In early Christian practice there is some evidence that the reading of the Scriptures was a separate event from early forms of the Eucharist. The reading and study of the Bible may sometimes have taken place during the week while Sunday was the time for the early sacramental communal worship gatherings. Yet by 150AD, we see in Justin Martyr’s account of practice in Rome that an early form of the liturgy of the Word accompanied the Eucharistic celebration. He speaks of how “memoirs of the Apostles” and the prophets were “read as long as there is time.” The General Instruction to the Roman Missal teaches us that although there are two parts to the Mass, they are “so closely inter-connected that they form but one act of worship.”
The Liturgy of the Word follows from the Introductory Rites. It consists of eight sections.
The First Reading is typically a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures but during the 50 days of Easter the readings comes from Acts.
The Responsorial Psalm is a dual response- by the congregation and to God’s revelation. Often the Psalm is sung. Baldovin goes so far as to say he sees no reason why this shouldn’t be normative.
The Second Reading is typically a reading from the New Testament canon outside the Gospels.
The Gospel Acclamation is a herald to the reading from the Gospel. It is commonly sung and goes through some shifts in line with the liturgical calendar.
The Gospel Proclamation is the “highpoint of the Liturgy of the Word” according to the GILM. Everyone stands, the Gospel is read out aloud.
The Homily serves to apply the Gospel reading in the lives of the congregation and to illuminate the Sacrament. It is of course understood as well that the Sacrament will serve to illuminate the text.
The Profession of Faith is typically the recitation of the Nicene Creed but it is understood to be more of a statement of praise than a repeating of dry dogma.
The Prayer of the Faithful are prayers of intercession for the wider church and world that allow the general congregation to fully their own ministry of prayer.
A number of resources are available so that clergy are able to avoid the temptation of letting the Liturgy of the Word become a kind of fodder for the homily. They include:
The Lectionary, which is a collection of all the reading arranged around the church calendar. The Lectionary in the UK and Ireland is a three year cycle: Matthew, Mark and Luke (John features for parts of Easter, lent and during the 3rd mass of Christmas Day). Presentation matters in the Lectionary and so it is assembled, compiled, bound and published in fashion in keeping with the symbolic dimension of the Liturgy.
The Sacramentary is a collection of texts, prayers, instruction and some music used in Mass. It used to be joined to the Lectionary in a combined book called the Missal that would begin with a declaration of intent.
The GIRM is the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and serves as a kind of recipe book for the Liturgy of the Word with instructions, theological background and practical advice on how to appropriately conduct services.
And there are a number of other books including the Ordo (Orders of Service for special ceremonies like baptisms, weddings or funerals), the Gradual (a collection of music and lyrics for mass) and the Pontifical (guides for ceremonies typically conducted only by bishops or the Pope).
ROLES AND SYMBOLISMS
There are different roles played by different people during the Liturgy of the Word. The Cantor leads the congregation in sung elements of the Mass. The Lector reads the readings and sometimes is called upon to carry the Gospel (which is often treated with great reverence and published specially in an adorned fashion). The Psalmist is responsible for leading the congregation in the participation of the Psalms.
There are different coloured robes worn by the conducting clergy during different parts of the Liturgical Calendar. For example, at Christmas and Easter the priest is to wear white robes, green robes during Ordinary Time and purple robes during Advent.
Furniture and church architecture plays a role in the Liturgy of the Word. The reading is to be done from the ambo, which ought to be elevated, fixed and of “suitable design and nobility” (GIRM) for its function.
The Liturgical Calendar is tied closely to the Liturgy of the Word in its formation and structure. Does the Liturgy of the Word inform the Calendar or vice versa? In reality, they have developed in an inter-twined and symbiotic relationship.
In conclusion, there are three important aspects of the Liturgy of the Word to be appreciated.
Firstly, the Liturgy of the Word takes the form of a Call and Response. First comes God’s revelation to us. Only then, in the second place, do we the congregation respond in prayer and worship. This reflects the nature of our own individual spiritual lives and that of our community. God initiates in his grace and we respond.
Secondly, the Lectionaries, which are central to the practice of the Liturgy of the Word are a rich and valuable resource. They have evolved over generations to represent a “liturgical hermeneutic” (Baldovin). They set the Scriptures in dialogue with the church calendar and thus bring out the inter-textuality of the Bible in an implicit fashion. While it cannot hope to cover the whole canon, the overarching narrative of the Bible is communicated to the mass-goer over a three year period.
Finally, the Liturgy of the Word represents a juxtapositionary approach to the Spiritual life that is sophisticated and elegant. The Scriptures are not divorced from the church tradition (which is where the tradition of the Canon originates after all!) and placed alongside the act of prayer and worship. Thus, praise and revelation illuminate each other. The juxtaposition of the revelation with the response allow the Sacraments to exegete the text and vice versa. Or as Gregory the Great put it, “Scripture grows with prayer.”
Your Correspondent, Sings ta-ra-la-la when thinking of the exams ending