Today the Church celebrates the feast of St. Bede the Venerable, priest and doctor, who lived during the 7th & 8th centuries in the Kingdom of Northumbria in northeast England. He is recognized as the greatest Anglo-Saxon scholar; his knowledge covering many different disciplines, history, theology, linguistics, etc.
Bede entered the Benedictine monastery of St. Peter located on the River Wear when he was seven to be educated; this was a common practice during this time. He evidently stayed with the Benedictine Order and was eventually ordained a priest.
Bede wrote a number of influential documents the most famous was Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
Just recently, a show opened at the Metropolitan Museum called “Heavenly Bodies” in which the beauty of the habits and clothing of the Catholic Imagination are appreciated and celebrated, and where it is shown how they have given inspiration to the great clothing designers of the Western world. We take the distinctiveness of our vestments and habits for granted, and the fact that they are beautiful in both form and function. Even soldiers dedicated to protecting the Pope had their uniforms designed by Michelangelo! Yes, those Swiss Guards in their flamboyant clothing had possibly the greatest artist of the West as their designer!
But that is just one example.
The Church has inspired artists of all genres for centuries. Painting (Michelangelo, Da Vinci), Architecture (the great Gothic Cathedrals, the Baroque of the Eternal city, the modern masterpiece of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona), Sculpture (Michelangelo again, Rodin), literature (Dante, Cervantes) to just name some of the arts influenced directly by the Church.
But what can one say about the beauty of the Moral Life, such as the theological grandeur of the “Summa Theologiae” of St. Thomas Aquinas!
It is only right that there be such beauty connected with the Church! After all, look at our God, the Creator of the Universe: Beauty all around! The beauty of the celestial spheres, the smile of a baby, the sleek swiftness of felines, the majesty of the ocean, the breathtaking view of the mighty mountains. One does not have to go far to see that beauty is not just an add-on, but also an essential part of what it means to be human.
I remember talking with a parishioner in Brooklyn who had done his Ph.D. dissertation on the effects of architecture on incarcerated or otherwise detained people. He told me that there was evidence that when a prison was built with beauty and light predominating, people were more easily restored to productive reconnection with society. In one instance, an architect took the medieval monastery as his guide and model for the design of a prison. In this prison (I believe near the ocean), there were plenty of beautiful views and sunlight filling the corridors. This environment produced fewer incidents of violence than the normal prison, which was dark and forbidding.
When Dostoyevsky tried to delineate what was it about Christ that was salvific, he said something like this: His beauty will save us!
For many people, the beauty of an experience seems just an extra. That an action is good or just or true seems like more a necessity. But the great Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote a seven-volume work entitled “The Glory of the Lord” using the biblical category of glory for what we call beauty. He felt the demotion of beauty in Western theological thought was a costly error in reasoning. To banish beauty from theology (suspect because of the sensual delight that it evokes) was a disastrous error of modern thought.
One sees this especially in the Orthodox spirituality of the Icon, a beautiful work of art that is ‘painting in prayer’ and evokes in the believer a connection with the Divine. This beauty is intimately connected with Truth, since the painting of the icon is an act of faith in a reality that is present in truth. This was curiously expounded one day by, of all people, Nancy Reagan! She was in Moscow with the President, her husband, and was being shown around a museum by Raissa Gorbachov, wife of the Soviet Premier. They were both admiring a group of Russian icons. But the Russian woman, Raissa, an avowed Atheist, praised the icons’ composition and beautiful colors. Mrs. Reagan, a believer, quipped, “But, you know, they do mean something!” She was attuned to what the beauty pointed to, while her hostess was prevented from seeing this by her lack of faith.
