Dr. Peter Kwasniewski argued in a recently republished article at 1P5 that it is not appropriate for women to be lectors at Mass because putting them in that position disrupts and contradicts the symbolism of the liturgy. While I agree with Dr. Kwasniewski’s argument, I would like to add some precisions regarding the biblical basis for this conclusion, especially given how controversial a subject it is.
When one understands what priestly holy orders are, it becomes clear why female lectors have traditionally been prohibited in the Catholic Church. The priest is the alter Christus, someone who acts literally as “another Christ.” The priest also acts in persona Christi or “in the person of Christ” at sacramental moments, such as pronouncing the words of institution at the Mass. All of the activity in the sanctuary at Mass revolves around the person of Christ, and all of the participants in the sanctuary more or less perfectly represent Him. Lector has always been considered one of the minor holy orders for this reason. The Novus Ordo has eliminated the minor orders and introduced the innovation of having females enter the sanctuary to perform liturgical functions. Is this appropriate?
Jesus Himself gives us an answer in the parable of the sower. This parable appears in all three synoptic gospels. Matthew’s and Mark’s versions are virtually identical. Here is Matthew’s version in the “official” NAB translation:
And he spoke to them at length in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it. But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold. Whoever has ears ought to hear” (Mt. 13:3–9)
The problem with this and most other translations is that the word “seed” does not appear anywhere in the original Greek version. It is simply added in by the translators. (Like cockle in the very next parable recorded by Matthew?) In the Greek, Jesus simply says that a sower went out to sow, and “some” fell to the ground. The word Jesus uses is μεν or men. Even the word “some” does not quite capture the meaning. The word men is not a noun; it is an indicative that emphasizes that whatever follows is true. In other words, Jesus is saying the sower is definitely sowing, but what exactly he is sowing is left vague. Translators only assume that it is seed since that is what you would typically expect sowers to sow. That isn’t an illogical assumption, but it is not a faithful translation. It is an interpretation. By filling in the blanks, the translators do not allow the reader to be drawn into the story in order to figure out exactly what the mysterious thing is that the sower is doing.
In Luke’s version of the parable, the word for the mysterious thing that is being sown is αυτος or autos, which is a reflexive pronoun best translated here as “himself.” Luke 8:5 could therefore be literally translated as follows:
A sower went out to sow of himself. And as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trampled down, and the birds of the air devoured his self.
Such a translation would be entirely consistent with Jesus’s own explanation of the meaning of the parable that follows it in all three gospel accounts.
Therefore hear the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. (Mt. 13:18–21)
Jesus still does not mention the word “seed” in the original Greek, even though the translators here do, but rather leaves it blank once again. However, Jesus does reveal that what is being sown is “the word,” which in the Greek is logos — the Word of God or the Second Person. Jesus explains the rest of the parable in just the same way, making it clear that what the Sower is sowing is Himself — not seeds, but the Word. In Luke’s version of the story, Jesus does not use the word for seed (in Greek σπορος or sporos) in the story itself, but he does use it in his explanation in order to make explicit that the sporos we might assume the sower sows is not seed, but is actually the Logos. Here are Jesus’s own words: “Now the parable is this: The seed (sporos) is the word (logos) of God” (Luke 8:11).
So there we have it as clearly stated as possible. The “Sower” is sowing Himself.
In nature, women’s ovulation occurs within the body, perhaps only a few hundred times over the course of her entire life. Men, on the other hand, will release tens to hundreds of millions of seeds each time they sow, and they can do so every day over their entire lives. Since the lector is sowing the Word, he is an alter Christus. It makes sense for the lector not just to be a man, but to be a man in holy orders who represents Christ the Sower of Himself when he sows the Word. Since the parts of the Mass are analogous to the phases of Jesus’s life, the Mass of the Catechumens (Liturgy of the Word in the Novus Ordo) corresponds to Jesus’s public ministry, where Jesus does all of the preaching Himself. When He cannot be present in his natural form, the Logos speaks through the prophets, the evangelists, and the apostles. A woman, as a spreader of the “seeds” of the Word, was far from the norm. It was only when the Novus Ordo Church allowed itself to be intimidated by the modern feminist movement that the practice not only started, but became the norm as a way of getting more “female participation” in the sanctuary. In the Old Covenant, women never preached in the Jerusalem Temple, and when they attended, they were segregated to the Court of the Women. They did not even have ladies’ “altar guilds” to help maintain the Jerusalem Temple. The task was performed by the Levitical priests themselves.
St. Paul defined the teaching regarding female lectors for all time when he wrote:
Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive as the law also says. (1 Cor. 14:34)
Paul does encourage all Christians to use their gifts for the greater glory of God, including those who may have the gift of prophecy (1 Cor. 12:12–27). However, Paul makes a distinction between what happens inside and outside “an assembly” or church. The participants in the sanctuary are alter Christus. The ancient Jewish temple priesthood and Catholics today have male priesthoods for the same reasons, one being a forerunner of the other. At the same time, no man who is not a member of even a minor priestly order should get up from the multitudes and enter the sanctuary as an alter Christus, but should instead passively receive the sown Logos seeds just like the women.
No discussion of the parable of the sower can be complete without mentioning a parallel in Isaiah that describes the Messiah as the sower of the earth.
For as rain comes down, or snow from heaven, and does not return until it saturates the earth, and brings forth and produces, and gives seed to the sower and bread for food, so shall My word be, whatever proceeds from My mouth. It shall not return until it accomplishes whatever I willed, and I shall prosper your ways and my commandments. (Isa. 55:10–11)
In the Septuagint, the word in Greek for “seed” used by Isaiah is sperma, which is the Greek word for sperm. Unlike sporos, which means a seed like a grain, sperma means “seed” but implies offspring, progeny, and posterity. It is something that possesses a life-giving force, including, metaphorically, the divine energy of the Holy Spirit. The word used for “word” here is ρημα or rhema, which means an utterance. It is commonly used in Scripture to mean everyday speech. Isaiah uses it here instead of logos to underscore the unlimited power of God. Isaiah’s purpose is to emphasize that there is no such thing as trivial speech issuing from the mouth of God. Every single utterance is productive and fertile and has the highest life-giving power.
Only in our “gender-fluid,” reality-denying culture can it seem proper to anyone that a woman is allowed into the sanctuary, against all scriptural, historical, and natural precedents, to be an alter Christus and issue the fertile “Logos seeds” into the world.