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Choice of Readings for Christmas

And More on Marian Solemnities

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Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Regina Apostolorum university.

 Q: I have often wondered how much freedom the Church allows regarding the choice of readings for Christmas. In the 1970 lectionary produced for Australia, there is a clear indication of some degree of flexibility. It states: «These readings are to be used at the Evening Mass on 24 December, either before or after first Vespers of Christmas. These texts may also be used for Masses on Christmas day, with a choice of readings from one of the three Christmas Masses, as the pastoral needs of each congregation suggest.» Would it be correct to say that the Vigil Mass readings could not be used at any of the other Christmas Masses? There would seem to be some potential advantages for a homilist in using just one set of readings. To use just one of the sets per year would, in time, also allow the possibility of exposing people who attend only one of the Christmas Masses at the same time every year (seemingly most people) to more than one set of readings for Christmas. A further question concerns an Australian celebration. This year one of our national celebrations, Australia Day, falls on a Sunday. The Australian Ordo seems to indicate that either the Sunday Mass or the Australia Day Mass may be used, with their own readings. This seemed odd to me, but I couldn’t find any indication of ranking for such national days in the Table of Liturgical Days. What would you suggest? — J.D., Wagga Wagga, Australia

A: Regarding the first question we can take into account the principles enunciated in the introduction to the lectionary:

“3. Principles to Be Followed in the Use of the Order of Readings

“a) The Freedom of Choice Regarding Some Texts

“78. The Order of Readings sometimes leaves it to the celebrant to choose between alternative texts or to choose one from the several listed together for the same reading. The option seldom exists on Sundays, solemnities, or feasts, in order not to obscure the character proper to the particular liturgical season or needlessly interrupt the semi-continuous reading of some biblical book. On the other hand, the option is given readily in celebrations of the Saints, in ritual Masses, Masses for various needs and occasions, votive Masses, and Masses for the dead.

“These options, together with those indicated in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and the Ordo cantus Missae, have a pastoral purpose. In arranging the liturgy of the word, then, the priest should ‘consider the general spiritual good of the congregation rather than his personal outlook. He should be mindful that the choice of texts is to be made in harmony with the ministers and others who have a role in the celebration and should listen to the opinions of the faithful in what concerns them more directly.'»

When referring to the readings for Christmas the introduction is quite succinct:

“95. For the vigil and the three Masses of Christmas, both the prophetic readings and the others have been chosen from the Roman tradition.”

However, the lectionary also has a rubric on the page for Christmas Day which, in conformity to the pastoral principles of the introduction, indicates that the readings of one Christmas Mass may be used for the others provided the proper order (Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament, Gospel) is always retained.

There is, therefore, a certain latitude involved, especially when the vast majority attend only one Christmas Mass. The use of such freedom might cause a little confusion in parishes that regularly use Mass sheets or booklets that contain all the readings. In such cases, the use of different texts should be planned well ahead so that the sought-after pastoral benefit is effectively obtained.

With respect to Australia Day (January 26) and other similar occasions such as Thanksgiving or July 4 in the U.S., the bishops’ conference may submit a specific Mass for the day for approval to the Holy See. However, such celebrations do not obtain any place or rank in the liturgical calendar and would follow rules similar to that of a votive Mass.

For example, in the official calendar for the United States we see for Independence Day:

“July 4 Thu Weekday green/white [USA: Independence Day]

Gn 22:1b-19/Mt 9:1-8 (380) or, for Independence Day, any readings from the Lectionary for Mass (vol. IV), the Mass ‘For the Country or a City,’ nos. 882-886, or ‘For Peace and Justice,’ nos. 887-891”.

Notice that there is no indication of rank with respect to the celebration. The last time this day coincided with a Sunday was 2010, and the liturgical calendars for that year made no mention of Independence Day. Therefore, I would presume that such celebrations would not usually substitute the Sunday Mass of ordinary time, although a bishop or the bishops’ conference could grant special permission to do so.

I have been unable to find the indication regarding substituting the readings on the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time on the 2020 online liturgical calendars for Australia.

There seems not to be uniform practice, and some dioceses have announced that they will celebrate the Mass on Monday 27 which coincides with a public holiday. One diocese has announced a special Australia Day Mass on the Sunday in the cathedral, but it is also apparently organized by particular groups for which this day has special significance.

My personal opinion would be that the Sunday should be followed with some mention of the civil recurrence made in the Prayer of the Faithful and the homily.

* * *

Follow-up: Marian Solemnities in Advent

In the wake of our observations on the coincidence of the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception with a Sunday, an attentive reader offered some pertinent observations.

With respect to the transfer of the obligation to attend Mass, he says: “At least in the U.S., we have been given the advice for years that if the Immaculate Conception is transferred to December 9, the obligation does NOT transfer.”

The above is true for the U.S. Canon law says the following regarding these days for the universal Church:

“Canon 1246. §1. Sunday, on which by apostolic tradition the paschal mystery is celebrated, must be observed in the universal Church as the primordial holy day of obligation. The following days must also be observed: the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Epiphany, the Ascension, the Body and Blood of Christ, Holy Mary the Mother of God, her Immaculate Conception, her Assumption, Saint Joseph, Saint Peter, and Saint Paul the Apostles, and All Saints.

“§2. With the prior approval of the Apostolic See, however, the conference of bishops can suppress some of the holy days of obligation or transfer them to a Sunday.”

Several commentaries on the Code of Canon Law regarding holy days of obligation agree that the obligation does transfer. However, as can be seen above, bishops’ conferences have wide leeway in choosing to dispense holy days that coincide with a workday or are transferred and even to reduce the overall number of holy days of obligation.

U.S. bishops have generally dispensed from the obligation of rest on working days and also dispense from the obligation to attend Mass in most cases when the feast falls on Saturday or Monday. Some feasts have also been transferred to a Sunday.

Other bishops’ conferences have made other choices in accordance with their pastoral reality. Indeed it would seem that only Vatican City and the Ticino area of Switzerland retain all of the holy days mentioned in Canon 1246 on their proper days.

The reader also observes, “Regarding a permanent exception to observing the Immaculate Conception on Sunday, it seems to have been granted to Argentina and Peru, and perhaps other countries as well.”

I was unaware of this, and it is true. Since this is primarily a pastoral concession, there are some conditions in applying this exception:

— It only applies to Masses with the faithful. Priests who celebrate or concelebrate without the presence of the faithful follow the universal calendar.

— So as not to lose the sense of Advent the second reading must be that of the Sunday of Advent.

— The homily should reference Advent.

— In the Prayer of the Faithful at least one petition must have the sense of Advent, and the prayer must conclude with the collect of the Second Sunday of Advent of the corresponding cycle (ABC).

— The concession concerns Masses with the faithful and hence does not apply to the Liturgy of the Hours.

* * *

 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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