Why would a Catholic who wants to know about the
Bible read an article on the liturgical year? The answer is
simple: The liturgical year is not primarily about vestment
colors, ashes and palms, poinsettias and Easter lilies. The
liturgical year is the "official context" in which Catholics
hear the Scriptures proclaimed, and this context is important
for our understanding of the Bible. Most parts of our country
experience nature—s four seasons: spring, summer, fall and winter.
I like the variety of the seasons. The amazing abundance and
diversity of nature fill me with wonder at the beauty and extravagance
of nature—s Creator.
The liturgical year has its seasons also: Advent/Christmas
(including Advent, Christmas Day and the feasts of the Christmas
season until the Baptism of the Lord) and Lent/Easter (Lent,
Easter Sunday and the 50 days until Pentecost). During these
seasonal times, we read selections from the Bible that correspond
to the great mysteries of our faith.
The mystery of Christ is so rich and diverse that
one picture or viewpoint can—t do it justice. While studying
liturgy in France during the years following the Second Vatican
Council, I came across many beautiful sculptures. I remember
how frustrating it was to try to share that beauty with my mother
back in Kansas by merely sending her a postcard or a photograph.
There was no way a flat picture could capture the beauty of
the three-dimensional sculpture. Often the best I could do was
to walk around the statue and take pictures from different angles
and perspectives and in that way try to capture at least something
of the richness of the experience.
The liturgical seasons serve the same purpose in
showing the fullness of the mystery of Christ. During the course
of a year we experience this mystery from various angles and
in different circumstances. In the words of the Second Vatican
Council: "Within the cycle of a year, the Church unfolds the
whole mystery of Christ, from his incarnation and birth until
his ascension, the day of Pentecost, and the expectation of
blessed hope and of the Lord—s return" (Constitution on the
A Reading From...
Hearing the Scriptures at Mass is a different
type of experience than studying the Bible privately at home
or with a group. When the Scriptures are proclaimed in the liturgy,
Christ himself becomes present in a special way. Vatican II—s
Constitution on the Liturgy states: "[Christ] is present
in his word, since it is he himself who speaks when the holy
Scriptures are read in the Church" (#7).
The bishops at the Second Vatican Council knew
that if they were to fulfill their desire "to impart an ever
increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful" (Constitution
on the Liturgy, #1), they would have to restore the Bible
to its central place in the liturgy and in the lives of Catholics.
If we are to follow Christ, we must know Christ; to know Christ,
we must know the Scriptures. As St. Jerome once said, "Ignorance
of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ."
The Council decreed: "The treasures of the Bible
are to be opened up more lavishly [at the Eucharist], so that
a richer share in God—s word may be provided for the faithful"
(Constitution on the Liturgy, #51). The "plan" for achieving
this goal is contained in a book called the lectionary. As Sunday
is "the first holy day of all" and "the foundation and core
of the whole liturgical year" (Constitution on the Liturgy,
#106), the most important passages of Scripture are presented
in the Sunday lectionary. The weekday lectionary complements
the Sunday lectionary.
During the course of a year the Scriptures for
Mass are selected in one of two ways. During the major seasons
of the liturgical year (Lent/Easter and Advent/Christmas), passages
are selected because of their "theme," that is, their relation
to a particular mystery of our faith. During the remaining Sundays
of the year, known as "Ordinary Time," various books of the
Bible are read roughly from beginning to end over a number of
The Second Vatican Council directed that the lectionary
be arranged so that the readings were selected over "the course
of a prescribed number of years" to allow for "a more representative
portion of holy Scripture" to be read at Mass. The Sunday lectionary
uses a three-year cycle based on the three synoptic Gospels
(Matthew, Mark and Luke present a "similar view," syn-opsis
in Greek). Each year we concentrate on one of these Gospels:
Matthew in Cycle A, Mark in Cycle B, Luke in Cycle C. John—s
Gospel is featured primarily during the major seasons or to
highlight key doctrines such as the Eucharist.
In addition to a Gospel reading, each Sunday Eucharist
has two other readings. The first reading is usually taken from
the Old Testament and is selected in the light of the theme
of the Gospel to be read on that Sunday. The second reading
is taken from the letters of Paul or one of the other writings
of the New Testament. Like the Gospels, these books are read
semi-continuously and are selected so that over the course of
the three-year cycle we have a taste of each of the books of
the New Testament. For example, during the Sundays of Ordinary
Time in Cycle A we read from First Corinthians (for 7 continuous
Sundays), Romans (the next 16 Sundays), Philippians (4 Sundays)
and First Thessalonians (5 Sundays).
