Verbum Domini certainly offers a rich treasury of insight into the Word of God. However, this spiritual nourishment should be digested slowly so as to savor every bit of sage wisdom Verbum Domini offers. In my case, I have had to slowly digest the section of the document that treats the liturgy.
As I have written on many occasions, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the most important act that we engage in as the Church. It is the Church's supreme act of worship because it is no less than the salviffic act of Christ, Himself. Yet, sadly, there are aspects of this sacred act that we sometimes tend to gloss over, mainly, the Liturgy of the Word.
A priest friend of mine delivers well-crafted and spiritually rich homilies and not a few of us enjoy hearing him preach. One Sunday, however, he said something that made me almost hop out of my pew. He told us that if we found ourselves having to choose between hearing him preach or listening to the readings, he would rather that we engage in the latter. He urged us to listen intently to the readings being proclaimed (especially the Gospel) because that is God speaking directly to us through Sacred Scripture. His homily is his interpretation of what God is saying. My friend's words brought me back to a talk that I heard one evening at a Cursillo ultreya (gathering). One of the young ladies said that she considered the priest's "sermon" to be the most important thing in the Mass because the priest is explaining the readings to the faithful. Later on, during the "open mike" (for lack of a better term) portion of the meeting, I got up and gingerly explained that the young lady's interpretation, while well-meaning, wasn't exactly on target. Yes, the homily is important, but, we are also there to bear witness to the Sacrifice of Jesus, to unite ourselves to Him and, if we are properly disposed, to receive Holy Communion. We are also there to listen to the Word of God proclaimed to us.
The Holy Father makes the same point in Verbum Domini. He writes that:
There is great need for a deeper investigation of the relationship between word and sacrament in the Church’s pastoral activity and in theological reflection. Certainly “the liturgy of the word is a decisive element in the celebration of each one of the sacraments of the Church”; in pastoral practice, however, the faithful are not always conscious of this connection, nor do they appreciate the unity between gesture and word. It is “the task of priests and deacons, above all when they administer the sacraments, to explain the unity between word and sacrament in the ministry of the Church”. The relationship between word and sacramental gesture is the liturgical expression of God’s activity in the history of salvation through the performative character of the word itself. In salvation history there is no separation between what God says and what he does. His word appears as alive and active (cf. Heb 4:12), as the Hebrew term dabar itself makes clear. In the liturgical action too, we encounter his word which accomplishes what it says. By educating the People of God to discover the performative character of God’s word in the liturgy, we will help them to recognize his activity in salvation history and in their individual lives.All too often, I am afraid that many of us have the same understanding of the Mass as the young woman from the Cursillo meeting. At the other end of the spectrum, I have heard not a few people also think that the most important part of the Mass is receiving Holy Communion. This is also a misunderstanding of the Mass. We tend to forget that the Holy Sacrifice is composed of two parts: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. We do not fully appreciate the unity between the two liturgies. To take the Holy Father's remarks a step further, there is no distinction between what God says and what he does during the Mass. Just as we are fed from the Table of the Altar of Sacrifice, we are also fed at the Table of the Word.
The readings from the Old Testament are just as much our story as they are Ancient Israel's. The responsorial psalm is our response, whether chanted (preferably) or recited, to the reading that we just heard proclaimed. In the epistles, the Apostles (St. Peter, St. Paul, St. John and St. James-generally) appeal to us and speak to us with the same sense of urgency that they had when they addressed the particular communities who received these letters. In the Gospels, the words of Christ are addressed to each and every one of us. "This generation" that Jesus speaks to really is this generation, our generation. In fact, I believe that the proclamation of the Passion during Palm Sunday and Good Friday particularly force us to appropriate the words of the mob and make them our own because we are that crowd. That is why it is so important that we recite these words. It was not just the crowd in Jerusalem that yelled "Crucify him!" It was all of us, every person from every generation, because every time we sin, our actions are joined to those committed on that first Good Friday.
The Holy Father also makes a solid point about the importance of explaining the unity of the word and the sacrament. Sadly, many folks will fill churches for weddings, Quince Anos (at least down here in the South Texas hinterland), first Holy Communions and funerals. The proclamation of the readings and the homily will, sadly, roll off like water on a duck's back. The dots need to be connected. Deep down inside, the unchurched who do manage to make it to these special liturgies have a hunger for something more. They are like the multitudes who followed Jesus. They want to be fed. While, granted, some cannot partake of the True Bread from Heaven, they can at least, find nourishment in the Table of the Word.
