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Understanding the Christian Year

Why Are The Gospel Readings In A Particular Order?

Introduction

When we look at a church Lectionary giving the order in which the Gospels and Epistles in the Missal (Mass Book) are read each Sunday during the Mass, it is not immediately obvious why they are in the order appointed.

So the above question is not as irrelevant as it might seem at first. But it may help to start by asking, “Why do we read the Gospels at all?” That’s a good question since many Christians hardly ever do! They may wave their Bibles or Missals at you but for some peculiar reason don’t feel at ease quietly reading in a reflective way, the Divine Word recorded in their Bible. The truth is that we all, in fact, tend to take the existence of the Bible for granted. Perhaps it would help us to remember that the Bishops of the then-known world gathered in the 4th Century and declared authoritatively which spiritual writings in existence were to be considered New Testament, and which were not. We can be eternally grateful they did, because there were so many corrupt and misleading writings, that the common people needed to be protected from serious error. Interestingly, most of the written works considered by the bishops have long disappeared and we have in our possession a glorious Christian heritage of writing inspired by the Holy Spirit. Christians don’t agree about much, and least of all about Sacred Scripture. Thankfully we at least share the same New Testament except for a very small number of verses which, for historical reasons rather than doctrinal, have eluded universal acceptance.

Returning now to the Gospels, we would do well to pause and ponder the rather bland question, “Why do we read the Gospels? After all, we read most books because we haven’t read them before and want to know what is in them. Not so with the New Testament and especially the Gospels; we read them because we know what is in them. Somehow we find that when we read them as they were meant to be “read” – that is listened to – something “comes over” us; we are moved within; we feel an urge to respond, to engage, to dwell on our Lord’s words. They are like those of no other person. Why is this?

For some people, clearly it is because the Gospels record the words and action of our Messiah and Lord as remembered by eye-witnesses. This means we can almost feel ourselves present and included in His magnificent lessons.

For other people, especially in our troubled times when religion has been hijacked by professional stage showmen (and women!), the Gospels present pure, unadulterated Christianity. Other books of the New Testament can be misrepresented; but the Gospels when carefully meditated upon, help the devout follower of Jesus, to discern what he taught and to reject the false forms of Christianity with which we are so often confronted today.

In John 4: 5 – 42, there is a fascinating description of an encounter between our Lord and a Samaritan women at Jacob’s Well. During the unfolding conversation between the two, Jesus makes an oblique reference to the Messiah. The woman comments that she believes when the messiah comes he will talk in language the common person can comprehend, just as she says Jesus has. At that point our Lord “shows His hand” and declares to her: “I am the Messiah”.

St Augustine, 5th Century Bishop of the thriving Christian community at Hippo, North Africa, has a beautiful commentary on this very special reply from Jesus:

“He, Son of God, spoke but one word, (in Latin, “Sum”) “I am He”, and in that moment she is convinced and becomes an apostle to her townsfolk. This one word of the Saviour, he says, was more effectual than that by which God created heaven and earth, for the nothingness that preceded creation would make no resistance to God, whereas sin is wont to withstand Him. What more need we say of the power of grace? How ardently must we desire its omnipotent operation in us.”

Herein lies the explanation of the power of the word of our Lord upon our souls. We all need to hear him – we need to be restored, enlightened, healed; and we also need to share this spiritual treasure with others.

When we do that, we gain even more! This is the work of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit whom He sent to us, to remind us of everything He taught – and to give us understanding. (John 14: 26)

In our age of confusion and delusion, we need to remember this most important role of the Holy Spirit: to enable us to recall the words of Jesus, the Divine Word, and to repeat them to the rest of the world in a way they can understand. Many people think the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is to produce speech in tongues which their hearers cannot understand. However Jesus only ever spoke in the language people hear and understand. The woman at the well heard, understood and went forth to proclaim with power and effectiveness, unmatched in her time. We can do the same!

