A brief walkthrough of the Mass: Lections, Responses, and Gospel

Following the Collect, the priest (who should already be at the epistle side of the altar) announces and begins to read the epistle. (Which should technically be called the “Lection” or “Lesson,” since, after all, it isn’t always one of the Epistles). Afterward, he moves to the center of the altar, prays a few preparatory prayers while the Gradual and Alleluia are chanted (at a High Mass; at a Low Mass, he would have already spoken them aloud before moving to the center), and then proceeds to the Gospel side of the altar to pray the Gospel; at a Solemn High Mass, the deacon will proceed to the left of the altar altogether, sometimes to a separate altar, and proclaim the Gospel facing to the left, as pictured below.westminster-cathedral-gospel-reading-tlm

It’s opportune to reflect here on the idea of “epistle” and “Gospel” sides of the altar. If you’re sitting in the pews and looking at the altar, the priest moves to the right-hand side to read the epistle: that’s the epistle side. He moves to the left-hand side to read the Gospel: that’s the Gospel side. Here, as always, there is symbolic significance: the altar symbolically (and often literally) faces east, toward Jerusalem, the direction from which Christ will return. If facing the altar is east, then moving to the right-hand side of the altar is moving south, which is to say, in the direction of those already converted, for whose benefit the epistles were written, and for whose instruction they are proclaimed. Recall here that, during the apostasy in Israel, it was Judaea, the southern half of the kingdom, where faithfulness to the Lord was alone preserved. Moving to the left-hand side of the altar, then, is moving north, which is to say, in the direction of those not yet converted: toward Galilee, the gateway to the gentile world, where the Gospel yet needs to be proclaimed. Note, too, that while the altar stand faces straight for the epistle, it is angled 45 degrees away from the altar for the Gospel, an explicitly outward-moving and evangelical gesture. (All of this is the customary interpretation, anyway, which may be specious: the epistle/Gospel side distinction is definitely not pre-Tridentine).

It’s not generally well known that the two forms of the Mass have an entirely different lectionary (that is to say, appointed Scriptural readings). As far as I know, there are virtually no occasions in which you would hear the same readings at a traditional Latin Mass as you would at the ordinary form Mass on the same day. Let’s compare the two lectionaries briefly:

  • Cycles of readings: The reformed lectionary has a three-year cycle of readings for Sundays and a two-year cycle of readings for weekdays. That means the readings for, say, the 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time in 2015 won’t be repeated until the 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time in 2018, while the readings for the Monday of the 13th Week of Ordinary Time in 2015 won’t be repeated until 2017). The traditional Latin Mass, however, has a one-year lectionary: readings are repeated year after year, with the usual exceptions for moving feasts.
  • Weekday propers: The reformed lectionary has proper readings for every occasion, from the Solemnity of Easter down to the ferial Tuesday of the Umpteenth Week of Ordinary Time. The traditional lectionary, on the other hand, has proper readings only for Sundays and feast days; on ferias (so-called “free days,” for which no special observance is appointed), either a votive Mass must be celebrated, or the Mass of the most recent Sunday re-celebrated.
  • Numbers of readings: Masses celebrated on Sundays and solemnities have three readings in the ordinary form, and possibly more on very special occasions (such as the Easter Vigil), and two on weekdays. In the traditional Latin Mass, only two Scripture readings are proclaimed, if you exclude the Last Gospel, which never changes. There are, however, a greater number of occasions at which additional readings are proclaimed: not only Easter Vigil, but also the so-called seasonal embertides, a sequence of Masses celebrated on a successive Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of a given season, in which up to seven readings are done at the start of Mass, in addition to those proclaimed from the altar.
  • Range of readings: The reformed lectionary draws from a wider range of Scripture, with the first reading typically being from the Old Testament, the second from the epistles, and the third from the Gospels. The three-year cycle allows an emphasis on different Gospels in each of the years (each one of the three years corresponds either to Matthew, Mark, or Luke, with readings from the Gospel of John scattered evenly throughout). The traditional lectionary, on the other hand, includes far fewer readings from the Old Testament and from the Gospel of Mark (the other three being about equally represented in Sunday Masses and other major feasts).
  • Language: As is generally known, the readings for the ordinary form typically follow the vernacular. At traditional Latin Masses, the readings are now required to be in Latin only when sung (and then they may be repeated in the vernacular at the start of the homily); at low Masses, where no singing occurs, the priest may read the readings in the vernacular, at his discretion.
  • Readers: In the ordinary form, only the Gospel is required to be read by a cleric; the rest may be (and typically are, even at sparsely-attended daily Masses) read by laypersons from the ambo. In the traditional Latin Mass, all readings are done by clerics, though recent revisions allow a server to sing the epistle, if he is competent to do so; at Solemn High Masses, the subdeacon sings the epistle and the deacon the Gospel.
  • Reading location: In the ordinary form, the readings are typically done from the ambo. In the traditional Latin Mass, they’re read from the altar. That’s important; keep it in mind.

