Songwriters put notes on paper.
That’s not music. You make the music.
~ Guitarist Tommy Tedesco of The Wrecking Crew
Let’s say dreams come true, and I get to see Van Morrison in concert somewhere, somehow, some day. Aw, man, it would be so great – a once in a lifetime opportunity! I doubt I’d sleep the night before, and I’d be checking on my ticket every hour or so – to see if it was still there, still real.
Then, the moment would arrive: I’m there in the audience, the instruments are tuning; the microphones are getting the “check, check, one, two” treatment – and it begins. Van kicks off the first song…
…and I drop my eyes to some wireless gadget in my lap, Google the lyrics, and read along as Van is singing on stage.
Right? Noooo, of course not! I’d soak it all in – a total immersion, listening to and watching a great songwriter give voice to his own compositions, himself, in person! They’re songs I mostly know already by heart anyway, but even if I didn’t, why would I waste that exquisite privilege by reading along?
That’s what I think of when I go to church and see folks with their noses in the missalettes – those little booklets in the pew that contain all the readings and parts of the Mass. Worse still is when their eyes are glued to iPhones or other gadgets as they follow along on apps while the lector drones on pointlessly up front.
It’s like every college student’s worst nightmare: A professor that flashes one PowerPoint slide after another, reading them word for word. Then, as if to purposely add insult to injury, he’ll sometimes pass out lecture notes with the slides already on them. Torture.
“The readings from the Word of God are to be listened to reverently by everyone,” the General Instruction explains, “for they are an element of the greatest importance in the Liturgy.” Catch that? Listened to, not scanned, not perused. In the liturgy, the Word of God is meant to be uttered and received. Here’s more from the General Instruction:
When the Sacred Scriptures are read in the Church, God himself speaks to his people, and Christ, present in his word, proclaims the Gospel.
The lector thus becomes another alter Christus, parallel to the priest who will confect the Eucharist and give us Jesus to eat. Dei Verbum makes this parallel quite explicit by insisting that in the Mass, the Church “unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God’s word and of Christ’s body.”
So the lector’s job really is a vital one, but we treat it as if it were purely functional – a task that is required by the rubrics, yet largely irrelevant since we have the text so readily available, usually right there in the pew. “A reading from the First Letter of…,” the lector begins, which ought to put us on the edge of our seats. It’s Christ himself, after all, announcing his Word – the Logos, his very divine Self, enunciated for us, for me!
And yet, what’s our typical response? “Ho-hum (*yawn*), maybe I’ll grab the missalette and read along.”
Don’t get me wrong: Reading Scripture for ourselves isn’t bad, and the Church has never asserted anything even close to that – despite the lingering anti-Catholic canard to the contrary. Indeed, there’s no question Gutenberg did all of Christendom a huge favor by inventing the printing press and making the Bible easily and universally obtainable. Yet personal Bible reading ought to be reserved to times outside of Mass, and particularly around Mass – like, for example, a family coming together to read the Gospel before church, or reflecting on it at home afterwards.
When we’re at Mass, however, we should skip the missalette altogether lest we fall into what is essentially a Protestant approach to the Liturgy of the Word. In keeping with the Reformation precept that everyone should interpret the Bible for himself, many Protestants bring their own Bibles to church and read along as the Scriptures are read. It’s as if they’re checking up on the reader’s accuracy and precision – almost like rabbis peering over the shoulder of a young boy reading the Torah at his bar mitzvah. But if we’re reading, we’re not really listening, and the Liturgy of the Word becomes just another cerebral exercise instead of an incarnated, holistic epiphany.
Sacred Scripture was meant to be received aurally in the liturgy, in the same way that classic iconography depicts the Blessed Mother receiving the Word of God via a dove entering her ear. In fact, we call that blessed event the Annunciation because it was St. Gabriel’s “announcement” that itself realized the miracle of Jesus’ virginal conception. “Come and gaze upon this marvelous feat,” St. Athanasius attests, “the woman conceives through the hearing of her ears!” We’re called to do the same during the readings at Mass: To imitate Our Lady in receiving the Lord through hearing a proclamation, much as her cousin Elizabeth “received” an encounter with Jesus the moment she heard Mary’s greeting at the Visitation.
And the missalettes? Should we ditch them outright? I wouldn’t go that far, for there are circumstances when they do come in handy – and are even necessary. For instance, those who are hearing impaired have to rely on missalettes when there are no sign language interpreters or amplification devices available. Plus, let’s face it, sometimes it’s not easy to understand certain lectors, even if you want to. I know for myself that if I’m up front reading, and I see folks reaching for their missalettes, I automatically assume that I’m doing a lousy job – that my “proclamation” is not “audible and intelligible” as the Catechism says it should be.
Still, I probably shouldn’t be so hard on myself, because I know that many of us grab the missalette and open it up out of habit, regardless of how good the lector is. What I’m suggesting, I suppose, is that we should break that habit, and experience the Liturgy of the Word as it was meant to be experienced: Through our ears.
Think of it this way: When you go to your local library branch with an armful of books and videos to return, do you ever hip-bump the blue handicapped button and wait for the door to open automatically – even though you’re not handicapped? I know I do, and that’s not so bad, right? But here’s the bad part: It’s now a habit for me, even when I don’t have an armful of books. Yup, it’s true, I’ll whack that blue button out of sheer laziness, especially if I have a contingent of kids with me. What ought to be an extraordinary, occasional use of an assistive device has become ordinary and routine.
This Lent, why not add to your fasting regimen by abstaining from missalette use completely and trust your lectors to convey the Word of God to you. By the time Easter rolls around, I’m guessing you won’t go back, for you’ll have discovered how much more you can get out of Mass when you truly “hear, contemplate, and do in the celebration” (CCC 1101).