I have not seen research regarding the impact of the Sunday Scripture proclamations on the ubiquitous “man in the pew.” There are numerous long term studies about the effectiveness of preaching, but I am in the dark as to what actually happens during the tripartite proclamations of the Scripture at Sunday Mass. No irreverence intended, but there are some pretty outlandish statements in many readings that, at the least, might raise an eyebrow. In yesterday’s (Sunday’s) reading, for example, the author of the Book of Jonah (Jonah 3: 1-5,10) observes that the sinful city of Nineveh was so big that three days were necessary to transverse it on foot. This would make Nineveh the size of Lima, Peru, or Mexico City, both of whose populations are in the ball park of 10,000,000 souls. Or in yesterday’s second reading (1 Corinthians 7:29-31) we are told to live as if we did not have spouses. The grand daddy of all “what was that again?” moments in the Lectionary is Year A, Palm Sunday, when Matthew observes that at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross the graves opened and the dead awoke, and (three days later!?) they arose and appeared to many in Jerusalem. No one has ever stood up in church and asked, “Uh, can you read that line again?”
When Karl Marx described religion as “the opiate of the masses,” perhaps he would have been more precise to describe the Liturgy of the Word as “the opiate of the Masses.” For despite the nature of Scripture as the Word of God, and despite the powerful literary accounts contained therein, the congregational response is, with apologies to Mel Torme, “a velvet fog.” My sense is that there is generic respect for the Word but with an existential distance, like eating spinach “because it’s good for you” without understanding the life-giving properties of Vitamin K.
It would be an easy out to say that part of the problem is the style of proclamation, a responsibility of lectors and deacons, and, in times of necessity, a celebrating priest. (Liturgical law is clear that proclaiming the Gospel during the Eucharist is not a “presidential function” and is to be undertaken by a deacon or priestly concelebrant; the celebrant proclaims only in necessity.) Another consideration is the homily. Again, Church law defines the role of the homilist as developing “some point of the readings.” While I do regret that most homilists seem unskilled in unraveling the details of God’s Word—more often resorting to a general exhortation of “the good, the true, the beautiful”—I am not sure this is the heart of the problem, either.
The biggest problem on Sundays is that most participants are hearing the texts for the first time in three years, that moment. A onetime exposure to a text at Mass is an introductory handshake. There is no knowledge of the sacred author or his intent; no sense of what happened immediately before or immediately after the cited text (absence of context). There is no “book consciousness,” no sense that Jonah, for example, is a Biblical philosophy book, not a divinely inspired miracle of marine biology; or that Paul, in Corinthians, was preparing a congregation for an imminent end of the world/final judgment.
As catechists and religious educators we do well to remember that the Scripture proclamations in the Mass are there to be celebrated, not taught in a technical way. The teaching component of faith formation is an absolute necessity for the celebration of Word and Communion. A basic grounding in the Scripture books enables us to actively hear the Mass texts and frees us to reflect at higher levels: this is God’s eternal word given over thousands of years; there would be no saving life, no hope, without this Revelation. Because of God’s infinite wisdom, this holy Word is presented in many and varied ways. There is, or should be, an emotional component to the hearing no matter how familiar we may be with the Sunday texts.
A good motto here might be “Sunday Is Not the First Run Through.” (I worked at the phrasing, and this was the best I could do this morning.) But you get the idea, and over time so will your people.