Liturgy of the Word 1


What did we just do? We said, "Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ," and sat down. Why were we standing? Why sitting now? Why the words, "Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ"? And what is supposed to happen now? What should happen? What have we come to expect will happen when we are all sitting and one person is standing here to speak?

We talked earlier about how we come into this room, how the church gathers in its house. We talked about how the song and the sign of the cross and the prayer are ways of putting on the baptismal garment, being a congregation, an assembly, that is here to do its liturgy. By the time we finish those actions and sit down to listen to the reader, we should have a strong sense that what happens here is done by this church. We should also have a sense that this Sunday gathering is happening on a Sunday in Eastertime or in Lent or in Advent or just in the ordinary Sundays of the year. The song and the look of the room and the whole atmosphere tell us that.

So we come to the moment when the assembly sits and the reader stands with the book open. It happens each Sunday, but it should still be, every time, a moment of delight for us. Wherever we come from that morning, whatever the troubles, whatever the aches and pains, whatever the worries, whatever the delights, whatever the preoccupations, somehow they all get caught up into the troubles, aches and pains, delights and preoccupations that are sitting beside and behind and around each one of us. This is a church filled with such things. And it is a church about to listen to its book. What kind of a church is going to listen well to its book? One with no worries? Or one full of the struggles of everyday life? The truth is this: We come here as hungry individuals, needy people, and when we are all together, we are a hungry church.

The words of this book are our food and our drink. We sit down, and the reader opens the book, and the church is nourished. We know perhaps that the church asks that we not eat for an hour before Mass and communion. That is, indeed, just a symbolic fasting. But it is symbolic of this: that we are to come here hungry for God's word and hungry for the eucharist and holy communion. Each one of us must decide how we observe that fasting before Mass. In some way, it means that the Sunday liturgy does not begin with the first singing here, or even with entering through those doors. The Sunday liturgy began when each one of us woke up this morning and in the time from then to now when-by fasting or by other ways-we let our bodies and spirits and minds be hungry for God's word, hungry to praise and give thanks and share holy communion.

On most Sundays, we read three scriptures. The first is usually from the oldest books of the Bible, the Hebrew scriptures. The second is always from the letters of the New Testament. The third is from the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We might think of it this way: As a people, we Catholics travel through the centuries, one generation to another. We carry with us a book. It is a book that we believe is the foundation of our life together as a people. In each generation it is read again and again and again, read in all the different places and times where this Catholic people finds itself. We see that we are not the only people with such a book. Other Christian churches journey with much the same book; Jews carry a book that contains most of these same contents-and they have carried it far longer. Most of our Christian book is, in fact, a Jewish book and we would do well to understand that.

Now this book that the Catholic people carry has within it a great many smaller books. And they contain all sorts of writing: legends, myths, histories, genealogies, laws, customs, wise sayings, humor, poetry, songs of every kind from love songs to war chants, prophecy, letters, sermons, parables, biography. Through the course of three years, the book is opened on Sundays to many parts of this collection. Sometimes, for week after week, we read in order from one book. We do this especially with the second readings. This [summer, fall], for example, we will be reading through Paul's letter to the church at [Rome, Corinth, etc.].

In the Gospel readings, through much of each year, we go in order through Matthew, Mark, or Luke. This order is broken when we come to the seasons of Advent, Lent, and Eastertime; on some of those Sundays we do our reading from the Gospel of John. Every three years, then, the Sunday readings give us most of the New Testament.

The first readings, except during Eastertime, come from the Hebrew Scriptures: from Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Kings, Wisdom, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and many other books. These first readings often give us a word or an image that will be reflected in the Gospel reading. More than anything, these first readings should encourage us to read widely in the Hebrew Scriptures, the books we have usually called the Old Testament.

So we are this Catholic people, and we carry with us a book that our parents and ancestors gave us and that we will give to our children. We read from it alone. We read from it in our households with family and friends. But always we read from it in our assembly. And that reading is not simply for our information. Nor is it just some formality. The reading is what gives this church its nourishment, even its identity, its life. And that is the hard part. We are used to going it alone; even with the Bible itself, we often try to think out what it means to me. But here the word is for the church. I listen because I am part of the church. I listen because if I don't, the church is that much less.

So when the book is opened-each time it is opened on a Sunday at liturgy-we fix our eyes on the reader and we listen. We are supposed to cling to the words, cling to them like life itself, for that is what they are. Any book or booklet that has the readings in it can be read to prepare or to follow through, but when the reading of God's word is taking place in front of us, then it is the spoken words of the reader we want to hear, not printed words on a page. It is common sense and simple respect that tells us to look at the one reading and hang on to every word.

Readers, for their part, are asked to spend a great deal of time with the scripture text to be read. They pore over it again and again. They practice it aloud. They are charged to make every effort in helping the church to hear this scripture. That means that they live with and wrestle with it all week long so that on Sunday they can let our scriptures come to us from one convinced of their worth and truth.

That part is hard. The part of the assembly, of all of us, is even harder. Talk is cheap, we say. We live in a sea of words, and most of them flow right by us. Here we are to have the habit of good, hard listening. Listen to hear a word you have not let into your mind and heart before. Listen for an image to guide us baptized people. Listen as you would to the voice and words of one who loves you. Don't try to think of how this word fits your life right now; don't try to find some hidden message. Just listen. Just be the church, here, today, on its journey, carrying its book, hungry for the words that are life to this people.

Copyright © 1992, Gabe Huck. Used by permission.