This connection between beauty and faith came home to me one day when I was visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As often happens to me in a museum, I got tired of all the works of art I was seeing. With time and fatigue, my powers of appreciation diminished. On that day, I felt a need for prayer and I caught sight of an ancient icon of Christ. It moved me to prayer. So I found an isolated place to sit within view of a number of sacred works of art and I began to pray. I sort of felt that I was doing the forbidden in that place, but that God was pleased that all those beautiful works of art were being used for the purpose for which they were created: to lead people to God. There I was in that public space doing in private what was forbidden to do in public: prayer. And it was beauty that led me there!
All that is beautiful, not only art, can lead us to God. Even the earth and all that is beautiful within it can lead us to prayer. Beauty matters!
What does the Pentecost Event have to do with the Church today?
Many individuals might question why an event that occurred about 2,000 years ago can have any impact or meaning for us today. Well, to me Pentecost can …
1. The Pentecost Event shows us what it truly means to be a Christian.
The word Christian does mean “Christ-like”. Being a Christian means following Jesus and accepting his teaching, but it also means evangelization. Evangelization may not mean vocal preaching, necessarily, but it does involve embodying and living out those principles that Jesus showed us and taught us. As Lumen Gentium states: “Therefore in the Church, everyone whether belonging to the hierarchy, or being cared for by it, is called to holiness…”(#39). We are ALL called to participate in the life and mission of the Church, whatever our talents and abilities are or wherever they lie. (Prager)
2. The Pentecost Event shows us how we, as Church, can deepen our faith.
The early Christian community “…devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.” (New American Bible,Acts of the Apostles 2:42) The Pentecost Event reveals how we can start to make our faith deeper and fuller: by educating ourselves in what the Church teaches and practices; by participating in the sacramental (communal) life of the Church, especially the Eucharist; and by developing a deeper and more vibrant prayer life. (Prager)
3. The Pentecost Event can enable us to “see” the activity of the Holy Spirit in the entire Church and the Spirit’s involvement in the Church’s mission.
The Holy Spirit is at work through all the baptized since we are all called to holiness (see #1 above). The Holy Spirit enables the entire Church, using the myriad talents of the ordained and laity in tandem, to advance the mission of the Church:
From my perspective the Church’s mission is a vocation, a calling; all the baptized are called to “do something” and this “doing something” is composed of four parts:
Spreading the Good News of our salvation through Jesus; that through the Paschal Mystery we have been saved, we can achieve eternal life.
Being a prophetic voice to others, calling others to change their lives and lifestyles; the Church is called to have a counter-cultural impact. We are supposed to run counter to much of what the prevailing culture often says is good, right or just.
Being a sign of Christ to others, being of service, ministering to others, as Jesus did; we’re supposed to be living out and embodying those values and principles that Jesus taught us and showed, by which Jesus lived.
Regular and active participation in the sacramental life of the Church, especially the Eucharist. However, I would also say, for our time, the sacrament of Reconciliation is an important one, as well, depending on how one lives their life.
We have been called as Church to put this mission into action wherever our talents and abilities lie. Some of the baptized can preach some cannot; some can teach others cannot, but we all have talents that can be utilized to advance the Church’s mission. For most of the faithful, it most likely lies in how we live our lives on a daily basis at home with our family, in interaction with our neighbors or at work with our colleagues. (Prager) A lot will say what good can that do? Well, those of us in “the real world” are often the only place that others can see positive examples of what it means to really be a Christian, that’s what it can do.
The one question we might want to ask ourselves is: Do others see Christ in my actions and in me?
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church, (CCC), states: “…to be in touch with Christ, we must first have been touched by the Holy Spirit. He comes to meet us and kindle faith in us.” (CCC, #683)
So not only are we an Easter people we’re also a Pentecost people, the two events are inexorably tied together – the Holy Spirit given to us by the risen Jesus continues to guide and sanctify us as Church. (Prager)
“When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, ‘Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his own native language? We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.’ They were all astounded and bewildered, and said to one another, ‘What does this mean?’” (New American Bible, Acts of the Apostles 2:1-12)
Pentecost was originally a feast of the Jewish faith that celebrated the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai. It occurred fifty days after Passover, hence the name Pentecost meaning fiftieth.