Most people take for granted that the reformed lectionary is better, because it includes more Scripture. That’s certainly a positive, but we mustn’t imagine there aren’t drawbacks to it, as well, or that the traditional lectionary has nothing to offer. Consider:

  • The shorter cycle of readings of the traditional lectionary means that critical themes are revisited year after year, allowing people to acquire a certain degree of comfort and familiarity with the readings and compelling them to meditate upon those themes in a rhythmic manner. The much longer cycle of readings in the ordinary form means a reading may be heard only once every three years (or less often, since a feast celebrated this year may be displaced by another one three years hence), far too long to allow any familiarity or comfort to develop. As such, every reading is effectively a novel experience.
  • In the traditional order of Mass, everything is on a one-year cycle, readings and propers alike (Collect, Offertory, Secret, etc.). The traditional breviary, too, is on a one-year cycle. Consequently, there is a certain thematic continuity which is permitted between readings and propers, not just in the Mass but in the Divine Office, as well. In the ordinary form, however, Sunday readings are on a three-year cycle, weekday readings are on a two-year cycle, and Mass propers (as well as the readings and propers for the breviary) are on a one-year cycle. This destroys the integration of Scripture not only with the celebration of the rest of Mass, but with the entire liturgical life of the Church: there is no longer a necessary or logical connection between the Mass’ Gospel reading and, say, the Offertory or Secret or Collect, much less the Office of Readings or Evening Prayer. The result is a modular, mix-and-match liturgy in which one component has little to do with the other.
  • The proclamation of Scripture by the priest and from the altar had a symbolic significance: namely, it established that the reading of Scripture is itself a form of prayer, not something done in addition to and apart from the prayers of the Mass, and that it is moreover an integral part of the offering of the Sacrifice. This is why the readings were also, until the 1950s or so, still done in Latin, and very often sung, just as much as the rest of the prayers. Think of Moses pleading with the Lord on Mt. Sinai to have mercy on his people, reminding Him of His own benevolence: that is the role which Scripture plays in the traditional Latin Mass; we remind God of his generosity and benevolence in order to plead with him to show us His mercy, as well. Moving the proclamation of Scripture away from the altar has destroyed that symbolically significant relationship of the reading of Scripture as a prayerful part of the offering of the sacrifice, as has allowing laymen (who do not offer the sacrifice directly) to assist in reading. This latter change has had the benefit of more fully demonstrating that the Mass is a corporate act of worship, not merely an act of the priest, but it’s not clear that what was gained is worth more than what was lost.
  • The fact that the reading of Scripture is no longer integrated with the other elements of the Mass means that the readings no longer speak for themselves thematically, and the fact that there is a very long cycle of readings means each reading is basically novel. This means, if the readings are to have any value at all, they must be “unpacked” by the priest in the homily: hence the modern homiletics problem, in which priests speak at length about dry historical or exegetical issues of little interest to the laity, rather than expounding on the teachings of the Church, exhorting imitation of the lives of the saints, and so on. That problem, by the way, isn’t the priests’ faults: homilies explaining the Scripture readings are explicitly recommended (maybe even commanded) by the General Instructions of the Roman Missal, para. 65.
  • More generally, the fact that the readings are done mostly by the people, facing them, in their native language, away from the action of the altar, tends to reinforce the tedious, self-referential anthropocentrism that has plagued postconciliar liturgy. Hence the old complaint: “What’s the point of reading Scripture at Mass in Latin? No one can understand it.” Get it? Cause it’s all about you.

There is an additional problem with the reformed lectionary, which I will have to handle in a separate post: namely, what it leaves out, compared to what the old lectionary included.

One thought on “A brief walkthrough of the Mass: Lections, Responses, and Gospel

  1. Pingback: A brief walkthrough of the Mass: Homily and Credo | The Latin Mass Society of Bloomington, IN

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