LITURGY MATTERS: Being Nourished at the Table of the Word

Over the course of this year, Louise Gannon and I have had the great joy and privilege of gathering with our Deacons, both permanent and transitional, and those who are in formation for ordination to that Office.

Each of those gatherings has been an opportunity to explore with them the liturgical dimension of the diaconal ministry and – as is often the case – to learn and relearn some things that are important in our appreciation of what takes place when the Church gathers to celebrate Eucharist. Speaking personally, I have enjoyed each and every one of these gatherings for the opportunity it has presented.

Under the title of Ministering at Two Tables, the gatherings with our Deacons and diaconal candidates have reminded participants that the community gathers each Sunday around two tables: the Table of the Word and the Table of the Sacrament. In the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), we read

The Mass consists in some sense of two parts, namely the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, these being so closely interconnected that they form but one single act of worship. For in the Mass is spread the table both of God’s Word and of the Body of Christ, and from it the faithful are to be instructed and refreshed. (n. 28)

Our time with the participants in this journey, all good men who are dedicated to the ministry they currently exercise or for which they are preparing, has prompted me to reflect on the significance of the first table that the worshipping community encounters when it gathers on the Day of the Lord to celebrate that which is central to our Christian life. And part of that reflection has meant considering how the Liturgy of the Word is enacted during Sunday Mass.

Unlike family gatherings, where we sometimes must endure “Uncle Bob’s Tall Tales” before we can sit down to eat the food laid out on the dining table, the Liturgy of the Word is not something we have to sit through before we get to the important part. As the GIRM reminds its readers

When the Sacred Scriptures are read in the Church, God himself speaks to his people, and Christ, present in his word, proclaims the Gospel.

Therefore, the readings from the Word of God are to be listened to reverently by everyone, for they are an element of the greatest importance in the Liturgy. (n. 29)

In all celebrations of the Church’s liturgy, without exception, the proclamation of Sacred Scripture is a necessary and vital component of that liturgy. It is not possible to celebrate the liturgy of the Church without listening to God’s Word being proclaimed. More importantly, rather than just listening to the proclamation of God’s Word, we cannot celebrate the Church’s liturgy without hearing God’s Word.

In order to be nourished from the Table of the Word, then, the Liturgy of the Word needs to be celebrated in a way that honours the importance that liturgy itself places on this part of what the Church celebrates on Sunday during Mass and also when, for any number of reasons, the Liturgy of the Word is celebrated in a ‘stand-alone’ fashion.

How can we make sure the Table of Word is given the significance it rightly deserves, either during Mass or elsewhere? How can we enact the Liturgy of the Word so that those who hear it are “instructed and refreshed”? Thankfully the GIRM, in making these observations about the importance of the Liturgy of the Word and the proclamation of Sacred Scripture, also provides some insights into how to encourage the promotion of being nourished from the Table of the Word.

In discussing the structure of the Mass, the GIRM addresses the way in which the various texts of the Mass, including the Liturgy of the Word, should be ‘pronounced’. It says

In texts that are to be pronounced in a loud and clear voice, whether by the Priest or the Deacon, or by a reader, or by everyone, the voice should correspond to the genre of the text itself, that is, depending on whether it is a reading, a prayer, an explanatory comment, an acclamation, or a sung text; it should also be suited to the form of celebration and to the solemnity of the gathering. Consideration should also be given to the characteristics of different languages and of the culture of different peoples. (n.38)

All of this means that whether a person is proclaiming Scripture, leading a petition of the Universal Prayer, cantoring a Psalm or, for the ordained, preaching a homily, that action should be undertaken deliberately, with purpose, and with suitable preparation. It is this combination of deliberateness, purpose, and preparation that assists in the Liturgy of the Word becoming a source of nourishment for the gathered assembly. Indeed, the gathered assembly itself has a role to play in encouraging that nourishing nature of the Liturgy of the Word; the way in which the assembly responds can contribute to or diminish the nourishment experienced during a celebration.

The other way to encourage a nourishing celebration of the Word is to include silence during the Liturgy of the Word and during the liturgy more broadly. Unfortunately, silence is often overlooked in this part of the liturgy, especially in a world that does not generally value silence, yet it can make a significant contribution to the way the Liturgy of the Word is received by the worshipping community. In discussing the place of silence during the Liturgy of the Word, the GIRM reminds its readers

The Liturgy of the Word is to be celebrated in such a way as to favour meditation, and so any kind of haste such as hinders recollection is clearly to be avoided. In the course of it, brief periods of silence are also appropriate, accommodated to the assembled congregation; by means of these, under the action of the Holy Spirit, the Word of God may be grasped by the heart and a response through prayer may be prepared. It may be appropriate to observe such periods of silence, for example, before the Liturgy of the Word begins, after the First and Second Reading, and lastly at the conclusion of the Homily. (n. 56)

The observance of silence is part of the deliberateness and purpose that should permeate the enactment of the Liturgy of the Word, a recognition that it is not merely a prelude to something important but rather that it is important in and of itself.

Imagine what the celebration of the Liturgy of the Word might look like if it was proclaimed with deliberateness and purpose mixed with appropriate times of silence were observed. What would it look like? What would it feel like?

Would it be like sitting through “Uncle Bob’s Tall Tales”? Or an encounter with the living Word of God made manifest in Jesus Christ?

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Fr Andrew Doohan

Administrator Catholic parishes of Dungog and Gresford and Master of Ceremonies.