Pentecost is celebrated as a Christian feast because of the events that occurred fifty days after Jesus’ Resurrection: the descent of the Holy Spirit on those individuals that had gathered in the Cenacle, the Upper Room, and inaugurated the beginning of the Church. Pentecost is one of the three most important liturgical celebrations of the Church year. It celebrates and commemorates the establishment of the Church which is why it is referred to it as the “Birthday of the Church”.
The Pentecost Event, as I call it in my text, My Intended to be but Never, Ever, Ever to be Published Tome, is an occasion that radically impacted and drastically changed the Apostolic Church. Hiding behind locked doors and windows in fear of their lives, the descent of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the Advocate, as promised by Jesus, transforms these individuals into people that boldly proclaimed the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus.
We can relate to the First Person of the Blessed Trinity because when we say ‘Father’ we have a clear and moving idea of what a Father is or should be. There is content to the word that inspires and communicates. Elements of ‘fatherhood’ give true and lasting meaning to our understanding of God. With regards to the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, we use the word ‘logos’ or ‘word’ because the essential nature of the ‘logos’ is to communicate God to our limited understandings. Furthermore, as the Word is incarnate, we have the very accessible picture of Jesus of Nazareth in His birth (Christmas) and Passion & Resurrection (Holy Week-Easter) as one like us except without sin.
But when it comes to the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Holy Spirit, the world of images breaks down. The Bible provides what seems like metaphors: a dove, tongues of flame, a mighty wind; all of which do not have the power of the image of God the Father and Jesus the Christ. Yet this advocate (literally a lawyer) speaks for us; defends us; offers decisions for us to make; prompts us to the good; comforts us; energizes us; teaches us; and is found both in the individual being of the believer and guides the entire Church in her inerrancy and direction toward the end point of all history, which the great Theologian Teilhard de Chardin calls the Omega Point who is Christ.
Clearly the images presented for the Holy Spirit only hint weakly at the magisterial power and, at the same time, the illusive reality of its Presence. The Holy Spirit is God in us, and the very principle and defining character of our vocation as Christians.
But He, She, It (there is no gender in the Holy Spirit!) is a person. This fact is often not acknowledged because the imagination has nothing to work with. This draws us into the very mystery of the Trinity. When we say that you or I are persons, we know what we mean. You and I have a central and unique ‘self’ that is separate from one another yet can experience moments of unity and integration; but we are essentially separate selves. When we speak of the Trinity as three persons in one God, we do not mean ‘persons’ in quite the same way. There is an organic unity there, but also a separateness that is more than one based on function: (the Father creates, the Son redeems, the Holy Spirit sanctifies), but includes function in its meaning. What we end up with is something like the persons that we are but also something unlike. You and I are not of one substance and we can disagree on things. This is not true of the persons of the Holy Trinity where Their unity is unbroken as is Their substance. Yet we can talk about the actions of the Logos in Jesus (Christology has its own difficulties) and also the decisions and the actions of the Spirit, which is the other ‘Advocate’ that Jesus and the Father send to us. The Spirit is the radically close presence of God within us and among us. The Spirit could not come until the Logos-Human Jesus ascended to the Father (remembering that ascending does not mean going up into the clouds!). So the earthly absence of the Son is essential to the presence of the Spirit yet They are One always with the Father!
The problem is that in talking about the Holy Spirit (Holy Ghost, in an earlier translation, had at least the idea inherent in it that this entity was like a person!), we often strip this third person of the Blessed Trinity of all characteristics that would render The Spirit human-like in any sense. We also unfortunately strip the Holy Spirit of the God-like qualities that the Father and the Son enjoy. So we are left with lifeless images like a wind or a flame or a dove. But this impoverishes the presence of God in us that we receive at Confirmation. The only advantage to this state of affairs is that it makes the Holy Spirit much more mysterious than the Father and the Son. Those images can also limit the concepts involved. The truth is that we can’t really talk about God in any glib way. St. Thomas Aquinas warns us that we can only say what God is not. ‘What God is’ is shrouded in mystery and is beyond our conceptions and images. The wordless and imageless state of expression in dealing with the third person of the Blessed Trinity is in a way therefore an advantage, as long as we don’t visualize a dove! That may be good shorthand, but may in the end obscure this powerful, wise and trusty person that enters us and brings us the Son and the Father.
