Last week, I discussed the four Scriptural readings at Mass: the reading from the Old Testament, the Responsorial Psalm (often sung), the Epistle from the New Testament, and the Gospel. In doing this, we are following the outline of Mass for the earliest of Christians, as St. Justin Martyr wrote in 155A.D.: “The memoirs of the apostles and the writings of the prophets are read, as much as time permits.” I recommend reading Paragraph #1345 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in which you will find St. Justin Martyr's full outline for the liturgy of the early Church; you will find that what we do at Mass is almost identical to what the early Christians were also doing on Sundays.
Without a doubt, we include Scriptural readings at Mass in order to hear and listen to God speaking to us. However, there is a historical aspect to this practice as well, going to a time even more ancient than the early Church. In 587B.C., the Babylonians defeated Judah, captured the royal city of Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and exiled the people of Judah to Babylon. This was a crushing and obliterating defeat. The people of Judah and the people of Israel were in a foreign land, and with the Temple destroyed, they were unable to offer sacrifices to the Lord because sacrifices could only be offered in the Temple in Jerusalem. For those forced to leave their native land, they viewed their defeat and exile as punishment for falling into idolatry.
In 539B.C., the Persians led by Cyrus defeated the Babylonians, and in 538B.C., Cyrus allowed the exiles to return to Jerusalem. When they arrived back in Jerusalem, they found the rubble of what had been a glorious Temple. Ezra, a scribe, stood up on a stoop built for him, and he read the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) to the people. They were cut to the heart, recognizing their infidelity to God. This practice of reading the holy writings of Scripture to the people became the main practice at synagogue services held on the Sabbath. There is an passage in the Gospel of St. Luke in which Jesus goes to the synagogue, reading a passage from the prophet Isaiah. We have inherited this practice of reading Scripture in a formal ritual at Holy Mass, and we call this portion of the Mass the Liturgy of the Word.
The Liturgy of the Word does not end with the conclusion of the Gospel reading. At this point, we sit in order to listen to the homily. Going back to St. Justin Martyr, he states, “When the reader has finished [reading the memoirs of the apostles and the writings of the prophets], he who presides [the bishop or a priest] over those gathered admonished and challenges them to imitate these beautiful things.” A homily may challenge and admonish us; it may comfort us and give us hope. A homily may include elements of catechesis and evangelization, but ultimately, it is meant to lead us into a deeper participation in the mystery of the Eucharist. Breaking open the readings from Sacred Scripture in the homily, we are being led to more intensely commit our lives to Christ and are invited to lay down our lives for God.
A few more words about the homily. The homily is important, and we should have inspiring homilies, but the homily is not the most important part of Mass. St. John Chrysostom was an eloquent and fiery preacher, and that's why he was given the name “Chrysostom,” which means “golden tongue” or “golden mouth.” We should want every homily to be like that of St. John Chrysostom, but not every bishop, priest, or deacon is a Chrysostom. Some preachers use a written text; this doesn't make them less competent than those who don't use a written text, nor does it mean they aren't speaking from their heart. When we base the “quality” of Mass on the quality of preaching, we will be disappointed. Thanks be to God, we are given something greater even than the best of preaching: we are invited into the sacrifice of Christ and given the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ.
We are saints under construction, listening to Scripture and allowing it to lead us into the mystery of the Eucharist. Have a great week!