This reflection is based on the readings for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time—Year A: Wisdom 12:13, 16-19v; Psalm 85; Romans 8: 26-27; and Matthew 13:24-43.
In the fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary time, as the Gospel presented the beginning of the series of parables that were read over a number of weeks, the parable was about a sower who sowed seed generously and the different kinds of soil on which the seed would take root and grow. As the series of parables continues, we hear about the mysterious way in which the seed miraculously grows into something much larger, without anyone really knowing how or why the growth takes places.
As I stated in my last reflection, these parables that speak to us about the generosity of the sower, and the mysterious way in which growth occurs, provide a wonderful opportunity for me to respond to one of the requests that was expressed in the survey that the pastoral council of my parish of St. Peter’s Church distributed this past Spring. In particular, these Gospel readings provide an opportunity to respond to the request for more information about the Mass and an effort to increase the participation of parishioners in the celebration of the Eucharist. Last time, I began this series of reflections about the Mass by writing on why we celebrate the Mass and what it is that we believe we are doing when we do so. In this column, I would like to write about the Introductory Rites to Mass and the Liturgy of the Word. In my final column that will be posted soon, I will conclude by writing about the Liturgy of the Eucharist and the Dismissal Rites. As this division suggests, the Mass is divided into four parts that form a unity, these are: 1) The Introductory Rites; 2) The Liturgy of the Word; 3) The Liturgy of the Eucharist; and 4) the Dismissal Rites.
The Introductory Rites:
At the beginning of each Roman Missal, the book used for the celebration of Mass, there is an instruction that has the official name The General Instruction to the Roman Missal. This document explains how Mass is to be celebrated and the way in which the members of the Church are to participate in the celebration of the Mass. It is an essential document for all who really wish to understand the Mass and the way in which it is to be celebrated. This document divides the Introductory Rites into six parts. These are: 1) The Entrance Hymn; 2) The Greeting; 3) The Penitential Rite; 4) the Kyrie; 5) The Gloria; and 6) The Collect or Opening Prayer. As we have been listening to the Parable of the Sower and the Seed, the Entrance Rites and the Liturgy of the Word that we are considering today could really be described as the proximate preparation that prepares our hearts for the gift that Christ will give us in the Eucharist at each celebration of Mass. A brief look at each aspect of the Introductory Rites is helpful.
The Liturgy of the Word:
Although I have said that the General Instruction to the Roman Missal speaks of the four different parts of the one Mass, often the Mass is spoken of being divided into its two essential but united aspects: The Liturgy of the Word and The Liturgy of the Eucharist. Just as we get to know human beings through their spoken voice and visible bodies, so too in the Mass, Christ both speaks to us and is made present in His Body. In Catholic theology the expression is often used of “Word and Sacrament.” At Mass, we have the Altar of the Word, from which Christ’s Word is proclaimed, and the Altar of Sacrifice, from which we receive His Body and Blood. By God’s Word, we always mean the Sacred Scriptures. The readings at Mass must always come from the Bible. The Catholic Sacraments are revealed in the Scriptures and it is from the Scriptures that we learn of their meaning and significance. We cannot have the Sacraments without God’s revealed Word. The Scriptures are our Books which reveal who Christ is and speak His word to us today. In fact, the word ‘today” is very important because we believe that when the Scriptures are proclaimed at Mass, it is Christ who speaks to us today in His Word. The homily is intended to interpret God’s Word for us today and put it into the present context in a way that is meaningful to us.
Regarding the Liturgy of the Word, I would like to include just a little bit about how the readings that we hear proclaimed are chosen. At a Council in the 1960’s, called the Second Vatican Council, the bishops of the Church decided that we should hear from a more abundant selection of Scripture at Mass. It was decided that there should be a three-year cycle for Sunday readings. Because there was a long tradition of reading the Gospel of John each year in the Seasons of Lent, Easter and Christmas, this three-year cycle was to be based on the reading of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Those who decided on this cycle gave these years the very fancy names of “Year A, Year B and Year C. In year A, we read the Gospel of Matthew, in Year B the Gospel of Mark, and in Year C that of Luke. This year, we are in Year A, and so we have been reading from Matthew’s Gospel. The idea is to go through the events of Christ’s life each year, so that today these mysteries might touch our lives anew. The way in which you and I hear these events as children is different than the way we hear them as adults, and this is different than how we hear them as senior citizens. The message of Christ’s life hits us differently at the different stages of our own lives. The hope is that by hearing His message over and over though the course of our lives, it will mold us to be like Him and strengthen us on our own paths. We may think that Christ is not with us in our trials, but then hear how he was present to His disciples in their difficulties and come to a new and hopeful realization of His presence in our lives.
"If you want to get more out of Mass, please consider praying over the Scripture readings before Mass. You will be amazed at the difference it makes."
