The Mass Lectionary: A Flawed Gem

Occasionally one gets to review books, and thankfully they are normally very interesting books. Usually it is in our Magazine, but it is no bad thing to review books here as well.

One book that has been sent my way is Index Lectionum: A Comparative Table of Readings for the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the Roman Rite. Written by Matthew Hazell and published under the imprint of the Lectionary Study Press this year, it is envisaged as the first volume in a series, Lectionary Study Aids. Matthew will be known to those interested in the liturgical reforms in the wake of Vatican II, through his website Lectionary Study Aids, and his contributions to the New Liturgical Movement, a collaborative website of high quality that has become the online meeting room of those with a serious liturgical interest.

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Matthew is a young academic, and married to boot. It is indicative of an increasingly-clear trend in liturgical and theological circles: the debate and the scholarship are more and more being advanced by (often young) lay men and women. Partly this may be due to relative paucity of clerical and religious candidates for ecclesial scholarship in the modern era. Rightly or wrongly, many bishops and superiors feel they cannot indulge the luxury of committing able-bodied clerics and religious to full-time study and research. In part it may be partly due also to the enhanced role of the laity in the Church, though the modern crop of lay theologians and liturgists are not aligned with the progressive school that has been the most vocal advocate of lay participation in the life of the Church. It may also, perhaps, be in part down to the marked dissatisfaction among many of the young with the work of the previous generation of theologians and liturgists.

So it is no surprise then that the Foreword to Index is written by another layman: Dr Peter Kwasniewski, a well-credentialed academic who is part of the founding faculty at Wyoming Catholic College. In an essay that takes up the opportunities afforded by the Index, Dr Kwasniewski exposes some of the conclusions that can be drawn from the analytical data provided by Mr Hazell.

In the post-Vatican liturgy the lectionary was expanded from the single-year cycle found in the old Missal, to a three-year cycle for Sundays and a two-year cycle for weekdays. There is, thus, now a lot more scripture proclaimed at Mass. Dr Kwasniewski highlights such gains in the new lectionary as the prophetic readings on ferial days in Advent and the enhancement of the readings on ferias in Eastertide. Often too there can be found some felicitous pairings of Old and New Testament readings.

Yet more is not always better. Over the years some have pointed out that the flood of scripture that is a feature of the new lectionary can swamp the listener’s mind and comprehension. On some days, even ferias, the readings can be very long to the point of being exhausting. This may reflect a desire of the reformers to enhance that novel creature of the new Mass, the Liturgy of the Word, that it might balance the Liturgy of the Eucharist. More than once many of us have heard it asserted in various ways that the Liturgy of the Word is 50% of the reason for Mass, and is of equal importance to the Eucharistic Sacrifice itself. This is nonsense.

As Dr Kwasniewski shows from his use of Mr Hazell’s analysis of the old and new lectionaries, is that while there is a lot more scripture now, the devil lies in the choice of what is included and what is omitted, and how the scripture included is edited. For often it is highly edited indeed. In fact, many passages, or even verses within passages, that are found in the lectionary of the pre-conciliar liturgy have been omitted in the new without obvious sufficient reason. It is in these especially that we can see a strong, and manipulative, editorial hand such as has never been seen in the liturgy before on such a scale and in such a short space of time. So Dr Kwasniewski is moved to point out:

It is one thing to augment a collection of readings, and quite another to delete its historic content… [p.xiii]

Passages that are strong in their presentation of the demands of faith, the judgment of God and the real prospect of hell for the unrepentant serious sinner, and the hostility of the world and its antagonism towards Christ, are omitted or heavily edited or sidelined by relocation to votive Masses. There can be a subtle for of conditioning at work when a reading is still to be found in the new lectionary, but moved to a place of obscurity and infrequency of use. Thus a challenging reading might have been technically retained, but effectively silenced in the hearing of the Church at worship.

The Foreword and Mr Hazell’s Introduction aside, this is not a book to read at bedtime. It is a work of reference, and the food for analysis. It is a series of charts showing where readings are to be found in both the old and new lectionaries, and so revealing what has been omitted, edited, re-located and de-emphasized. It moves from Genesis to Revelation. There are appendices allowing comparison of Sundays in proper time, weekdays in Lent, saints’ days and the commons of both lectionaries.

While a book of particular relevance to scholars, it will nevertheless reward some attentive reading from anyone interested in the reform of the liturgy.

______________________________

What prompted to get off my gradually-expanding backside and write this review was the occasion of my celebrating the conventual Mass in the abbey church today. For today we were exposed to just such an editorial sleight of hand as exposed in the Index. The first reading was from 1 Kings 18:20-39, Elijah’s showdown with the priests of Ba’al before the backsliding King Ahab and the Israelites, who want to have both God and Ba’al. It is a fascinating episode, as Elijah concedes every advantage to the idolaters in the contest to prove which god was true, Ba’al or the Most High. It ends, in the lectionary, at v.39, with the people of Israel impressed at the miraculous power of God:

And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The LORD, he is God; the LORD, he is God.”

