The Word of the Lord

Talk given by John Keating, O.Carm., at the launch of the booklet for Ministers of the Word, Cloyne Diocese, 23 January 2006.

I would like to begin by thanking Bishop Magee and the members of the Theological Forum for Liturgical Ministry for the invitation to speak at the launch of this diocesan booklet. Proclaiming the Word has been a subject very close to my heart for many, many years. Over the years every time I proclaim the Word in the liturgy I find myself both humbled and honoured by the task.
My interest began over 30 years ago, hearing the great biblical and liturgical scholar Lucien Deiss speaking on this topic. I cannot recall his exact words, but the sense of them has continued to resonate with me down through the years. They went something like this: “Without proper proclamation how can we receive the Word with gratitude and be moved to give thanks?” His sentiments remain fresh. How can we become a people of thanksgiving, a Eucharistic people, unless the seed of the Word is planted in us? I believe this happens when there is good proclamation, in the power of the Spirit, to human hearts; when the Word is revealed in a type of preaching that speaks to the men and women of the twenty-first century; when a contemplative approach to proclamation leads to prayer and action. Prayerful preparation in order to speak God’s word in faith is not an end in itself, but just a beginning.
Good proclamation of the Word by any minister is not only a task or a tool of evangelization, it is a continuous process and invitation to renewal for the community of believers.  Were the recommendations presented in this booklet to be implemented, not just practically, but linked to “a prayer pondering the word of God”, then there could be real fruit, a true renewal for the people of this diocese.

The Word Today
Within the past 100 years, and especially since the Second Vatican Council the proximity and availability of the Word of God has become something new. We have been blessed because, without doubt, we are the heirs of both the liturgical movement and the scripture movement. My generation and that of my parents were not raised in a Scripture culture. We associated the Bible mainly with the communities worshipping in the spirit of the Reformation.  Now most homes would have a bible, and with the daily use of scripture in the liturgy, we are familiar with the great events of the Old and New Testament. By the very fact of being a minister of the Word (a “lector” as the booklet text points out) many have learnt that pondering and proclamation of the scriptures are an engagement with the “self-communication of God to creation.”[1] Our simple task of reading in church is in continuity with the great Judeo/Christian tradition. What seems like something new to us is in fact a ministry that is very ancient.

The great dignity of proclamation, compared to mere reading, is rooted in ancient practice. God is speaking to us in the assembly of the faithful.[2]
The Word we proclaim is of the Lord – Verbum Domini. It is no mere reading of words, but a proclamation made in faith. It makes the moment of reading scripture in church special. The writer Mariano Magrassi says: “Liturgical proclamation is obviously the place and privileged means of contact with the sacred text.”[3] The encounter with the Word in the liturgy goes beyond the interpretation of one person and formally locates it in the tradition of the believing and worshipping community. Christ is present in his Word in the liturgical assembly.[4] This enduring Word of God is “good tidings” and the proclaimer is a herald of good news:
“The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.
Get up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings.”[5]
What a wonderful image to hold in one’s mind, as one ascends the steps to proclaim the good news – today this Word of God is fulfilled in your hearing! The scripture text we are proclaiming requires more of us than good diction or a nice accent, it requires energy and focus – almost knowing the text by heart before we proclaim it. This is particularly powerful with regard to the psalms. I like the way Augustine describes the text as a “visible word”.[6]  Jesus is the incarnate Word, the revelation of the eternal Logos or wisdom of God in human form. “In him we see our God made visible.”[7]

The Art of the Lector
Quality proclamation, which this booklet sets out to achieve, means that we allow the unfolding of the great mystery through the gift of good communication. It requires of the “lector” entry into the text and the release of the Verbum Domini for the gathered people of God.
All the practical details so clearly set out in this booklet have that one purpose. When we have good reading, then the space is created in the hearts and minds of the listeners for, what Pope John Paul II’s Dies Domini describes as faithful obedience to that Word. The proclamation of the Word both engages and saves the people of God. It is a powerful Word:
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”[8]
In the years when I taught homiletics in the Milltown Institute I used an image of the home pizza delivery service. I may order the ham and mushroom event, it may even be made, but until it is delivered to my door nothing happens. The art of communication is about delivery. All the practical elements come into place. Then that Word can engage and lead to dialogue. What is happening out there in the congregation only God knows. If we reflect on the Hebrew word, dabar (word), it is not merely a spoken or written word but a happening, an active or enlivened deed. Something is happening out there in the congregation. Scripture itself reminds us that God spoke and it came to be..... The Jewish heart could not forget that God’s dabar is a creative and regenerative word. It is not spoken without achieving what it was sent to do and will not return empty to God.[9]

A Booklet for Today
We have come a long way in the last twenty years or so. Once upon a time it was difficult to get someone to read in public. Now I am delighted to see the confidence and ability not just of church readers, but of many of our young school children both in reading and speaking. This is a positive side to the new Ireland. This booklet can improve on existing practice, achieving “best practice” – a real method of renewal for the people of this diocese and beyond.
What I particularly liked about this booklet is that it handles the notion of diction, sense, punctuation and pace in a concise and very practical way. There is a wonderful mixture of lectio divina, prayer, practical advice and information. This production comes out of experience – a process that involved the people involved in liturgical formation and moved from there into the hands of the Diocesan Theology Forum.
The bible we open is not just a book of poetry, or of historical events and fables, or of tradition, but of our lives, providing us with a way of direction for Christian life. Some months ago on a BBC radio interview I heard a leader of the Islamic community in Britain speaking about street violence in their community. He used the phrase, with reference to some of his young people, “they have lost the inner moral compass of their lives.” Without the guidance of the Word we too may be danger of loosing our inner moral compass. The liturgical assembly is “a school of the Word.” The role of lector is not just a function but ministering in love – God giving us our food in due season. As someone once said, regarding the Rule of St. Benedict, it is more a manual to be lived than a spiritual or legal document to be read. Rather than reading in, let it read you. How much more could we speak about hearing the Word and then quickly forgetting it! It is to be lived.
I congratulate all who worked on this beautifully produced little booklet. It will be used, I hope, further afield than this diocese. Would I use it, I asked myself, and the answer was definitely – Yes.

[1] Ciferni, A., “Word and Sacrament”, NDSW, 1318.
[2] See Neh 8
[3] Magrassi, M., Praying the Bible: An Introduction to Lectio Divina, (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1998) 3.
[4] SC 7.
[5] Is 40:8-9.
[6] see Augustine, In Johannem 80,3.
[7] Christmas Preface.
[8] Heb 4:12.
[9] See Is 55:11.