If we are at a loss in understanding this, far more are we warned not to visualize the invisible lest we create an idol and not worship the living and mysterious God.
I was recently sitting with some longtime friends. They were from my first parish where I was a deacon. I have known them for over 40 years. As we often do when we get together, we talk about things in the Church and questions that the modern world asks. The topic of in-vitro fertilization came up ending with the question of why the Church is against it. One of my friends made an understandable comment: if a couple love one another, and this is the only way that they can have a baby, why is it morally wrong? One of my other friends mentioned the fact that often a number of embryos are formed, necessitating the selection of one of them and the destruction of the others. (One must remember that for a Catholic, the irrevocable creation of human life begins at conception—so that all the embryos have a right to life.)
The question then formed in my mind: how far can human beings go in the editing of the laws and facts of nature? If something can be done, should it be done? Mary Shelley, in her masterful novel “Frankenstein”, proposed this essential question as she gave us the story of the scientist that tried to bring life to the dead. It was a cautionary tale from the natural point of view.
But when a child is born through in-vitro fertilization, when surrogate mothers are successfully used in producing healthy babies, Shelley’s cautionary tale does not seem to hold.
The question still stands, not from the natural point of view (are we creating monsters?), but from a supernatural view (is this permissible to do?). The answer is partially solved by the evil of having to destroy multiple healthy embryos that can be clearly seen as objectionable. But what if there was only one embryo that is successfully implanted in the womb of its mother (semen and egg from the real father and mother, respectively)? The Church would still say that it is wrong to do it. Why?
We need to step back for a moment and look at how human beings have endeavored to rewrite biological truths and other natural processes for the benefit of humankind. There is the example of genetically altered foods like fruits and vegetables, and even experimentation on animals in all sorts of ways, including genetically. One must at this point make a further distinction: experimentation on animals is often painful to the creature. This is a separate moral issue that, of course, is important and needs to be debated. But the issue of experimentation or genetic manipulation that I am speaking about does not involve the issue of pain.
Because God has given to human beings the dominion (and the responsibility!) over all of creation, the Church has no problem over this genetic and biological experimentation of what is not human. But when one begins to use this same scientific freedom with the human person, then freedom becomes license; that is, an evil that no matter what good intentions there are in interfering in the being and development of a human person, it is against nature, against God’s law and therefore against God (sin). One must always guard against making a human person just another ‘thing’ that can be manipulated.
Therefore, the natural state of things, when dealing with humans, is ordained by God and must be respected and not interfered with. Therefore, because of the greatness of the human person made in the image and likeness of God, no interruption, change, addition or subtraction from natural processes is permissible even if it is theoretically possible to do. At the basis of this understanding is the teaching that the human being is not just part of creation, but is special: the overseer of creation. The human being cannot be the creator of himself or herself. Any change in God’s handiwork is considered questionable since it breaks with the Biblical narrative that defines the creation of humankind as ‘very’ good while the rest of nature was deemed just ‘good’. We are different than apes even if God chose to evolve human beings out of that particular genus of creation. Any attempt to equate the human person with other created beings flies in the face of the entire teaching of the Scriptures and, hence, of the tradition and Magisterium of the Church.
That manipulation of embryos, although done with the best intentions, is still morally evil since it interferes in God’s working with the human person, the crown jewel of creation.
The complexity of this issue becomes even more apparent as we delve into the area of the reconstruction of a person’s DNA. What if we can eliminate the gene that causes cancer? Would it be right to tamper with the building blocks of the human being? This leads us to a question which was asked at the start of the 20th century: What if we can design the “humans of the future?” One begins to see the possibilities and the moral dangers in this whole area of bio-ethics.
