on the life and ministry and meaning of Jesus – no bad thing, of course!

However it did leave most of the Bible out of the Mass and this was felt to be unfortunate, and the revised Lectionary seeks to address that lack.

Its cogency relies on a number of structural relationships. In what follows next I will consider the Sunday Lectionary (and what will be said applies most especially to Sundays in Ordinary Time). In next week’s blog I will give brief description of the weekday Lectionary for Mass, and also say a little about the Lectionary for the Church’s seasons of Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter.

1. Jesus and the (whole) Bible

The first – which it shares with the Tridentine Lectionary for Mass – is that it knows Jesus Christ as the one Word of God, and knows all of scripture, Old Testament and New Testament, as in some way preparing the way for or witnessing to the One Word, Jesus Christ. This is not all that the Scriptures do – they also relate history, tell improving stories, offer the beauty and diversion of poetry and so on – but for the Church the most important thing is that they help us to know and receive Christ, our Lord and Saviour.

Christ is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church

Sacrosanctum Concilium 7

2. The relationship between (most of the readings) selected for Mass (on Sundays)

There are four principal items chosen for each Sunday.

In order of hearing these are

  • A first reading (from the Old Testament or, during Easter, from Acts)
  • A Psalm or Canticle chosen to put a response to the first reading on the lips of the Church.
  • A second reading from the Apostles (from their letters or, during Easter, from the Book of Revelation)
  • A Gospel reading

The Gospel reading is the reading most evidently directly related to Jesus, and it is this reading that gives immediate structure to the readings of a particular Sunday – for the first reading of that day has been chosen because of its harmony with the Gospel; and because the Gospel reading of this Sunday is selected on the basis of a semi-continuous reading of the Gospel of a Year. The Church uses a 3 year cycle for Sundays (In Year A the readings are taken from Matthew, in Year B from Mark and in Year C from Luke.)

Although the first reading will have been chosen because of its relationship with the Gospel reading, it is not always easy to understand this reading and its significance, particularly taken out of its biblical context and if you do not know yet what the Gospel reading is to be. (As seen in the brief exposition of relationships between the readings of this Sunday’s Mass: appended to the end of this blog but far from essential reading.) For this reason it is helpful to read (and pray with) the Sunday readings in advance of the Mass as well as listen to, pray with, and respond to the readings during Sunday Mass!

Although it is a weakness that can be addressed in this way, it is a structural weakness of the present Sunday Lectionary that unless you have prepared in this way the meaning of the first reading may be pretty opaque to you, and provide little by way of encouragement to make the psalm that follows into your sung response to it.

The second reading is chosen not because of evident harmonisation with the Gospel reading of the day, but on the basis of a semi-continuous reading of a writing from an Apostle. The direct link is therefore with the second reading from last week and for next week. A pretty tenuous link, one might think, given the nature of those writings, and the more dominant influence of the first reading/gospel connection (albeit on any particular Sunday a congregant may not yet have experienced that link!)

We certainly hear more scripture now at Mass, but there are significant challenges to our fruitful hearing of the scriptures presented in the first reading and its psalm, and in the second reading. Hopefully we will very often find benefit in these readings, but there does seem a certain disconnect between the evident and ‘correct’ structure and the pastoral efficacy of the structure. Just to note also that this complexity of relationship between the readings and the relative obscurity of meaning of some of them probably demands more time for us to hear and ponder the word proclaimed – as noted in a previous blog, and as required by the Church – and yet, perhaps fearing the unintelligibility of the word to congregants, many of those responsible for the quality of liturgical celebration allow virtually no time to ponder the word after the words have been spoken.

The attached sheets give an example of the readings for a Sunday and traces their relationship one with another.

3. The relationship between the Word, the words and Life

The organisation of the readings at Mass is intended to help us to a fuller engagement with the person and the Mystery of Christ. If the manner of the organisation presents a certain challenge for us so we might get the most out of them, so be it (at least until we come up with something better). That engagement with Christ is more than justification for making the effort.

But there is another effort asked of us – and that is to make the connection between the ritual of the Mass (including our hearing of and response to the Scripture) and our daily lives. Often this third structural relationship is considered as a cyclical and reciprocal relationship, each nourishing and enriching and giving purpose and point to the other. Sometimes it is described using the See/Judge/Act method popularised in the Christian Workers movement (and surely having its roots in the Jesuit method of discernment); and sometimes in terms of the Pastoral Cycle (as depicted in the image presented here).

And this is not just something for us each to do for ourselves. The Mass is not a private devotion – for healthy Catholic life of individuals (and communities) it needs to include some dimension of doing this work of making connections, and accepting challenge and opportunity, and trying and sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing, but then coming back again, trying again and… It is a work especially for the Church as whole not only for individuals.

  • What strikes you in what you have read?
  • What do you see weaknesses and strengths in the Liturgy of the Word?
  • How accessible are the riches of the Liturgy of the Word to different categories of people in your community?
  • Where, how and why does your community come together to share reflections on the word of God and on our experiences of life and work?

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) 2016, Allen Morris.  Icon from Chiesa San Giovanni Decollato, Rome.
Graphic of Pastoral Cycle (c) 1992 Harper Collins. Taken from Parish Project: by John O’Shea, Declan Lang, VIcky Cosstick, Damian Luindy.


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