Step-by-Step Walk Through the Mass

Do This in Remembrance of Me, Part 13: Liturgy of the Word

Every Mass, after the Collect, we all sit down and begin the part of the Mass called the Liturgy of the Word. We listen to some readings from the Bible, and we stand for a special reading from the Holy Gospels. As we will see, there is a very thoughtful selection of the different readings and good reasons for why they are arranged in a particular way. As an overview, the Liturgy of the Word includes:

  • First Reading, usually taken from the Old Testament
  • A sung or recited Responsorial Psalm
  • (On Sundays and Solemnities) A Second Reading from the New Testament (other than the Gospels)
  • The Alleluia or Gospel Acclamation
  • A reading from the Gospels

An open missal

The Liturgy of the Word also includes the Homily, the Profession of Faith (Creed), and the Prayers of the Faithful with a concluding prayer.  In the weeks ahead, we will take a closer look at each of these parts of the Liturgy of the Word

The Word of the Lord

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal states, “For in the readings, as explained by the Homily, God speaks to his people, opening up to them the mystery of redemption and salvation, and offering spiritual nourishment; and Christ himself is present through his word in the midst of the faithful. By silence [listening to the readings] and singing [responding] the people make this divine word their own, and affirm their adherence to it by means of the Profession of Faith; finally, having been nourished by the divine word, the people pour out their petitions by means of the Universal Prayer for the needs of the whole Church and for the salvation of the whole world” (GIRM, 55).

A Three-Year Cycle

Priest holding up the Gospel book

How are the readings chosen each week at Mass? Is there a pattern or certain order? Yes! Sunday readings are divided into a three-year cycle. (The readings for daily Mass are on a two-year cycle with one reading from various parts of the Bible and a Gospel reading each day.) For the Sunday readings, Cycle A focuses on the Gospel according to St. Matthew, Cycle B focuses on St. Mark, and Cycle C focuses on St. Luke. The Old Testament readings correspond to the subject of the Gospel. For example, if the Gospel is about Jesus being persecuted or people trying to kill him, the First Reading might be about one of the prophets and the conflicts he had with people. Or, if the Gospel is about the Eucharist, the First Reading might be about manna, a sacrifice, a shared meal. The Gospel of St. John is used during special times of the Church year (e.g., Christmas, Lent, Easter), during the summer Sundays of Cycle B, and it also usually has a corresponding First Reading from the Old Testament.

Tying It All Together

The Second Reading, which follows a different type of arrangement, is most often from a Letter of St. Paul to a community or individual. As we move through the three-year cycle, we also sometimes have a Second Reading from one of the other New Testament letters. Instead of mixing and matching New Testament readings to the Gospel, the Second Reading generally goes in a semi-continuous reading from one Sunday to the next (for example, in year C, the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time features Galatians 3:26-29; the Thirteenth Sunday continues with Galatians 5:1,13-18; and the Fourteenth Sunday continues with Galatians 6:14-18; etc.).  Reading one of the letters in this way provides an ongoing teaching on various aspects of the faith, especially the moral life.

Priest preaching in front of the congregation

With all these wonderful readings, connections, and various focuses among them, it is easy to see why during some periods of Church history priests would give homilies anywhere from an hour and a half to three hours in length! Aren’t you glad that most preachers try to focus on just one main idea each week?

For Reflection

1. In preparation for Mass this coming Sunday, take time to pray with each of the selected readings. What connections do you see between them? Which reading attracts your attention the most? Spend more time with that reading, and allow the insights there to shape your Sunday and the beginning of a new week.

2. The psalmist praises God’s Word as a lamp and light: “Your word is a lamp for my feet, / a light for my path” (Ps. 119:105). What area of your life is in need of God’s light? As you bring this area before the Lord in prayer, turn to God’s Word in the readings for Mass (Sunday or daily) and see how the Liturgy of the Word sheds light on your life.