At this point, I must profess that I am in waters that are too deep for someone not versed in this area of moral theology. But I am glad of the Church’s caution and reliance on the Holy Spirit as a guide through this supposedly “brave new world.”
One would think that the topic of leisure has no place in theological or spiritual reflection. It seems like something one does between periods of important work. At the very least, it is something that one reverts to when one needs a restorative period of refueling before one gets back to the important job at hand. It is a sort-of vacation (literally a sucking out, an emptying of destructive and exhausting forces that weaken and cripple one’s efforts). One often hears spoken words of honor for someone’s ‘work ethic’ but never for one’s ‘leisure ethic’!
But there has always been present in our scriptural consciousness a different perspective. When God created Adam and Eve he put them into a Garden of Delights where there was no shame and no work. Work was given to them as a punishment after the Fall. So what did they do all day? The answer strangely is ‘Pray and Play’.
By prayer we mean communication with God, that ongoing conversation we are called into from our disparate and mixed up lives. We read that God liked to walk in the Garden with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening. What a beautiful image of prayer: a leisurely walk with God in the evening while the scent of the flowers and the fruits fill the air with their delicious fragrance! But they also must have spent the day enjoying the beauty of the garden and sharing with each other the joys of creation. We must not forget the limits of the story of Adam and Eve, since we are accustomed to lots of boredom-relieving activities that make the picture of our first parents seem the heights of ennui!
But we must see the basics of the story: when God created Adam and Eve and before the Fall from grace through sin, there was prayer and play: the life of loving God and loving each other through communication and delight.
The effects of sin were work, pain of birthing children and contentiousness (Cain and Abel). The exile from the Garden of Paradise ushered in sweat and toil. Gone were the days of prayer and play!
But not completely. God knit together underwear for them and still cared for human beings. God never abandons His creation. Even when it turns against Him He is ever ready to forgive and to rebuild.
Enshrined in subsequent revelatory commandments, God sought to keep Israel on the right path. With regard to our topic, he gave them the great gift of the Sabbath, establishing in the weekly order a day of holy leisure to be protected by His commandment to keep holy the Lord’s day. It is essential to see what honor this gives to play and leisure. It is not a waste of time; it is a consecration of time to God and his activity. The Sabbath rest is holy and makes sense of the other days of work and toil. It humanizes the rest. One would even go further and say that the Sabbath divinizes all activity by putting it firmly in the context of growing in the energy of Divine creative life.
This refraining from ‘servile’ work, that is, the work of servants, ennobles the human person and makes him an imitator of the Creator God who also used leisure to be able to admire the work of the other six days.
With the Incarnation of the Word (Logos) of God, even our work has become a way to God when it is properly understood in the Father’s plan.
All of this means that our leisure is meant to be a holy time: certainly to be experienced in tranquility and order, but also to be seen as a humanizing aspect of God’s plan, provided we do not make our leisure time an excuse for sloth and, even more nefariously, a time for sin.
Pets often are a wonderful way God reminds us of this. When I used to share my space and time with Siamese cats, they taught me to marvel at their beauty, their fidelity, their independence. I became a more loving and caring person due to their presence in my life. Those who have these feline or canine companions readily understand what I mean. Animals enjoy their leisure time and delight in our presence, giving us an example of how we need to spend all our time with God who delights in us and in our intelligence and free will, and accepts gratefully our fealty and service.
But with this difference: God does not just view us as another species without many of the advantages of divinity. Rather, He calls us ‘friends’ thereby bringing us into a strange and admittedly lopsided equality. He does this by slowly and gracefully revealing His image and likeness in us. We will never be Gods in the same way God is God, but we can mirror and resemble His beauty.
Holy leisure makes us appreciate the gift of living and provides the hope and peace that helps us surmount the many sufferings of life.