On most Sundays, there are four readings from Scripture: the first reading, psalm, second reading, and the Gospel. These are all chosen with a certain logic. As I mentioned that each year we work our way through one of the Gospels of either Matthew, Mark or Luke, the Gospel was the first reading that was chosen in the selection of the Sunday readings. Once the Gospel was chosen, a reading from the Old Testament was chosen for the first reading, in order to shed light on the meaning of the Gospel. This always helps us to understand the extent to which God has gone to save us. His plan has been at work since creation and He is always seeking to save us. This Sunday for example, as we hear about the patience that the gardener is to have in the growth of the wheat, allowing both weeds and wheat to grow, so as not to damage what is good, so too the first reading from the Book of Wisdom speaks of God’s patience and mercy. Once the first reading from the Old Testament has been proclaimed, the Psalm is chosen as a response to the Word that has been proclaimed in the Old Testament reading. The purpose of the Responsorial Psalm is that we all ought to respond to God’s Word. Even when we do not respond, we are choosing a response. This is another moment when our response is important. We ought all to join in singing the Responsorial Psalm. This Sunday, as the first reading from the Book of Wisdom spoke of God’s mercy, we are invited to respond through the Responsorial Psalm by proclaiming: “Lord you are good and forgiving.” Once the Responsorial Psalm has been concluded, the second reading is proclaimed. The reform of the liturgy which took place after Second Vatican Council added the second reading as a way giving greater exposure to some of the New Testament letters that were not widely read. While they are not chosen in relation to the Gospel, or other readings proclaimed on a particular Sunday, there is often a subtle relationship based on the fact that they announce the same Good News of Christ’s salvation. Once the second reading has been proclaimed, we are all invited to respond to it by singing the “Alleluia” which announces the joyful anticipation of the Gospel that will be proclaimed.
The proclamation of the Gospel is the highpoint of the Liturgy of the Word. We believe that when it is read, it is Christ Himself speaking to us today. This is why we stand when the Gospel is read. During the singing of the Alleluia, we hear a verse of Scripture sung that helps to shed some light on the meaning of the Gospel. As the priest announces the Gospel, he and we, cross our foreheads, lips and hearts, while quietly saying to ourselves: “May the Lord be on my mind, on my lips and on my heart.” By these words, we remind ourselves that this lifegiving Word that is proclaimed is to penetrate and take root in our minds and hearts, so that we might speak it to others, be changed by I, and have it in mind as we think about our lives and plans. Once the Gospel has been proclaimed, we are seated for the homily. Pope Francis has said that the homily should be about ten to twelve minutes in length. In some traditions, especially those which do not have the Eucharist, the homily or the sermon may be an hour. The purpose of the homily is to make the Word that is proclaimed, or a part of the liturgy, relevant or alive for us today. The homily is usually based on the readings, but it could also be based on another part of the liturgy like the Eucharistic Prayer or a mystery being celebrated; for example Christmas or Easter. The homily is often the most difficult part of Mass for the priest who must prepare it, and the people who must listen to it. In order to get more out of the homily, it is important that both the preacher and the listener prepare. Taking a few minutes before Mass to read the Scripture readings in the Missal can add greatly to our appreciation of the Mass. When a person has read the Scripture readings beforehand, he or she can listen better and even have an idea of what he or she might have said differently. If you want to get more out of Mass, please consider praying over the Scripture readings before Mass. You will be amazed at the difference it makes.
Once the homily is concluded there ought to be a short silence for people to reflect on the Word that has been proclaimed. Silence is also to have a place in our liturgy as it gives space for the individual to let the Word take root and grow. The response to the proclaimed Word on a Sunday is the invitation to proclaim our faith by reciting the Creed. The Creed is a summary of all that is essential to the faith. The proclamation of the Word was to strengthen our conviction in the faith and our desire to live it. There are two Creeds that might be used: either the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed. The Apostles Creed is the more ancient and the Nicene Creed was composed to answer certain challenges to the Divinity of Christ and other questions about His relationship to the other eternal members of the Holy Trinity. Following the Creed, we place our needs and intentions before God, asking His assistance in the Prayers of the Faithful. Normally these prayers express the needs of the Church, pray for our civil leaders, ask for God’s help with world and local needs, and pray for the sick and deceased.
The Liturgy of the Word concludes at the end of the Prayers of the Faithful. The Word has prepared the assembly to receive Christ in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood. To really be ready to receive this great gift, it is necessary that we prepare our hearts appropriately by participating fully and actively in the Introductory Rites and the Liturgy of the Word. In my next column, I will reflect on the source and summit of the Christian life in the Liturgy of the Eucharist and Dismissal Rites.
May the Lord give all of us the grace to celebrate the Eucharist each Sunday in a manner that allows us to receive this wonderful gift and bear fruit in the life of the Church.
Fr. Michael McGourty is Pastor of St. Peter’s Church in downtown Toronto.