Fishers of Men

\”Come, follow me,\” Jesus said, \”and I will make you fishers of men.\”

The Liturgy of the Word (1)

Posted by Father Joe on August 27, 2006

The following notes are largely derived from a thorough reading of Rev. Josef A. Jungmann, S.J.’s classic work, The Mass of the Roman Rite.

A Sacred Dialogue

The Word of God is proclaimed, not only to instruct us in the way of the Gospel, but to immediately prepare us for the sacrament of the New Covenant, the Eucharist. It evolved from a service of readings that stood alone to one that draws the people into the very mystery it announces. The prayers which directly follow the readings might be viewed as a direct consequence of receiving the Word into our hearts; it calls for a response. This we do with the General Intercessions and even in the Prayers of Preparation. God has spoken to us and now we respond. In the Eucharist, God again communicates with us and in communion we will answer his call to share his life. The Mass is not a one-way communication but a sacred dialogue.

A Schema of the Liturgy of the Word

  1. First Reading: Usually Old Testament
  2. Responsorial Psalm
  3. Second Reading: Usually an N.T. Epistle
  4. Alleluia &/or Verse
  5. Gospel
  6. Homily
  7. Profession of Faith (Creed)
  8. Prayer of the Faithful

From Synagogue to Early Church

Rooted in the synagogue service is the service of readings. As a religion rooted in revelation, the Sacred Books were read in the synagogues. On the Sabbath and other appointed days, the community gathered to hear two passages, one from the “Law” and the other from the “Prophets”. The reading from the “Torah” (Law) was continued from one meeting to the other. When the series was completed, it was started all over again. Multiple readers, usually seven, were chosen for this privilege. A passage from the Prophets was normally chosen at will and concluded the service. Added to this was a homily. “According to the New Testament accounts (Luke 4:16-20; Acts 12:15 f.) this followed the prophetic reading, but the customary arrangement appears to have been to insert the homily after the first reading, which was the more important one” (Jungmann, p. 259).

In the early Church, Saint Justin testified that Sunday readings in Christian services were followed by a homily offered by the presiding celebrant and by a congregational prayer. It is presumed that the singing of psalms also goes back to the synagogue service. “The Apostolic Constitutions of the fourth century makes mention of a singer’s psalming the hymns of David after the first of the two readings, and the people responding to it” (Jungmann, p. 260). Some two hundred years prior to this, Tertullian makes a passing reference to the use of psalms after the readings.

Although there has been some variation in the historical selection of texts, the Gospel is always the final reading. Further, Saint Paul himself urges a preferential treatment to be given to the New Testament (1 Thessalonians 5:27; Colossians 4: 16). The present lectionary returns to the practice of the early Roman liturgy in having three Sunday readings, one from the Old Testament, the next from the New, and the final one, from the Gospel. During special seasonal feasts, the readings that retell something of salvation history are offered. The Scriptures, especially the New Testament, need to be alive for us:

But we would misunderstand the position of even the New Testament texts and accounts in their liturgical associations if we were to take them solely as primitive accounts of the time of their origin, as mere witnesses of things past, from which we gain no other edification than we might gain from the rest of the testimonials of Christian living. For the words of the Apostles and the accounts of the Evangelists are given new meaning by being proclaimed anew by the Church to this assembly of Christian men. They must be regarded entirely in the perspective of the present, for they are themselves bearers of the grace-laden message which God gives to men through His Church. The word of God in Holy Writ sounds with renewed vigor, waking in the congregation the consciousness of the foundation on which it is built, the spiritual world in which it lives and the home to which its path is directed. It has a message for this very hour, to arouse the congregation to find a Christian solution for the problems which face each of us today. (Jungmann, pp. 262-263)

As in the synagogue service, the early Church also practiced “lectio continua,” picking up at the following service where they had left off in a previous one. The commentaries of the Church fathers are demonstrative of this fact since they were originally nothing other than collections ofhomilies. Of course, major feasts and seasons would interrupt this progression, just as they do today. Ever conscious of the Church’s duty to make more available certain passages, there are even cases where a pericope is formed by omitting certain intervening portions of a text. This practice was quite common in the ancient Gallican liturgical texts. This had the tendency to harminize the accounts in the Gospels.

The Lector & Readings

The lector announces the title of the passage. An introductory word is also sometimes shifted to the beginning of the selection, like “Brothers” as in Paul’s letters. The Gospel is introduced with the announcement, “The Lord be with you,” to which the people respond. Then its source is likewise announced. The call to attention is in the hope that the congregation will comprehend the readings.

It is curious to note that in the fourth century, the lectors in the West ( Rome) were predominantly boys. In many locales they lived in special communities and were seen as “the foremost seed-beds for promotion to the higher degrees of spiritual office” (Jungmann, p. 268). The innocence of youth was perceived as best suited to rendering an unobscured proclamation of the Word. The office of lector later became a stepping stone to priesthood. Although it still retains something of this characteristic, it is now a lay ministry (for men). Most lectors (readers) are never officially installed, thus opening up this ministry to women.

As early as the third century, the lector (or proclaimer for the Gospel) was to move to an elevated place. Later this was transformed into an ambo, pulpit, or lectern. As in many liturgies today, it was also where the cantor offered the responsorial song. Frequently, the preaching was also done from this spot. These elements have been restored in the revised liturgy.

At the end of the Old Testament or Epistle (Acts also) there is the assertion: “The Word of the Lord.” The appropriate people’s response is “Thanks be to God.” Traced through the ancient liturgy of North Africa and into the Arabian, it arises in the Roman ritual in the eighth century as an act of assent or approval. The message has been heard and understood.

Responsorial Psalm

The chanting or singing of psalms between readings dominated in the liturgy until the fourth century. Having the people respond with an unchanging verse to a trained cantor is once again the most acceptable pattern. “But responsory itself was to some extent inherent in the very text of the psalms. It was a legacy which the synagogue inherited from the services of the Temple. And thence it passed to the primitive Church where it is found in full practice” (Jungmann, p. 275). Instead of a verse, the custom of repeating “Alleluia” between psalm fragments as detailed by Hippolytus of Rome is also often permitted today. An alleluia verse is offered for the current liturgy prior to the Gospel. “St. Athanasius on one occasion mentioned the deacon’s reciting a psalm before the entire people, while the people responded repeatedly: ‘for his mercy is eternal,’ . . .” (Jungmann, p. 276). Saints Augustine, Chrysostom, and Leo the Great all made reference to this singing of the psalms.

The Alleluia

The original design of the alleluia has survived largely unchanged. The cantor chants alleluia, and the congregation repeats it. The singer then offers the intervening verse and then the alleluia is sung again. Perhaps the joyous nature of the Gospel tended to protect its structure from shortening? During Lenten times there is a verse instead. The alleluia was the first of the Mass chants to be associated with troping (inserts). However, the stress remained not on the verse but the alleluia.


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