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,
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
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
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
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.
* * *
Follow-up: Rhythm of the Readings
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
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
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