Themes in Holy Scripture

This new series of articles focuses on themes in Holy Scripture. We often hear in the readings during Holy Mass words such as vocation, seed, silence, victory, temple, anger… These words create part of a biblical vocabulary and have profound spiritual meaning.

Their unity is expressed throughout the 73 books of the Bible, which is composed of 46 books of the Old Testament where the coming of Christ is prepared and prefigured, and 27 books of the New Testament where His coming is described and renewed.

A single one contains deep meaning that can be interpreted in a literal, historical or spiritual sense. The diversity of time, place, event and author is worth knowing for contextual and clarity of understanding. In Holy Scripture, God reveals Himself to humanity through the voice of the prophets.

The use of such vocabulary creates images that fills the memory and provides the intellectual environment and capacity to receive its symbolism.

The readings during Holy Mass provide us with God’s Word in and through Holy Scripture. Our predecessors in the Faith could not be accused of knowing very little about the Bible, and especially the Old Testament; the simple opening of the Roman Missal exemplifies this. Also, as we pass on the Faith to the next generation, the first contact that children often have with Sacred Scripture is heard in the liturgy, which is closely linked with biblical history.

The first duty of the Church and particularly her consecrated members is prayer. Seven offices of the day and one office of the night, which constitutes Praise of the Divine, temper her liturgical life. The divine office is organised in a way, that the sacred ministers recite the entire psalter each week.

The psalms hold the most important place in the liturgy. They express all the sentiments and attitudes of the people of Israel, her prayers, her sorrows, her hopes; they are also imbibed with the prayer of Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Apostles.

They constitute also essential parts of the Holy Mass that are sung: the Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Tract, Offertory and Communion antiphons. This illustrates the distinctive place occupied by the Old Testament in the liturgy.

The Roman lectionary gives us The Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Jonas, Malachi; the Books of Wisdom (Proverbs, Solomon, the Canticles, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus), the Historical Books (Kings, Esdras, ,Judith, Esther), and also the Books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. We find also Deuteronomy, the Books of Tobias, Maccabees, Amos, Micah and Zachariah.
Certain Historical Books (Judges) and certain Minor Prophets (Obadiah, Nahum) are not found in the Roman liturgy, nevertheless the Gregorian melodies draw also from the lamentations of Jeremiah, Job and the Books of Baruch and of Habakkuk.

Looking at the Holy Mass we find that the order of the Epistle readings seems to have been established during the time of St. Gregory, who followed the order established by St. Benedict, and was the traditional Roman order around the year 520 AD. The Roman church, at least since the 5th century, ordinarily has only two readings, according to the usage of the synagogue, in which one reading is always a passage of the law and the other reading is from the prophets.

All of the epistles of St. Paul, except that of Philemon, are used. We also find readings from St. Peter, the Acts of the Apostles, St. James, the Apocalypse and also the epistles of St. John. The liturgy privileges the reading of the Old Testament during the week but proposes only the New Testament for feasts.
During Penitential times, e.g., Lent, the epistle, taken from the New Testament is reserved for Sundays, whilst during the week the Old Testament is used.

The cycle of readings in the Roman Missal is repeated annually, according to the Extraordinary Form. This is also inherited from the synagogal liturgy, delimited and distributed in a constant manner among all the Sabbaths of the year. During one year, certain readings are even recited several times: the Church always insists on repetition in the liturgy.

The regular contact with the Word of God also has an educational aspect or should I say boldness, for each text has an aspect eminently instructive.

However, the purpose of the readings is the renewal of the Faith among the faithful; the proclamation of divine action in the history of salvation; and above all the preparation of the sacrifice. This is why the liturgy must not be a sort of biblical initiation study. Its purpose must tend rather to link different inspired texts to the spirit of the feast, in making them reverberate, echo through our souls in order to discover their multiple harmonies.

The choice of passages of Sacred Scripture in the Roman Missal is rooted in a very long tradition. Its structure rises from the womb of the Church during the end of the era of bloody persecutions and was little by little put into place by the great contemplatives. By the mystery constantly renewed in the liturgy, it turns us towards the Author Himself who has inspired these sacred words. It is fitting that we listen with an attentive ear so that, by the grace of God and in the imitation of Our Lady, we ponder them in our hearts thus allowing them to resonate in our souls and throughout our lives.