Have you ever sat in church on Sunday and wondered, “How do they pick the Bible readings each week?”
Yes, there is a pattern — or a few patterns in the selection of the Old Testament and second readings as well as the psalm response and Gospel.
The readings in the lectionary — the book of readings for Sundays and major feasts — run in a three-year cycle. Presently, we are in Year A. (The readings for weekday Masses run on a two-year cycle of a reading, psalm response and Gospel. There are optional readings for memorials of saints.)
The three-year cycle of Sundays gives us a focus on the different Gospels. So Year A, the Gospel is according to Matthew. Year B comes from the Gospel of Mark, with some additions from the Gospel of John, since Mark is such a short Gospel. Year C is from Luke.
Then, in the first readings — usually from the Old Testament — we see a tie to the Gospel message. When the first reading comes from the Old Testament, we can see a prefiguring of what Jesus will do in the Gospel. For example, for the readings for the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time, we hear in the Old Testament of the prophet Isaiah promising a “feast of rich food and choice wines.” In the Gospel, Jesus tells a parable about the wedding feast for the king’s son. And the psalm — familiar Psalm 23 — speaks of the Lord spreading a table for us in the sight of our foes.
This link between the three readings is part of what is called “the principle of harmony” or a thematic scheme.
The second reading, while it may often tie in with the other readings, does not have to harmonize with the others. Instead, it usually comes from one of the letters of St. Paul. For the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, the second reading is from the Letter to the Philippians, which we have been reading from since Sept. 20, the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time. This is because the second reading is meant to be an ongoing lesson — in a form known as lectio continua. This means a “continuous reading,” so that a flow carries us from week to week.
This is the same principle that has us reading from one Gospel all year — so we walk through the year with Jesus as his life is recorded by a particular evangelist. (And each evangelist has a certain message about Jesus, but that is for another article.)
This method of reading an epistle over several Sundays is more in the style of the early church. Brant Pitre, Ph.D., research professor of Scripture at the Augustine Institute, notes that “in the early church, figures like St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine would actually take various letters of Paul, … and every Sunday they would preach homilies from those letters, … 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 (St. Paul VI) wanted there to be that kind of renewal of preaching about the letters of Paul.”
Bringing back the Old Testament
Now, other changes of Vatican II to the liturgy brought more than just longer readings from Paul, it also brought the Old Testament back to Mass. As the fathers of Vatican II said in their first document — the one on the Mass — “The treasures of the Bible are to be opened up more lavishly so that a richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s word. In this way the more significant part of the Sacred Scriptures will be read to the people over a fixed number of years” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 51).
Prior to Vatican II, there were not three cycles of yearly readings — it was the same readings each year. (For example, Mark’s Gospel was rarely used.) And very little of what was read came from the Old Testament.
Jesuit Fr. Felix Just, director of the Loyola Institute for Spirituality in Orange, Calif., notes that readings from the Old Testament were never used on Sundays, but only at the Easter vigil, the Pentecost vigil, Epiphany and its octave, during Holy Week and on some weekdays (especially weekdays of Lent, the feasts of some saints and some votive Masses).
The changes after Vatican II brought what we hear at Mass more into line with what early Christians heard when they gathered on “the Lord’s Day.” Since many were originally Jews, they were used to hearing the Old Testament at the synagogue each week. And they would have heard letters from Paul, and the stories about Jesus that became the Gospel accounts.
So now, returning to “harmony of theme,” yes, there is a plan to three readings you hear on Sunday. You are able to sit in Mass and listen to the Liturgy of the Word show how the promises of the Old Testament prepare for what is about to happen in the Gospel. Christ, who speaks to you directly in the Gospel, is the fully revealed Word of God — both in the Old and the New Testaments — and his life revealed in the Gospels helps reveal the Kingdom of God to us. The second reading gives a lesson, that carries us from week to week, about how to live in that kingdom of God and how we are meant to reveal it to the world through the Holy Spirit.
In some regards, the pattern of the readings for each Sunday is a bit like a cliffhanger from week to week: what will Jesus do next in the Gospel? How will he fulfill what God promised to the patriarchs and matriarchs? How did God begin the story of salvation and carry it forward for centuries? And the second reading gives an unfolding challenge about how to grow in your Christian life during the time between one Sunday and the next.
Sources: vatican.va; usccb.org; catholicproductions.com; Mesa, Ariz., Knights of Columbus at verdekc.com; uscatholic.org; simplycatholic.com; aleteia.org; The Catholic Lectionary website at catholicresources.org