The second section of the Mass, after the Introductory Rites, is called the "Liturgy of the Word" in the Ordinary Form (OF) and the "Mass of the Catechumens" in the Extraordinary Form (EF). This part of the Mass consists of readings from Scripture, along with a psalm and a homily (or sermon), followed by the Creed (on certain days) and the Prayer of the Faithful.
It is customary in the Ordinary Form, according to the ancient tradition of the Church, for catechumens (those who are preparing for baptism) to be dismissed after the homily and before the Creed.
As the Liturgy of the Word begins, the exchange between God and man has come this far: we have approached God at His altar, received His mercy, and responded by glorified Him in thanksgiving. This exchange continues as we hear the Word of God spoken in the liturgy.
Readings from Scripture
The Missal used for the celebration of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass typically has two readings from Scripture: the Lesson or Epistle (depending on whether it is from the Old or New Testament) and the Gospel. Between these there is a Psalm (called a Gradual). The cycle of readings repeated each year, and the readings on weekdays are usually those of the preceding Sunday (except on certain feasts, during Lent, and at certain other times of the year).
The Second Vatican Council called for the "treasures of the bible ... to be opened up more lavishly" so that "a more representative portion of the holy scriptures will be read to the people in the course of a prescribed number of years." (SC 51) In the reforms which produced the Ordinary Form of the Mass, this directive has been applied in three ways:
- On Sundays and certain feast days, there are three readings from Scripture: the first usually from the Old Testament (except during the Easter season when it is taken from the Acts of the Apostles), the second usually from the New Testament letters (except during the Easter season when it is taken from St. John's book of Revelation), and the third from Gospels. There is also a Psalm — called the Responsorial Psalm because it is a response to the first reading — between the first and second readings; this may be sung as a Gradual or in a responsorial style (between the cantor/choir and the congregation).
- The Sunday cycle of readings has been extended from one year to three years. In Year A we hear Matthew's Gospel, in Year B we hear Mark's (supplemented by John's), and in Year C we hear Luke's. The first reading is usually strongly related to the Gospel reading. The second readings are arranged, generally, to go through the letters chapter by chapter.
- On weekdays, a two-year cycle of readings has been introduced. This cycle is completely independent from the Sunday cycle. There are still only two readings (with a Psalm in between them), with the first reading taken from either the Old or the New Testament.
In the beginning of the Mass, we have spoken to God and come to Him in prayer. Now God speaks to us, He comes to us in His Word. Sacred Scripture is proclaimed to glorify God as well as to sanctify and instruct those who hear it.
We say "Thanks be to God" ("Deo gratias") at the conclusion of the First and Second Readings. (Liturgy of the Word, OM 10, 12) Because God has spoken through prophets and apostles, and the Holy Spirit has inspired the very words they wrote, it is necessary that we respond to hearing His word with gratitude. In the Scriptures, God speaks to us in magnificent prophecies; He also reveals their fulfillment through the coming of His Son. In the words of St. Paul, "Thanks be to God for His inexpressible gift!" (2 Corinthians 9:15)
While we thank God for the gift of His word, we must also remember that there are people in this world who haven't heard His word. That is why the mission of the Church is to "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation" (Mark 16:15), a gospel of "repentance and forgiveness of sins" (Luke 24:47).
The book of Psalms was the hymnal of the kingdom of Israel. It contains hymn-prayers of various types: penitence, worship, thanksgiving, and more. We respond to the First Reading with one of these Psalms, the words of ancient Israel; these words take on new meaning because they are fulfilled by Christ. Using these ancient prayers of Israel in the Mass reminds us that the mission of God began with His calling of Israel as a nation set apart for Himself.
To prepare for the proclamation of the Gospel, we sing "Alleluia", from the Hebrew phrase "Hallelu-Yah", which means "Praise the Lord!" (Liturgy of the Word, OM 13) We announce the coming of the Gospel with joy and praise for God.
During Lent, when the word "Alleluia" is not spoken, the Gospel is preceded with different words: in the Ordinary Form there there is either a verse from Scripture or an acclamation such as "Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ, King of endless glory", while in the Extraordinary Form the Alleluia is replaced by a slow and mournful Tract (usually verses from a Psalm).
The gospels hold a special place among the Scriptures, because they recount the life of our Lord. When they are read in the Mass, we hear not only the word of God, but we hear that word from the Word-made-flesh, the Lord Jesus Christ.
The priest or deacon asks for a blessing that they may worthily proclaim the Gospel. The priest blesses the deacon saying, "May the Lord be in your heart and on your lips..."; the priest himself prays similar words: "Cleanse my heart and my lips, Almighty God..." (Liturgy of the Word, OM 14; cf. Isaiah 6:6-7) As the Gospel begins, we sign our foreheads, our lips, and our hearts with the Sign of the Cross: this action is accompanied by a silent prayer that the Lord might keep the Gospel in our minds, on our lips, and in our hearts. This should be our prayer as we go out to fulfill the mission of the Church.
We also respond "Glory to you, O Lord" ("Gloria tibi, Domine"), and when the Gospel reading has ended, we say "Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ" ("Laus tibi, Christe"), more expressions of gratitude. (Liturgy of the Word, OM 15-16) The priest or deacon kisses the pages of the Gospel and prays silently "Through the words of the Gospel may our sins be wiped away", again acknowledging the power of the Gospel. (Liturgy of the Word, OM 16)
How can we preach the word of God to the world if we do not know it? It is through these readings of Scripture that we receive the second gift of the Mass, God's word. This word, the Gospel, testifies to the Word, the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
Homily or Sermon
In the readings, God has given to us His Word, including the message of the Gospel which we are to preach to the ends of the earth. But we need to understand it and know how to apply it our lives and to the world in which we live. In the homily or sermon, the priest or deacon explains the Scriptures to us, instructs us in the faith, and exhorts us to live according to the Gospel. Having received God's word, we now know what to do with it.
In the Ordinary Form, after the Gospel, any catechumens who are present are dismissed from the Mass. This was an ancient custom of the Church: the profession of the Creed (which follows the homily) was something which a catechumen was not yet able to profess, and something which he would first profess at his baptism. The Creed is the "doorway" between the first and second halves of the Mass.
In the Creed, which takes its name from the Latin word credo which means "I believe" (the first words of the Creed), we solemnly profess our faith in God and His Church. We can only profess this faith because we ourselves have received it through the instruction of our parents, pastors, and friends. We have been baptized into the faith of the Church because someone before us committed themselves to following the Lord's Great Commission.
The Prayer of the Faithful
After the Creed, in the Ordinary Form of the Mass, comes the Prayer of the Faithful. This consists of a series of intercessory prayers. This is the first liturgical act after the Creed, which means that it is the first liturgical act that a catechumen will perform after having been baptized: it is their first opportunity "as members of the faithful to exercise their [baptismal] priesthood" (PS 91) by interceding for others, speaking to God on their behalf.
The Liturgy of the Word is primarily a time of listening to God speak to us, and responding with thanksgiving, giving Him praise and glory, confessing our faith in Him, and praying to Him for His Church and the whole world. The exchange has continued: we have received from God His word, the Gospel we are to bring into the world.
In the next installment, we will look at the Liturgy of the Eucharist (or the "Mass of the Faithful" as it is known in the EF) where the exchange is brought to a deeper level in the sacrifice of the Eucharist.
May the Lord bless us +, protect us from all evil, and bring us to everlasting life. Amen.