Liturgy of the Word: Readings and Homily

The Liturgy of the Word is the first of the two central rites of the Mass. Unfortunately, some people seem to see it as the preliminary event before the main game, so it doesn’t really matter if you arrive after the start!
The official documents of the Church knock that idea on the head. The 1963 Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy says: “The Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist are so closely connected with each other that they form but one single act of worship.” (CSL 56)
This concept is elaborated beautifully in the Introduction to the Lectionary for Mass: “The Church is nourished spiritually at the table of God’s word and at the table of the eucharist: from the one it grows in wisdom and from the other in holiness. In the word of God the divine covenant is announced; in the Eucharist the new and everlasting covenant is renewed. The spoken word of God brings to mind the history of salvation; the Eucharist embodies it in the sacramental signs of the liturgy.” (LMI 10)
One of the strongest statements about the importance of the readings from scripture in worship is included in the introduction to the Missal: “When the scriptures are read in the Church, God himself is speaking to his people, and Christ, present in his own word, is proclaiming the Gospel.” (GIRM 9)
The pattern of the Liturgy of the Word is one of dialogue - between reader and listener, between God and us. God speaks, we listen; God nourishes, we digest; God is present, we respond. We play our part in the dialogue by attending to what God is saying to us and by participating fully in the assembly’s responses.
The structure of the Liturgy of the Word is: First Reading, Responsorial Psalm, Second Reading, Gospel Acclamation, Gospel, Homily, Profession of Faith, General Intercessions.
Except in the Easter season when we hear the story of the early Church as recorded in the Book of Acts, the first reading is from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). A passage is selected which has a thematic link with the gospel reading. The first reading should be followed by a period of prayerful silence.
The responsorial psalm that follows is itself the word of God and the prayer of the Church through the ages. The psalm set down for the celebration has been chosen as the appropriate response to the first reading. For these reasons, the psalm is not replaced by a hymn. “The singing of the psalm, or even of the response alone, is a great help toward understanding and meditating on the psalm’s spiritual meaning.” (LMI 21)
The second reading comes from one of the New Testament epistles (letters). During Ordinary Time the passages are chosen to give a semi-continuous reading over six to seven weeks from one of the letters. At other times, the pericopes are chosen to link with the gospel.
The gospel reading, the high point of the Liturgy of the Word, is given special gestures of respect. The assembly stands and acclaims Christ’s presence by singing the gospel acclamation. “The Alleluia or the verse before the gospel must be sung ... by the whole congregation together.” (LMI 23)
The homily unfolds the mysteries of faith contained in the word that has been proclaimed and relates this word to our lives today. “It must always lead the community of the faithful to celebrate the Eucharist wholeheartedly.” (LMI 24) The homily is followed by a short silence.
Next week’s column will look at the remaining elements of the Liturgy of the Word - the profession of faith (creed) and general intercessions (prayers of the faithful).

Elizabeth Harrington