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LITURGY: Cycle-A Gospel Readings

Have Special Place in Preparation for Baptism

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Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: While curiosity may have killed the cat, it does tend to feed the soul when it is curiosity about the things of the Church! Why does she suggest the Gospel readings for Year A be read even during years B and C? I have been told that they are linked to the “scrutinies,” but how? What does the story of the woman at the well tell us that is so much more than the story of the cleansing of the temple (third Sunday of Lent), or the story of the cure of the man born blind tell us over the story of Christ’s teaching Nicodemus about himself as light (fourth Sunday of Lent)? And how do they tie to the scrutinies? Any clues? — E.L., Lake Zurich, Illinois
A: Effectively the old proverb had a second part: “Curiosity killed the cat, information made him fat.”
The principal reason why the readings from cycle A may always be used during Lent, especially in parishes where there are adults preparing for Christian initiation at the upcoming Easter Vigil, is of a historical nature as well as of a pastoral one.
The period of Lent developed gradually in the early Church. During the course of the fourth century in Rome Lent developed from a three-week preparation for Easter to a 40-day period beginning on a Sunday. Ash Wednesday was added some time later.
At the beginning, only the Sundays were celebrated liturgically. Little by little specific liturgical forms were added for Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. This was because those were the days dedicated to instructing the catechumens in preparation for initiation. The essential elements for this instruction are still found in the liturgy for those days, and the present rite retains most of the traditional daily Gospel readings and some of the Old Testament readings as the extraordinary form. Some of the interrogations and rites for the Christian initiation of adults were also held on these weekdays. As adult baptisms became less common, these rites were incorporated into the first part of the rite of baptism itself.
A specific Lenten Mass for Tuesdays and Saturdays was added two centuries later whereas we do not find a specific text for Thursdays until the eighth century.
The present cycle A is fundamentally a preparation for baptism. The first Sunday uses Matthew’s version of the temptations of Christ, the second Sunday uses Matthew’s version of the Transfiguration. The third Sunday uses the episode of the Samaritan woman from John 4:5-42, the fourth Sunday the episode of the man born blind from John 9:1-41, and the fifth Sunday proclaims the resurrection of Lazarus from John 11:1-45. Palm Sunday concludes the Lenten cycle of Sunday readings with the reading of the Passion.
The readings for Sundays in the single yearly cycle of the extraordinary form are different. The first two weeks are the same. The third Sunday used Luke 11, in which Christ speaks about casting out demons. The fourth Sunday is taken from John 6 — the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. The following week, called “Passion Sunday,” John 8:46-59 was proclaimed. This passage contains Jesus’ promising eternal life to those who observe his word and his practical declaration of divinity in saying that “Before Abraham was, I am.” The sixth Sunday is Palm Sunday with the reading of the Passion.
The cycle now presented in the ordinary form is, in all probability, the most ancient cycle. There is clear evidence for it in the writings of St. Ambrose (337-397) and there is manuscript evidence for its use in all parts of Italy outside of Rome as well as in France and Spain. The change in the Roman rite is probably explained by a change in the practice of the scrutinies that took place in Rome around the end of the sixth century. In Rome there were originally three scrutinies held on the third, fourth and fifth Sundays of Lent. Toward the middle of the sixth century the number of scrutinies was raised to seven from three and all were celebrated on weekdays. Thus the old Sunday formulas and readings linked to the scrutinies were simply replaced with others, not specifically tied to the preparation for initiation.
Cycle A thus prepares for Easter and for baptism with the themes of overcoming temptation. The Transfiguration shows, according to St. Augustine, that the Gospel receives the witness of the Law and the prophets. The other Sundays reflect the progressive revelation of Christ and the Christian message to those who will receive the “living water,” the “light of the world” and the “resurrection and the life.”
This does not mean that the readings of the other cycles cannot be adapted to a baptismal theme. But these traditional texts have the weight of centuries behind them and are backed up by a wealth of commentary from Church Fathers which is lacking in the other texts.
These reflections will help us to understand the explanation offered in the introduction to the lectionary regarding the Lenten readings.
“a) The Sundays
“97. The Gospel readings are arranged as follows:
“The first and second Sundays maintain the accounts of the Temptation and Transfiguration of the Lord, with readings, however, from all three Synoptics.
“On the next three Sundays, the Gospels about the Samaritan woman, the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus have been restored in Year A. Because these Gospels are of major importance in regard to Christian initiation, they may also be read in Year B and Year C, especially in places where there are catechumens.
“Other texts, however, are provided for Year B and Year C: for Year B, a text from John about Christ’s coming glorification through his Cross and Resurrection, and for Year C, a text from Luke about conversion.
“On Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion the texts for the procession are selections from the Synoptic Gospels concerning the Lord’s solemn entry into Jerusalem. For the Mass the reading is the account of the Lord’s Passion.
“The Old Testament readings are about the history of salvation, which is one of the themes proper to the catechesis of Lent. The series of texts for each Year presents the main elements of salvation history from its beginning until the promise of the New Covenant.
“The readings from the Letters of the Apostles have been selected to fit the Gospel and the Old Testament readings and, to the extent possible, to provide a connection between them.
“b) The Weekdays
“98. The readings from the Gospels and the Old Testament were selected because they are related to each other. They treat various themes of the Lenten catechesis that are suited to the spiritual significance of this season. Beginning with Monday of the Fourth Week of Lent, there is a semicontinuous reading of the Gospel of John, made up of texts that correspond more closely to the themes proper to Lent.
“Because the readings about the Samaritan woman, the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus are now assigned to Sundays, but only for Year A (in Year B and Year C they are optional), provision has been made for their use on weekdays. Thus at the beginning of the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Weeks of Lent optional Masses with these texts for the Gospel have been inserted and may be used in place of the readings of the day on any weekday of the respective week.
“In the first days of Holy Week the readings are about the mystery of Christ’s passion. For the Chrism Mass the readings bring out both Christ’s Messianic mission and its continuation in the Church by means of the sacraments.”
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Readers may send questions to Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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Fr. Edward McNamara

Padre Edward McNamara, L.C., è professore di Teologia e direttore spirituale

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