Understanding the Sunday Lectionary

by Brant Pitre January 29, 2016

Introductory video from The Mass Readings Explained video series.

For the last 10 years or so I've been teaching Scripture at various colleges, and now in seminary, and one of the things that I've noticed over the years is that Catholics have a great love for the Mass, a great love for the liturgy, and a great love for the lectionarymore (the the collection of readings that is read every Sunday at Mass); but that a lot of us don't really necessarily understand how the lectionary was put together, how the various Scripture passages were chosen for any given day, and how they connect, or in some cases don't connect, with one another. And so for a long time now I've wanted to help people understand that more, by just giving a brief explanation of the rationale behind the Sunday lectionary. Now this could take hours to walk through all of the different seasons, like Advent and Lent, and the Christmas season, and how the readings are constructed. But because Ordinary Time, the 33 weeks of ordinary time in the Sunday readings, in that period of the church’s liturgical year, are the most frequent, and the most common, and the most well-known, I just want to make a few points about the readings for the Sundays in Ordinary Time, so that when people come to those readings, they can understand how the basic principles of organization are being utilized in the lectionary.

So basically if you go to Mass on a Sunday during Ordinary Time, which will begin not long after the new year with The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and then will go for 33 or 34 weeks, stopping with Lent and Easter, and picking up after Easter all the way down through to November, with 34th week, and that the end of Ordinary Time. That long stretch of Sundays is where the Church has readings from one of the three Gospels: Matthew in Year A, Mark in Year B, and Luke in Year C; and it takes those Gospel readings, and it reads through each one of those Gospels in order, so that we as the lay faithful can, in a sense, walk with Jesus Christ throughout his public ministry over the course of each year. Hearing his teachings, witnessing his various miracles and wonders, and also, in a sense, getting to know him by what he did and what he said during his earthly life. And the readings for the Sundays in Ordinary Time have a particular rationale that their chosen around.

So let me give you some of thef basic principles. First and foremost, to start with the the Gospel reading, every Sunday in Ordinary Time a reading is chosen from the particular Gospel for that year, either Matthew, Mark or Luke. And it's chosen according to a principal called lectio continua, or continual reading, or semi-continuous reading; by which each Sunday, if you go to Mass, your going to hear the Gospel of St. Luke, for example, read through in order. Luke chapter 3 one week, Luke chapter 4 the next week, Luke chapter 5 (or part of 5) the next week, working all the way through the public ministry of the life of Christ. And the readings for the Gospel then are kind of the anchor around which the whole lectionary operates for the Sundays in Ordinary Time.

With that in mind then, the first reading, the Old Testament reading is chosen according to a different principal. It's chosen according to what's called the principle of harmony. In other words, the Old Testament reading is selected because of the harmony or the relationship it shows with the New Testament reading from the Gospel. Usually that connection, but not always, but usually it's gonna be one of known as typology. In other words, where some event or teaching the Old Testament is a prefiguration, or a type of prototype, that points forward to the fulfillment of Jesus Christ. So on Sundays in Ordinary Time the Old Testament reading is going to be linked with the Gospel reading, and the same thing is going to be true, in a slightly different way, of the Responsorial Psalm. So after we hear the Old Testament reading, then we’ll hear the Responsorial Psalm, usually it's sung. And this Psalm, again, is not chosen haphazardly, it isn't just by what the music minister happens to like, or wants to hear that week. No. All throughout the world, the Church is hearing the same psalm, in the Responsorial Psalm, and that psalm is usually going to be a prayer from the book of Psalms, that has themes or words that are tied to the Old Testament, and tied to the Gospel. So it's chosen, once again, according to a kind of principle of harmony, or what we might call thematic harmony. It's meant to, in a sense, be a prayerful response to the harmony, and to the themes that we’re hearing in the Old Testament reading, and the gospel reading. So every week in the Sundays of Ordinary Times; the Old Testament, the Responsorial Psalm, and the Gospel, those three readings go together. They are meant to be a kind of triangulation of scriptural passages that reveal how God was preparing for Christ in the Old Testament; how the book of Psalms was praying about themes, and hopes, and dreams, in anticipation of God's salvation in the Old Testament; and then how Christ, in the Gospel, is then bringing those things to fulfillment. So those three go together: Old Testament, Psalm, and Gospel.

