Rhythm of the Scripture Readings

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Rhythm of the Scripture Readings

ROME, 14 DEC. 2004 (ZENIT)

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: How and by what process is the daily Scripture reading determined? I know there is a cycle A, B and C, but still I am unsure as to how the daily structure is determined.—J.M., Fort Worth, Texas

A: I will take the opportunity to talk about the general structure of the reading in general, including Sundays.

In the early Church the readings were usually organized on a simple basis of continuity; that is, they took off from where they had finished the previous Sunday.

As the liturgical year developed, certain readings began to be reserved for certain feast days and seasons and so a thematic cycle developed.

When the Second Vatican Council asked for the selection of readings used at Mass to be increased, the experts took inspiration from the two ancient methods of continuity and thematic readings.

For Sundays they developed a three-year cycle, one for each synoptic gospel: A for Matthew, B for Mark (with five readings from St. John, Chapter 6, inserted after the 16th Sunday), and C for Luke. So during Ordinary time each Sunday Gospel continues on from the previous week.

The New Testament readings also follow this continual system, the Letters of St. Paul and St. James being read during Ordinary time because those of John and Peter are read during Christmas and Easter.

This continuous system is why they do not always seem to fit in well with the Gospel.

The Old Testament reading (or the Acts of the Apostles during Eastertide) and the responsorial psalm are chosen so as to somehow relate to the Gospel text.

During Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter and on solemnities all three readings are chosen so as to highlight the particular spiritual message of the season.

With respect to the daily readings: during Ordinary time all four Gospels are read using a semi-continual system during the course of the year. Mark weeks 1-9; Matthew 10-12; and Luke 22-34.

St. John’s Gospel is read semi-continuously, above all, during part of Lent and almost all of Eastertide on both Sundays and weekdays.

Thus almost all of Mark 1-12 is read, then the texts of Matthew and Luke that are not found in Mark.

The first daily reading, taken from either Testament, also uses a semi-continuous system organized in a two-year cycle for odd and even numbered years.

The New Testament readings offer the substance of almost all the letters whereas the Old Testament readings offer a selection of the most important elements of each book. Almost all of the books are represented except some brief prophets and the Song of Songs.

Toward the end of the year the reading come from Revelation and Daniel, which fit well with the apocalyptic sermons from Luke.

Unlike the readings for ordinary time the daily readings of Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter have been chosen to relate to each other and to reflect the liturgical season.

A special characteristic of Eastertide is the reading from the Acts of the Apostles as first reading every day.

They also repeat the same readings each year and are not divided into an even-odd cycle. ZE041214222

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Follow-up: Rhythm of the Readings [01-11-2005]

A couple of questions arose related to our piece on the rhythm of the readings (Dec. 14).

A reader from Nova Scotia asked as to the propriety of a practice recently introduced of "repeating the Sunday liturgy on Mondays for a few boys who often do not come to Sunday Mass because of sports activities though they could easily get to one of the other Masses in the neighboring churches, also under the charge of our pastor."

This practice is certainly incorrect and sends the wrong message by seeming to give more importance to sports activities than to honoring the Lord's Day.

While sports have their importance they can never constitute a necessary activity, such as the case of a firefighter or ambulance driver who have to work. In those cases the person would be dispensed from the obligation of attending Sunday Mass if there are no viable options.

Likewise, as you mention, it is possible to assist at a different Mass either on Saturday evening or on Sunday itself. Sunday is not a transferable feast and one may not fulfill the obligation on any other day.

It is true that in certain countries in the Arabian world, where most Christians are immigrant workers, the Sunday liturgy is sometimes celebrated on Friday (the Muslim day of prayer) as well as Sunday because for many Christians Sunday is a normal working day and they cannot attend Mass.

This gives them an opportunity to worship that they might not otherwise have. But it does not, strictly speaking, substitute or transfer Sunday as there is no obligation to assist on Friday if Sunday is impossible.

The above adaptation to exceptionally grave circumstances would not justify celebrating on Monday because of sporting commitments.

Another reader asked if it were permissible to habitually join the Divine Office to Mass, and if the penitential rite is omitted in this case.

The norms regarding this are contained in the General Instruction of the Divine Office, Nos. 93-99.

No. 93 says: "In special cases, if the circumstances require it, a liturgical hour celebrated in public or in common may be joined more closely with Mass, provided that they are both of the same Office. ... Care should be taken to ensure that this is not pastorally harmful, especially on Sundays."

When an office (usually Morning Prayer or Prayer during the Day, more rarely Evening Prayer and Readings, but never Night Prayer) is thus joined to Mass, No. 94 of the norms foresee that the penitential rite is omitted as also the "Lord have Mercy" if so desired. Mass would then continue with the Gloria or the Collect as the case may be.

Since No. 93 specifically states that this practice is "in special cases," doing so habitually in a typical parish Mass does not seem justified although one cannot go so far as to say it is forbidden. It may even be quite legitimate in monastic and other communities with an established tradition of common prayer.

It would probably be better, from a pastoral stance, to habitually separate the Mass and the Office while occasionally using the option of joining them on special occasions such as a popular local saint.

Otherwise the faithful and the celebrant might be deprived of important graces that often come during the penitential rite as well as the experience of the full use of the different formulas for this rite provided in the Roman Missal. ZE05011122

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