Why the ‘Word of God’ for Catholics is not only the Bible, but more importantly, Jesus Himself
August 29, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – In some parishes that celebrate Mass in the modern papal rite of Paul VI—sometimes called the Ordinary Form or the Novus Ordo—the part called “the Liturgy of the Word,” consisting of two readings, a psalm, an alleluia, a Gospel, a homily that expounds the readings, the Creed, and the Prayer of the Faithful—covers a considerably longer span of time than the part called “the Liturgy of the Eucharist,” particularly when the shortest Eucharistic Prayer, the second, is chosen.
In general, we can say that this is an unfortunate state of affairs. From an experiential point of view, it might seem as if a message were being transmitted, subliminally or perhaps even explicitly, that Mass is primarily for the sake of hearing Scripture read and explained, and that the Holy Eucharist is an added attraction, a sort of italics or exclamation point added to the main business.
When and to the extent that this happens, we are seeing nothing less than a total reversal of the proper order and proportion of the two basic parts of the Mass. It would not be far from the truth to call it a Protestantization. For Protestants, the “Word of God” is a text written in a book that they pore over in their “devotions,” bring to church, listen to the reading of, hear preaching about, and carry home again, as if this book were the locus of God’s covenant. But that’s not what Jesus actually told us: “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Lk 22:20). The new covenant is something that has its existence in the form of a sacrificial banquet. It is when we partake of His flesh and blood that we most perfectly meet Christ Himself, in the manner He left for us.
The Word of God is not, first and foremost, a book—not even the Gospels. This Word is Jesus Christ Himself: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:1, 14). The Liturgy of the (written) Word is for the sake of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, in which the Incarnate Word, “for us men and for our salvation,” yields Himself to us, making us partakers of His divinity. The purpose of proclaiming Scripture at Mass is to prepare the worshipers for communion with the Word, the source of the written word, the one to whom the words of Scripture give witness.
The liturgy—be it Holy Mass or the Divine Office or some other sacramental rite—is not a Bible-study group, an opportunity for pulling out the Good Book and giving it some well-deserved attention. The Scripture is proclaimed in order to preach “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). This is why in all properly constructed Catholic sanctuaries the eye is drawn to a prominent crucifix, and if the liturgy itself is well-ordered, we will all face in the same direction towards the altar, the crucifix, the apse, and the East, all of which symbolize Christ, who is the altar, the victim, the heavenly king, the Orient, who was, who is, and who is to come.
The goal of reading and preaching Scripture is the receiving of the Word—not the word written on paper, not even the interior word written on the heart, but the crucified and risen Lord who is “the power and the wisdom of God” (cf. 1 Cor 1:24). Louis Evely says it well:
The word of God not only reveals, it also acts. It illuminates and transforms. It is sacramentally efficacious. Every week we solemnly assemble to participate in the efficacy of a single word of God. The true word of the Mass is not the reading of the epistle and the gospel. These are a preparation for, an orientation towards the central mystery. The true word of the Mass is spoken at the moment of consecration.
“Jesus Christ and Him crucified”: when the one all-sufficient sacrifice of Calvary is made present in our midst by the consecration of the bread and wine upon the altar, then the Word of God, conceived of the Virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit, is “proclaimed” in His fullest reality: the Word made flesh, the bread of angels, crucified for our sins, risen for our salvation.
If the scriptural part of the Mass does not seem to be in full continuity with the Eucharistic part; if the readings and homily are not implicitly or explicitly ordered to the transcendent mystery of faith about to be renewed upon the altar and shared by the faithful in their mystical communion with the Lord, then one can be sure that, at some level, the nature of the liturgy and its parts has not been understood, or, worse still, has been purposefully distorted because of an erroneous theology.
In the true vision of things, the Liturgy of the Word—or as it was once called and should still be called, the “Mass of the Catechumens,” of those who are to be instructed in the way of Christian life—is an antechamber, a promise, a preparation, a tilling of the ground, a call to wake up and be attentive to the voice of Jesus Christ, so that we may be ready to receive Him in His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. “Behold the Lamb of God”: behold the one whom Scripture proclaims in the prophets and the psalms, the Epistles and the Gospels. That is why the second part of the liturgy was traditionally called the “Mass of the Faithful”: those who already believe in the words of truth, who are baptized into Christ, are ready now to receive the mysterium fidei, the mystery of faith: Christ Himself, in person, in the flesh, in glory.