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Understanding the Sunday Mass Readings During Lent

by Brant Pitre February 10, 2016


Transcript -  Introductory video from The Mass Readings Explained video series.

Next Sunday we're going to be shifting from Ordinary Time into everyone's favorite season, the season of Lent.  And it's interesting, when you move into Lent the readings for Sunday mass are different, in the sense that they're organized according to different principles.  As we've seen over the course of the last few weeks, for Sundays in Ordinary Time, the Gospels were chosen according to the principle of continual reading, either reading through Matthew or Mark or the Gospel of Luke in order.  But when we move into Lent, the Gospel readings, as well as the Old Testament readings, are chosen according to different principles.  So in order to understand why the readings are what they are, we need to understand the principles behind this particular season.  So in order to do that clearly, we want to make sure we understand exactly when Lent begins and when it ends. 

So technically speaking, the season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and then it ends on Holy Thursday during holy week, right before Good Friday, which is the Friday of course, before Easter.  And that time period is going to consist of six Sundays.  So there is going to be a series of six Gospel readings over the course of the six week period of Lent.  And during this six-week period of Lent, the Old Testament and Gospel readings are chosen according to the following principles.  First, when it comes to the Old Testament, we're no longer going to be using a principle of harmony, where the Old Testament reading is chosen to go with the Gospel, in a sense of like typology or to point forward to it.  That's not the rationale now.  During Lent, the Church picks Old Testament passages according to major events in salvation history.  So what you'll find during the Lenten season, is that if you read through the Old Testament readings in order, from one week to the next to the next, they're usually either going to begin in Genesis or the book of Exodus, and just take us through major events in salvation history.  Such as Adam and Eve, the fall of Adam and Eve, or the account of Abraham journeying to the promised land, or Abraham's vision, or whatever.  They'll be different events in salvation history from the Old Testament.  And the reason the Church does it this way is that, since ancient times, Lent was always a period where catechumens, people who were preparing to receive the sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist, were being instructed in the basics of the faith.  So what they would like to do during the Lenten season, was take people back and teach them the history of salvation, the major stories of the Old Testament, so that when the Gospel came they would understand it.  So that's the principle for Old Testament readings: history of salvation, key events in Old Testament salvation.

When it comes to the Gospel, the Gospels are not going to be chosen anymore according to continual reading.  We're going to stop reading through the public ministry of Jesus, say in the Gospel of Luke or the Gospel of Matthew, and instead the Church is going to pick key passages from the life of Jesus that are going to be important for initiation, in other words, for people who are becoming new Christians.  And so both tracks, Old Testament and New, are a kind of journey, heading us toward the New Covenant, that's going to be brought to it's climax with Jesus' passion, death, and resurrection on Easter Sunday.

So just a couple of examples.  Every year during Lent, the first Sunday is going to be the story of Jesus' temptations in the desert, 40 days.  You'll see why that that's the case when we look at that reading.  And the second Sunday is always going to be the account of Jesus' Transfiguration, which is where he starts heading to the cross.  And then the rest of the Sundays are going to be chosen from gospel passages that usually have something to do with sin and repentance and conversion.  Because Lent is a time of repentance, it's a time for turning our hearts away from sin, away from the things of the world, and preparing them for Christ, and for the great event of his passion, death, and resurrection, by which our sin will be atoned for, by which we will be redeemed and set free from slavery to sin and slavery to death, and then led to the glory of the resurrection. 

So as you're listening to the Sunday readings during Lent keep that in mind.  The Old Testament and New Testament readings don't go together like they used to in the Sundays in ordinary time.  And the same thing will be true with regard to the epistles.  So finally for the second reading throughout the Sundays of Lent, the New Testament epistle will be chosen according to a particular theme, usually repentance or sin, that'll help you to kind of bridge the gap between the events of Old Testament salvation history, and then the good news of redemption from sin, that Jesus Christ will ultimately accomplish through the mystery of his passion and death, and then through the Easter celebration on Easter Sunday.  So I hope that gives you a basic idea of how the Sunday readings are set up for Lent and I hope that it will help you participate more deeply in experiencing these amazing readings.  These are some of the best passages from the Old and New Testament in the entire liturgical year.



Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre

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