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Nov 13, 2019

Recovering Love for the Liturgy of the Word

Dr. James Merrick

Sometimes hearing God in the Liturgy of the Word is as difficult as seeing Jesus in the Eucharist. Pope Francis is aware of this challenge, which is why, on the Feast of St. Jerome (September 30), he issued the motu proprio named Aperuit illis (“he opened to them”) in which he designated the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time to be the Sunday of the Word of God. The title of the document is taken from Luke 24:45, which recounts the resurrected Christ explaining the Scriptures to his disciples. It is suggestive to the Holy Father that on the day of Jesus’ resurrection, he leads a Bible study for a small gathering. Clearly the Lord thought the sight of his resurrected humanity needed to be understood through the lens of Sacred Scripture. This recognition leads the Holy Father to conclude:

“We urgently need to grow in our knowledge and love of the Scriptures … ” 

Aperuit Illis, 8

This act of the Holy Father is consonant with one of the major aims of the Second Vatican Council: the promotion of Scripture in the life of the Church. The Council “earnestly and especially urges all the Christian faithful, especially Religious, to learn by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures” and demands that “all the clergy must hold fast to the Sacred Scriptures through diligent sacred reading and careful study” and  (Dei Verbum, 25). So important was Scripture to this Council that one of the distinguishing features of the Council’s documents is their employment of a “salvation-historical” presentation that follows the narrative of Scripture over the more scholastic form of earlier councils (On this feature of the Council, see Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P., Conciliar Octet: A Concise Commentary on the Eight Key Texts of the Second Vatican Council, 28, 45). 

This is the sixth part in our series on restoring reverence in the Mass. You can find the other articles in this series here:

Toward Recovering a Love for the Eucharist

Is the Way Catholics Worship Weird or Wonderful?

Sing for the Love of God (Insights from St. Augustine)

Revering God’s Name at Mass

What ‘Liturgy’ Really Means

As we continue this series on restoring reverence in the Mass, this document of Pope Francis is a great reminder of the importance of the first liturgy of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Word. As noted in the last post of the series, calling the reading and explanation of Scripture a “liturgy” means that it is our duty to our fellow man. Keeping this in mind helps us to recognize that the listening to God’s Word promotes the health and spiritual integrity of society, and we listen to God’s Word not just to be nourished as individuals, but as citizens of society. 

Creation Conceived by Word

Why is hearing the Word of God important for our own development and for the development of society? For the answer, we don’t have to look any farther than the narrative of creation in the very first chapter of the very first book of the Bible – Genesis 1. There we see that God creates by his Word—“Let there be … ” Creation comes to be by hearing the Word of God. Creation is conceived in listening, in humble reception of what God says. We cannot be what we are meant to be, creation cannot be what God intended apart from listening to God’s Word. Indeed, just two chapters later, we see that the first sin occurs when Adam and Eve ignore God’s Word. 

Israel Conceived by Word

In God’s plan to restore the human race lost by Adam and Eve’s ignorance, God created a new race of people, the nation of Israel. Israel is likewise conceived by hearing the Word of God. In Exodus 24, we see the moment that, freshly freed from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites enter into a covenant with God and become his “son.” In a way similar to the two liturgies at Mass, the Israelites first hear the Word of God read aloud and then have sacrificial blood sprinkled upon them and the altar to establish the family bond between God and his people:

“Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, ‘All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do.’ And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord. And he rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the Lord. And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.'”

Exodus 24:3-7

In a ceremony renewing this covenant, Joshua “read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the book of the law” and there was “not a word of all that Moses commanded which Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the sojourners who lived among them” (Joshua 8:34-35). 

We would not be surprised, then, when we learn that the “creed” of Israel, which they were to recite three times a day, began with the phrase “Hear, O Israel … ” (Deuteronomy 6:4), suggesting that the fundamental task of the people of Israel was to listen to God. No wonder the Psalmist records God imploring:

“My people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth.”

