The Vatican II Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum, among many other things, recommended Bible reading to Catholics. Thanks to this document and the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, Catholics now can enter into the Scriptures in a deeper way than ever—including in what and how we hear the Bible proclaimed especially in celebrations of the Eucharist, as set up according to the seasons of the liturgical year. So how should we be listening?
The Lectionary is set up for Sundays to focus on one of the 3 “Synoptic Gospels” as its core: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. These readings form the basis of “Ordinary Time” Sundays. Since much material can be found in all these Gospels, care was taken to minimize repetition from one year to the next. Now, to highlight the individual Gospel excerpts, passages from the Old Testament were chosen as “mirrors” of the Gospel’s theme. So, for example, during the 9th Sunday of Cycle C (= Luke) we read of the petition to Jesus by the Roman centurion for his slave’s healing. This foreigner’s faith amazed and pleased Jesus. So the reading from the Old Testament is the prayer of Solomon in the newly-dedicated Temple. In it, the prayers of foreigners are acceptable to God. By way of emphasizing the point of the Old Testament reading, the Responsorial Psalm celebrates the same point: “Praise the Lord, all you nations…”
This particular Sunday’s 2nd reading is the beginning of the Letter to the Galatians. It has nothing to do necessarily with this overall theme; it is simply a sort of “stand alone” to expose us to that much more of the Bible. This, then, is the Lectionary for “Ordinary Time.”
We also have seasons that are referred to as “privileged”—Advent/Christmas, and Lent/Easter. The same principles for Old Testament, Psalm, and Gospel apply here, but typically the 2nd reading blends in to the theme as well. It is in these seasons that the Fourth Gospel dominates, especially in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Sundays of Lent (the Samaritan woman at the well; the man born blind; the raising of Lazarus), as well as throughout the Easter season.
More on this, perhaps, a little later; let’s focus on Advent for a bit (including the readings for daily Mass). Advent is a time of expectation, of preparation for the coming of the Messiah. The “end of the world” reading of the Gospel for the 1st Sunday reminds us not of the 1st coming but the 2nd coming (are we prepared?). The next 2 Sundays focus on John the Baptist as the Messiah’s herald; the last Sunday brings us to the times immediately before the birth of Christ. During these Sundays the first readings present us with hope and joy at the nearness of the Messiah.
The weekday readings are set up in a very interesting way. For the first part of Advent (until 17 December) first readings are general prophecies of hope for what the Messiah will accomplish, and general Gospel stories of how good that will be. In the last days of Advent (a pre-octave of prayerful preparation), the readings focus more on the immediate events leading up to the birth of Jesus: the annunciations to Zechariah and Mary; the Visitation; the Benedictus and Magnificat canticles; the births of John and Jesus. Setting the Lectionary up in this way can intensify our anticipation as we strive to form our hearts into worthy dwellings for our Savior, all always in the grace of God. As a footnote, the antiphons for the Magnificat in the Breviary’s Evening Prayer during this time (reproduced as the Gospel verse for daily Mass) are the so-called “O Antiphons,” the basis of our hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
If we listen to the Scriptures at Mass in this way (or read them privately, if we cannot attend daily Mass), if we approach them intentionally, we will be lifted up into the mystery of the season: in this case, that of watchful, hopeful waiting—of anticipation and expectation. We can be challenged to examine our hearts, to see the ways we need the Savior’s merciful and healing touch.