As we pass the time of our days, does it seem to us as merely a succession of hours with no meaning or direction? Are we just marking time as we move from time-passed and time-to-come? These are not idle questions; they have real and significant practical importance. They lead to the ultimate questions of our lives: Why do I live? What purpose is there to my life? Is today just a series of unrelated events given form merely by the fact that they happen to me?
The realization of the centrality of time and its meaning, or lack of meaning, hits one especially in old age. As one has gone through all their hopes and plans and faces a great deal of loss (family, friends, health, etc.), one is confronted with the possibility that everything is a mere succession of events leading to extinction. Not a happy thought! This is the very opposite of the Good News of the Gospel of Christ, which is that everything has purpose; that God is at the center of all our experiences; and that even our losses and suffering are but the Cross of fidelity to God. In practical terms, this is a very big difference between the two worldviews. This is why St. Paul can proclaim that Christ has robbed death of its sting.
As an aid to an understanding of this, the Church has enshrined a liturgical celebration of the meaning of time. It is called the ‘Liturgy of the Hours’, and like so many other Christian realities, it comes to us from Judaism, right from the prayer in the Temple of Jerusalem. While the great Temple was used for worship, there were regular prayer times that used the Psalms (which are such beautiful examples of poetic and revelative expression). We hear of the Apostles going to the Temple for the afternoon prayer. Judaism pioneered a fundamental change of perspective that moved away from a cyclical view of time (seen in the cycle of the yearly seasons) to a linear view of time that sees it marching forward by the will of God to ever deeper formulations of Divine Wisdom’s interplay with human freedom.
After the destruction of the Temple, Christian communities began to use the psalms at the Sunday worship. It was after the great persecutions of that era that Antony of Egypt went into the desert to pray, beginning the whole movement of hermits that eventually developed into the monasteries of the Christian East (following the rule of St. Basil) and the Christian West (following the rule of St. Benedict).
It is a mistake to minimize the importance of the monastic movement to both the development of Christianity and the growth of learning over the perilous time of the so-called ‘Dark Ages’. Through the use of silence, work and prayer, the monasteries fostered art and science, learning and holiness to an unprecedented level.
Central to the monastic day is the Liturgy of the Hours that limits and defines the sacred character of every day. It is a constant reminder that God is still at work at creation and that we are being formed even now into His handiwork.
I remember my first introduction to a monastery: It happened while I was in College. A bunch of us went for a retreat to a monastery near Rochester called ‘Our Lady of the Genesee’. It was truly astonishing: The monks rose from sleep at 2 AM and started to pray in the Chapel, singing the psalms and praying for the world, shrouded in night. I remember asking one of the younger monks: Why do you do that? He answered: We pray for others, and nighttime is when sin tends to happen, so we keep vigil both to pray for the sinner and to await the return of Jesus in His glory.
Wow! I was blown away! Prayer really mattered to these men and they were willing to sacrifice everything to offer themselves up to God for the good of the world, just like Jesus. As I followed their day while on retreat, I saw them at work (they run a bakery to support themselves) and then returning to the Chapel at distinct times of the day and night to pray using the ancient Psalms, just like they did in the Temple in Jerusalem.
This daily round of prayer was codified and published by the Council of Trent four hundred years ago and became known as the Breviary. It was made a required prayer of every Priest. The Second Vatican Council in our own day also invited lay people to pray ‘The Divine Office’ as it is popularly known. Here at Immac, we pray it every weekday morning in Morning Prayer as we end our daily adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Quite beautifully, the Prayers that the Divine Office consists of are said in union with the entire Catholic Christian world: Bishops, Priests, Deacons, Consecrated Brothers and Sisters, and lay people, combining together to create one unified prayer. One is never alone when praying the Divine Office!
It is a great comfort to spend each day in prayer realizing that each day is God-centered and that every good action we perform is part of God’s continual creation of the world!
