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Rhythm of the Scripture Readings

How and by what process is the daily Scripture reading determined?
by Father Edward McNamara | Source:
And More on the Church Organ in Advent

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.

* * *

Follow-up: Use of the Church Organ During Advent

Following our comment that the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal allows for some solo organ playing during Advent (Nov. 30) I received contrasting replies.

An Atlanta reader, supported by another from Taiwan, faulted my reading of the two documents in play and denied that GIRM, No. 313, loosened the prohibition on solo playing found in "Musicam Sacram," No. 66.

At the same time, another reader from Santa Monica, California, pointed out that GIRM, No. 66, basically repeats what was already said in the Ceremonial of Bishops in 1984, so that solo playing of the organ has been permitted since that time.

They say that an Irishman is someone who can argue both sides of a question -- often at the same time -- but I admit that the contrast left me in something of a quandary.

Our first readers are correct in the sense that GIRM, No. 66, does not explicitly derogate or abolish the earlier law. But my line of thinking is more in accord with the second reader.

Church documents usually explicitly quote earlier documents so small changes in emphasis are often quite significant and reflect an evolution in the norms even when earlier laws are not specifically abolished.

As we saw, "Musicam Sacram," No. 66, specifically forbade solo playing during Advent, Lent, the Easter triduum, and at services and Masses for the dead.

The 1984 Ceremonial of Bishops eschews the phrase "solo playing" but expresses the same idea, saying that playing the organ "is allowed only to support the singing."

Like "Musicam Sacram," it uses this formula to refer to Lent and Masses for the Dead (see Ceremonial, Nos. 41, 252, 300, 397, 824).

However when referring to Advent it no longer uses this expression but states only that playing the organ should be moderate and in line with the season (No. 41, 236).

I think therefore that this is a clear change of emphasis with respect to the earlier document, for the omission of any mention of using the organ only to support singing during Advent is certainly not accidental.

The probable reason for this, as pointed out by our Californian reader, and in contrast to what I affirmed in my earlier column, is that Advent is no longer officially included among the penitential seasons.

According to the Ceremonial, No. 41, the organ and musical instruments should be used with a moderation that is consistent with the season's character of joyful expectancy but in a way that does not anticipate the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord.

Certainly there are elements that resemble the Lenten penitential season (violet vestments, omission of the Gloria, etc.). These are justified by Advent's focus on spiritual preparation for Christ's coming by recalling the mysteries of salvation history as well as the liturgy's frequent eschatological allusions to the "last things": death, judgment, heaven and hell.

According to No. 39 of the Introduction to the Roman Calendar: "Advent has a twofold character: as a season to prepare for Christmas when Christ's first coming to us is remembered; as a season when that remembrance directs the mind and heart to await Christ's Second Coming at the end of time. Advent is thus a period for devout and joyful expectation."

The Advent season developed in the Roman Rite during the sixth century and always contained these two elements, although sometimes one element was stressed more than the other until the season reached more or less its present form.

It is true that a 1987 document, a circular letter dealing with concerts in churches, repeats the norms of "Musicam Sacram" with respect to use of the organ during Advent. But this later document has far less legal weight then the Ceremonial of Bishops or the GIRM and the lack of coherence might be considered an oversight, the primary purpose of the document lying elsewhere.

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