Psalm 78:1

Again (2 Kings 23:1-2) and again (Nehemiah 8:3-4), the public reading of Scripture is foundational to the public worship of God and the identity of God’s people. The consistent critique of the prophets is that the Israelites have failed to obey the Word of God. And when prophets start receiving visions of a new covenant, they see that it consists of the Word of God being written on the hearts of God’s people. The prophet Jeremiah prophesies:

“But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

Jeremiah 31:33

Jesus Conceived by Word

This promised new covenant begins when a humble woman named Mary hears the Word of God through the angel Gabriel. She reverses the disobedience of Eve by responding:

“Let it be done unto me according to thy Word.”

Luke 1:38

Through her obedience, Jesus Christ is conceived by the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ is nothing short of the eternal Word of God made flesh (John 1:1) who declares to the world: 

If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. He who does not love me does not keep my words; and the word which you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.” 

John 14:23-24

Mary is profoundly blessed and exemplary. Yet, Jesus says in response to the woman who acclaimed Mary because of her womb and breasts nourished Jesus:

“Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it.”

Luke 11:28; see also Matthew 7:24

Sadly, this passage has been used to undermine Catholic devotion to Mary, for it sounds like Jesus is dismissing Mary’s blessedness. But the Lord is not downplaying Mary’s blessedness, only pointing out that what made Mary blessed was not her mere capacity for physical reproduction, but her hearing and keeping of God’s Word, which made her supernaturally fertile. 

The Church Conceived by Word

Jesus worshipped and taught in the synagogue which was dedicated to the reading of Scripture (see Luke 4:15). His apostles used the synagogue as the occasion for their evangelization of the Jewish people (see Acts 6:8-9 and 17:2), before they were removed and persecuted (for example, by Saul before he became St. Paul). Thus, we can conclude that listening to the Word of God is the way in which creation, Israel, Jesus Christ, and the Church are conceived.

Mysterious Not Magical

The above survey is more than enough to illustrate that the hearing of the Word of God is foundational to the relationship God seeks to establish with his creatures. Why? Quite simply because God desires our intelligent participation in his grace. The Word of God is given to us in order to ensure that we are conscious of his grace, that we can cooperate with it. This is such a beautiful truth, even if it places a demand upon us. For it makes us friends rather than slaves, and means God’s grace is not superficial but reaches into the deepest depths of our selfhood. God’s grace is profoundly personal and seeks to restore to us our true identity as God’s children.

So often we want God to be magical rather than mysterious. That is to say, we want God to zap us with a quick fix with which we don’t have to cooperate. This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” a grace without the Cross. But God’s grace is always contextualized by God’s Word because God does not act impersonally toward us. Rather God’s grace always personalizes us, always calls forth from us responsibility, dignity, and love.

Again, God did not create the world like we would create a chair from a tree, using tools and brute force. Rather, God speaks, implying not only that creation is meaningful and purposeful but also that creation has a degree of freedom and responsiveness. God creates in such a way that he enables response, that he solicits understanding, love, and joy. Likewise, his salvation does not consist of making us slaves to his brute power, but rather of freeing us from slavery to depersonalizing forces, first of the Egyptians, but ultimately of sin and death. God speaks his Word so that we might “know the truth, and the truth will make us free” (John 8:32). 

The role of the Word of God in God’s work in the world shows that God’s grace does not zap us or put us under in order to heal us. Rather, God’s grace is personal presence, it is the indwelling of the Spirit of God in the soul. It is a communion of ourselves with God. We call God’s grace a “mystery,” then, not in the sense that it is unknowable, nonsensical, or unintelligible, but in the sense that it is rich, profound, overflowing with meaning, and able to enter into the very depths of our selfhood and speak to us. God’s grace is mysterious because it is cosmic in scope and surfaces hidden parts of ourselves, throwing light on the obscure corners of ourselves, darkened by sin and thereby healing us utterly and bringing us wholly to life.  

Word and Sacrament are Inseparable

It should be no surprise, then, that Pope Francis asserts there is an “unbreakable bond between Sacred Scripture and the Eucharist” (Aperuit Illis, 8). Here he follows the Catechism which gives a fuller explanation of why Word and Sacrament are linked: 

“The liturgical word and action are inseparable both insofar as they are signs and instruction and insofar as they accomplish what they signify. When the Holy Spirit awakens faith, he not only gives an understanding of the Word of God, but through the sacraments also makes present the ‘wonders’ of God which it proclaims.”

