Advent and the three-year lectionary cycle
by Father Andrew Galles
Director of Worship
Happy new year! That is to say, happy new liturgical year. As I’m sure most of us have noticed by now, the Advent wreath is up at church and we have shifted over to purple cloths and vestments.
Visually, the beginning of Advent is relatively obvious. During the celebration of Mass, we have no doubt also noticed the absence of the Gloria being sung, which is always omitted during the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent. The prayers of the Mass also take on the distinct themes of hopeful anticipation, salvation from our sins, healing and peace.
Perhaps one of the less obvious changes as we embark upon the new liturgical year is the change in the lectionary cycle. We just finished lectionary Year C and have rounded back to Year A again – but what does this all mean?
Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the lectionary cycle was fixed. Therefore, the same readings would be used for Sunday Masses each year. Even many weekday Masses would repeat the Sunday readings or draw upon the same limited collection of readings. This is not to say that the Mass prior to the conciliar reforms did not utilize Scripture – it did so in various places, such as in the short lines of Scripture assigned to the entrance, offertory, and Communion in the Mass.
These are called “proper antiphons” because they change week to week. This was and currently is also the case with the alleluia verse and the short line of Scripture nestled between the epistle and Gospel, called the “gradual” – a component of the Mass that would eventually be replaced by what we now know as the responsorial psalm.
Nonetheless, the Second Vatican Council demanded an even greater use of sacred Scripture in the liturgy. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) was and remains to be the most influential force on shaping the sacred liturgy.
Promulgated by Pope St. Paul VI on Dec. 4, 1963, this document called for an increased use of Scripture in the liturgy in no uncertain terms: “In sacred celebrations there is to be more reading from holy Scripture, and it is to be more varied and suitable” (SC 35).
The current three-year lectionary cycle grew out of an even more specific initiative suggested 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. In this way, a more representative portion of the holy Scriptures will be read to the people in the course of a prescribed number of years” (SC 51).
Pope Paul VI, who greatly loved sacred Scripture, was intent on increasing the use of the Bible in the Mass. He created the Council for Implementing the Constitution on the Liturgy in 1964 and tasked them with compiling a new lectionary present more of God’s word to the Catholic faithful.
hus, we have a cycle of three years: Year A with the Gospel of St. Matthew, Year B with the Gospel of St. Mark, and Year C with the Gospel of St. Luke. The Gospel of St. John, since it is distinctly different from the three synoptic Gospels, is read during Holy Week, the Easter season, on particular feast days, and during the “Bread of Life Discourse” during Year B.
As for the weekdays, there is a cycle of two years – Year I in odd years and Year II in even years. Over the full course of these lectionary cycles, 14% of the Old Testament is read (not counting the psalms), 90% of the Gospels are read, and 55% of the non-Gospel New Testament is read. This is a significant increase from the pre-conciliar readings which utilized 1% of the Old Testament (not counting the psalms), 21% of the Gospels, and 11% of the non-Gospel New Testament.
Overall, the three-year lectionary cycle has been one of the most crowning achievements of the liturgical reform and it reminds us of the definitive teaching that all sacred Scripture is divinely inspired. Scripture was originally utilized in the context of ritual worship, Jewish and Christian, and was only later compiled into one book which we call the Bible.
It is therefore important to remember that the celebration of the liturgy is the first and true home of sacred Scripture. As St. Jerome once asserted, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” As we begin this new liturgical year, let us listen with attentive ear and heart to the riches of God’s word.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 1,, 2022 edition of The Lumen