It is a stirring note on which to end. But it is not actually the end of this episode in the biblical text. There is a verse 40:

And Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.” And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and slaughtered them there.

This not such a sweet note in which to end a reading. The thought of a prophet of God slaughtering 450 men single-handedly is enough to conjure up images of Daesh/IS.

elijah-slays-the-prophets-of-baal
Elijah slays the priests of Ba’al.

 

Yet the omission of this verse takes away all the enduring  urgency, edge and ultimate spiritual meaning of this passage. Our choices matter, and they have consequences. Christ himself taught anew the ancient biblical principle, that one cannot serve both God and mammon. If we try, we limp as Israel limped between the two, making no progress and denying God the primacy that is his due. We can choose, good and evil, life and death. God of course wants us to choose life. True life is not to be found with Ba’al or its modern equivalents. Idolatry, and it can take subtle almost hidden forms in our lives, leads only to one place: death and eternal separation from God.

As Christ himself said in the gospel passage set for today, not one jot or tittle of the Law and Prophets will be irrelevant until heaven and earth pass away. But the new Lectionary’s editors deftly excised a very important jot from this salutary prophetic passage. As we read it in the new lectionary, we might be left feeling “Gee, our God is amazing, isn’t he”. But with the final verse included, we are encouraged to think instead along these lines— “To put anything but God first in my life is a path to nowhere good, for He alone is god, and only in Him is there life eternal. Without Him is eternal death. I must pay homage to Him and obey his commandments.”

It is a text that should move us to repent lest we be lost. Without the final verse, it is a passage that has no real purpose for inclusion in the liturgy.

What a difference a verse makes.

[You can purchase Matthew Hazell’s Index Lectionum by following links on his website.]

 

13 thoughts on “The Mass Lectionary: A Flawed Gem

    1. Indeed! This book deliberately omits treating the psalms but I’ve been to religious houses with bowdlerized psalters at Office. All the nasty bits removed and a more saccharine psalter in its place.

      I cannot open your link; I get an error page. Is it just me?

      Pax!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Not sure Father. I’ll try again: http://catholic-resources.org/LoH/Psalter-Omissions.html
        I got there by following a link next Fr. Felix Just here: http://christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/24915/what-is-omitted-from-the-current-western-catholic-psalter

        Yes, indeed, it seems that references to justice, punishment, homosexuality and the like have been scrubbed everywhere you look. Make one wonder who is in charge of this . . .

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  1. Many thanks for this interesting post and content.
    Only yesterday I had occasion to phone the Liturgy Office in London to enquire when our [E&W] new Mass Lectionary will be available, and was informed the work is in progress but it would take about three (3) years before publication (i.e. 2019 by my reckoning).
    You’ll be aware of the decision made by the Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales to request the Holy See’s permission to use the RSV 2nd Catholic edition as the English translation.
    Lectionary
    The Bishops’ Conference agrees to seek the approval of the Holy See for the use of the Revised Standard Version (2nd Catholic edition 2010) and the Revised Grail Psalter (2010) in the preparation of a Lectionary for use in England and Wales.
    http://catholic-ew.org.uk/Home/News/Bishops-Plenary-Meetings/Plenary-November-2015/Resolutions
    Also, the Revised Grail Psalter (2010) in any revision of the Liturgy of the Hours.
    Revised Grail Psalter
    The Bishops’ Conference supports the work of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) in preparing a revision of the Liturgy of the Hours. This will include the use of the Revised Grail Psalter (2010) in future editions of the Liturgy of the Hours in England and Wales.
    “Rome wasn’t built in a day”.

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    1. Hi Bro Tony!

      Yes, the news that the ESV lectionary had been scuppered was sad news but the NRSV, despite its pandering to inclusive language, will be a vast improvement to the Jerusalem version.

      Three years eh? We’ll see!

      I’m not so pleased with the revised Grail being in a revised breviary. It is clumsier in the singing and I am unsure if the serious deviations from the Latin text will have been remedied.

      It’s time for a new attempt at a Catholic English psalter!

      Pax.

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  2. Father, is there some misunderstanding? I understood that it was the Ignatius Press Revision of the 1967 RSV that had been approved by the English bishops. This is NOT the New Revised Standard Version, which indeed fell victim to male-excluding language.

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  3. Indeed yes, Father, the churches of all three Ordinariates use this two-volume lectionary, which had been prepared by the Ignatius Press some years ago (although it was not approved for use anywhere in particular at the time). Ignatius Press published two “revisions” of the 1966 / 67 RSV Bible, the second to remove certain archaisms, but also to make it correspond to the precepts of the Roman document “Liturgicam authenticam”. I presume that it is the Ignatius Press second revision that is the version used in their two-volume lectionary.

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