Scripture in the Liturgy

The importance of Scripture in the liturgy has been made abundantly clear in the many post-Vatican II writings. The General Introduction to the Roman Lectionary (GIRL) states “the word of God unceasingly calls to mind and extends the plan of salvation, which achieves its fullest expression in the liturgy. (The Lectionary is the book which contains the readings for Mass.) The liturgical celebration becomes therefore the continuing complete, and effective presentation of God’s word.” (GIRL 4) “The more profound our understanding of the liturgical celebration, the higher our appreciation of the importance of God’s word. Whatever we say of the one, we can in turn say of the other, because each recalls the mystery of Christ and each in its own way causes that mystery to be present.” (GIRL 5) In this course you have read the OT christologically where appropriate, and GIRL 5 says, “When in celebrating the liturgy the Church proclaims both the Old and New Testament, it is proclaiming one and the same mystery of Christ...Christ himself is the center and fullness of all of Scripture, as he is of the entire liturgy”. The proclamation of the Scriptures in our liturgies is an expression of the presence of Christ in our midst. “He is present in his word since it is he himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC) 7, the Vatican II document on the Liturgy)

The Scriptures are a life-giving force to the church in its liturgy and private prayer. GIRL 7 states, “In the hearing of God’s word the Church is built up and grows...Whenever, therefore, the Church, gathered by the Holy Spirit for liturgical celebration, announces and proclaims the word of God, it has the experience of being a new people in whom the covenant made in the past is fulfilled.” “Because of the Holy Spirit’s inspiration and support, the word of God becomes the foundation of the liturgical celebration and the rule and support of all our life” (GIRL 9). The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship (page 1145) also expresses the importance of Scripture in the liturgy, “The proclamation of the word of God is essential to the liturgical act because the liturgy itself is the church’s most profound moment of self-actualization. Because the church is called into being by God’s inviting word, that word must be proclaimed day after day. God’s call in history is a word calling us now. One might justifiably maintain that “today” or its equivalents (now, this day) is the most critical word in liturgical celebrations. Thus the word of God must be enacted in celebration wherein the story of God’s enduring love for creation (the mystery) is recounted and experienced again as God’s call to us now.”

The Liturgy of the Word at Mass is followed by the Liturgy of the Eucharist. GIRL 10 writes of their union. “The Church is nourished spiritually at the table of God’s word and at the table of the eucharist: from the one it grows in wisdom and from the other in holiness. In the word of God the divine covenant is announced; in the eucharist the new and everlasting covenant is renewed...It can never be forgotten, therefore, that the divine word read and proclaimed by the Church in the liturgy has as its one goal the sacrifice of the New Covenant and the banquet of grace, that is the eucharist.” Before Vatican II the OT was not read as much during Sunday Mass. But with Vatican II, the cycle of readings was changed from one to three years and much of the OT is now read on Sundays. The Vatican II document on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, made recommendations on the use of Scripture in the liturgy. “Sacred scripture is of the greatest importance in the celebration of the liturgy. For it is from it that lessons are read and explained in the homily, and psalms are sung. It is from the scriptures that the prayers, collects and hymns draw their inspiration and their force, and that actions and signs derive their meaning”. (SC 24) The council decided that “a more ample, more varied, and more suitable reading from sacred scripture should be restored.” (SC 35) “The treasures of the Bible are to be opened up more lavishly so that a richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s word. In this way a more representative part of the sacred scriptures will be read to the people in a prescribed number of years”. (SC 51) That was put into effect with the new Roman Lectionary whose introduction, GIRL 59 states “The decision on revising the Lectionary for Mass was to draw up and edit a single, rich and full Order of Readings that would be in complete accord with the intent and prescriptions of the Council.”

Just as every Jewish book is not canonized in the OT and not every first century writing is canonized in the NT, in our liturgical celebration of the Mass, not every chapter of every book is read or celebrated. There is, so to speak a canon within the canon. Yet GIRL 106 states “Still, the treasury of the word of God will be opened up in such a way that nearly all the principal pages of the Old Testament will become familiar to those taking part in the Mass on Sundays.” Since most people encounter the Scriptures only in the liturgy, it was important to have as wide a selection of readings as possible.

The first reading at Sunday Mass is always from the OT except during Easter when it is from Acts. The Psalm is a suitable response to the first reading. The choice of OT readings was governed by "harmony" (GIRL 66.3). This harmony occurs “when the teaching and events recounted in texts of the New Testament bear a more or less explicit relationship to the teaching and events of the Old Testament. The present Order of Readings selects Old Testament texts mainly because of their correlation with New Testament texts read in the same Mass, and particularly with the gospel text.” (GIRL 67) Paragraph 106 also states that the readings were chosen “to bring out the unity between the Old and New Testaments”.

An exception to the above is the choice of the OT readings during the five Sundays of Lent which are not related to the Gospel. Rather they are meant to lead us through the main elements of salvation history in the OT until the promise of a New Covenant. Have you already looked at the Cycle of Readings for the entire year? There is also a simple Explanation of the Mass

Year A

First Sunday

Creation and Fall

Gen 2:7-9; 3:1-7

Second Sunday

The call of Abraham

Gen 12:1-4a

Third Sunday

Water from the rock in the desert

Ex 17:3-7

Fourth Sunday

The anointing of David as King

1 Sam 16:1, 6-7, 10-13

Fifth Sunday

Promise of the restoration

Ezek 37:12-14

Year B

First Sunday

Flood and Covenant

Gen 9:8-15

Second Sunday

Abraham’s sacrifice of his son

Gen 22:1-2, 9-13, 15-18

Third Sunday

The Ten Commandments

Ex 20:1-17

Fourth Sunday

Exile and destruction of the Temple

2 Chron 36:14-16,19-23

Fifth Sunday

Promise of the new covenant

Jer 31:31-34

Year C

First Sunday

Retelling the deliverance from Egypt

Deut 26:4-10

Second Sunday

The covenant with Abraham

Gen 15:5-12, 17-18

Third Sunday

The Call of Moses

Ex 3:1-8, 13-15

Fourth Sunday

The Passover celebrated in the Promised Land

Josh 5:9-12

Fifth Sunday

Promise of a new exodus

Isa 43:16-21

The Liturgy of the Hours

The Liturgy of the Hours (LOH), also sometimes called the Divine Office, or by its slang ‘the Breviary’, is prayed five times daily by priests, religious and an increasing number of laity (Office of Readings, Morning Prayer, Midday Prayer, Evening Prayer, Night Prayer). Contemplatives pray the LOH seven times daily (the two extra prayer times being before noon and after noon). The LOH is almost entirely biblical. It begins with three Psalms or two Psalms and a Canticle from either OT or NT and is followed by a reading from Scripture. The remainder of the prayer time differs for the particular office in question. The Psalms are the foundation upon which the LOH rests since the first half of the prayer is composed of praying Psalms or Psalms and a Canticle drawn from either OT or NT. As you know from the course on the Psalms, the Psalms are a school of prayer and the Church loves to pray the Psalms in the LOH because in praying them the Church is praying the prayer of Christ. The LOH follows a four-week cycle. During the four-week cycle secular priests, religious and laity pray most of the Psalms while contemplatives, with two extra prayer times, pray all the Psalms during their four week cycle. Also many contemplatives pray the so-called curses (expressions of anger) in the Psalms which are omitted from the four week cycle.

© Fr. Tommy Lane 2012