ROME, 11 SEPT 2018 (ZENIT) Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: We have a practice in our seminary where the seminarians would preach during Vespers of Saturday evening. It is after the reading and before the responsory. However, the formator asked that instead of reading the readings in the breviary, we read the Sunday Gospel since that is the basis of our preaching and Sunday reflection. Is changing the readings of Evening Prayer I of Sunday to the Sunday Gospel allowed? — R.S., Manila, Philippines
A: The short answer is no. The short reading at Vespers (or any other office) may not be substituted by any Gospel text.
The introduction to the Liturgy of the Hours describes the nature of the readings in general during the office:
“140. The reading of sacred Scripture, which, following an ancient tradition, takes place publicly in the liturgy, is to have special importance for all Christians, not only in the celebration of the Eucharist but also in the divine office. The reason is that this reading is not the result of individual choice or devotion but is the planned decision of the Church itself, in order that in the course of the year the Bride of Christ may unfold the mystery of Christ ‘from his incarnation and birth until his ascension, the day of Pentecost, and the expectation of blessed hope and of the Lord’s return.’ In addition, the reading of sacred Scripture in the liturgical celebration is always accompanied by prayer in order that the reading may have greater effect and that, in turn, prayer — especially the praying of the psalms — may gain fuller understanding and become more fervent and devout because of the reading.
“141. In the liturgy of the hours, there is a longer reading of sacred Scripture and a shorter reading.
“142. The longer reading, optional at morning prayer and evening prayer, is described in no. 46.
“Cycle of Scripture Readings in the Office of Readings
“143. The cycle of readings from sacred Scripture in the office of readings takes into account both those special seasons during which by an ancient tradition particular books are to be read and the cycle of readings at Mass. The liturgy of the hours is thus coordinated with the Mass in such a way that the scriptural readings in the office complement the readings at Mass and so provide a complete view of the history of salvation.
“144. Without prejudice to the exception noted in no. 73, there are no readings from the Gospel in the liturgy of the hours, since in the Mass each year the Gospel is read in its entirety.”
The exception in No. 73 to the exclusion of Gospel texts regards vigils and not the daytime hours:
“70. The Easter Vigil is celebrated by the whole Church, in the rites given in the relevant liturgical books. ‘The vigil of this night,’ as St. Augustine said, ‘is of such importance that it could claim exclusively for itself the name ‘vigil,’ common though this is to all the others.’ ‘We keep vigil on that night when the Lord rose again and inaugurated for us in his humanity that life … in which there is neither death nor sleep…. Hence, the one whose resurrection we celebrate by keeping watch a little longer will see to it that we reign with him by living a life without end.’
“71. As with the Easter Vigil, it was customary to begin certain solemnities (different in different Churches) with a vigil. Among these solemnities Christmas and Pentecost are pre-eminent. This custom should be maintained and fostered, according to the particular usage of each Church. Whenever it seems good to add a vigil for other solemnities or pilgrimages, the general norms for celebrations of the word should be followed.
“72. The Fathers and spiritual writers have frequently encouraged Christians, especially those who lead the contemplative life, to pray during the night. Such prayer expresses and awakens our expectation of the Lord’s Second Coming: ‘At midnight the cry went up: “See, the bridegroom is coming, go out to meet him … ” (Mt 25:6). Keep watch, then, for you do not know when the master of the house is coming, whether late or at midnight or at cockcrow or in the morning, so that if he comes unexpectedly he may not find you sleeping’ (Mk 13:35-36). All who maintain the character of the office of readings as a night office, therefore, are to be commended.
“73. Further, since in the Roman Rite the office of readings is always of a uniform brevity, especially for the sake of those engaged in apostolic work, those who desire, in accordance with tradition, to extend the celebration of the vigils of Sundays, solemnities, and feasts should do so as follows.
“First, the office of readings is to be celebrated as in The Liturgy of the Hours up to the end of the readings. After the two readings and before the Te Deum canticles should be added from the special appendix of The Liturgy of the Hours. Then the gospel should be read; a homily on the gospel may be added. After this, the Te Deum is sung and the prayer said.
“On solemnities and feasts, the gospel is to be taken from the Lectionary for Mass; on Sundays, from the series on the paschal mystery in the appendix of The Liturgy of the Hours.”
The possibility of expanding the readings in morning and evening prayer as mentioned above in No. 142 is described as follows:
“46. Especially in a celebration with a congregation, a longer Scripture reading may be chosen either from the office of readings or the Lectionary for Mass, particularly texts that for some reason have not been used. From time to time some other more suitable reading may be used, in accordance with the rules in nos. 248-249 and 251.
“47. In a celebration with a congregation, a short homily may follow the reading to explain its meaning, as circumstances suggest.”
“248. In the office of readings, the current cycle of sacred Scripture must always be respected. The Church’s intent that ‘a more representative portion of the Holy Scriptures will be read to the people in the course of a prescribed number of years’ applies also to the divine office.
“Therefore the cycle of readings from Scripture that is provided in the office of readings must not be set aside during the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter. During Ordinary Time, however, on a particular day or for a few days in succession, it is permissible, for a good reason, to choose readings from those provided on other days or even other biblical readings — for example, on the occasion of retreats, pastoral gatherings, prayers for Christian unity, or other such events.
“249. When the continuous reading is interrupted because of a solemnity or feast or special celebration, it is allowed during the same week, taking into account the readings for the whole week, either to combine the parts omitted with others or to decide which of the texts are to be preferred.
“251. The readings, prayers, songs, and intercessions appointed for the weekdays of a particular season may be used on other weekdays of the same season.”
Therefore, while the Liturgy of the Hours has a certain degree of flexibility with respect to the choice of reading, this does not include the use of the Gospel texts.
With the exception of the vigils mentioned above, the only Gospel texts in the Liturgy of the Hours are the three canticles of the Benedictus, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis.