Life and Soul

Pastor Iuventus

You should be able to hear a pin drop before Mass

I noticed, out of the corner of the eye that watches the internet, that someone somewhere had said that we Catholics should be thanking God for the insights the Reformation brought us. I didn’t discover what these insights were, but I am sure that they would have been of interest to Ss John Fisher and Thomas More, who might have wondered whether you can will the end without also willing the means.

One such oft-propounded insight is that the Reformation reminded us of the importance of Sacred Scripture. I have seen scant evidence to show that the importance of Sacred Scripture had been forgotten. Such a charge would have seemed unreasonable to all those Religious whose monasteries were summarily destroyed and their libraries burned. I still remember the reaction of a Low Church Evangelical friend of mine at university who found my breviary. “It’s full of the Bible,’’ she exclaimed, shocked, ‘‘but just cut up into little bits.”

In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus has gone to the synagogue for the Sabbath, as was his custom. Synagogue worship really dates from the destruction of the First Temple in 587 BC. Up until that point Jewish worship had been a cult of sacrifice. Without the Temple, of necessity there arose a new form of worship centred on Scripture. Sunday’s first reading recounts the time of the return from exile and the beginning of the Second Temple. Ezra the scribe reads the law of the Lord all day on what in effect is a building site.

To read the word of God, particularly in such difficult circumstances, was an act of faith. The Torah allowed the returning exiles to recall how they had been constituted as God’s people, how God had done mighty and wonderful deeds to bring them out of slavery, had fought their battles and given them his presence in the Temple and a law by which they could know how to live. To read the prophets was to fan the flames of the promise that God would act again, that he would send a messiah to rescue them from their enemies and from their own infidelity to the Covenant. To proclaim the word of God was an act of faith, hope and love, but one might say that it raised as many questions as it answered. It made them painfully aware of their frailty.

This contrasts with the proclamation of the Prophet Isaiah by Jesus in the synagogue because the questions, we might say, have an answer which is concrete. The Word has become flesh. Jesus tells them that this text, with its promise, is being fulfilled even as they listened. In Jesus, God is with his people, acting in history, doing great deeds, saving them from their sins, espousing them to himself in a new covenant, a covenant written on men’s hearts in his blood, not merely a formula of words. The presence of God in the Scriptures then, promises and requires the presence of Christ fulfilling their promise. Liturgically, the same sequence is apparent. In the Mass the Scriptures are proclaimed with their promise of God’s saving action, of his freeing us from sin and uniting us to him once more, and the sacrifice of Christ is represented unleashing its atoning power, giving us communion with God.

We too can say that this text is being fulfilled. But we should not treat the Liturgy of the Word as though it were incidental, a kind of hors d’oeuvres. The proclamation of the Word is needed, it is the expression of our hope and faith, but the Liturgy of Word should not dominate to the detriment of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. God communicates to us through words, because we are human. We cannot hear the Word if there is extraneous noise. We need to come to Mass with a certain stillness in our disposition and the liturgy should emerge from silence. It should not be like a performance in which the audience settles down once the overture begins.

If we really were to take to heart those words of Vatican II, that Christ is present in word and sacrament, most especially in the Blessed Sacrament, one should be able to hear a pin drop before and after Mass. Our churches are not meeting halls. They are temples, privileged places set apart for the presence of God in which all eyes and attention should be fixed on Jesus. Mark the reverence with which Ezra and the people listen to the word of God. How much more should we who have word and Word in its fulfilment present to us be reverent and receptive?

Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London