Word and Presence: On the Importance of the Liturgy of the Word

By James R.A. Merrick 

Dr. James R. A. Merrick is Lecturer at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Reviews Editor for Nova et Vetera, Theology & Latin Teacher at St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, and on the faculty for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown’s Lay Ecclesial and Diaconal formation program. Previously he was Scholar-in-Residence at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology.

If God was speaking to you, would you hurry Him along, let your mind wander? Of course not. Yet that is what happens so often during the Liturgy of the Word, as lectors rush through the readings while we ponder grocery lists or the game. It’s far too easy for us to tune out and treat the Liturgy of the Word like an intermission between the Preparation and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. We sometimes give in to the feeling that all that really matters is receiving the Eucharist and that the Liturgy of the Word is inessential to our worship.

Yet, the Liturgy of the Word is organically and essentially linked to the Liturgy of the Eucharist. We can’t expect to commune meaningfully with Him through the Eucharist if we don’t hear Him in the Scriptures. If we look at the pattern of Scripture we see that God’s Word always precedes and prepares people for His presence.

At the dawn of time, interrupting the silence which was not pregnant but empty, God created by His Word. He spoke and creation came forth in obedience. From complete meaninglessness and nothingness, the Word of God imparted light, order, truth, beauty. If we consider further the beginning and ending of the seven days of creation in Genesis 1, we see at once that creation begins with God’s Word and is completed by the resting of God’s presence in His creation on the seventh day. The Word of God prepared the world to be a Temple in which God dwelt with His people.

Salvation is conceived in the same way as creation. God spoke to Mary, she responded obediently, “Let it be done unto me according to Thy Word.” She first receives the Word of God and then she becomes pregnant as the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. As creation came forth from void, so salvation comes forth from a virgin; as creation came forth from original poverty, so Mary tells us in her Magnficat that the Lord looked upon her lowliness.

God’s presence and His communion with creation are always preceded by the Word. Why does the Word come first? Because God, being all-wise, intends His presence to be intelligible and for His creation to receive Him intelligently. Knowing Wisdom Himself entails becoming wise. And thus the Word of God goes ahead of God’s presence so as to ensure God’s people are able to receive Him meaningfully and rationally.

In his thirteenth homily on the Book of Exodus, Origen of Alexandria (184-253AD) reflected on the importance of the Liturgy of the Word for communion with Christ in the Eucharist. Meditating upon the way in which the Israelites brought gold and silver from their own house to construct the tabernacle, Origen suggested that we bring our own gold and silver in our hearing and obedience to the Word at Mass: “For you cannot offer God anything from your understanding or from your word unless first you have understood in your heart what has been written. Unless you have been attentive and have listened diligently your gold or silver cannot be excellent”.1 He specifically chastises those whose minds are on “business dealings or on acts of the world or on counting their profit”2 during the readings.

After pointing out just how important it is for us to worship God with understanding and intentionality, Origen concludes with an illustration:

You who are accustomed to take part in divine mysteries know, when you receive the body of the Lord, how you protect it with all caution and veneration lest any small part fall from it, lest anything of the consecrated gift be lost. For you believe, and correctly, that you are answerable if anything falls from there by neglect. But if you are so careful to preserve his body, and rightly so, how do you think that there is less guilt to have neglected God’s word than to have neglected his body?3

According to Origen, then, we must savor the Word of God as we do the Body of Christ.

The Liturgy of the Word should not be squandered. It is the occasion for us to issue our own fiat before the Word made flesh dwells among us. It is an opportunity to hear God’s voice, to have Him reorder the emptiness and lighten the darkness of our lives. Make no mistake, the Scriptures are not wasted. God’s Word does not return to him fruitless (Isaiah 55:11). As the Second Vatican Council declared in its Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium: “[Christ] is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church” (7). The question is: Do we hear Him?

The Mass is a site of God’s new creation, a moment when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, and so a moment that anticipates the descent of the heavenly Jerusalem and the whole earth is filled with God’s presence (Revelation 21), as it was on the seventh day of creation when God’s presence rested upon the temple of creation. Just as the old heavens and earth were first established by the Word and then consecrated by God’s presence, so too, in the new creation anticipated in the Mass, we live by the Word of God and only then receive the Bread of His Presence.

All week long we have listened to thousands of worldly words and have been formed by them: the words of co-workers, the words of bosses, the words of family and friends, the words of advertisements and social media. We stand in need of being remade by the Word of God. How can we improve our engagement with the Scriptures at Mass? Let me conclude with a few points for those involved in the Liturgy of the Word.


Meditate on the Mass readings before going to Mass. Prime your heart and mind to hear the Scriptures so you can focus upon listening for Christ’s voice. There are many great resources to help you understand the Mass readings, such as the Sunday Bible Reflections offered by Dr. Hahn. Another important practice, very ancient, is memorization of Scripture. The more Scripture we have treasured in our hearts, the more likely we will make connections and live by the Word of God. As you meditate upon the Mass readings, pick a verse or two to memorize to build your fluency with the Word.


Lectors need to be well trained to read Scripture carefully and contemplatively. They especially should familiarize themselves with the readings during the week and practice pronouncing and enunciating them appropriately. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal is very frank on this point: “The Liturgy of the Word is to be celebrated in such a way as to favor meditation, and so any kind of haste such as hinders recollection is clearly to be avoided” (56).


Priests need to conduct the Liturgy of the Word contemplatively. Too often priests look like they are tuning out. Posture, gestures, and expressions are crucial. The General Instruction states that “periods of silence…before the Liturgy of the Word itself begins, after the First and Second Reading, and lastly at the conclusion of the Homily” are appropriate, for “by means of these, under the action of the Holy Spirit, the Word of God may be grasped by the heart and a response through prayer may be prepared” (ibid.).

Clergy must be well trained in the Scriptures and the Church’s Tradition of reading. Their homilies should be concerned principally with explaining them, as the General Instruction stipulates. It is inappropriate to cast doubt upon the Scriptures; instead, recognizing that “everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit” the focus should be on the “that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation” (Dei Verbum, 11) and “serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out” (ibid., 12).

The Word of God is the address of God. So many times in my own attendance of Mass, there was a word or theme that directly addressed my situation. We must give the Liturgy of the Word as much prayerful attention and care as we give to the Liturgy of the Eucharist, for it is through the Word of God that we are readied for God’s presence.

  1. Origen, Homilies on Genesis and Exodus, ed. Hermigild Dressler, trans. Ronald E. Heine, vol. 71, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1982), p. 379.
  2. ibid.
  3. ibid., pp. 380–381.

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