The Liturgy of the Word

God speaks to his people in Old and New Testament readings


This article is part of the Know the Mass series.

The Mass includes two major parts: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

An examination of the Liturgy of the Word introduces us to the Jewish roots of Christian worship found in the synagogue service that included readings from the Hebrew Scriptures, including the psalms, along with communal prayers, hymns and reflections. To these readings and songs early Christians added writings that would later constitute the New Testament, especially the Gospels. Finally, a homily was given by the presider of the celebration. In the beginning, Jewish Christians would attend this form of the synagogue service on Saturday and then gather together on Sunday for the “breaking of the bread,” or Eucharist. When Jewish disciples of Jesus were later expelled from the synagogue, they simply combined these two services into one liturgical celebration.

Therefore, the Church is nourished by both sacred Scripture and the Eucharist which, in the Mass, form an inner unity: “From the two tables of the word of God and the body of Christ the Church receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life. Consequently, it must constantly be kept in mind that the word of God, read and proclaimed by the Church in the liturgy, leads to the Eucharist as to its own connatural end.” (Pope Benedict XVI, “Sacramentum Caritatis”).

The first reading is usually taken from the Old Testament. The last reading is taken from one of the Gospels. There is often a connection between the first reading and the Gospel, in which the Old Testament is brought to fulfillment. In between there is a psalm response and, on Sundays and solemnities, a reading from the New Testament. Hence, in the Liturgy of the Word we journey through the story of ancient Israel to the birth of the Church, which is the new Israel. The Lectionary containing the readings consists of a three-year cycle (A, B and C) for Sundays and solemnities and a two-year cycle (1 and 2) for weekdays.

Thus, in the Liturgy of the Word, the Church presents to the faithful a rich banquet from Scripture in which it is God himself who is speaking to his people. As the Spirit descends upon the gifts of bread and wine so that they may become for us the body and blood of the Lord, so too the same spirit of God who inspired the sacred authors descends upon the assembly of God’s people so that we might be open to listen and respond to what God is saying to us. Therefore, just as the Liturgy of the Eucharist is not mechanical or magical, but rather the work of God, so too the Liturgy of the Word is dynamic and relational, calling forth a response on our part by God’s grace.

It is an ancient Jewish custom that readings from Scripture in the synagogue were followed by explanation and exhortation. This custom was followed in primitive Christianity and has continued throughout the history of the Church. The Church regards the homily as an integral part of the Mass. In fact, on Sundays and holy days of obligation, it is required. The homily should be given only by an ordained deacon, priest or bishop in fulfillment of their mission to preach and to teach in order to build up the body of Christ. The role of the homilist is not simply intellectual, but most of all pastoral and spiritual, enabling the assembly to concretely live the word of God that has just been proclaimed.

On Sundays and solemnities the homily is followed by the profession of faith or the Creed. This is both an individual and communal act rooted in the sacrament of baptism, whereby we die to self and live a new life in Christ who is “the way and the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6). The gift of faith is a priceless treasure that we are meant not only to profess, but to fully live with ever deeper understanding.

Finally, the Liturgy of the Word concludes with the prayers of the faithful in which, by God’s grace, we do something truly great, namely, think about and pray for other human beings who are in need. There is no better way than that to begin the Liturgy of the Eucharist. ■

Father Kevin Kennedy is Pastor of Our Lady of Fatima Russian Byzantine Catholic Church, Administrator at St. Monica-St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in San Francisco and Formation Adviser and Spiritual Director at St. Patrick’s Seminary & University.