I remember an impactful talk given by Dr. Scott Hahn in an Atlanta home a little less then a year ago. In it he compared Catholics’ knowledge of the Bible to children’s knowledge of the streets in their hometown, not so much by knowing the street names, but from the memory of walking through them their whole lives. He underlined how the Liturgical hermeneutic, reading the Bible in the Mass, allows us to experience and know the Scriptures.
St. Paul authored the first Letter to the Thessalonians, the first document from the New Testament to be written down, around A.D. 51-52. This means that there were about 19 years in which the only Scriptures the early Christians had was the Old Testament. The New Testament would come about by Christians writing down the teachings and events of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus, with some explaining these things through letters, like First Thessalonians.
The importance of Scripture is highlighted in the Catholic faith, as it is one of two modes of transmission of the Divine Word of God, His Revelation of Himself to man so that we might not just know about God, but know Him personally. The Scriptures, along with Oral Tradition, the other means by which we have received God’s Word, allow us to come into contact with God’s Revelation of Himself. These two unique communications of this Revelation meet in the Mass, where the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist form together for mankind the highest and most meaningful prayer.
Therefore we can accurately say that in the Mass is the best place to read the Bible. An analogy may be drawn with the works of Shakespeare. While for some, Shakespeare’s plays are a little confusing at times, they are nonetheless wonderful stories to read. Moreover, an interesting aspect of these stories is that they were not only meant to be read in a book. They are meant to be acted out on a stage. To be seen live in person, with the words heard as they are pronounced in iambic pentameter.
So too are the Scriptures meant to be performed, not at a playhouse, but in the Mass. In the heart of the Church, with the Source and Summit of Grace, the Eucharist, we are able to experience the Scriptures. The Mass is drenched with the Bible. From the prayers of the priest to the responses of the people, and the very actions within this Holy Celebration, we see the Scriptures brought to life. We might not see the Centurion and his servant when we quote Matthew 8 crying out, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed”. Okay, we say soul, he said servant, but the message is still the same. Furthermore, we hear the Word proclaimed in the Liturgy of the Word.
In fact, it was the Holy Spirit guiding the Early Church in choosing which readings of that time should be proclaimed in the Liturgy of the Word that helped to form the Canon itself. We can say that the New Testament was assembled in the Mass. And if we look at the direction in which both the Old Testament and the New Testament go, both separately and united, we can see that we are guided by the Scriptures to the Mass. The Israelites were formed and eventually brought to the Promised Land, and were given a Temple to worship in. The Temple Life was active around the time of Jesus and He was very happy with most of what was going on there. However, He came to give us more, and the Scriptures bring us to what He does in the Upper Room. Moreover, Acts 2:42 gives us a glimpse of the life of the Early Church after Christ’s Resurrection: “And they held steadfastly to the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.”
The Breaking of Bread refers to the Eucharist. At least that’s what St. Paul communicates in 1 Corinthians 10:16, “The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the Body of Christ?”
The Scriptures lead us to the Mass and the Mass gives us the Scriptures. The relationship between the two highlights the heavy celebration of the Word of God by the Catholic Church. It also connects us to the Scriptures as we participate in the Heavenly Liturgy we read about in the Book of Revelation.
And so we see that not only is attending Mass a great way to read the Bible, it is irreplaceably the best way to read the Sacred Page. Or better yet, to breathe the Sacred Page as we truly act out the Bible by going to Mass. In fact, in the Mass, the whole person experiences the Scriptures, body and soul.
In each part of the Mass, the human person is either standing, sitting, or kneeling. And in each part of the Mass, the human is either praising God through His Words, adoring God with His Words, or Reflecting on God in His Words. When we stand we pray and receive God through the Scriptures; when we kneel we adore and exalt God with the Scriptures; and when we sit, we reflect and meditate on God in the Scriptures.
Furthermore, through our responses taken directly from the Bible, we allow for the Scriptures to move through us, using all three powers of the human soul, the memory, the intellect, and the will. In this way, we are not merely passive in the Liturgy, but are actively participating.
With the memory, we memorize the responses to recall and proclaim and further remember the stories of Scripture as they are read to us again and again over the course of our lives. We are assenting to the Scriptures with our intellects, receiving them and reflecting on them as they too are proclaimed back to us throughout the Mass. Finally, we use our wills to choose to participate through the responses with the Holy Words of the Scriptures, and honor God through them. This last part is true love, attaching the heart to the mind’s and body’s participation.
The Scriptures are then breathed in and out of the Mystical Body of Christ at every Mass united together throughout the whole World. Moreover, we have the same Scriptures at every Mass to drive the heartbeat of the Church to one rhythm filling our veins with grace, as we not only allow God’s Word to once again build us up from clay, but also to cover our bones with the flesh of dignity, and then redeem us through His sacrifice and Resurrection. This same Mystery, proclaimed to us in the very Word, is again and again re-presented to us in the Mass, while the words that first inform us and remind us of it are actually proclaimed.
In this way, we see the greatest method to read the Bible and know its truths. In the Mass, we are not simply given a map of the Bible, not even a street view, but in a mystical way, an experience of the Bible. In the Mass, we breath, we speak, and sing the Words of the Sacred Page as actors in the Liturgical Play. Let us continue to commit ourselves to giving our best in each performance. May God be with us all.
‘As the Mass moved on, however, something hit me. My Bible wasn’t just beside me. It was before me—in the words of the Mass! One line was from Isaiah, another from the Psalms, another from Paul. The experience was overwhelming. I wanted to stop everything and shout, “Hey, can I explain what’s happening from Scripture? This is great!” Still, I maintained my observer status. I remained on the sidelines until I heard the priest pronounce the words of consecration: “This is My body… This is the cup of My blood.”‘
—The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass As Heaven On Earth by Scott Hahn (former Presbyterian minister)