Pope Benedict addresses this particular matter with both clarity and a sense of pastoral urgency when he writes that:
The profound unity of word and Eucharist is grounded in the witness of Scripture (cf. Jn 6; Lk 24), attested to by the Fathers of the Church, and reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council. Here we think of Jesus’ discourse on the bread of life in the synagogue of Capernaum (cf. Jn 6:22-69), with its underlying comparison between Moses and Jesus, between the one who spoke face to face with God (cf. Ex 33:11) and the one who makes God known (cf. Jn 1:18). Jesus’ discourse on the bread speaks of the gift of God, which Moses obtained for his people with the manna in the desert, which is really the Torah, the life-giving word of God (cf. Ps 119; Pr 9:5). In his own person Jesus brings to fulfilment the ancient image: “The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” … “I am the bread of life” (Jn 6:33-35). Here “the law has become a person. When we encounter Jesus, we feed on the living God himself, so to speak; we truly eat ‘the bread from heaven’”. In the discourse at Capernaum, John’s Prologue is brought to a deeper level. There God’s Logos became flesh, but here this flesh becomes “bread” given for the life of the world (cf. Jn 6:51), with an allusion to Jesus’ self-gift in the mystery of the cross, confirmed by the words about his blood being given as drink (cf. Jn 6:53). The mystery of the Eucharist reveals the true manna, the true bread of heaven: it is God’s Logos made flesh, who gave himself up for us in the paschal mystery.Each of us, "churched" and "unchurched" hungers for what I call the "Emmaus" moment. Whether we realize this or not, we yearn, in our innermost being, to have the Word broken open for us. There is an inert burning within our hearts for that Word, both proclaimed and consumed. We yearn for that Word who is, in fact, God's final pronouncement to man, His final pronouncement, Jesus Christ.
Luke’s account of the disciples on the way to Emmaus enables us to reflect further on this link between the hearing of the word and the breaking of the bread (cf. Lk 24:13-35). Jesus approached the disciples on the day after the Sabbath, listened as they spoke of their dashed hopes, and, joining them on their journey, “interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (24:27). The two disciples began to look at the Scriptures in a new way in the company of this traveller who seemed so surprisingly familiar with their lives. What had taken place in those days no longer appeared to them as failure, but as fulfilment and a new beginning. And yet, apparently not even these words were enough for the two disciples. The Gospel of Luke relates that “their eyes were opened and they recognized him” (24:31) only when Jesus took the bread, said the blessing, broke it and gave it to them, whereas earlier “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (24:16). The presence of Jesus, first with his words and then with the act of breaking bread, made it possible for the disciples to recognize him. Now they were able to appreciate in a new way all that they had previously experienced with him: “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (24:32).
From these accounts it is clear that Scripture itself points us towards an appreciation of its own unbreakable bond with the Eucharist. “It can never be forgotten that the divine word, read and proclaimed by the Church, has as its one purpose the sacrifice of the new new covenant and the banquet of grace, that is, the Eucharist”. Word and Eucharist are so deeply bound together that we cannot understand one without the other: the word of God sacramentally takes flesh in the event of the Eucharist. The Eucharist opens us to an understanding of Scripture, just as Scripture for its part illumines and explains the mystery of the Eucharist. Unless we acknowledge the Lord’s real presence in the Eucharist, our understanding of Scripture remains imperfect. For this reason “the Church has honoured the word of God and the Eucharistic mystery with the same reverence, although not with the same worship, and has always and everywhere insisted upon and sanctioned such honour. Moved by the example of her Founder, she has never ceased to celebrate his paschal mystery by coming together to read ‘in all the Scriptures the things concerning him’ (Lk 24:27) and to carry out the work of salvation through the celebration of the memorial of the Lord and through the sacraments”.
Pope Benedict takes to heart most seriously his ministry of feeding and tending the sheep and lambs of the flock that Jesus entrusted to him. Sacramentum Caritatis and Verbum Domini offer both the clergy and the laity some good nourishment. However, we must open our hearts to the Word that is proclaimed and then sacrificed. The Liturgy of the Word needs to be respected. We need to listen to the readings proclaimed, respond to them and then let the Word penetrate our hearts and our souls. God has so many wonderful things to say to us, if only we listen.