The Mass readings and the responsorial psalm

    Why do we sit for the readings?
    After the Introductory Rites, the community of believers sits for the readings. While some non-Catholics often describe Mass as Catholic calisthenics, the physical postures that we use during the liturgy are not arbitrarily picked. Rather, they often represent what we are spiritually supposed to be doing. Sitting, for example, is a position of receptivity. Sitting allows us to rest and to attentively listen to the readings being proclaimed.
    What effect did Vatican II have on the selection of the readings?
    One of the greatest liturgical reforms of Vatican II, aside from allowing the liturgy to be celebrated in the vernacular (native language), was an added emphasis on the role of Scripture in the liturgy. Prior to Vatican II, there was only one reading, the psalm and the Gospel. Those readings were on a one-year cycle that repeated itself each year. For example, on the Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, you heard the same readings, year after year.
    In order to expose the faithful to more of the Bible in the liturgy, Pope Paul VI added another reading each Sunday and developed a three-year cycle (Year A, B, C) instead of just a one-year cycle. The first reading is usually an Old Testament reading. During the Easter season, however, it often comes from the Acts of the Apostles. After the first reading, there is the responsorial psalm, which almost always comes from the Book of Psalms. The second reading always comes from the New Testament, and the Gospel reading comes from one of the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
    Year A focuses primarily on the Gospel of Matthew, Year B on the Gospel of Mark and John 6, and Year C on the Gospel of Luke. The Gospel of John is read during the Easter season every year.
    How are the Sunday Scripture readings selected?
    Aside from the emphasis on a more representative portion of Scripture, especially from the Old Testament, the readings were selected in order to show the continuity and development of salvation history. In order to do this, the first reading and Gospel are usually related in theme, while the second reading is not related. A scripture from the Old Testament that prophesies something about the Messiah is often paired with a Gospel reading from the New Testament that shows how Jesus fulfilled that prophecy. For example, on the Feast of Corpus Christi, the first reading comes from the book of Deuteronomy when God feeds the Israelites with the manna in the desert. The Gospel reading is from the Bread of Life Discourse in John 6, when Jesus says that he is the Bread of Life that came down from heaven.
    Are the readings the same in all Catholic churches?
    One of the truly “catholic” (universal) aspects of the church is that no matter what Catholic church you walk into on any given Sunday, you will hear the same readings proclaimed. While the way in which the scriptures are preached on will differ, the scriptural texts will be the same, whether you are in Nicaragua or Nigeria.
    How are weekday readings selected?
    Weekday readings are on a two-year cycle (Year 1 and 2). The first reading comes either from the Old Testament or the New Testament. The responsorial psalm usually comes from the Book of Psalms, and the Gospel comes from one of the four Gospels. For weekday readings, the first reading and the psalm rotate every other year, whereas the Gospel is the same for Year 1 and Year 2. The readings are not usually related in theme.
    How do I know which year we are in the cycle of readings?
    There is a pretty simple mathematical formula that can be used to figure out which cycle of readings is being used. Take the year that we are in and divide by 3. If the remainder is .33, then we are in Year A. If the remainder is .66, then we are in Year B.  If there is no remainder, then we are in Year C.  For example, 2011 divided by 3 equals 670.33, which means Year A. 2012 divided by 3 equals 670.66, which means Year B. 2013 divided by 3 equals 671, which means Year C.
    It is even easier to figure out which cycle is being used during weekday liturgies. If the year is an odd number (2013, 2015, etc.), then it is Year 1. If the year is even-numbered (2012, 2014, etc.), then it is Year 2.
    It is important to note that the cycles do not change on the first of January, but rather on the first Sunday of Advent, which usually falls on the last week of November or the first week of December.
    Why do we only read from the Bible at Mass? Why don’t we read from other spiritual writers?
    While there are many spiritual books, such as the writings of the saints or documents from church councils, which could be read at Mass, Scripture is the only book that is read because it is the inspired and inerrant Word of God. St. Paul’s second letter to St. Timothy teaches that “all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness so that one who belongs to God may be competent for every good work” (3:16-17).
    The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, taught, “Since, therefore, all that the inspired authors, or sacred writers, affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Sacred Scripture, firmly, faithfully, and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures” (DV 11).
    Why do we say, “Thanks be to God” after the readings?
    After the first and second readings, the lector says, “The Word of the Lord,” and the congregation responds by saying, “Thanks be to God.” Our verbal response is a sign of our gratitude for the Word of God just spoken to us and our acceptance of it.
    Tim Hedrick is a second-year theologian studying for the Archdiocese of New Orleans at Notre Dame Seminary. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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