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What is the Lectionary?

The Lectionary: A Canon within a Canon

Very simply, the lectionary is a collection of pre-selected passages from the Bible assigned to specific occasions on the Church calendar, referred to as the liturgical year.

A lectionary is not the Bible. Instead, the lectionary is a collection of passages (lections) from the Bible that, when read aloud, become readings or lessons in the liturgy. 

Designed for the oral proclamation of the Word of God, a lectionary could be considered a “talking book.”  Just as the Bible is the Word of God conveyed by human authors, lectionary readings are the Word of God conveyed by the human voice. The proclaimed lectionary readings invite us to affirm our faith.

The ritual pattern within which the readings are proclaimed, the Liturgy of the Word, underscores the relationship between the sacramentality of the Word that is heard and the Sacrament of the Eucharist that is received as Christ’s real presence under the appearances of bread and wine.

How the Lectionary Differs from the Bible: Selection, Collection, and Liturgical Context

The readings in our Lectionary for Mass have been selected and arranged to highlight specific themes and mysteries of the faith, so their message may be somewhat more focused than their meaning in the Bible.

Three distinctive features of the Lectionary influence how the readings are heard and understood.

  1.  First, because they are brief selections taken from longer texts, readings may lack some of the content that would clarify their broader meaning.
  2. Second, the lectionary is a collection of readings that repositions the selections from their original place in the Bible and places them with other selections taken from their original contexts, creating a new perspective. This change often shifts the meaning they had when in their place in the Bible.

  3. Finally, the original frame for the reading, the Bible as a whole, has been replaced by the context of the liturgical year or calendar. The liturgical year creates the specific way the Church has chosen to be mindful of the story of Jesus on the days the community gathers to celebrate, and it influences the way readings will be heard. This is especially so during the liturgical seasons of Advent, Christmas Time, Lent, the Sacred Paschal Triduum, and Easter Time. Ordinary Time offers a different sort of frame. During its two periods (winter and summer-autumn), we generally hear semi-continuous readings of each of the three synoptic Gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).  Through them, we follow Jesus’ story and various themes arise, such as discipleship, mission, and at the end of the liturgical year, the end times. Within Ordinary Time the flow may be inter­rupted when the date of a major feast or solemnity falls on and has priority over a Sunday.

The Lectionary Shapes Our Faith

According to renowned biblical scholar Regina Boisclair, in more ways than many people realize, the Lectionary helps to shape our experience of the Mass.  

While the readings certainly include educational components, the primary purpose of proclaiming them is not to convey information, but to draw us into the stories and teachings of our faith and the mysteries they reveal. During the proclamation of God’s Word, we engage in deep, communal listening to the stories of God’s love and to his expectations for his people through history. We listen to the teachings and ministry of Jesus, and to stories about the effects of Christian faith. These stories are intended to enter our minds and hearts and to invite our response. Active participation calls us to this work of listening and internalizing the mystery and message of these texts.

Development of the Lectionary

There is a long history in the development of the lectionary. 

Prior to Second Vatican Council

From 1570 up until the Second Vatican Council, the same readings were used year after year, on the same Sundays and feast days.  Most Masses had only two readings: “The Epistle” and the “The Gospel”. The readings were rarely from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). Most weekday Masses  used readings from the prior Sunday or a saint’s day.  And tellingly, the total biblical texts used for Sundays, vigils, and major feasts included only about 22% of the Gospels, 11% of the Epistles, and only 0.8% of the Hebrew Scriptures (not counting the Psalms).

The Modern Lectionary Established at the Second Vatican Council

The modern lectionary that Catholics use today was established as a result of the Second Vatican Council. The revision of the lectionary was mandated by the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: “The treasures of the Bible are to be opened up more lavishly, so that richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s word” (#51). In 1969, the Congregation for Divine Worship promulgated a new order of readings for use at Mass. From this directive, the U.S. Bishops’ Conference authorized the publication of a new lectionary for use in our churches effective Palm Sunday, 1970.  Since its promulgation, there have been several revisions.

The first edition for Mass, the 1969 Latin edition and the 1970 USA edition were launched Advent, 1970.  Three readings were prescribed for Sundays & major feasts that included books from the Hebrew Scriptures, New Testament Epistles and the Gospels. With this change, a) there was a much greater variety of readings with the establishment of a 3-year Sunday rotation (Cycle A, B, C) and a 2-year weekday cycle (Years I, II).  The total biblical texts used for Sundays, vigils, and major feasts expanded including about 58% of the Gospels, 25% of the Epistles, but still only 3.7% of the Hebrew Scriptures (aside from the Psalms).

The second edition, launched in 1981 (based on the Neo-Vulgate Bible translation). In 1992 the  Canadian bishops received permission to establish their own edition based on the more inclusive language translation NRSV (which includes, for example, the full reading of John 20: 1 – 18 on Easter Sunday).  The updated USA edition was based mostly on the New American Bible released an revised Sunday lectionary in 1998 and a revised weekday lectionary in 2002 covers 90% of the Gospels, 55% of the rest of the New Testament, and 13% of the Hebrew Scriptures. There is normally an intentional thematic connection between the Gospel & the First Reading (usually also the Resp. Psalm & Gospel Accl.); but the Second Reading is usually unrelated, since it follows a separate semi-continuous reading pattern.

The Lectionary is usually published in 4 volumes;

1)Sundays and Major Feast Days in Cycles A, B, C

2) Weekdays, Year I (odd-numbered years) includes feasts of saints with “proper” readings 

3) Weekdays, Year II (even-numbered years) includes feasts of saints with “proper” readings

4) Common of Saints, Rituals, Votives, Various Needs that contains many more choices of readings than before

Who Decided(s) What Was/Is Included in the Lectionary?

The origins of the multi-year lectionary started a decade before the Second Vatican Council.

In 1952, the liturgical journal Liturgisches Jahrbuch published an article entitled “Eine Dreijährige Perikopenordnung für Sonn- und Festtage” by Fr Heinz Schürmann who would later be appointed as a a member of Coetus XI of the Consilium, the group responsible for the post-conciliar reform of the lectionary).  COMPLETE THIS WITH BOISCLAIR BOOK INFO

Other resources

The Roman Lectionary by Frank C. Quinn, OP