From the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century until the Second Vatican Council in the twentieth century — that’s four hundred years — the Gospel passages at Sunday Mass were taken exclusively from the Gospel according to St. Matthew. Saints Mark, Luke and John never made a Sunday appearance. And of course these fifty-two Matthean Gospel segments were repeated annually; they were not spread out over a number of years to allow greater access to St. Matthew’s take on the Good News. Also missing from the Sunday liturgies during that era were any readings from the Old Testament. The Hebrew Scriptures did make the roll call on Ash Wednesday but the Lord’s Day was strictly a day for the New Testament. Consider also that these Matthean readings would have been proclaimed in Latin from the altar and then, at the discretion of the celebrant, repeated in the vernacular from a pulpit. If a sermon followed, the theme tended to be more doctrinal than Scriptural — the articles of the Creed, the seven sacraments, the Ten Commandments. The Providence diocese provided Sunday sermon outlines for decades always stressing Church teaching rather than Biblical commentary. And of course good Catholics could miss the entire first half of a Sunday Mass, the Scriptural part, and still ease their conscience if they arrived just before the veil was taken off the chalice at the offertory.
To a certain extent the Service of the Word at Mass taking a back seat to the Service of the Eucharist was understandable. The Protestants had seized the Bible and ably ran with it. They translated the Scriptures into local languages, took advantage of new printing presses spreading the written Word broadly, and decidedly placed Holy Communion on the back burner. Sermon replaced sacrament as the core Christian experience.
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) happily restored a needed balance to the Roman Catholic celebration of the Sunday and the weekday Eucharist. For the past fifty years the Bible has been read at Mass on a three year cycle on Sunday and a two year cycle in weekdays. Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke each have a year to themselves with St. John scattered throughout the liturgical years on appropriate feasts. Sunday readings most always follow an Old Testament, Epistle and Gospel outline. The Old Testament and the Gospel at each Mass often have a similar theme; the Epistles tend to be continuous from week to week offering assorted insights. Daily Masses, Saints Day Masses and Votive Masses offer a vast variety of Scripture readings at the discretion of the celebrant. The same Council Fathers who significantly promoted the reading of the Word also greatly encouraged preaching on the Word. Daily homilies are fairly universal throughout the worldwide church today.
This coming Sunday, the Gospel passage from St. Luke offers a graphic depiction of the Service of the Word from Jesus’ own Jewish experience. Like good Jews then and good Catholics now, Jesus attends the weekly worship service at his local synagogue. (As an aside, consider the touching words of St. Luke about Jesus’ faithful participation at his local synagogue: “…as he was in the habit of doing..” Imagine! The Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, felt duty-bound to attend services each week! No better example for those serious about the Christian life!) St. Luke continues, “He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” There is a certain formality, a certain drama, in this liturgical scene. Note the receiving of the venerated Scriptural scroll, the audible proclamation of the Word, the respectful return of the scroll to its place of honor and then the deliberate reference to Jesus taking a seat. (Rabbis did not preach from pulpits; they spoke from chairs, presiding, as it were, over the assembly. The Catholic expression, “ex cathedra — from the chair,” recalls this commanding practice.) The Second Vatican Council has similarly handed down to the Catholic community a liturgy of the Word that can be likewise dramatic, compelling, and engaging as well as being instructive, informative and inspiring.
Certainly, Jesus Christ is sacramentally present in the Eucharist, the heart of Catholic worship. But Jesus Christ is also powerfully present through the proclamation of his Scriptural Word found in the Bible. Word and sacrament are the heart and soul of Catholic worship.