Well, we are on our way. We are at least clear about why we read and meditate on the Gospels: they contain the very words of Jesus, as He taught what He said He had learnt from His Father. And let us not forget his Father’s only commandment recorded in the New Testament: “Listen to Him!” (Matthew 17: 5).

 

“Listen to Him!”

The cycle of Gospel readings as based on the Lectionary demonstrates our obedience to the Father’s commandment, “Listen to Him!” (Matthew 17: 5).

For 2000 years, when Christians have gathered for worship in the Holy Eucharist, (which we have come to call the Mass), they have recited parts of the Sacred Scriptures. Historically, this meant a reader reciting from a Greek version of what we call the Old Testament, together with a portion of a Gospel.

In addition, a letter, or part thereof, from one of the Apostles might also be included. In the 4th Century, after the Bishops had formally declared what documents would constitute the New Testament, these letters plus the Gospels and approved writings became venerated as part of divinely inspired Scripture, the Word of God.

Listening to the Divine Word has always been central to our worship, along with the carrying out of the commandment of Jesus (talking of the Holy Eucharist), “Do this in remembrance of me!” In true Christian worship, the Divine Word is not just “read”: it is proclaimed with power and dignity, and listened to with eagerness, thanksgiving and in an attitude of desiring to put in into practice. When the Gospels are read during worship, they are almost always, with the exception of the introductory or infancy narratives, records of the actions and teaching of our Lord. This is how the first Christians, from the very beginning of the Church, proclaimed, “Jesus is Lord!”

St. Paul echoes this in his writing. The proclamation of the Gospel, therefore, was always honoured as the voice and presence of the Lord himself, there in the centre of his people. The readings, therefore, very early in the Church’s history, reflected the pattern of the life, teaching passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church at Pentecost.

 

The Seasons of the Christian Year

The major events of our Lord’s life are commemorated in the first half of the year. The second half of the year is filled with the progressive unfolding of His teaching. The chart below lists each of the main seasons of the Church year and their theme.

Advent

Preparation for Jesus’ coming.

Begins late November / early Dec.

     

Christmas

Nativity of the Lord.

25 Dec to 5 Jan.

     

Epiphany

Manifestation to the Gentiles (non Jews)

6 January

     

Time after Epiphany

Sometimes called “Ordinary” Time

Several weeks following Epiphany. Variable length depending on date of Easter.

     

Septuagesima

Preparation for Lent

Three Sundays before Ash Wednesday.

     

Lent

40 days (excluding Sundays) Fasting, prayer and penance

Dates vary according to Easter.

     

Easter

Passion, death, resurrection of Jesus.

Celebrated 6 to 7 weeks.

     

Ascension

Jesus returns to the Father.

Celebrated for 9 days leading to Pentecost. The first Christian “Novena” – i.e. 9 days of special prayer

     

Pentecost

The promised gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church.

50 days after Easter Day.

     

Time after Pentecost

Otherwise called Ordinary Time

Rest of year up to Advent.

This cycle of time helps us celebrate the time Jesus spent in His ministry of teaching and healing. As we move through the seasons, the readings are selected so that they relate to the actual circumstances in which our Lord carried out His sacred mission. By following Him in this way, we can come much closer than we do simply reading a Gospel from start to finish. The Church Year enables us as a Body to behold the Lord together and to listen with one mind and heart to our Saviour’s precious words. Thus we are enabled to hear not just the words, but the Word behind the words, the Word within the words. This is the real way we are invited to stand at the very threshold of Heaven, and Listen to Jesus our Messiah – the Word of God.

 

Conclusion

We hope you will not find the order of readings and systematisation of the Church Lectionary Year, uncomfortable or artificial. As we have explained the reason for following this method is to reflect the presence of the living Lord among us, still caring for us, teaching and healing as He continues to send the Holy Spirit, as He promised He would. By reading and meditating on the Holy Gospels as presented throughout the Christian Year, we do so as a body of Christians – in fact, as the Body of Christ. And we unite our meditation and prayer throughout the week with our regular Worship. This helps bring us together as a people as well as unite us with our Saviour and keep us in His presence.