Praying with the Lectionary
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The liturgical reading of the most important Scripture passages in the eucharistic assembly, especially when accompanied by a good homily, is one of the great formative forces in Christian life. No one assumes, however, that it is enough. Beyond reading and hearing the word of God, and beyond homiletic reflection on it, we need to pray with it, and an excellent way of doing so is to pray with the readings selected for the liturgy that Sunday or that day, as the case may be.
Praying with the Lectionary should normally begin with the Gospel reading, since the Gospel text is what governed the choice of the first reading, that from the Old Testament, and the responsorial psalm which moves us beyond stories of faith, prophetic announcements and wisdom instruction directly into prayer.
The same is true of the Alleluia and its verse. After the Gospel, on can then take up the first reading, the psalm and the second reading, in that order. That way we follow the order that governed the formation of the liturgy of the word for each celebration. The second time around, someone may prefer to start with the first reading and follow the order of the liturgy of the word as it is actually celebrated.
In praying with the Lectionary for a particular Sunday, it often proves helpful to recall the previous Sunday's readings and even to glance at those for the Sunday that follows. That way the Gospel text will be seen in biblical context as well as in liturgical context. This is especially helpful when the reading is the continuation of a long discourse of Jesus and such as we find in the Gospel of John. It is good to recall the concrete setting in which Jesus gave the discourse. Otherwise, the reading appears too abstract, even in the case of something as familiar as the Sermon on the Mount. Sometimes one has to go back several Sundays to find the setting.
In seasons such as Advent and Lent, when the Gospel readings for each Sunday are meant to form one continuous Advent Gospel and Lenten Gospel, it is even more helpful to place each Sunday's Gospel reading in the context of the entire season. For example, it is much easier to pray with the Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent, which looks to the final return of Christ, when we know that it forms the introduction for the Advent Gospel. With it, the Church wants us to situate ourselves squarely in our own moment of history. Jesus' life, teaching and miracles, as well as his passion, resurrection and ascension, all are behind us. We are in the era of the Church, looking ahead to the final coming of Christ, his second and definitive advent. Then on the second Sunday, for all three cycles, a Gospel story about John the Baptist and his mission models how we are to prepare the way for Christ's final coming.
Prayerful reading is, first, a close attentive reading, open to what the Gospel and the other lessons say to us. This requires that we respect the Gospel's literary form. We do this easiest in the case of actual prayers, such as the Lord's Prayer, the Psalms, and the Magnificat, Mary's great song of praise. All of these were meant to be prayer. Even so, a prayer of supplication is not the same as one of repentance or praise, and our prayer must respect the difference. Our attitude should be attuned to the nature of each prayer.

In praying with the little stories told by Jesus, his parables, respecting the literary form includes taking note of the context in which the story was told, to whom Jesus told it, and what occasioned his telling it. The story of the prodigal son, for example, is well understood when we note that it came in response to the complaint of Pharisees and their scribes that Jesus was welcoming tax collectors and others who failed to observe the law and that he was actually eating with them. Only then does it become clear that its principal focus is on the older brother who refused to celebrate the return of his younger brother who had gone astray but had now returned home (Lk 15: 1-32). We are never told what the older brother did. Did he persist in resisting his father's pleading? Did he finally overcome his anger and hurt feelings and join in the reconciliation banquet? We do not know. The reading invites us to provide our own feelings and answer those questions based on what we would do. It provides an excellent launching pad for prayer.

Prophetic texts and the letters of Paul speak to us directly in the second person. We need to listen to them, meditate on how they apply to us and ask for the strength to hear their message and live by it. Like some of Jesus' own prophetic statements, which ask that we reform our lives and believe the Gospel, they can be extremely challenging. Even to hear what they ask of us is a difficult and purifying experience.

Then, of course, there are the stories, usually written in the third person. There are stories of Abraham and Sarah, stories of Moses and the exodus, stories of Jesus, his disciples and the apostolic community. These require special attention.

In every case, but especially in that of stories, it is most important to engage the imagination. This means we have to resist the temptation to rest satisfied with finding the point of the story. We need to enter the story, that is, think of ourselves among its personages, listening and responding with them to what Jesus and others say. We need to enter eager to join in the dialogue.

There is no engaging the imagination without taking time to picture the place where the event in the story takes place. We need also to pay attention to the time at which it occurs. Being in Jerusalem for Passover is not like being anywhere else at Passover, and eating Passover away from Jerusalem is not the same as eating it in the ancient city of David, Israel's great symbol of freedom, of the Lord's presence, and of every blessed hope.

Only when the imagination is engaged can we follow the contours of the story as participants, attentive to those moments when it invites prayer. The moments of invitation include the sayings and other teachings of Jesus. Sometimes no one in the story responds to them. This silence calls for our response. Other moments consist in questions, such as Jesus' questions to the disciples: "Who do people say that I am?" We know how the disciples and Peter answered. How shall we answer?

The biblical stories are filled with great images: the garden of Eden, the tower of Babel, Mount Sinai, the desert of the exodus, the Jordan crossing, the ascent to Jerusalem, the shores of the Sea of Galilee, Simon's fishing boat, the loaves, the fishes, drinking the cup Jesus drinks - all of these must lodge in our imagination. Then when we leave formal prayer they accompany us throughout the day. What was it like to cross the Sea of Galilee in a little boat when a storm suddenly descended? Does that ever happen to us? Where is the Lord Jesus at those moments? Is he sleeping in the bow of the boat? And what are we to think when Jesus chides his disciples for having so little faith?

The readings in the Lectionary ask many questions of us. We too must be able to ask many questions of them. Why does Mark call his Gospel. "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God"? Was this story of passion and death really a beginning? What does this say to us of moments in our lives that seem to be the end? Might they not, like Mark's Gospel, be new beginnings? Passion and resurrection are over and over again. Ah, yes, Lord! That we may see!

Reprinted from THE CATECHUMENS COMPANION, published by Paulist Press, 1999 Paulist Press. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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