A friend of mine once told me that he would reread every now and again a very short letter I wrote him months before. When he needed encouragement, he would pull it out and read it. This is part of what I wrote:
“You have a wonderful spirit and I appreciate your love of God, the Church, your dedication to prayer and truth, your prayerfulness, kindness and sincerity. Please never lose your goodness and never lower your standards. Your love of God and your desire to be holy have been an inspiration to me—thank you for that. I’ve also enjoyed our conversations and jokes.”
Were these words so helpful that it warranted being read again and again? I was surprised it meant so much to him. I suppose it could be because he didn’t get a lot of the encouragement, appreciation, and affirmation, which everyone needs.
Another friend of mine, when his marriage was on the rocks, and he and his wife were separated, tried to express his love for her in a new way. Every day, he would write a short note of appreciation to his wife, then go early in the morning to where she was staying, and put it in her car (he still had the keys to her car), so that she could read it before going to work. Would that be great to get a letter like this everyday?
This is something God has already done for us. He’s written us these letters; It’s called the Bible. But why doesn’t it touch our hearts? I think the main reason is because we don’t realize that it’s directed to us. You see, the letter I wrote to my friend, even though it included very nice compliments, probably has little meaning for you, because it wasn’t written to you. Had I told you how much I appreciate you, your good qualities, how you’ve inspired me, that would have probably made your day.
This is how the Jewish people would listen to the Bible! According to the first reading, the priest Ezra read from the Bible all morning! “The ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the Law… All the people wept when they heard the words of the Law” (Neh 8:3,9). They were weeping because they were listening to a love letter written by God to them, and they wanted to listen to it all morning.
That’s a big difference from the way we listen to the readings at Mass. My experience is that we read the Bible so quickly at Mass, as if it weren’t that important. It’s like a warmup for the homily, where we hopefully get something we can really understand. People have told me they look forward more to the homily than to the readings. Is that true for us?
It’s true we need a lot of help to understand the Bible because it was written over 2000 years ago, in different languages, and in a completely different culture. But the main thing that has to change is our perception of what’s being read. Imagine if the lector were to say our name before the reading, “Fr. Justin, a reading from the Holy Gospel…” wouldn’t we pay more attention?
Proclaiming the Bible during Mass isn’t supposed to be informational; We’re not doing it to get information. E.g. today, Ezra gathers the Jewish people together, he reads, they listen, they weep, and he tells them not to—that’s all information. Proclaiming God’s Word is supposed to be transformational! When we listen to God’s Word during Mass, it’s supposed to strike us. When I prayed over these readings, I read them slowly and let God’s Word speak directly to me, and the one thing I took away from this reading was: I want to hear God’s Word more; I want to hear what He’s saying to me. And that’s how I came up with this homily.
St. Anthony of the Desert, the first hermit, had his conversion by hearing God’s Word at Mass. “After his parents died, one day, on his way to church, [he] thought about how the apostles had left everything to follow Jesus. When he entered the church, he heard the words, ‘If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor– you will have riches in heaven. Then come and follow me.’ He knew the words were spoken to him, and so, immediately, he gave away his inheritance and all his possessions. He kept only a little for himself and his sister” (St. Athanasius, Life of St. Anthony, 2). The Bible transformed him! In the same way, St. Augustine was freed from his lust by reading the Bible. St. Therese of Lisieux found the solution to her vocation crisis by praying with the Bible.
There is one thing I’d like to suggest to help us to let God’s Word transform us, and it has to do with the lectors. First of all, I thank the lectors here for proclaiming very well, you do! But we can and should always try to proclaim even better. I admit I have not always proclaimed God’s Word well; I’ve rushed it.
From now on, I’d ask all the lectors, including Deacon Andrew, to read it thoughtfully, in such a way that you’re not giving us information, but letting us be attentive to what God is saying to us. We should also respect the 30 second pause after the first reading, second reading, and the homily. Not 10 seconds, not 15, not 20, but 30 seconds. (We have this little clock here that helps us count!) We need time to reflect on what God was saying to you and me. We also have to make sure we practice the readings. A lector once said, “A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Filipinos.” We have to look up words we don’t know and not just wing it, because we can all tell when we’re trying to hide the fact that we don’t know how to pronounce the words! Please go to this website for correction pronunciation.
I’d ask all lectors, at all Masses, Sundays and weekdays, to dress up. Men should only wear suits, with ties and dress shoes. I’m no fashionista, so I’d just say that women should wear the equivalent, keeping beauty and modesty in mind. Please no more runners, jeans, etc. Why is this? Well, are we doing something ordinary or extraordinary? When I meet the Pope, that’s extraordinary, and we dress up. When I go to a wedding, that’s extraordinary. Proclaiming God’s Word is extraordinary. Getting a letter from God is extraordinary. When people see our lectors dressed up, they’ll ask, “Why are you so dressed up?” “Because I’m proclaiming God’s Word.” “Is it that important?” “Yes!” It’s an honour to proclaim God’s Word. For hundreds of years only clerics could proclaim the readings at Mass. Now lay people can too—that’s an honour, and we shouldn’t be casual about it. If someone is not properly dressed, Deacon Andrew or I will proclaim the readings. The same logic applies to the antiphoners. When we’re singing the antiphons at daily Mass and entering the sanctuary, we should recognize the extraordinariness of what we’re doing and dress appropriately.
The archdiocese has a policy that only practicing Catholics who have received Confirmation may proclaim God’s readings at Mass. The logic behind the policy is that proclaiming God’s Word requires an understanding of God’s Word, and most children below age 12 don’t fully comprehend what they’re reading. When some have objected that the children need practice at reading, the response is that lectoring is not a place to practice public speaking.
And notice that we use the word, “Proclaim,” not “read.” Anyone can read, but not anyone can proclaim. How many know who Ezra was in the first reading? Because it helps to know the context. We just need to know that Ezra was a priest, around 500 years before Jesus; The Jewish people were conquered by the Babylonians, exiled to Babylon, and then returned to Jerusalem and now they’re reestablishing their worship, so this is an important event in their history—this is essential to know when proclaiming this reading. Please go to this website for a 3 minutes podcast on the Sunday readings by Dr. Scott Hahn, which will give us the context.
Understanding the reading is also why at funerals and weddings only practicing Catholics are permitted to proclaim God’s Word. But there’s an even deeper reason: If someone isn’t following the third commandment by coming to Mass every single Sunday, then how can they proclaim something they’re not living? We should be consistent. If ever there’s a funeral or wedding here, please note that we have to check who’s doing the reading, and if they’re not able, we’ll ask them not to read.
I’m so hungry to hear what the Father is saying to me. I appreciate getting letters of encouragement and affirmation. If the lectors proclaim even better and we listen well, God’s Word will be better than a homily; It’ll transform us.