Thursday 29 September 2011

Announcing the Word

THe fourth sermon in our series on the Mass - preached by Fr Jerome Bertram on Sunday 25th September 2011.

The readings at Mass remain unchanged at this stage of the revision of our English texts—save only that we now acclaim "The Word of the Lord" instead of merely stating that "this is the word of the Lord". In that, we are only now doing what other countries have been doing for decades. There will eventually be a new translation of the Scriptures, but they have not yet stopped discussing which one to use or which style to adopt. The one we use at present does rather show up the difference between the old approach to translation, which was a loose paraphrase designed to be easy to understand, and the new emphasis on being faithful to the Word of God as transmitted to us through the Scriptures.

The Scripture readings are not merely an accidental or preliminary part of the Mass—they are essential. In the description of the very first Mass we hear, "He interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself" before "he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them". (Luke 24:27, 30) From then until now there have always been Scripture readings at Mass to prepare us "to know him in the breaking of bread." (Luke 24:35) The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, "The liturgy of the Word and liturgy of the Eucharist together form 'one single act of worship'; the Eucharistic table set for us is the table both of the Word of God and of the Body of the Lord." (CCC 1346) That is why the Church "strongly urges pastors of souls that, when instructing the faithful, they insistently teach them to take their part in the entire Mass". (V2, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 56)

Which being interpreted means, it is truly necessary to be present for the Readings at Mass, and to listen to them; we must not excuse ourselves from them merely because we find them difficult to understand, or hard to live up to.

In the early Church a series of Sunday readings was chosen for the whole year, usually with an extract from the Epistles of St Paul to go with an extract from the Gospels. The two readings were related in a very subtle way, often quite mystical, and the connection between them was not always obvious on the surface. The selection of readings we use at present was made on a rather different basis. They follow a cycle of three years (beginning in 1969), using the Gospels of St Mathew, Mark and Luke in turn. Because St Mark is shorter, there is a long insertion from St John in the summer of the second year, and the rest of St John is used at Eastertime and on other special occasions. Each Sunday's Gospel follows on from the Sunday before, though even so, there are still a few passages that are never read out in church, and some Sundays always get lost over the Easter period. The Gospels were originally put together out of short memorable passages (technically called pericopes), and each one is a complete story or parable or teaching, so that the extracts we read make sense on their own. Of the three readings, the Gospel is always the easiest to understand—which may make it an embarrassing challenge to our behaviour!

To go with the Gospel readings, an extract from the Old Testament was chosen as the first reading (except in Eastertide, when it is the Acts of the Apostles). These Old Testament readings usually have a very obvious literal connection with the Gospel passage—for instance this Sunday Ezechiel makes the same point as Our Lord, that a sinner who changes his mind and repents will be forgiven. Unfortunately very few passages of the Old Testament are self-contained pericopes, and often our extracts make no sense at all unless you already know the story. That means that the Church demands much more of us than in the past—we are obliged to get to know the Old Testament, and to read the books from which the first readings are taken, in order to have much chance of understanding the first readings at Mass. The Church has always encouraged lay Catholics to read the Scriptures regularly. St Thérèse of Lisieux used to say that if she had been a man she would have learnt Greek and Hebrew in order to read the Bible in the original languages. She was quite wrong of course—there is no reason at all why women should not learn Greek and Hebrew, and if we have the time and opportunity it is well worth it. Failing that, we can study the Bible in a good translation (the Revised Standard seems to be the best all-round at present) and see how our Sunday first reading fits in. One method might be to look ahead at next Sunday's reading and then read the preceding and following chapters to find out what the sacred author was intending to say. Another method, perhaps better, is to make a point of reading the entire Bible, from "In the beginning" to "Amen", a chapter or so every day, over and over again, until we really know it well, and can recognise any passage at once. But that takes time—about four years each round. There is a very great deal of the Old Testament that is never read in church, and much that would be most unsuitable. But the Holy Spirit speaks to us through every page, if we can only hear Him.

The first reading is followed by a extract from one of the psalms. This can be very difficult to appreciate, because of the way it is broken up with a "response" that intrudes from time to time. To be fair, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal does not expect us to use the "response" in the way we always do: unless it is sung, "it should be recited in a manner more appropriate to encourage meditation on the Word of God". (General Instruction on the Roman Missal, 2001, §61) It is arguable whether speaking the "response" between every verse really does that, and whether it would be better to listen to the psalm being read in a meditative way, or for the entire congregation to recite it together as we do in the Divine Office. In any case, the better we get to know the Psalms outside Mass, the more chance we shall have of being able to use them for "meditation on the Word of God". The Psalms are the great prayer-book of the Church, and have always formed the basis of the daily prayer of the Church, the Divine Office. Yet if we recite the Office regularly we realise that Psalms vary—some are certainly meant to be sung, and really do have a refrain (e.g. 135) others are long poems on the history of God’s people (e.g. 104-6), others are meditations on God's word (e.g. 118). They express every mood and feeling, including some we might think inappropriate in prayer (e.g. 57). It is short extracts that find their way into the Mass, either as "responsorial psalms" or as "antiphons", and it is only through familiarity with the psalms as a whole that we can appreciate them.

The second reading on a Sunday is usually taken from St Paul, but here there is no intention of making a connection with either the first reading or the Gospel. The epistles are simply read through in turn, each Sunday's second reading following on from the previous week—except that there are many passages omitted. Throughout September we are reading Philippians, the most cheerful of St Paul’s letters. Only by coincidence—or Providence—does the St Paul reading connect with the other two; we have a completely different theme. And we cannot deny of St Paul's letters that "there are some things in them hard to understand" as St Peter says. (II Peter 3:16) The translation we most often use makes them more difficult again—I still think the version by Mgr Knox is the only one that really makes sense of St Paul in modern English. It is well worth finding a copy and studying St Paul for ourselves, so that when we come to Mass we shall be able to hear the Word of God from him with profit.

Before the Gospel we have an acclamation, usually with an Alleluia chorus: this is supposed to relate to the coming Gospel and prepare ourselves to discern its principal message. This week, for instance, the acclamation reminds us to keep the Word of God, to listen to his voice.

Three Scripture readings, a Psalm and an acclamation add up to a great deal of text, far too much to take in all at one, or to follow if we come unprepared. It is a great help if we prepare for Mass every time by studying the readings, looking them up in our own Bibles to see how they fit in, and using them for our own meditation before we come to church. Even so, we cannot expect to be able to take in the full message of even one reading—consider ourselves well satisfied if we remember and take away with us one verse, a few words, from one of the readings, as a souvenir to feed our meditation for the week to come.