June 6, 2021

Now that we have completed our tour of the Introductory Rites of the Mass (Greeting, Penitential Act, Gloria, Opening Prayer or Collect) we now turn for the next few weeks to the Liturgy of the Word.

Introductory remarks about the Bible and book production.

The Bible is more accurately thought of as a library, rather than as a single book. This “library” contains many different kinds or genres of writing: history, prophecy, poetry, wisdom literature, letters, songs, and more. In modern terms, the Bible is less like a book than a Kindle– i.e., a device that contains numerous different books.

The original books of the two testaments were written on scrolls, which was the technology of the time. (Remember also that in Jesus’s time, when they referred to scripture, they meant the Old Testament– the New Testament didn’t exist then.) These Old Testament scrolls required significant storage space, and required unfurling to arrive at the desired passage. Remember Jesus’ first appearance in the Temple, when he unfurled the scroll of the prophet Isaiah to read, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me…” Books, as we know them, had not yet been invented.

The “codex” was an early version of what we call a “book”: a stack of pages bound together along one side, so that one could flip through the pages with what today we call “random access”. The “codex” was first described by the Roman poet Martial in the 1st century A.D., and praised for its convenience. (Ironically, Martial wrote the bawdiest poetry to survive from Roman times.) By the time Christianity had been decriminalized in the Roman Empire (Edict of Milan, 313 A.D.), the codex was just beginning to overtake the scroll in popularity. By 600 A.D., the Greco-Roman world had become overwhelmingly Christianized, and the codex had completely replaced the scroll as the dominant format of book-making. Providentially, the codex replaced the scroll at the same time that early Christian writings, and the canon of scripture itself, were created. (As a side note, it is unlikely that electronic books will ever completely replace “real” books, because electronic books require a degree of “scrolling” to locate a particular text, which is the functional equivalent to the ancient scroll format.)

The second great technological advance affecting proclamation of the Word was the invention of the printing press in about 1440. By 1500, printing presses in Europe had already printed 20 million volumes. By the mid-1500’s, printing presses had created 150-200 million volumes. This form of mass communication, in vernacular languages, made possible the Protestant Reformation and permanently altered the structure of society. The Christian faith survived for 1,500 years– 3/4 of its history– before there were printed Bibles, and was never the same afterward. 

In the present day, we are undergoing a similar revolution in mass-communication. This will continue to alter the structure of society in huge ways, and will have no less a dramatic effect on the proclamation of the Word and on religious communities.

Most religions recognize the importance of gathering in person as a worship community, Christian faith is not just a disembodied idea– it is faith in an Incarnate God in the person of Jesus. For that reason, the Catholic Church requires incarnate, physical presence for the celebration of the sacraments. The Sacrament of Reconciliation requires the physical presence of both priest and penitent, conferred by the unaided human voice. We can watch Mass from home, but the consecration of the bread and wine and receiving Holy Communion requires physical presence. (Otherwise, the priest could record and transmit Mass virtually, while people place bread and wine in front of the screen and have Holy Communion at home.)      

Next week: More on the proclamation of the Word, and the Liturgy of the Word at Mass.


Fr. Bill Donahue

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