CCC 1155

The Scriptures make intelligible the invisible communication of the sacraments, while the sacraments make present in our own time the realities spoken of in Scripture. 

The Scriptures Contextualize the Sacrament

We must believe, then, that the Word of God set forth through the lectionary is God’s personal address to us, God’s gift to enable our full participation in the Mass. As Pope Francis exhorts:

“The Holy Spirit, then, makes sacred Scripture the living word of God, experienced and handed down in the faith of his holy people. The work of the Holy Spirit has to do not only with the formation of sacred Scripture; it is also operative in those who hear the word of God.” 

Aperuit Illis 9, 10

The texts we encounter at Mass are not chosen at random, but are given by providence through the Tradition of his Church. They are always the way God speaks to us in our own circumstances. The Scriptures set before us certain themes or events that help us unite ourselves to the sacrifice of Christ given to us in the sacrament. We need to listen to them so we have the proper context for receiving the grace given in the Eucharist. We may have a host of concerns we would like to bring to God, but the Liturgy of the Word orients us to God’s concerns, to the work he is doing in our lives and in our world. 

It is very important, then, that the Liturgy of the Word is given as much attention and devotion as the Liturgy of the Eucharist. As Origen wrote in the third century:

“If you are so careful to preserve his body, and rightly so, how do you think that there is less guilt to have neglected God’s word than to have neglected his body?”

Origen, “Homily 13 on Exodus”

As I’ve written elsewhere following the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, this means lectors must read the Scriptures deliberately, the clergy must focus on Scripture in their homilies, and the laity must familiarize themselves with the Mass reading beforehand. 

Today If You Hear His Voice, Harden Not Your Hearts

How can we improve our participation in the Liturgy of the Word? How can we be sure we hear his voice in the Scriptures?

1. Get a Good Bible

Christians of the past had a good excuse for not knowing Scripture—they couldn’t read and printed copies of the Bible were rare and expensive. Today, however, we have been given a great gift in the widespread availability of Scripture. Not only is Scripture abundantly available, but we have the gifts of great study Bibles. These are very useful for engagement with Scripture. The best one with which to begin is The Great Adventure Bible. Go get yourself a copy and let the adventure begin!  

2. Memorize Scripture

The saints have regularly recommended the memorization of Scripture both for being attuned to the Spirit’s work in our daily lives and for better understanding the Scriptures. The more Scripture we have stored up in our hearts, the easier it is for us to make connections and have a context for those passages with which we are unfamiliar. Try to memorize a verse a week. 

3. Lectio Divina

Daily, prayerful meditation on Scripture is the way in which Scripture comes to penetrate our hearts and minds. The ancient monastic practice of lectio divina (divine reading) helps us pray the Scriptures and hear God speaking. The more practiced we are in this discipline, the more able we will be to profit from the readings at Mass. The aforementioned Great Adventure Bible has a great introduction to this ancient discipline.

4. Meditate on the Mass Readings

One of the best ways to prepare for the Mass is to meditate on the Mass readings beforehand. If you are more familiar with the Mass readings and come with an understanding of them, you are more able to focus on hearing God’s voice. There are some great resources that will assist you. I’d recommend the reflections offered by Dr. Scott Hahn, Brant Pitre, and John Bergsma.


You May Also Like:

The Parts of the Mass: The Liturgy of the Word

How to Start Reading Your Bible [Jeff Cavins podcast]

Mary: A Biblical Walk with the Blessed Mother [study program]


Dr. James R. A. Merrick is lecturer at Franciscan University of Steubenville, reviews editor for Nova et Vetera, and a theology and Latin teacher at St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania. Dr. Merrick is also on the faculty for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown’s Lay Ecclesial and Diaconal Formation program. Previously he was scholar-in-residence at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. Before entering the Church with his wife and children, he was an Anglican priest and college theology professor in the United States and in the United Kingdom. Follow Dr. Merrick on Twitter: @JamesRAMerrick.

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  • This is a most wonderful article(?). Can I call this inspiration such a thing? Thank you for your study, your words. They are profound because they are about the Scripture. May the law be writ upon all our hearts. For Jesus is the fulfillment of this law; therefore abiding in His Sacred Heart, means abiding in the Word of God and the Eucharist. Oh how beautiful He is!

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