Throughout this series, I am working on the assumption that the vast majority of occasions when people are reading in public worship, it is the principal service on a Sunday. This is the set of readings provided for mass in the Roman Catholic Church, and for the principal gathering for worship (whether eucharistic or not) of the day in other denominations. In most Anglican parish churches, the same set of readings tends to be used for any eucharist celebrated on that day (as in the Roman Catholic Church). There is a separate set of readings for morning and evening prayer (matins and evensong), whose selection is less clearly organised. However, in this series, I am only going to focus on the three-year lectionary which provides the most frequently used readings.
There are three readings provided for each Sunday of the year. In addition, there is a text from the psalms which offers words of response to the first reading. That means that when there are alternative first readings, there are also alternative psalms, since the psalm has been chosen to correspond to the particular reading.
Where possible, it is good to encourage the singing of the psalm. There are many different ways of doing that. The lectionary provides a psalm with a response, hinting at the idea of a cantor or choir singing the verses, and the congregation joining in the response. Anglicans, whose main experience of psalms tends to come from Evensong, should note that the “Glory to the Father …” conclusion is not used in this context.
In the Roman Catholic lectionary, there is also a (normally) scriptural verse to be used as an Alleluia to greet the proclamation of the Gospel. These are similarly linked in some way to the content of the Gospel reading, and there is one for each set of readings. In Anglican Common Worship, these are provided for the season, rather than the specific reading. If a church wants a text linked to the gospel, there is no reason they can’t simply borrow the Roman one, although most Anglicans will want to be more careful about gender-inclusive language about people than Roman texts sometimes are.
The first reading is always from the Old Testament, except in Eastertide, when it comes from the Acts of the Apostles. Rather too many churches have fallen into the habit of cutting this reading out, either because Christians don’t value the Old Testament highly enough, or because they feel two readings are enough. I would like to encourage all churches to use the full set of readings, and if, on occasion there is a genuine need to have two readings, to omit the epistle, so that we go on honouring, reading and learning from what are the only books we share with our Jewish brothers and sisters. These books, after all, provided the only Bible Jesus and the earliest Christians had. Finally, there is the very pragmatic point that the Old Testament reading is chosen specifically to link in some way with the Gospel. The choice of the New Testament reading stands unrelated to the other two.
The second reading comes from the letters of the New Testament, and from the Apocalypse. This sequence of reading is independent of the other two readings, so may not connect with the ideas that can usually be seen to connect the Old Testament to the Gospel.
The final reading is the Gospel. This pattern, of three readings culminating in the Gospel, relates to the particular significance the Gospel has as a sign – almost but not quite a sacrament – of the presence of Jesus with his people as their teacher and guide.
The Old Testament reading looks forward to its completion in the coming of Jesus, the New Testament reading points back to the gospel as an exploration of what it means to live as followers of Jesus in the light of the gospel event. Both in some sense get their meaning from the Good News of Jesus, which appropriately is the culmination of the readings. This is why the gospel is treated differently, with different responses introducing and concluding it, and in most churches, with an enhanced ritual as well. In the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, people sit for the first two readings and the psalm, and stand for the gospel – standing in the presence of the Christ whose story is being told.
It is good to build in some silence to the pattern of readings. This may be relatively brief, but some opportunity for reflection on what has just been heard can be helpful, before the next reading begins.1 This is not simply about allowing readers time to get to and from the lectern or ambo, but about helping to create a sense of expectancy and attention. Silence is generally undervalued in corporate worship, and the liturgy of the Word is one of several places where we could build it in more consistently.
- The General Instruction on the Roman Missal suggests “It may be appropriate to observe such periods of silence, for example, before the Liturgy of the Word itself begins, after the First and Second Reading, and lastly at the conclusion of the Homily.” (56 – PDF download)