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Father Matthew Buettner: The spiritual foundation for the Liturgy of the Word
In earlier columns, we discovered that as the highest form of prayer, the Mass teaches us how to pray.
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass begins with the Penitential Act, which allows us the opportunity to confess our need for God's abundant mercy. Likewise, prayer begins with the humble recognition of one's inadequacy in the presence of God. After recognizing our sinfulness and God's abundant mercy, we are moved to praise and adoration and thanksgiving to the Blessed Trinity in the ancient hymn known as the Gloria. Likewise, prayer moves from humility and repentance to praise and adoration and gratitude. Finally, the Introductory Rites of the Mass reach their culmination and fulfillment in the Opening Collect or Prayer. The celebrant collects the petitions and intercessions of the sacrifice and implores the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. Prayer, as in the Holy Mass, then moves from praise and adoration to petition and intercession.
So far, the Introductory Rites teach us that prayer has the following form: humility and repentance, praise and adoration, petition and intercession. But there is still a further component to prayer beyond the scope of what we have already accomplished.
We must listen to the voice of the Lord. We must be receptive to the Word of God. Prayer, too, becomes more receptive and meditative as we listen to the voice of God.
And so the Mass moves from the Introductory Rites to the Liturgy of the Word. The congregation is seated to listen attentively as God instructs His people. Perhaps the most theologically relevant teaching on the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, "Mediator Dei," written by Pope Pius XII in 1947, explains the encounter with Christ in the Liturgy of the Word throughout the Liturgical Year: "In the Sacred Liturgy, the whole Christ is proposed to us in all the circumstances of His life, as the Word of the Eternal Father, as born of the Virgin Mother of God, as He who teaches us truth, heals the sick, consoles the afflicted, who endures suffering and who dies; finally, as He who rose triumphantly from the dead, and who, reigning in the glory of Heaven, sends us the Holy Paraclete, and who abides in His Church forever.... The liturgy shows us Christ not only as a model to be imitated, but as a Master to whom we should listen readily, a Shepherd whom we should follow, as Author of our salvation, the Source of our holiness, and the Head of the Mystical Body whose members we are, living by His very life.... Hence, the liturgical year, devotedly fostered and accompanied by the Church, is not a cold and lifeless representation of the events of the past, or a simple and bare record of a former age. It is rather Christ Himself, who is ever living in His Church."
In other words, Pope Pius XII teaches that the Liturgy of the Word is not merely the formal reading of sacred texts, not a quaint reminder of our past, but rather the recapitulation of the saving work of Our Lord. Through the faithful proclamation of salvation history found in Scripture, we gain access to the saving mysteries of our faith. The events of the past are brought into the present. The mysteries of the life of Our Lord are brought into light today to continue and to fulfill the work of salvation in each generation. Christ continues His redemptive activity, His mission of teaching the truth that sets us free.
As His present-day disciples, we have a privileged place of honor sitting at the feet of the Master, listening to Him, listening to the voice of the Good Shepherd leading us to eternal life." As St. John Eudes wrote, "We must continue to accomplish in ourselves the stages of Jesus' life and His mysteries and often to beg Him to perfect and realize them in us and in His whole Church...."
And so both in prayer and in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which is the highest form of prayer, we must listen to the voice of the Lord. We are seated to listen attentively to the voice of the Good Shepherd guiding us into eternal life; we must be receptive to Our Lord, who is called "Rabbi," the Great Teacher, who said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life," for He is the eternal Word of the eternal Father.
Several lessons ago, we discussed the Holy Mass as a sacred ritual, whose parts and prayers are selected, inspired, and faithfully handed down through the centuries. In other words, the selected readings at the Mass are part of this divine plan of revelation, so that through the liturgical seasons of the Church year, the mysteries of Christ's birth, His life, His teaching and miracles, and finally His passion, death and resurrection are unfolded each year. From week to week, the life of Our Lord emerges from the pages of Scripture, revealed again and again, so that we can penetrate these mysteries and receive the fruits and graces of these mysteries.
Since these readings are pre-selected and handed down to us, they are not subject to the whim of the celebrant. The readings maintain the universal character of the Church – it does not matter which Roman Catholic Church you attend: the country, the language, the local customs, etc., the same readings are provided everywhere in the world. The celebrant does not have the authority or the liberty to select his favorite readings or discard his least favorite. The Catholic faithful must be given the opportunity to hear the voice of God speaking to us in every selected reading.
Consequently, the Church offers us a three-year cycle of readings for Sunday Masses and a two-year cycle for weekday Masses. As you attend Mass each week, almost the entire canon of Sacred Scripture, nearly the whole Bible, is proclaimed every three years. And if you attend Mass every day, you will hear almost the entire canon of Sacred Scripture every two years.
The Sunday readings follow a very simple three-year cycle: year "A" concentrates on the Gospel of St. Matthew, year "B" focuses on the Gospel of St. Mark, and year "C," the Gospel of St. Luke. These three Gospels are very similar in structure and content and are known as the Synoptic Gospels. Since the Gospel of St. John contains material not found in these three Gospels, St. John's Gospel is proclaimed during specific times and seasons of the year and at specific feasts, such as Christmas and Easter.
On Sundays and other solemn feast days, three readings are provided. The first reading often comes from the Old Testament and is selected to show the Old Testament foundation for the Gospel. The Old Testament foreshadows the New Testament. The New Testament completes the Old Testament. In the words of Archbishop Fulton Sheen elucidating the immemorial words of St. Augustine: "The New is in the Old concealed, the Old is in the New revealed; the New is in the Old contained, the Old is in the New explained."
Therefore, on Sunday, the first reading establishes a hope that is fulfilled in the Gospel. The first reading and the Gospel fit together.
The Responsorial Psalm is a response to the lesson of the Old Testament reading. One psalm is selected out of the 150 psalms of the Old Testament.
The second reading comes from one of the New Testament Epistles, or letters, of one of the Apostles. Throughout the year, we hear the inspired accounts of St. Paul, St. Peter, St. James and a few others. The second lesson often does not follow the pattern established by the first reading and the Gospel, but they offer specific instruction on living the Christian life.
Father Matthew Buettner is the pastor of St. Dorothy Church in Lincolnton. This is excerpted from "Understanding the Mystery of the Mass – Revisited," available for purchase online at www.tedeumfoundation.org. Proceeds will go toward the purchase of land for a future seminary in the Diocese of Charlotte. Previous columns are archived online at www.catholicnewsherald.com
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