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Aug 20, 2020

How to Understand the Cycle of Readings at Mass

Dr. AnnaMaria Cardinalli

Looking over my latest Pinterest picks, it occurred to me that I have a genuine fascination with stained glass windows. I love them! In medieval churches, for a populace that couldn’t read, they often beautifully communicated biblical truths essential to the Catholic Faith.  

Sources of Illumination

While literacy is no longer rare, we sometimes remain like the medieval faithful. If we are a bit lackadaisical, it can happen that we are mostly exposed to the essential narrative of our Faith at church. That means the readings we hear from Scripture must be selected like stained glass windows.

The narrative of biblical history can’t fit into individual window frames, so scenes are chosen, capable of imprinting themselves on the mind and stirring the imagination to meditation. If the only place we hear the Word of God is at Mass, the Church in her wisdom does something similar for us. She selects complementary scenes.  

Fitting a Scene to a Frame

On Sundays, these consist of a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, a Psalm, a New Testament reading, and a reading from the Gospels. These are chosen to fit beautifully into the frame of the Mass. We’re obligated to be present on Sundays, so the Church knows this is her chance to reach us with an exposure to God’s Word that will leave a lasting impression on our hearts, usually with an apprehendable theme.

Did you ever notice how the readings we hear at any one Mass seem to make special sense when taken together? The Sunday just before I write, we heard about Solomon as a youth (1 Kings 3:5-7). Daunted by his own inexperience, he asked God for wisdom. So moved by the humble insight of his prayer, which sought God’s will above material things (when, like most teenage boys, he could have asked for the ancient Israeli equivalent of a sports car), God grants him the surpassing wisdom for which he is remembered.

When we then hear God’s Word from his very own lips in the Gospel, it is after meditating on this wisdom. Jesus speaks to us about the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 13:44-46). Its value is such a treasure—like a pearl of great price—that one who recognizes it would rid himself of everything else he has to obtain it. This recognition is wisdom par excellence, and the sentiment echoes the Psalm, which joyfully exclaimed that God’s law “is more precious than thousands of gold and silver pieces” (Psalm 119).

The Scheme of Selection

It’s quite amazing how often this happens. To do it, while also meeting the goal of ensuring that even the most lukewarm souls present are guaranteed as complete an exposure to the whole of the Bible as possible if they meet their minimal obligations as a Catholic, the Church has organized the Lectionary (the book in which the scheduled readings are arranged).  

In short, Sunday readings repeat every three years, called A, B, and C.  In year A, the Gospels are mostly from Matthew, year B is mostly Mark, and year C is mostly Luke. The Old Testament reading is selected to reflect a theme from the Gospel, and the Psalm often does the same. The second reading, usually an Epistle, typically follows in order of the Sunday preceding.

Where’s John’s Gospel, you ask? We mostly hear the Gospel of John during the Easter season of every year. In fact, John feels so special, I always get a tingle of thrilling importance when I hear the priest or deacon say “a reading from the Holy Gospel according to John.”  

Even that tingle isn’t accidental, but is part of the Church’s brilliance. Besides the daily continuity of the readings, they are also meant to connect us, sometimes viscerally through lifelong associations, to the seasons of the liturgical year and, often, even to the saint or feast of the day. The fact that the Lectionary cycles accomplish all this is something to inspire wonder.

The Limitations of Liturgy

Serving these goals, however, means that the readings at Mass do not serve others. One limitation is that the readings, especially those from the Old Testament, can jump around. They create a vignette for the mind’s meditation that day, dosing us with a digestible section of beauty and continuity which supports the life of the liturgical year and one’s individual prayer life, disposing us for the reception of the Eucharist.  

However, while doing this, they don’t presume to be a course in salvation history. Therefore, if we are to understand the Faith in any way but the most minimal, the readings at Mass can’t be the only exposure to Scripture a Catholic gets. In fact, the readings of the day can’t fully deliver their intended beauty if they are.

Something changes when the scriptural narrative of our salvation is appreciated in order, without jumping around. When we can see the big picture of God’s relationship to his family in the epic history that links the stained-glass vignettes, those vignettes will have a depth of influence on your soul that is otherwise impossible. I know of several resources that can be of particular help in pursuing this.

Resources for Relating to the Readings

The first great aid in putting the narrative of salvation history into context in an exciting and utterly accessible way is The Great Adventure Catholic Bible, a project of Jeff Cavins and Ascension. It’s both a study Bible and a supplement series from Ascension, which pairs with Dr. Edward Sri’s equally influential A Biblical Walk Through the Mass. What it accomplishes is unprecedented, and without exaggeration, we are lucky to live in a time when it is available.

While The Great Adventure series makes vivid the scriptural narrative into which the Mass’ vignettes are placed, there is another incredible aid that works in the opposite direction. It helps one delve deeply into the vignettes and thus connect them further to Scripture and the teachings of the Church with the insight of the saints. Even more amazingly, it does this by leading them into the spiritual life and is intended as a guide for daily personal meditation, ideal for easily beginning the Carmelite style of mental prayer.

This is Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalene’s Divine Intimacy. (Purchasing it here supports the fantastic Carmelite monks who make Mystic Monk Coffee.) The difficulty with this brilliant text, the magnum opus of a saintly soul, is that it was published as a guide through the year’s readings in 1952, before modern changes in the Lectionary. However, this can be overcome, as a zealous devotee maintains a schedule that corresponds to the days of the current calendar online here.

I pray these resources help the Church’s brilliance in her selection of readings in the Liturgy of the Word come alive for you in a new way!  Please mention in the comments if you know of others. In this time of continuing isolation, may we take the opportunity to be alone with God and “put out into the deep” (Luke 5:4) through study and meditation, so when we can gather at Mass and hear the Word proclaimed, it is with hearts newly open to its power!


You May Also Like:

The Liturgical Calendar: Ordinary Time is Extraordinary Time [Jeff Cavins Show Podcast]


Understanding the Liturgical Calendar


A Season For Everything [Fr. Mike Schmitz Video]


The Sacred That Surrounds Us: How Everything in a Catholic Church Points to Heaven [Book]


AnnaMaria Cardinalli sees beauty as a means for evangelization and has performed in the world’s great musical venues. These range from Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center, and Carnegie Hall, to the really important ones, like singing on EWTN or teaching Panis Angelicus to the first communicants she prepares with her mom, Giovanna, at their local parish. She is the author of Music and Meaning in the Mass. She bleeds blue and gold. Her Ph.D. in theology is from Notre Dame, and she’s a service-disabled Navy veteran.  Her work in Iraq and Afghanistan exposed human rights violations against children, and she remains dedicated to the protection of God’s littlest ones.


Image by Tomasz Mikołajczyk from Pixabay


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