However, as you may know, and as you certainly know if you go to Mass regularly, there is a fourth reading, there’s a fourth passage I should say. Every Sunday in ordinary Time, a second reading will also be read that will be taken, not from the Gospels, not from the Old Testament, but from the letters of the New Testament; known as the New Testament epistles. And almost invariably this is gonna be a quote from one of the letters of St. Paul. On a few occasions it's also from the letter of St. James. So it’s either the letters of Paul or the letters of James during Ordinary Time. I don't know necessarily why this is the case, but many people have a mistaken understanding of this second reading. Sometimes people think that the second reading for the Sundays of Ordinary Time also was chosen according to the principle of harmony. In other words, that it somehow goes with the Gospel, or that it was chosen to go with the Old Testament reading, or to link the two together. Unfortunately though, that’s just is not the case, the second reading for the Sundays in Ordinary Time is on a completely independent track. It is chosen according to the same kind of principle that the Gospel is chosen on. And that principle is, one again, called lectio continua. In other words, according to the principle of continuous reading. Although the fact is little-known, when the Church restored and renewed the lectionary, after the second Vatican Council, one of the things that the Holy Father, Pope Paul VI, wanted to see done, was that there would be more preaching of the letters of St. Paul. So, for example, in the early church, figures like St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine would actually take various letters of Paul, like say Romans or 1 Corinthians, and every Sunday they would preach homilies from those letters, working through the letter of Romans chapter by chapter, or the letter of Corinthinas chapter by chapter, continually reading it over the course of 10 or 12 or even more Sundays. And so when the new lectionary came out after Vatican II, the Holy Father wanted there to be that kind of renewal of preaching about the letters of Paul. So the second reading was added according to this principle of lectio continua, so that a priest could, for example, say “for the next 10 weeks, we’re gonna work through the letter of Romans verse by verse, and section by section,” in order so that the people can understand Paul's proclamation of the Gospel as well. And for whatever reason, that isn't widely known, and so the second reading is kind of like the that stepchild that people don't pay attention to. They’re not sure how it fits into the overall framework of the lectionary. It’s kind of the the forgotten reading of the Sunday readings. And it's unfortunate that this is the case, because those readings are often very rich. They are from the absolutely amazing letters of St. Paul, and they too are on this track of lectio continua. Som when you’re looking at the Sundays in Ordinary Time, and say your priest or pastor preparing homilies, or you’re a layperson trying to read the Scriptures in preparation for Mass, remember the second reading is on its own track, and it’s a track that's different from the Gospel. Think of it as two railroad tracks that run parallel to one another, they don't really connect with one another. They may sometimes coincidentally connect, but they're not meant to be aligned with one another. So you can read one or you can read the other. So it's conceivable, for example, that a priest would, after reading the Gospels, just preach through those letters of Paul. Now, because that's the case, because the second letter is on its own independent track, according to lectio continua, and is not being correlated deliberately with the Old Testament or the Gospel. When I'm going to be giving my explanations of the Sunday readings for Ordinary Time, I'm going to be hopping over, to be skipping, the Pauline letter. Maybe at some future point I can make a series just on those second readings from St. Paul, I know that would be very interesting to do. But in order to grasp the logic of the lectionary, it's important first to start with how the Gospel reading is correlated with Psalms and the Old Testament. Before I go any further I want to make one last point about that so that it's clear. This is not always true of the second reading in the lectionary. So for example, during the festive seasons, like Advent, or Christmas, or Lent (especially during Lent), the second reading is not chosen according to the principle of lectio continua, like reading through one of the letters of Paul in order. The second reading will be chosen, often according to harmony, or thematic harmony, with the other readings, or with the feast of the day, or with the particular season of the year. So just keep that in mind, so on the Sundays of Lent, or the Sundays of Advent, that second reading often will have connections to the Old Testament and the new. But, for the majority of the year, during the Sundays of Ordinary Time, it doesn’t. You have two tracks: the track of the readings from St. Paul, and then the track of the readings from the Gospels, that go with the Old Testament and the Psalm.

So I hope that gives you a basic understanding of the principles by which the readings were selected for the contemporary lectionary. And I hope that it will help you experience the Mass in a more fruitful way, if you understand what the mind of the Church, in putting together this amazing treasury of readings that we refer to as the lectionary. And so, just as a final note, if you want to get a hold on this, or you want to have a better understanding of the lectionary, it’s sometimes helpful to actually get a copy of a book known as a Daily Roman Missal. In other words, it’s a collection of all the readings, for not only the Sundays, but all of the daily Masses as well, and you can obtain these at your Catholic Bookstore, or at, or at one of the websites that sell books online. And if you get a copy of the missal itself, you’ll be able to see in a better way how the whole thing is constructed, and you can even follow along daily with the scripture readings through the missal, or through other publications like Magnificat, or the (you can go there everyday, and you can see the readings for every Sunday, not just in ordinary time, but any day of the week). Any one of those tools will help you if you want to get a better understanding of the Catholic lectionary, and how the scripture passages were chosen for the Sundays in Ordinary Time.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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