Saint Thomas of Canterbury, Bolton

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Together at Mass

Together at Mass 6

Listening to his Word

The introductory rites completed, the assembly turns its attention to the Liturgy of the Word. The purpose of the introductory rites had been “to help the assembled people make themselves a worshipping community and to prepare them for listening to God’s word and celebrating the eucharist.”

The Missal lists for us the elements which make up the liturgy of this part of the Mass: “Readings from scripture and the chants between the reading form the main part of the liturgy of the word. The homily, profession of faith, and general intercessions or prayer of the faithful develop and complete it.” Then it goes on: “In the readings, God speaks to his people of the mystery of salvation and nourishes their spirit; Christ is present through his word.”

The Council document on the Liturgy expressed this as follows: "He is present in his word, since it is he himself who speaks when the holy Scriptures are read in the Church." Through the readings at Mass, the Lord is really present among us; in his celebrated Word he speaks to us today as clearly as he spoke to his disciples.

Sadly, it has not always been part of our Catholic tradition to give prominent attention to the scriptures. It is worth remembering where we were only forty years ago. On the next page, we will remember the shape of this part of the Mass as it used to be.

Then we will see how the cycle of readings has been shaped so as to offer us a truly wide selection of readings from Old as well as New Testament. And today’s leaflet will conclude with a very brief overview of the Bible, a reminder that this collection of diverse writings is nothing less than the Word of God



The way we were

In last week’s leaflet, we were given a brief reminder of the way the readings from the Bible used to be conducted during the Mass before the reforms of Vatican II. The readings were all contained in the one book, the Missal, along with all the prayers of the Mass. The Missal was placed on the right-hand side of the altar from the beginning of Mass. The priest read from it a passage from Scripture, usually taken from one of the letters of St. Paul. When he had finished this reading, the altar-boy would carry the Missal across to the other side of the altar and the priest would go and read a passage from one of the Gospels.

This practice gave rise to the ends of the altar being spoken of as the Epistle side, and the Gospel side of the altar. In both cases, the reading was in Latin, silent, and facing away from the congregation. Some of the people may have had a missal of their own, with an English translation of the readings so they could “follow” what the priest was reading. Many others simply filled in the time with their own prayers and devotions. In  effect, the readings had become just a piece of ritual the priest had to fulfil before getting on with the important parts of the Mass.

As for what was seen to be really important, that was generally understood at the time to be “the Offertory, the Consecration and the Priest’s  Communion.” To miss any one of these parts was to miss Mass. But no similar mention was made of any  obligation to be present to hear the Word of God. There would usually be a sermon during Mass, but that was related not to the readings from Scripture, but more often to a course of instruction based on the catechism. Consequently, very many Catholics grew up with but scant familiarity with the Bible, at least beyond the Gospels and a few passages from the letters of St. Paul

Thankfully, we have come a long way since then. There was first the gradual development of biblical studies in the Catholic Church, then the impetus given by Pope Pius XII, then the clearly and firmly expressed desire of Vatican Council II that in all liturgical celebrations “there is to be more reading from holy scripture, and it is to be more varied and suitable”. And within the Mass “the treasures of the Bible are to opened up more lavishly, so that richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s word. In this way a more representative portion of the holy scriptures will be read to the people over a set cycle of years”.



The Shape of the Lectionary

You turn up for Mass Sunday after Sunday and listen to the three readings. Sometimes they seem to have something in common, but at other times there does not appear to be any common theme running through them. Have you ever wondered how have the readings for this particular Sunday been chosen? Was it just random choice, or are there any guiding principles?


A three-year cycle

The first answer to that question lies in the decision to offer a three-year cycle of readings. We have just read on the opposite page, the desire of the Vatican Council to offer a more lavish selection from the treasures of the Bible. “In this way a more representative portion of the holy scriptures will be read to the people over a set cycle of years”. That was the first principle – to widen the selection of readings by extending the cycle from one year to three.

