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Catholic Teachings

THE WORD OF GOD

The Scriptures do not stand on their own; they must be explained, interpreted within the context of the living faith of the community, and applied to its present circumstances, often radically different from those out of which the text first arose.  The proclamation of God’s word in the liturgy provides the best possible context for the authentic interpretation of the Bible.  In the liturgy the biblical context is proclaimed to the assembled Christians, and the apostolic leader of the community explains its significance by relating it to its original situation, to the whole plan of God, to the faith of the Church, to the practical concerns of his particular community, and to the experience of the Lord in the Eucharist.

The Jewish tradition of liturgical proclamation of the Scriptures includes a tradition of interpretation.  In the synagogue services of ancient Palestine, the Scriptures were read in Hebrew, but since many in the congregation understood only Aramaic, an official of the synagogue would provide a running translation in that language, a targum, which was a kind of paraphrase including within it a commentary on the text.  The spiritual leaders of the synagogue community would also preach on the various scriptural texts.  In Luke 4 we have an account of Jesus reading the scriptural text and commenting on it.

In Justin’s description of the Eucharistic liturgy, a member of the community reads the texts and then the leader explains their meaning.  Down through the centuries, liturgical proclamation of the Scriptures has been inseparable from the homiletic interpretation.  Many scriptural commentaries of the Fathers of the Church are really homilies on the texts proclaimed in the liturgy.  In our own day the Constitution on the Liturgy states that “through the homily, the hidden realities of faith and the guiding principles of the Christian life are explained over the course of the liturgical year from the text of the scripture: (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 52).  The homily is a basic element of the liturgical reading of the Bible.

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THE LECTIONARY: The Sacred Text in the Eucharist

The Eucharist is shaped by the Scriptures.  The various prayers, and especially the Eucharistic prayers, constantly allude to the Bible.  In the First Eucharistic Prayer it is assumed that the Christian is familiar with the significance of Abel, of Melchizedek, and of Abraham, our father in faith.  One reason for encouraging a deeper understanding of the Scriptures is to help Christians appreciate the Eucharistic texts.  The most important way in which Christians encounter the Bible at the Eucharist is in the Liturgy of the Word, when portions of the sacred text are read from the lectionary.

When the first Christians developed a Liturgy of the Word to precede the celebration of the Eucharist, they were influenced by the practice of the Jewish synagogue, where the main liturgical event was a series of scriptural readings.  The five books of Moses - the Torah - were read systematically, section by section.  Other passages, from the prophets were also read.  It took time for the New Testament writings to be accepted as “Scripture” by the first Christians:  when they thought of Scripture they normally meant what we call the Old Testament.  But gradually, as we see in the quote from Justin (November Newsletter), they came to read out passages not only from the ancient Hebrew Scriptures, but also from writings concerning Christ.

In early centuries the various Christian communities had different ways of arranging the readings.  A common pattern was to have one or more Old Testament readings (The Prophet), New Testament readings (The Apostle), and a Gospel.  As the various Christian communities developed their systems, the appropriate passages were marked in the biblical text to guide the reader.  Later, the texts were copied out into special books, the first lectionaries.

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