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: Recently I have been asked to explain why the reader at Mass doesn’t say the chapter and verses from where the reading is taken from, for a given reading during Mass. I have been trying to check through whatever document I can find for reference, but so far I have found none stating it as a rule or even just mentioning the practice. — C.M., Lusaka, Zambia
A: I would say that there are several reasons why announcing the chapter and verse does not generally form part of liturgical tradition, whether Catholic or Orthodox. As far as I can ascertain, Anglican services do include the announcement of chapter and verse before the readings.
The first reason, I would say, is that the liturgical rituals for proclaiming the readings were established long before the introduction of chapter and verse into the Bible. When preaching, the Church Fathers say, “As John says somewhere …” or “As Ezekiel prophesies regarding the temple …,” as numerical references did not exist.
The introduction of chapters to the Bible was made by Cardinal Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury (1150-1228). It was probably done while he was a professor at the University of Paris in the years 1204-1205, so as to bring some uniformity in teaching Scriptures to students who hailed from all over Europe. These chapters were later substantially adopted in the first printed versions of the Latin Vulgate.
Verses were introduced later, after the invention of the printing press. For the Old Testament, the division was based on a 1440 concordance of the Hebrew Bible prepared by Rabbi Isaac Nathan ben Kalonymus, which in turn was based on a much older system of division used for study and cantillation of the sacred text in the Jewish community. This concordance was first printed in 1523, and its system became standard.
Although he was not the first person to divide the New Testament into verses, the modern system was introduced by scholar and printer Robert Estienne (1503-1559) in his 1551 edition of the Greek New Testament, a French version in 1553 and the Latin Vulgate in 1555.
Since the cycle of readings and the introductory rituals already existed, and until relatively recent times the readings were proclaimed in Latin, the division into chapter and verse was never incorporated into the liturgy.
A second reason is that the Roman Catholic Church often selects and abridges texts for liturgical proclamation in order to transmit a particular message adapted to the day while leaving out some verses. For example, on Sunday, February 23, 2020, the first reading was from Leviticus 19:1-2 and 17-18, the first verses introducing and contextualizing the second. This practice would make for rather awkward proclamations.
A third reason is that the liturgical introductions are geared more toward fostering an attitude of attentive listening in the faithful than in imparting information. This is quite sober in the Roman rite even though the Gospel proclamation is prefaced with the greeting and response “The Lord be with you. – And with your spirit” underling that the communication comes from Christ. It is a living word that is experienced and not just a “reading” or text to be used as a starting point for preaching.
The Eastern liturgies tend to emphasize this reality much more strongly. For example, the widely used Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom introduces the Liturgy of the Word in the following manner:
“For the Epistle, the priest sings: Let us be attentive.
(The Reader reads the verses from the Psalms.)
The Deacon: ‘Wisdom.’
Reader: The reading is from (the name of the book of the New Testament from which the Apostolic reading is taken).
Deacon: Let us be attentive.
(The Reader reads the text)
Priest: Peace be with you.
People: Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.
Priest (in a low voice): Shine within our hearts, loving Master, the pure light of Your divine knowledge and open the eyes of our minds that we may comprehend the message of your Gospel. Instill in us, also, reverence for Your blessed commandments, so that having conquered sinful desires, we may pursue a spiritual life, thinking and doing all those things that are pleasing to You. For You, Christ our God, are the light of our souls and bodies, and to You, we give glory together with Your Father who is without beginning and Your all-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.”
The introductory rites for the Gospel proclamation follow:
“Priest: Wisdom. Arise. Let us hear the holy Gospel. Peace be with all.
People: And with your spirit.
Deacon: The reading is from the holy Gospel according to (Name). Let us be attentive.
People: Glory to You, O Lord, glory to You.
(The Deacon reads the designated Gospel.)
People: Glory to You, O Lord, glory to You.”
* * *
Readers may send questions to email@example.com. 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.