The way Christians tell their story in ritual owes much to the ritual storytelling of the Jewish communities at the time of Jesus. The central aspect of this was, and is, the reading of the scriptures. These writings contain the narratives, poetry, prophecy, laws and letters that make up our story. The liturgy of the word simply provides a structure to allow the reading and the listening to be done effectively, beautifully and in common.
As early as the second century Saint Justin wrote: "The memoirs of the apostles and the writing of the prophets are read for as long as time permits. When the reader has finished, the presider gives a discourse alerting the people and urging them to imitate these great teachings." (First Apology, no. 67).
The proclamation of the word in the liturgical assembly is a central event in the life of the community since "in the liturgy God is speaking to his people and Christ is still proclaiming his Gospel" (Constitution on the Liturgy, art. 33). The liturgy of the word, therefore, is not a didactric exercise merely recalling past events. Rather, it is to be an experience of the living God who continues to reveal himself to his people. It is to be a proclamation of the revelation of the Father. As such, the liturgy of the word stands intimately linked to the liturgy of the Eucharist. Just as the celebration of God's word is the oral proclamation of salvation, so the celebration of the Eucharist is the proclamation in action of the same mystery. Together they "form but one single act of worship" (Constitution on the Liturgy", art. 56). It is the same bread of life offered and shared in both.
The structure of the liturgy of the word is quite simple. Its dynamic is one of proclamation and response. The pattern that has come down to us calls for two or three readings from the scriptures, with the last one taken from the gospels. The elements surrounding the scripture readings asists the assembly in their listening, reflecting and responding to the God who speaks through the readings. There is an overall flow to this rite: scripture, silence, psalm, scripture, silence. Then the gospel, surrounded with acclamation, and the homily. The rite concludes with the prayers of intercession. Without care, though, the entire rite can become one little group of words added to another. The flowing back-and-forth of word, silence and music gives this rite its rhythm. Each element must be presented and must be done well. And, just as in music, everything depends on their relationship: on the pace that puts everything together and gives a sense of the whole.
Our Church attaches great importance to the basic ritual of reading and listening. Whether we gather for Eucharist, for baptism or for another rite, the church's book is opened and read. In the current arrangement of the scripture readings (the book known as the lectionary), the Sundays of Ordinary Time are when we read continuously through the New Testament letters in the second reading and through the gospels: Matthew in year A, Mark in Year B, Luke in Year C. During the special seasons of the year, this continuous reading is broken as we turn to those passages that are the very foundation of Advent and Christmastime, Lent and Eastertime.
It is the task of lectors, deacons and priests to read the scriptures so that they command the attention of all. It is the task of the assembly to listen. Through the year-in, year-out listening to our scriptures, we are formed, challenged, comforted and embraced by God's word. The proclaimed scriptures help us to remember who we are. The proclamation in the midst of the assembly makes quite a different point than the same reading done by every individual, alone in their homes. The scriptures for the coming Sunday should be readily available for reading, reflection and discussion by individuals and families as preparation for coming to the liturgy. The assembly comes alive to the fuller dimensions of the readings when they have attuned themselves by their own preparation of the texts at home.
[Source: Sunday Bulletin, St. Paul Roman Catholic Cathedral, Saskatoon, SK, Canada; March 30, 2008]