The liturgy of the Mass is essentially divided into three parts; 1. Preparing us to Receive Jesus, the Holy Eucharist; 2. Receiving the Holy Eucharist; and 3. Preparing us to be a Eucharistic People Outside of the Mass. In other words, throughout the liturgy, the Church guides us through a litany of prayers and confessions to prepare us to be divinized and then preparing us to be a divinized People in the social spaces of the world.
Yet, for many Catholics, the ‘Liturgy of the Word’ where the Biblical readings are read and heard oftentimes seems very disjointed from the rhythm of the rest of the Mass. While during particular solemnities such as the Solemnity of Mary, Psalm Sunday, Easter, and Christmas, the readings do appear to be directly connected to the Mass, during the rest of the liturgical calendar, many Catholics honestly struggle trying to make a connection about how this portion of the Mass is truly relevant or relates to them or to the Holy Eucharist. They hear of the word but, simultaneously, they fail to realize how it is connected to them or to the Mass. This issue is all the more exasperated when the homily is not even connected to the Biblical readings.
In regard to the Bible readings, as I stress in my book The Divine Symphony: An Exordium on the Theology of the Mass, it is essential to remember that the principal character of the Biblical readings during the liturgy is confessional. That is, in the liturgies’ rhythm of prayer and confession, the first, second, and Gospel readings are melodies of God confessing His love for His People, and the People respond with a cry of adulation after each confession to affirm and confess their love back to God, saying, “Deo gratias” (“Thanks be to God”) and “Laus tibi, Christe” (Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ”. In the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom that is celebrated by many of our Eastern Rite brothers and sisters, the responses are “Alleluia” and “Glory to You, O Lord, glory to You” respectively. Similarly, during the Responsorial, we become God’s chorus in union with the heavenly hosts and angels. After the minister proclaims each stanza of the Psalm, we acclaim and joyfully confess God’s great work.
These confessions that we read, hear and affirm in an audible manner prepare us to receive the living Word of God in an edible manner. The task of the homilist is then to prepare us, in a pedagogical way, by connecting what we have heard with what we are about to receive and be called to be like.
That being said, as just a lay Catholic with only a Master of Arts Degree in Theology, I don’t pretend to offer instruction here to priests on how to be priests, but I do beg to offer a quick and easy method of listening to the ‘Liturgical Sense of Scripture’ by which my fellow Catholics can draw more from the Biblical texts; particularly during Mass, so that you might better connect what you are hearing with what you are witnessing in the liturgy.
The Senses of Scripture
To offer some quick background about what the Catholic Church teaches about sacred Scripture; according to ancient tradition, there are two senses of Scripture; literal and spiritual. Through the Literal Sense, we come to understand the non-figurative meaning of what the author was inspired by God to write. Unless we first understand the literal meaning of the Scriptures, we will always fall short in knowing what is meant by it spiritually. I offer a good example of how to look at a text by using only the literal sense in my essay on How to Understand Isaiah 7:14 in the Literal Context. The Spiritual Sense is the method by which we listen to how the realities and events in the Scriptures offer didactic lessons through three sub-senses called; (1) the Allegorical Sense; (2) the Moral Sense; and (3) the Anagogical (“leading”) Sense.
The Liturgical Sense of Scripture
To this ancient tradition, I dare suggest that there is a fourth sub-sense that should be called ‘The Liturgical Sense,’ through which the Scriptures point us to the salvific events and realities that are being revealed and taught to us through the liturgy of the Mass.
All of salvation history is summed up repeatedly in the prayers and confessions found in the liturgy. From ‘the Confiteor’ to the ‘Gloria in Excelsis Deo’ to the Biblical readings, to the Eucharistic prayers, to the final blessing, all of salvation history and the covenant between God and man is summed up, prayed, and confessed. Most particularly, the Biblical readings are filled with images and foretelling of how our salvation would be fulfilled through the Mass. Truly, the Sacrifice of the Mass is the great summation of the message of justice and truth found in the Scriptures, and all of sacred Scripture and all of the Biblical readings at Mass points to the liturgy of the Catholic Mass.
How to Listen to the Liturgical Sense of Scripture
The more you know about theology, mystery, and meaning of the liturgy, the better and more deeply you will be able to connect what you are hearing with what is taking place during the Mass. Like all the Spiritual Senses of Scripture, the Liturgical Sense also requires some measure of imagination, which is vital to every discipline theology, because God doesn’t draw in straight lines.
Yet, essentially, if you have paid attention to and you understand much of what is going on during the liturgy and if you have listened to what is being confessed in the readings, you will always hear foretelling and see images of the Mass throughout the Bible, because all of Scripture points to the salvific promises offered through the memorial sacrifice. There are always keywords during the readings that you can connect to some part of the liturgy; whether that phrase was something like ‘glad tidings’ that connects to the Offering, or words like ‘peace’, ‘redeem’, ‘restore’, or ‘purification’ that connects to the Holy Eucharist, or themes like ‘justice’, ‘sin’, ‘punishment’, ‘redemption’, or ‘put my spirit in you’ that connects to the overall chronic condition of sin and to the remedy that the Mass offers. There is always a word, phrase, concept, or theme that connects directly with the liturgy. While some the passage of sacred Scripture have more obvious liturgical tones, such as the Wedding at Cana or the Feeding of the Multitudes, there are others that require more of your attention, imagination, and understanding of the liturgy.
Simply, the Liturgical Sense of Scripture asks you to receive the written word of God in union with the liturgy through which you receive Christ Jesus, the Word of God in the flesh, and if you practice this method continually, you’ll be drawn deeper into the liturgy that is calling you into deeper communion with God your Father through Jesus Christ His Son.
Give a try and let me know how it goes or how I can help you! In the future, I’ll be offering some podcasts on the Biblical readings using this Liturgical Sense.