Celebrating Christ in Our Midst
Christmas is both the beginning and the end of
the Church year. At Christmas we celebrate Christ coming among
us in human form at Bethlehem and we turn our attention to the
coming of Christ in glory at the end of time. During Advent,
the four weeks of joyful and spiritual expectation preceding
the feast, the readings from the Bible are selected in the light
of this two-fold theme. The readings of the first Sunday concern
Christ—s second coming at the end of time. On the second and
third Sundays of Advent we read of John the Baptist. During
the final days of Advent we read about those events that immediately
prepared for the Lord—s birth (the first chapters of Matthew
During this season the Old Testament readings
are prophecies about the Messiah and messianic times, especially
those wonderful and hope-filled passages from the Book of Isaiah:
"One nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall
they train for war again...." (2:4b); "The calf and the young
lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them..."
Sunday is the original and oldest Christian feast.
The early Christian communities began to celebrate the Sunday
that fell closest to the Jewish Passover with special solemnity.
This "Christian Passover" became what we now call Easter. As
Easter celebrates Christ—s passage from death to life, the feast
soon became the community—s special time for the Sacrament of
Baptism, the Christian—s passage from death to life in Christ.
In the fourth and fifth centuries the Church developed
a system of rites to accompany the faith journey of those who
wished to become Christians. Today these rites have been revived
as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). The final
40 days of this journey became what we now call Lent.
Baptism is the key to understanding the selection
of Scripture passages read during Lent. For example, the Gospel
for the first Sunday of Lent is the story of Jesus' temptation
in the desert. Lent is a retreat before baptism. In the Gospel
Jesus retreats into the desert to pray. The principal symbol
of Baptism is water; the desert causes us to yearn for water.
In all four Gospels the temptation stories follow immediately
upon the account of Jesus— baptism.
On the second Sunday we hear of the transfiguration
and we see Jesus in his Easter clothes. We can imagine those
elected for baptism receiving their white garment as they come
up from the baptismal pool on Easter.
The readings for Cycle A express the baptism themes
particularly well and may be used every year on the third, fourth
and fifth Sundays of Lent. On the third Sunday in Cycle A, for
example, we find Jesus at a well in Samaria where a woman asks
for living water. We cannot help but think of the living waters
of our baptism.
On the fourth Sunday we read the story of the
man who was born blind. As Jesus tells him "Go wash in the pool
of Siloam (which means Sent)" (John 9:7) we remember how we
went and washed in Christ, the "one who was sent into this world"
for our salvation. We came up from that pool illumined and able
to see in a new way.
And on the fifth Sunday, when we hear the story
of Lazarus coming forth from the tomb, we think of the newly
baptized coming forth from the baptismal tomb released from
the bondage of sin.
Our radical transformation by being baptized into
the death and resurrection of Christ is the focus of the Easter
celebration. The Resurrection is the central mystery of our
faith. Easter is so important that we cannot even begin to celebrate
it adequately in one day—it takes a week, the Easter Octave.
And even more, it takes a week of weeks (7 x 7)—50 days, a Pentecost
(pent ekonta, Greek for 50). Each day of these Fifty
Days is Easter. Notice that we speak of the Sundays of Easter,
not the Sundays after Easter. Pentecost is the final day of
our celebration of Easter.
During these Fifty Days we look at our Christian
roots. Each day at Mass, both Sundays and weekdays, we read
from the Acts of the Apostles. The newly baptized have not only
"put on Christ," they have put on his Body, the Church, and
they (and we) take time during these Fifty Days to remember
who that family, that "Church," is. We see the picture of the
birth and early growth of our Church in the Acts of the Apostles.
If Today You Hear God—s Voice
On Pentecost we read both Luke—s and John—s accounts
of the sending of the Holy Spirit. In the first reading we hear
Luke—s account of the descent of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost
(Acts 2:1-11). The Gospel reading presents John—s account of
the gift of the Spirit on Easter Sunday (John 20:19-23). We
do not need to ask whether the Spirit is given on Pentecost
(as in Luke) or on Easter Sunday (as in John); the liturgy is
not concerned with merely reading about past events, nor are
the Scriptures trying to present literal accounts of these events.
The liturgy makes "the work of our redemption a present actuality"
(Constitution on the Liturgy, #2). The Holy Spirit is
given today, this Pentecost. When we hear the Passion of Christ
proclaimed on Good Friday and we sing "Were You There When They
Crucified My Lord?" the answer is, of course, "Yes! I was there!
I am there now!" Easter is not merely remembering something
that happened two thousand years ago. Christ rises in us today.
The Second Vatican Council teaches that: "Recalling
the mysteries of redemption, the Church opens to the faithful
the riches of the Lord—s powers and merits, so that these are
in some way made present in every age in order that the faithful
may lay hold of them and be filled with saving grace" (Constitution
on the Liturgy, #102). The liturgy enables us to pass from
our "past-present-future" time and to enter into God—s "time
of salvation" so that the grace and mystery of the event recalled
is made present.
I do not have to feel disappointed that I was
"born too late" and all the wonderful events of Christianity
happened long ago before my time. The wonderful events of Christianity
are happening now. Reading Scripture in the context of the liturgical
year proclaims this marvelous truth again and again.
Next: Israel—s Neighboring Nations (by Elizabeth