The First Reading for this past Sunday (Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C) holds a very special place for me. It is a reading that I distinctly remember from my days as a Baptist, and it had a profound effect on shaping my love for the Scriptures. The reading was Neh 8:2-6, 8-10:
Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, which consisted of men, women, and those children old enough to understand. Standing at one end of the open place that was before the Water Gate, he read out of the book from daybreak till midday, in the presence of the men, the women, and those children old enough to understand; and all the people listened attentively to the book of the law. Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the occasion. He opened the scroll so that all the people might see it— for he was standing higher up than any —; and, as he opened it, all the people rose. Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people, their hands raised high, answered, “Amen, amen!” Then they bowed down and prostrated themselves before the LORD, their faces to the ground. Ezra read plainly from the book of the law of God,interpreting it so that all could understand what was read. Then Nehemiah, that is, His Excellency, and Ezra the priest-scribe and the Levites who were instructing the people said to all the people: “Today is holy to the LORD your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep” — for all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law. He said further: “Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and alot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to our LORD. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the LORD must be your strength!”
I remember when my Baptist pastor preached on this passage, he instilled within me a love for God’s Word and a love for hearing the preaching of God’s Word. I remember that the sermon was a powerful one which showed how important God’s Word was for God’s people – after all, it must have been important if the people were prepared to stand for six hours while they listened to the reading of the Torah. And then Ezra took up his place on a pulpit and explained the Scriptures to the people.
From that day I have been convinced that people should stand when they hear the Scriptures being read in a public assembling, and that the Scriptures should be powerfully expounded so as to open hearts and minds to pursue deeper holiness. In addition, as a Protestant, this passage was for me a strong proof of Sola Scriptura and the centrality of the pulpit in the church building, given that this was where the pastor would preach God’s Word.
I look back now and see how some of my understanding was wrongly coloured by my pre-conceived Protestant assumptions (e.g. it is not the pulpit that should be central, but the altar; because it is not the preacher that is central, but Christ). But, there was also much good that I learned as a Protestant – which I am now able, as a Catholic, to more fully embrace. This is because Protestantism contains traces of truth (varying in greater and lesser degrees, depending which denomination and church you attend), whereas the Catholic faith is the fullness of Truth.
Something that struck me very early on in my conversion to the Catholic Church is that the Mass is filled with far more Scripture than ANY Protestant service I ever attended. Apart from every action in the Liturgy being saturated with Sacred Scripture, the first half of the Mass is specifically titled “The Liturgy of the Word” – because during the first part of the Mass, we are fed with Christ from the Table of the Word. At every Mass on a Sunday or Solemnity, we hear three specific readings from Scripture – Old Testament (Prophets), New Testament (Apostles), and Gospel. And there is even a Responsorial Psalm thrown in as well. [This differs for weekday Masses, where the Old Testament Reading is omitted; and during the Easter Season, where the Old Testament Reading is replaced by a reading from the book of Acts]. These Scriptures are read from the Ambo, a wooden pulpit made specifically for that purpose.
What’s more, out of reverence for the Person and Work of Christ, the entire congregation stands for the reading of the Gospel.
After the readings, the priest (or deacon) will break open the Scriptures in the Homily, and seek to apply the Scriptures to the lives of those who have ears to hear.
Just considering these things, we can already see that the Holy Mass is faithful to the pattern followed by Ezra. But if we dig deeper, we begin to see that what happens in the Holy Mass is actually closer to the pattern set by Ezra than a Protestant worship service.
Many Protestants cringe at the idea of “ritual” in worship, as they do the idea of following a liturgical calendar. But notice that Ezra’s reading and exposition of the was a ritual that occurred within the context of a liturgical calendar on the annual Feast of Booths (cp Neh 8:2 with Deut 31:10-13). Like Israel of old, the Church continues to adopt the practice of rituals within the context of a liturgical calendar.