It is a mistaken commonplace of religious studies that the Protestant Reformation, with its doctrine of ‘Sola Scriptura’ (only the Bible) as one’s ultimate authority, is the reason why many Protestant denominations are far ahead of us in honoring the Bible and actually reading it! I say mistaken because, while it may have been true for 400 years after the Reformation, the picture changed radically with the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II).
I remember that, when I was an altar boy in the Pre-Vatican II Church, the same Gospel passage (the Resurrection of Lazarus) was used at every funeral. I only realized this after I went to the minor seminary and started to learn Latin. There was only the Roman Missal in the Pre-Vatican II Church; it contained not only the rubrics and the words for the Mass and the sacraments, but also the Readings to be used.
But after Vatican II, the Church divided the Missal into two separate books (or separate kinds of books, often of more than one volume): There was the Sacramentary, which is the book used by the Celebrant that is placed on the Altar and by the Celebrant’s Chair, containing the prayers and the order of service of the Mass; and the Lectionary, containing the Readings to be used; the Lectionary is the book placed on the Ambo (or pulpit), an extension of which is the Gospel Book carried in the Entrance Procession by the Deacon or Lector.
The reason for the need of a separate book was that the theologians who worked on the new lectionary had an ambitious plan to implement the new Catholic perspective that the Word of God should be prominent in all the sacraments. In a methodical way, they developed two cycles of readings to be used over multiple years through which the Catholic faithful would have liturgical exposure to most of the Bible. There is a Sunday cycle of three years (Years A, B and C) and a two-year cycle of weekday readings (Year 1 and Year 2). If a Catholic goes to Mass each day, within three years he or she would have heard proclaimed from the Ambo almost the whole Bible!
This is an astounding reversal that has not often been noted. We went from a Church where the average Mass participant (you!) hardly ever heard or read the Bible to a Church where someone will have at least heard over and over again the main texts of the Old and New Testaments. Those of us who are a little older can remember that the Bible was practically considered a Protestant text and a warning was given about the Bible being so technical a book that it is dangerous to read it lest it lead us astray.
Now, we have to admit that the warning was at least partially true. An individualistic interpretation can lead people astray: witness the multiplicity of Protestant denominations. A Catholic who has a particular insight regarding a passage of Scripture must check it out against the ‘Tradition of the Church’ embodied in the Magisterium, or teaching authority of the Church. If it contradicts any aspect of it, then the interpretation is deemed to be false and must be discarded. This ensures the unity and universality necessary since the Truth is one and cannot contradict itself.
With this caveat in place we can readily see that a Catholic Christian today hears more of the Bible than practically any other Christian, even Bible-thumping Protestants! However, that is true only if he or she is listening and open to the Word of God. Where our Protestant brothers and sisters are way ahead of us still is in the private study and reading of Scripture. Someone once remarked that the difference between a Protestant and a Catholic Bible in the home is that the Protestant Bible is open and read and the Catholic Bible is on a shelf and gathers dust. One must truly love Scripture and, because of it, one must want to learn more in regard to it. There is still something very beautiful about seeing a Protestant reading his or her worn and underlined Bible. It is obviously a companion to the believer.
While Bible Catholics hear a lot of Scripture, if it remains only in the ears and not in the heart, it will do no good. But if it is loved and treasured and followed, it can give life and direction to the faithful Christian. For as St. Jerome puts so clearly: “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”
Catholics should prepare for Mass by reading over the Readings of the day before the Liturgy (we even have special missalettes for daily Mass participants that have the daily Readings). Then we should listen attentively to the Readings and to the homily, which should explain and comment on the Readings. Finally, we should have a Bible at home that we read often, maybe taking a passage a day and perhaps sharing it with our family. This may require that we participate in some form of Bible study group or program; or at least a private study through reading. For difficult passages, there are always the Priests of the parish to consult!
The Bible is the Book of the Church. What a wonderful thing it is when the Baptized Catholic reads, studies and prays with and through the Scriptures!