How are the Mass Readings Chosen?
Question: I had never really thought about it before, but recently in church, I began to wonder: How are the readings at Mass chosen?
Answer: The readings used in the Catholic Mass are chosen according to the liturgical calendar which follows a three-year cycle, known as the “lectionary”. It includes readings from both the Old and New Testaments, with the Gospel always the culmination of the liturgy of the Word. The current lectionary was first introduced in the 1970s as part of the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
For the first few centuries of the Church, Christians read whatever scriptural texts they had access to in their communities. By the 5-6th century, the first lectionaries appeared, though they were really just bibles with annotations, indicating what passage to read on which Sunday.
By the 7th century, Mass readings were collected in books of their own, though local churches had discretion in choosing them. The first Roman missal to include all the readings and prayers for Mass was published after the Council of Trent in the 16th century.
The present lectionary is the fruit of a commission that was established in terms of Vatican II’s “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” (1963), which called for a wider selection of scriptural texts to be used at Mass. For a before-and-after comparison, consider this: the 1963 Roman missal used 1% of the Old Testament and 17% of the New Testament; the present lectionary cycles cover 14% of the Old Testament and 71% of the New Testament.
The three cycles
This is achieved by dividing the lectionary into three cycles, each corresponding to a different year of the liturgical calendar: Years A (concentrating on the Gospel of Matthew), B (Mark), and C (Luke). The Gospel of John is used at Christmas, Lent, and Easter, as well as to fill up Year B, as Mark is too short to cover a year.
The first reading at a Sunday Mass is usually taken from the Old Testament, or during the Easter season from the Acts of the Apostles. This is followed by the responsorial psalm which, like the Old Testament reading, is intended to reflect a theme from the Gospel. The second reading is taken from one of the New Testament letters, or at Easter the Book of Revelation. That reading is not necessarily thematically linked to the Gospel.
Weekday Masses usually have two readings: a first reading from either the Old Testament or from the Epistles, Acts or Revelation in the New Testament. This is followed by a responsorial psalm, and a Gospel reading according to the current liturgical year.
All readings are chosen to correspond with the Gospel reading, liturgical season, or the feast day being celebrated, and to provide a comprehensive presentation of the Bible over the course of the three-year cycle.
Asked and answered in the September 2023 issue of The Southern Cross magazine