Painting: Maurice Denis, “Le mystère catholique,” (1889)
After a number of years experiencing the annual cycle of readings in the traditional Latin Mass, I grew aware of the manner in which it approaches Gospels in general, which is freer and more subtle than we find in the Novus Ordo lectionary. In the latter, it seems that the guiding assumption is that one must always “follow the pericope,” i.e., the entire literary unit (except, I guess, for the omitted verses and the short forms…). In the classical Roman Rite, on the other hand, the Church has selected the verses that are most pertinent to the mystery or aspect being celebrated. First, I will illustrate this with an example; second, I will comment on the significance.
My example will be the Annunciation. In its full form this pericope is identified as Luke, chapter 1, verses 26–38 (for the purposes of this article I will use English):
At that time, the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth, To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. Who having heard, was troubled at his saying, and thought with herself what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said to her: Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God. Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the most High; and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father; and he shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever. And of his kingdom there shall be no end. And Mary said to the angel: How shall this be done, because I know not man? And the angel answering, said to her: The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And behold thy cousin Elizabeth, she also hath conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with her that is called barren: Because no word shall be impossible with God. And Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word.
In the usus antiquior, the opening phrase “In the sixth month” and the concluding phrase “And the angel departed from her” are omitted in all cases. This is a tiny example of the genius of the Roman rite, which, for liturgical reading, excludes the incidental detail “in the sixth month” and emphasizes the powerful conclusion “Be it done unto me according to thy word.” That is the climax of the reading, not the fact that the angel left. In the Novus Ordo, on the other hand, these phrases have been reintroduced, which shows a certain literalism and a lack of liturgical thinking, and a total lack of dramatic sensibility.
The above pericope (with the difference just noted) is used on the following occasions:
|Roman Rite||Rite of Paul VI (Novus Ordo)|
|Ember Wednesday of Advent||Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B|
|St. Gabriel the Archangel (March 24)||December 20 (Years I & II)|
|Annunciation (March 25)||Annunciation (March 25)|
|Most Holy Name of Mary (September 12)||Immaculate Conception (December 8)|
|Our Lady of the Rosary (October 7)||[Other uses of Lk 1:26–38 in the new lectionary are optional: see Hazell, Index Lectionum, 82.]|
|Common: Saturday Masses of BVM in Advent (Rorate Mass)|
For the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, however, the usus antiquior does something quite different with the Gospel:
At that time, the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth, To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.
Here, ending abruptly with verse 28, the intention of the Church is to focus all our gaze on the mystery of Our Lady’s fullness of grace, her divine adoption and perfect union with God, her blessedness not only among women but indeed within the whole human race. Instead of continuing with the familiar story (almost “too familiar” if always repeated exactly the same way), the Gospel “freezes in its tracks,” the better to pay homage to the object of the day’s celebration, and in this way to render praise and thanks to God for the extraordinary miracle He has wrought in her.
A little over two months later, on February 11, the old calendar celebrates the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, whose apparition is intimately connected with both the reality of the Immaculate Conception—the name by which the lady identified herself to St. Bernadette and by which she wished to be known—and the proclamation of it as a dogma by Pope Pius IX, of which this apparition was widely seen as a heavenly confirmation. The Gospel for the feast day is as follows:
At that time, the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth, To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. Who having heard, was troubled at his saying, and thought with herself what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said to her: Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God. Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus.
Here we note that the three verses of December 8 have been expanded to six, ending on the Holy Name of Jesus, the One to whom every apparition of Our Lady is intended to lead us. This end-point corresponds perfectly to the conclusion of the same day’s proper lesson from the Book of Revelation (11:19; 12:1,10): “Now is come salvation and strength and the Kingdom of our God and the power of His Christ.”
Finally, on May 31, for the feast of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary—instituted by Pope Pius XII in 1954, but celebrated in various places and ways for centuries—the Church extends the Gospel from the opening chapter of Luke just a bit further:
At that time, the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth, To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. Who having heard, was troubled at his saying, and thought with herself what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said to her: Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God. Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the most High; and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father; and he shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever. And of his kingdom there shall be no end.
The additional two verses perfectly correspond to the liturgical celebration of Our Lady’s queenship by emphasizing the greatness of her son: he is the Son of the Most High, the inheritor of David’s throne, the ruler of the house of Jacob, whose kingdom shall have no end, as we confess in the Creed. Because He is the sovereign King, His mother will be the Queen Mother. (The playing around with dates on the calendar that bumped this feast to August 22 on the new calendar and moved the Immaculate Heart from August 22 to the Saturday after the Sacred Heart need not detain us; for a full treatment of the subject, see my article here.)
What we see, then, is the “same” Gospel and yet not the same Gospel: we see a dominant use of the full pericope together with three variations that use only parts of it. Can we say more about the effect of this greater freedom, this willingness to “isolate” part of a passage instead of always delivering the same longer chunk of text?
