The Tables of Word and Sacrament

In an article for the December issue of Faith Today, Fr Adrian Graffy recalls that the first topic debated by the Fathers at the Second Vatican Council was the Sacred Liturgy. The Council brought about a new clarity in seeing the Mass as the Liturgies of Word and Sacrament.

When we consider the changes in the celebration of the Mass introduced by the Second Vatican Council, most of us think immediately of the change of language, from Latin to the vernacular. Perhaps even more significant than this was the clarification that at Mass there are two ‘liturgies’, also seen as two ‘tables’ from which we are fed. We read in the Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Liturgy: ‘The two parts which go to make up the Mass, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, are so closely connected that they form but one single act of worship.’ (Sacrosanctum Concilium 56) The Council Fathers went on to encourage full participation in the entire Mass.

The Council refers to these ‘two tables’. In paragraph 51 we read: ‘The treasures of the Bible are to be opened up more lavishly so that a richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s word.’ And in paragraph 48: ‘Christian believers should be formed by God’s word, and nourished at the table of the Lord’s Body.’

This refocusing on the two parts of the Mass might seem something novel. Far from it! Its deepest origins are visible in the Emmaus story in Luke chapter 24, when the hearts of the disciples ‘burned within them’ as Jesus explained the Scriptures, and when their ‘eyes were opened’ at the breaking of bread. In the Acts of the Apostles we read that the disciples of the Lord remained faithful to ‘the teaching of the apostles, to the community, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers.’ (Acts 2:42) St Justin Martyr, writing in his ‘First Apology’ about the year 150, tells how the Christian community would gather on the Lord’s Day to read the writings of the prophets and apostles and to celebrate the Eucharist: ‘The recollections of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as there is time.’

A fascinating insight into reverence for the two tables of word and sacrament is given by Caesarius, who became archbishop of Arles in the year 502. He writes: ‘The Word of God is in no way less than the Body of Christ; nor should it be received less worthily. I ask you, brothers and sisters, tell me: which seems to you the greater, the word of God or the Body of Christ? If you wish to say what is true you will have to answer that the word of God is not less than the Body of Christ.

‘Therefore just as when the Body of Christ is administered to us, what care do we not use so that nothing of it falls from our hands to the ground, so should we with equal care see that the word of God which is being imparted to us shall not be lost to our soul, while we speak or think of something else.

‘For he who listens carelessly to the word of God is not less guilty than he who through his inattention suffers the Body of Christ to fall to the ground.’ (Sermo 300) One of the most treasured books of spiritual guidance is the Imitation of Christ, written by Thomas a Kempis in the fifteenth century. He writes: ‘Shut up in the prison of the body, I need food and light. This is why you have given this poor weak thing your sacred Flesh to nourish soul and body, and your Word to shine like a lamp for my feet.

‘I could not live without these two things, for the Word of God is the light of the soul, and your sacrament the Bread of Life. They may be regarded as two tables set in the treasure house of the Church. The one is the table of the sacred altar on which a holy bread rests, that is the precious body of Jesus Christ. The other is the table of the divine Law, which contains the holy doctrine, which teaches the true faith, which lifts the veil of the sanctuary, and leads us surely to the Holy of Holies.

‘I thank you, Lord Jesus, Light of eternal light, for having given us through the ministry of the prophets, the apostles, and other teachers, this table of the holy doctrine.’ (IV, 2, 4)

Christ comes ‘in Word and Sacrament to strengthen us in holiness’. Reflection on the Mass as essentially offering the two gifts of Word and Sacrament has led to new reverence for the Word. In his 2010 Apostolic Exhortation following the Synod on the Word of God Pope Benedict spoke about the ‘sacramentality’ of the word.

‘The sacramentality of the word can be understood by analogy with the real presence of Christ under the appearances of the consecrated bread and wine. Christ, truly present under the species of bread and wine, is analogously present in the word proclaimed in the liturgy. A deeper understanding of the sacramentality of God’s word can thus lead us to a more unified understanding of the mystery of revelation, which takes place through deeds and words intimately connected; an appreciation of this can only benefit the spiritual life of the faithful and the Church’s pastoral activity.’ (Verbum Domini 56) The Second Vatican Council rediscovered many treasures from the ancient tradition of the Church to present them in a fresh way for the Church of today. Its insights are still bearing fruit. The Year of Faith proclaimed by Pope Benedict to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Council is a time of grace to explore the Council’s teaching more fully as we seek to witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the changing and challenging world of today.

This article was published in Faith Today, December 2012: See the article in its original print format (PDF).

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