Of the articles I am writing for this series on the Mass, I am really excited about this one: the Liturgy of the Word.
For too long, we have assumed, "Protestants get the Bible, Catholics get the sacraments."
One is not more Catholic than the other; both are essential for the celebration of the Eucharist.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist "are so closely interconnected that they form but one single act of worship."
The Word proclaims what the sacrament enacts: it's the same Christ, really present. The Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy taught that Christ is present in multiple ways in the liturgy: in the people assembled, in the Word proclaimed, in the ordained minister, in the other sacraments, and especially in the Sacred Species.
Teachings of the popes
Three years ago, the world's Catholic bishops held a synod discussing the Eucharist. Pope John Paul II followed up with the wonderful document Ecclesia de Eucharistia, resulting in resurging interest in the importance of the Eucharist in the life of the Church.
That's great, but we need to go further.
Pope Benedict XVI has instructed the bishops that when their next synod meets in October 2008, the topic will be the Word of God.
I predict the Holy Father will follow up with his own document on the Word of God. (You heard it here first.) The bishops already have their "homework" assignment: you can read it on the Vatican Web page (www.vatican.va) if you search for "synod," "word," and "lineamenta," which is Latin for "outline."
Reverencing the Word
Maybe you know someone who left the Catholic Church because they found another church where they "get fed," meaning they hear the word preached better.
Of course, the irony is they can't get fed any better than in our Eucharist. But we should take their departure seriously: a fuller celebration of the word of God will only enhance participation in the Eucharist.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church directs: "The Liturgy of the Word is an integral part of sacramental celebrations. To nourish the faith of believers, the signs which accompany the Word of God should be emphasized: the book of the Word (a Lectionary or a Book of the Gospels), its veneration (procession, incense, candles), the place of its proclamation (lectern or ambo), its audible and intelligible reading, the minister's homily which extends its proclamation, and the responses of the assembly (acclamations, meditation psalms, litanies, and profession of faith)."
Notice how we offer the Word what we usually associate with the Sacred Species: incense, gilded books, even processions.
The General Introduction to the Lectionary goes so far as to say, "The Church has honored the Word of God and the eucharistic mystery with the same reverence, although not with the same worship, and has always and everywhere insisted upon and sanctioned such honor."
To honor the Word of God, let the ambo be a fixed, dignified place that parallels the altar itself, since there is "one table of the Word and the Eucharist." Don't proclaim the Word from disposable booklets for the same reason wine should not be consecrated in a throwaway cup. Let there be adequate lighting and amplification.
Readers and preachers
Regarding preparation, Pope Benedict writes, "I ask that the Liturgy of the Word always be carefully prepared and celebrated. Consequently I urge that every effort be made to ensure that the liturgical proclamation of the Word of God is entrusted to well-prepared readers."
Just as we appreciate silence after receiving Communion, include silence after the Word so it can resonate in our hearts.
Finally, encourage priests and deacons when preaching homilies. Not a single preacher I know thinks it's easy.
Pope Benedict is straightforward on this issue: "The quality of homilies needs to be improved. The homily is 'part of the liturgical action' and is meant to foster a deeper understanding of the word of God, so that it can bear fruit in the lives of the faithful. Hence ordained ministers must 'prepare the homily carefully, based on an adequate knowledge of Sacred Scripture.' Generic and abstract homilies should be avoided.
"In particular," he said, "I ask these ministers to preach in such a way that the homily closely relates the proclamation of the Word of God to the sacramental celebration and the life of the community, so that the Word of God truly becomes the Church's vital nourishment and support."
That intersection of three terms - word, sacrament, and community - all come together in a beautiful way in the part of the liturgy we'll examine next week: the preparation of the gifts.
Fr. Tom Margevicius is instructor of liturgical theology at St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul.
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