Notice also that Ezra forbade the people from mourning on this specific occasion, given that it was not in accordance with the liturgical occasion being celebrated. That sounds remarkably similar to the Catholic practise of observing different liturgical seasons in different ways e.g. Lent and Advent are times focussed on fasting, preparation, and sombreness; whereas Easter and Christmas are filled with joy and celebration.
Something that is particularly interesting here is that Ezra exercised his authority as a priest to command the people not to mourn on this occasion – and he didn’t make any appeal to Scripture (contrary to the notion of Sola Scriptura). Rather, it was by virtue of his authority as a priest that the people were bound to obey.
Moreover, we see that the celebration itself was liturgical in nature. The people all stood upon the opening of the book; then Ezra pronounced a blessing, to which all the people had a uniform response (“Amen, Amen”) whilst all raising their hands. Then they all prostrated themselves and worshipped the Lord. This uniformity of action and response points to a liturgical structure which was already in place – there is no way that this uniformity of action and response could ever be achieved in a setting where everyone was acting independently and spontaneously.
This highlights some very important points...
Catholics are often accused of hating Scripture, and rejecting it in favour of traditions and rituals. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Without the Catholic Church, there would be no Bible as we know it. Not only was the New Testament Canon (which is accepted by all Protestants) officially defined by the Catholic Church; but the Catholic Church has also been the defender of Sacred Scripture for 2,000 years and will continue to do so until the Lord returns. The Catholic Church loves and venerates Sacred Scripture, and everything that the Church does and teaches is grounded firmly in Scripture.
As we have seen from the example of Ezra’s reading of the Torah, this includes ritualistic worship. In other words, ritualistic liturgical worship is Scriptural worship. In fact, this passage in Nehemiah shows that Sacred Scripture is not only at home, but is also intended to be read and understood, within the liturgy of God’s people.
Despite their good intentions, those Protestants who claim to reject any form of liturgical ritual and accuse Catholics of false worship (simply because our worship incorporates ritual) do so wrongly. On the contrary, this passage from Nehemiah shows that ritual has its place in the worship of God’s people.
[I might add that Protestants who supposedly reject “rituals” have their own rituals. They claim that their worship and prayer is relatively spontaneous, and thus “led by the Spirit”; but one doesn’t have to attend their worship services or prayer meetings for very long to notice underlying structures and patterns in their worship (aka liturgical rituals), or particular phrases within their prayers that are not unlike “rote” prayers often used by Catholics].
But there is one more point in this passage which points to the Mass as being more faithful to Ezra’s pattern than a Protestant worship service.
The first part of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Word, is very clearly foreshadowed in this Old Testament ceremony. But what about the second part, the Liturgy of the Eucharist?
Ezra tells God’s people that they are not to mourn; instead they were instructed to go their way, and eat the fat and drink the wine; and send portions to those who were without.
This, I think, is an allusion to the Eucharist because when we celebrate the Eucharist, we are celebrating the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. The Eucharist is a wedding feast in which we are fed and nourished with the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Then at the end of the Mass we are dismissed, not unlike Ezra’s dismissal of the people, to go on our way (“Go, the Mass is ended”) so that we can live lives filled with the joy and presence of Jesus Christ.
To eat the “rich foods” and “drink its sweet wine” meant to eat and drink the very best that the Promised Land had to offer. This was the shadow...and its fulfilment is eating and drinking of the very best of our Heavenly Homeland, that is, the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Most Blessed Sacrament.
So, as Catholics, we shouldn’t be ashamed of embracing our liturgical rituals. Not only because they are deeply symbolic, but also because they are firmly established in Sacred Scripture. May we also continue to grow in our love for Sacred Scripture, especially when we hear it read in the Mass – because it is the Word of God given to His Holy Catholic Church. As we listen to the Scriptures read in the Liturgy, we receive Jesus in the Table of the Word – which in turn prepares us to receive Him in the Table of the Eucharist.