The three years are simply referred to as Years A, B, C, and the essential distinguishing feature of each year is that each year is dedicated to the semi-continuous reading of one of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. The Gospel of John is read on a number of occasions throughout the year, especially in Lent and Eastertide. So an intial pattern begins to emerge as follows:

Year A: The Gospel according to Mathew

Year B: The Gospel according to Mark

Year C: The Gospel according to Luke.

Since the Gospel of Mark is shorter than the others, Year B also has some extra readings from St. John.



Readings from the Old Testament

Once upon a time, there was an attitude of mind that looked upon the Old Testament as a part of the Bible that was of little importance. We are the people of the New Testament; we read the Gospels and the Epistles; that was the mentality in which many were brought up. But the whole of the Bible is the word of God. The Old Testament, or the Hebrew Scriptures, are the sacred writings Jesus learned and loved and often quoted.

 In opening for us the pages of the Old Testament, no attempt has been made to make a systematic presentation. Instead, to illustrate the unity between Old and New, readings have been chosen which relate to the day’s reading from the Gospel. Through this approach a very wide selection of readings from different parts of the Old Testament is opened up for us over the three-year period.



Readings from the New Testament 

The second of the three readings each Sunday is taken from the letters of the New Testament. Like the readings from the Gospels, these are presented as semi-continuous readings – in other words, week by week we work our way through one of the letters, say, of St. Paul. No connection has been sought to link these passages from the letters with the other two readings.

More will be said next week about the readings for special seasons and feasts.



The Bible, the Word of God

The word ‘Bible’ is a Greek word meaning ‘book’, but ‘the Bible’ is not simply one book among others. For us it is the book. We believe that through the writings contained in the Bible, God speaks to us. Indeed, we proclaim that the Bible is the Word of God. Perhaps we need to unpack that statement a little.


Really the Bible is something like a library containing seventy-three different books, composed over a period of about fifteen hundred years, from about fourteen hundred years before the time of our Lord, to about one hundred years after his birth. These collected writings reflect the faith, the thoughts, hopes and ideals of many different people, in different periods of history, and with many different backgrounds.


They are varied also in their contents. There is a full range of different styles of literature such as you would find on the shelves of a library – history, poetry, myth, codes of law, philosophical tracts, genealogies, practical sayings, political and religious commentary, songs, prayers and preaching, and so on. When we read from the Bible, it is important to remember that there are all these different styles of writing, and to approach each book for what it is.


The Bible has come to us in two main parts. First there are the writings of the Old Testament, contained in forty-six books; these are the Hebrew Scriptures which Jesus knew and often quoted. They tell of the origin of God’s people through Abraham; of the Covenant God made with the people of Israel through Moses at the time of the Exodus and of their subsequent history; of the promise of a Messiah made through David; of the Laws by which God’s people should live; of the preaching of the prophets, and of their faith refined through Exile.


The second section is the New Testament, which contains twenty-seven books. They tell of the New Covenant God has made with the whole of mankind through his Son Jesus Christ. They include the four accounts of the Gospel, bringing to us the deeds and words of Jesus, and the narrative of his death and resurrection; the Acts of the Apostles, telling of the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the infant church; and letters to the early Christian communities, and a book of Apocalypse.


Yet, in spite of all this variety, the Bible has a profound unity. We can speak of the Bible as one book because all the people involved in its composition came under the inspiration, (influence, guidance and direction) of the Holy Spirit. Behind the many people whose different writings make up the books of the Bible, there is one supreme author, God. Through these varied voices God speaks, to tell us about himself, to reveal himself, make himself known to us, and to tell us also about ourselves, who we really are, and what wonderful plans God has for us in Christ. 


The Bible is the Word of God, an ever-living presence of God amongst us. That God speaks to us in this way is an awesome thing, an enormous privilege. We are graced and blessed by the very fact that God addresses us. Whatever the specific message of any given passage, even if at times it remains obscure, God is saying to us over and over again: “I am your God, you are my People and I love you”, and pleading with us: “Oh that you would listen to my voice”.