EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second part of Fr. Longenecker’s series in which he explains the deeper significance of the elements of the Catholic Mass. Click here to read part one.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is one of the most easily visualized stories from the Gospels. The crowds are gathered, and Jesus leads them up a hillside to preach. A hillside is a good location because by standing above them, Jesus can be seen by everyone and his voice carries out across the crowd. Because preaching is practical, it is easy to forget that at Mass the Liturgy of the Word is also packed with liturgical symbolism.
In other words, the Liturgy of the Word is about more than the need to hear the sacred Scriptures and heed the practical points of preaching. Like the rest of the liturgy of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Word has a greater significance.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, for example, is about more than the content of his sermon. From the beginning, commentators on the passage have noted that Jesus is functioning as a second Moses. Moses went up the mountain to give the people the Ten Commandments. Jesus went up the mountain to give them the new commandments of the Beatitudes. Moses fed the people in the wilderness. Jesus feeds the 5,000 in the wilderness. Thus, feeding people with the bread of God’s Word by preaching and feeding them with the bread from heaven are two different ways of feeding the flock the Bread of Life.
The Liturgy of the Word
At one Mass I attended, the lector was wearing an unwashed T-shirt emblazoned with the face of a demonic-looking character from a heavy metal rock band. The red tongue of the monstrous vocalist was sticking out, and beneath his portrait was a caption that said, “Hell is here!”
I think the lector and pastor were missing something.
Because the reading of sacred Scripture is part of the liturgy, it should be done with a certain amount of liturgical solemnity. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal states:
The gestures and bodily posture of both the Priest, the Deacon, and the ministers, and also of the people, must be conducive to making the entire celebration resplendent with beauty and noble simplicity (42).
The lectors do not wear vestments because they represent one of the ministries of the laity in the Church, but they should dress modestly and appropriately — never wearing anything that distracts from the Word of God.
The lector’s posture and actions are meant to be formal because they are part of the liturgy. He or she walks simply and solemnly, making a profound bow toward the tabernacle before proceeding to the lectern. The lector should understand that the words of Scripture are inspired, sacred texts, and they should be read with care and full understanding. The lector should read the Word of God with reverence and grace — and communicate the meaning of the text simply and clearly without being overly dramatic or grand.
Scriptures old and new
St. Augustine wrote, “The New Testament is hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is made manifest in the New.” This is why, after the Collect of the day, a lesson is read from the Old Testament. If we take time to study the readings for the day before Mass, we will soon see that the Old Testament reading has been chosen to foreshadow or complement the Gospel of the day, and the Gospel reveals the full meaning of the Old Testament passage.
After the Old Testament lesson, a psalm is said or sung. This is to remind us that the Scriptures are not simply for information or instruction. As we read the Scriptures, we pray the Scriptures, and as we pray the Scriptures, we praise God through the Scriptures. While our minds are open to the meaning of God’s word in the Old and New Testaments, the psalms remind us that the Liturgy of the Word is also an act of worship.
The second reading from the New Testament is not linked thematically with the Old Testament and Gospel. Instead, the Fathers of the Church ask us to hear whole books of the New Testament week by week, portion by portion. This approach balances the thematic content of the Old and New Testament readings with a broader understanding of the whole sweep of an argument and theme of a New Testament book. The Bible says of the Word of God:
The word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12).
The Liturgy of the Word should therefore be just that — a living and dynamic experience. However, for this to be true requires some effort on our part. Reading the lessons before Mass will help to make them come alive. Using a liturgy or Bible reading app on our smartphone or tablet can make studying the Word of God that much easier and accessible.
Gospel equals good news
Did you know that the word gospel comes from a combination of the Middle English words “god” which means “good” and “spell” which means “tale?” The Latin word for the gospel is evangelium, which is the Latin form of the Greek word eugelion meaning “good news.” In other words, gospel means “good news.”
The Gospel is emphasized in the liturgy with a second, smaller procession. The deacon or priest, accompanied by torches, processes with the Gospel book to the ambo, lectern, or pulpit. In some churches, the Gospel is carried in procession down among the people. There, accompanied by torches and venerated with incense, the Gospel is proclaimed.
The procession to the people is a liturgical enactment of the truth found at the beginning of John’s Gospel:
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us (1:14, RSV-CE).
This beautiful phrase is a reminder that Jesus himself is God’s Word. St. John uses the term logos, which is borrowed from Greek philosophy. The word or logos was considered to be the creative power of God. St. John says this “logos” was in the beginning; it was God and was with God. This “logos” then took on human flesh of the Blessed Virgin Mary and dwelt with us (see John 1:1–14). The term John uses for “dwelt among us” can also be translated as “he pitched his tent among us.”
When the Sacred Scriptures are read in the Church, God himself speaks to his people, and Christ, present in his word, proclaims the Gospel (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 29).
The Gospel procession symbolizes the “logos” or Word of God processing from the Father into this world for our salvation. The Gospel book therefore becomes a living symbol of Jesus himself, and when it is censed with incense, it reminds us that “the Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord” (Dei Verbum, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, 21).
Preach it, Father!
When I was an evangelical Christian, I can remember the enthusiasm with which the congregation would hear the preaching of the Word of God. When the preacher got fired up, the congregation would shout “Amen!” or “Preach it, brother!” Catholic worship is usually much more sedate, but as a preacher I wouldn’t mind a bit of that enthusiasm when I’m preaching. It would be terrific from time to time to hear my people shout, “Amen! You preach it, Father!”
The preaching of the homily is where the age-old Scriptures should come alive and be applied to our particular age and the particular needs of our people. That’s why the homily is the point where the liturgy becomes more informal and personal. That being said, there is still a formal element to preaching.
Many people noticed that Pope Benedict XVI would often preach sitting down. They concluded that he was old and tired. That was not the reason. Instead, he was practicing an ancient tradition. In the Jewish faith the rabbis taught “from the chair of Moses” — they preached sitting down. That’s why the detail in the story of the Sermon on the Mount says:
He went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him. He began to teach them (Matthew 5:1–2).
The equivalent in our tradition is for the homily to be preached from the pulpit. As the “chair of Moses” was the sign of the preacher’s authority, so the pulpit in a Catholic church is the locus of authority. When a preacher wanders around chatting informally with the people, this symbolism is abolished. While an informal, walkabout style seems friendly, it undermines a tradition that strengthens the preacher’s authority.
A good homily is good news if it is short and sweet. Like the Gospel itself, it should also be both tough and tender. The Word of God, like the two-edged sword, should cut through all the nonsense and vanity of our lives and nourish us with the truth — which feeds our souls like good fresh bread and strong red wine.