The Catholic Church also works to provide a context, but in a different way. I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a young adult liturgy conference at the Liturgical Institute in Mundelein this past June, and the talks there unlocked the Mass for me in a new way. You’ve probably heard that the readings on a given weekend are supposed to connect somehow. This is true. However, the order of readings in the liturgy does something more than that. It gives us an interpretive key through which to contextualize scripture.
Take the readings from this weekend for example. In the first reading, Elijah is so wearied by his experiences that he prays for death. He is awakened from sleep by an angel who orders him to take a hearth cake and some water. This strengthens Elijah, and he continues on his journey.
What do we leave this reading thinking about? I would say three main things: weariness, bread, and renewed strength. The psalm that follows the first reading keeps us thinking about bread with “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.”
Then the Gospel follows. In this passage, Jesus says “Your ancestors ate manna in the desert but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” The incredible thing is that the liturgy is structured in such a way that implicitly, we are likely already thinking ahead to the Eucharist during the first reading as we hear about bread renewing Elijah. But we know that the bread Elijah ate wasn’t enough to keep him going indefinitely. That reading sets us up to know that humans need something more to renew them, to give them life that never dies. The Gospel reveals Jesus as that something more: His body and blood in the Eucharist.
This is the gift of the Mass. Bible studies are great, and we should pray with scripture daily. (It’s not my strong suit, either!) But the Church gives us texts in particular ways to broaden our understanding of salvation history and contextualize what we hear. These aren’t huge scholarly leaps, either. The selection of readings helps us to make simple, but incredibly important connections. Most of us are making these connections subconsciously because we’ve heard the same 3-year cycle of readings our entire lives.
I’m the music director, so of course I’m going to say that this is where music comes in. The church gives us a cycle of sung antiphons - short scripture verses - to accompany the readings of the day. We can sing those, as we have during Advent and Lent recently, or select hymns that reflect the antiphons. Today’s communion antiphons are “O Jerusalem, glorify the Lord, who gives you fill of finest wheat” and “The bread that I will give, says the Lord, is my flesh for the life of the world.” The antiphons clearly fit the readings of the day, and they provide continuity to the Mass, helping us to pray on the same concepts given in the Word as we receive Christ in the Eucharist. Singing the words can bring those concepts alive in a deeper way. That’s why it’s so important that we don’t just sing whatever we feel like every weekend. The music plays a specific role in bringing the words of Scripture alive. It’s one more key to the context of salvation history.
In the next few weekends, I’d encourage you to look at those elements, particularly the first reading and the Gospel, to see how they connect. Just like knowing somebody’s past helps you understand their actions now, knowing the Old Testament sheds new light on not only what God’s doing in the New, but how he wants to reveal His plan for the world and love for you.