First and most obviously, such an approach reflects a view of the biblical texts as more intimately connected with the liturgical celebration of the mysteries. The new approach is inflexibly theoretical and didactic, while the old approach follows the contour of the calendar and the feast. The Word is pressed into service of the Reality, rather than the focus being blurred and diffused by biblical instruction delivered always “in full,” as if under a Kantian obligation that cannot bend for circumstances. The traditional Gospel is demonstrative, performative, and sacramental, whereas the pericope-shackled Gospel is descriptive, narrative, and pedagogical.
The most dramatic demonstration of this difference is the rubric of the old missal that requires the priest and ministers to genuflect at a certain verse in the reading, the best-known example being the Mass of the Epiphany at the verse “And entering into the house, they found the Child with Mary His mother, and falling down they adored Him.” Though there are no required rubrics for the faithful, it is quite natural for all of us to imitate what the ministers are doing. When we all genuflect at this moment in the Gospel, we feel in our bodies and souls that the Reality communicated in the reading is actually among us, or rather, that we are, as it were, brought into contact with the Reality through the portal of the Word. The veil between word and sacrament is torn for a moment, and we act as we would in the presence of the Holy Eucharist.
The twentieth-century Liturgical Movement talked endlessly about the dignity of the Word of God, how God’s Word is active among us in converting us, how we are “fed from two tables,” etc. Yet in a supreme irony, when the opportunity for revising the lectionary arrived, the reformers stripped out these ostentatious irruptions of action that demonstrate the very point they claimed to hold. Presumably, such embarrassing medievalisms could not be allowed to intrude upon the Cartesian purity of the text, whereby it must remain forever and only a text, like a dead object dissected on a table. Here again, one cannot help noticing insuperable self-contradictions at the theoretical level. The old rite in its free, subtle, and energetic engagement of the Word is blessedly free of these contradictions.
Second, the delivery of familiar Gospels in varied forms or lengths, by increasing variety, helps increase attentiveness. One is much more likely to perk up when a Gospel suddenly cuts off in mid-stream: it has a rather startling effect, and draws attention to the reason for the interruption. When one is reading along in a missal, one can pretty easily grasp why the reading is given thus; and it is very easy for a preacher to capitalize on this point if he wishes.
More broadly speaking, the Gospels in the old rite tend to be shorter, on the whole, which gives them more punch; but at the same time they seem to vary more in length than those of the Novus Ordo lectionary. Sometimes as little as two verses may serve as the Gospel, the classic example being the Votive Mass of Our Lady, the Gospel of which is Luke 11:27-28—barely enough time for the server who shifts the missal at Low Mass to make it down the steps, genuflect, and resume his position before replying “Laus tibi, Christe.” And yet, during Holy Week, all four Passions are read in full (at least in the pre-55 missal), which is far more quantitatively than the Novus Ordo presents during the same period. In other words, like a performance that has the softest pianissimo and the loudest fortissimo, the minimum and maximum range is greater in the usus antiquior.
More broadly speaking, I find that what is missing in sheer quantity of Scripture—for naturally an annual cycle is never going to “win out” over a two- and three-year cycle as regards quantity—is compensated for by a greater qualitative variety, in four ways: (1) some readings are repeated to the point that they become nearly memorized, which is more beneficial than being inundated with texts that one never learns by heart; (2) the modifications to certain readings, as discussed here, draws attention more forcefully to individual elements in them; (3) the Wisdom literature is used extensively in connection with Our Lady and certain categories of saints, in a way that is foreign to the new lectionary; (4) there is more variety in the liturgical calendar, in the sense that most days have two readings, the Epistle and the Gospel, but the Ember Days have several more readings, making them stand out as special.
The analysis done with the Annunciation Gospel could be done with a number of others, such as the pericope Matthew 18:1–10, in which Jesus points to a child as having the qualities needed for entering the kingdom of heaven, pronounces woe against any who should scandalize the little ones, and declares that their angels see the face of the Father in heaven. This Gospel is first read on September 29 for the Dedication of St. Michael; it is repeated verbatim on October 2 for the Guardian Angels, and again on May 8 for the Apparition of St. Michael. On October 3, for St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, only the first four verses (18:1–4) are read. On January 31, May 15, and August 27, the first five verses (Mt 18:1–5) are read for St. John Bosco, St. John Baptist de la Salle, and St. Joseph Calasanctius, respectively.
In all these ways, a more sophisticated and holistic liturgical use of Scripture is demonstrated to us, quite different from the new rite’s hermetically sealed-off “Liturgy of the Word” with its almost mechanical lectio continua of great swaths of biblical text. It has taken perhaps some decades of experience to come to see the great contrasts between old and new, and now that many have tasted the superiority of the one, they are far less likely to succumb to the planned Cupichian and Rochean propaganda in favor of the other.
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and The Catholic University of America. He taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria, the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, and Wyoming Catholic College, which he helped establish in 2006. Today he is a full-time writer and speaker on traditional Catholicism who has written many books and publishes on a wide variety of sites. His work has been translated into twenty languages. Visit his personal website at www.peterkwasniewski.com, his Substack “Tradition and Sanity,” his publishing house Os Justi Press, and his composer site CantaboDomino.