Missa – Epistolē
The second reading in the Liturgy of the Word directs us to a portion of the New Testament which is separate from the four Gospels. The Epistles which make up the majority of these writings take the spotlight, however the book of Acts and Revelation will also make an appearance.
The New Testament or Christian Scriptures consist of 27 books, 4 of which are Gospels. After the Gospels comes the book Acts, which tells a history of the early church, and at the end is the book of Revelation, a prophetic apocalypse dealing with christian eschatology, or in plainer terms the “end times”; however, it must also be noted that the primary function of Revelation is a disclosure of Jesus Christ as the Most High God, the Lamb who sits on the throne at the right hand of the Father.
Sandwiched between this ‘beginning’ in Acts and the ‘end’ in Revelation are a collection of Letters or Epistles (greek) written to the church in the Apostolic Age. The majority of these are attributed to the Apostle Paul and are referred to as the Pauline Epistles. These include Romans, Corinthians and Galatians, all the way to Hebrews; making 14 in all. The remaining 7 are called the catholic or general epistles and their authorship is indicated in their names, James, Peter, Jude and John.
The Epistles demonstrate the Apostolic nature and function of the church. Written before the Gospels, these letters expose the Tradition that was being formed by those sent by Christ to bring the Gospel to the world. Paul, in most of his letters, states right at the beginning, the authority he has to instruct and teach as he declares himself an apostle. He explains the gospel, handles disputes and settles arguments, he also corrects and admonishes the churches he writes to. This we also find in the other epistles. The important thing to understand is that during this time, there was no “canon” of the New Testament. It was being written, collected and passed around among the early church, but for all the teaching and theology of Christianity during its formative years, a believer couldn’t just pick up a bible and start reading; they had to rely on the Apostolic Tradition which is still the primary function in the teaching authority of the church. With the canonization of the Sacred Scriptures, which were also a result of this Tradition, we have what is termed now as the written Word. This in combination with the spoken Word, or Sacred Tradition make up what we call the “Deposit of Faith.” And it is this function which is clearly demonstrated in the epistles, as the Apostles teach the message handed to them by Christ, and explain the scriptures that were available to those in the early church period, which we now call the Old Testament.
In the mass, the second reading will often tie in with the first reading from the Old Testament and bridge into the Gospel reading which will follow, demonstrating the continuity between the testaments. As with the first reading, upon it’s conclusion the lector will say “The Word of the Lord” to which the church responds “Thanks be to God”.