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“One week earlier…” How to read the Sunday Mass readings

By Andy Norton

Have you ever watched a film and it started in media res, in the middle of the action? There’s this cryptic, cliff hanging scene. There’s action and tension. You’re wondering, “Who are these people, what’s going on?” and suddenly, it cuts to black and the words appear in white: “One week earlier…”

This basically describes how I like to read the Sunday Mass readings in preparation for Sunday Mass.

Every Sunday, in the Catholic Church, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass begins with the Liturgy of the Word, with readings from the Old Testament or from Acts, from the Book of Psalms, from an apostle’s letter, and finally from one of the four Gospels. These are read in order, which is generally speaking chronological.

But just before the Gospel, there’s a hidden key, like the pointing hand on Bilbo’s map in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit; a symbol indicating a secret entrance to treasures untold. This “pointing hand” is what’s called the “Gospel Acclamation,” a short verse ‘acclaimed’ by the choir or cantor in the middle of the Alleluia.

I like to begin here, in media res. I skip the first reading, the Psalm, and the second reading; instead, I start with the Gospel Acclamation, followed by the Gospel, then finally I read all the readings from start to finish.

The reason for this is that I believe, in most cases, the Gospel Acclamation is the key to the Gospel, and in every case, the Gospel is the central reading around which the other readings are ordered. Therefore, if you ‘get’ the Gospel Acclamation, you ‘get’ the Gospel, and you ‘get’ the other readings, too.

Take, for example, this past Sunday, the Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C.

The Gospel antiphon is taken from the Book of Revelation and reads: “Jesus Christ is the firstborn of the dead; to him be glory and power, forever and ever.”

What are keywords here? I underlined “glory and power” and especially “firstborn of the dead.” What is this about? To find out, we read on!

The Gospel is taken from Luke, chapter 20. It’s all about “the resurrection,” not of Jesus, but that of all the dead on “the last day.” In it, Jesus speaks of “those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead.”

The Gospel says nothing of Jesus’ own resurrection. But the Gospel Acclamation connects the resurrection of the dead to Jesus’ own resurrection when it calls him “the firstborn of the dead.” We know that Jesus is raised to life; it’s by his resurrection that we have the hope of rising to new life in him.

Boom! Cut to black. “One week earlier…”

We start over with the first reading, from the Old Testament, a reading from the Book of Maccabees. In it, seven brothers and their mother are tortured and killed for refusing to violate God’s law. What reason do they give for following God’s law even to their death? “You are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever,” one says. Another holds out his hands: “It was from Heaven that I received these; for the sake of his laws, I disdain them; from him I hope to receive them again.” And another: “It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by him; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life.”

Here in the Old Testament we see the hope of the resurrection of the dead, a reality which, in the Gospel, Christ confirms by his teaching, and which, as we know from the Gospel antiphon, Christ makes possible for us by his own resurrection from the dead.

In every Mass, the Psalm is a prayerful echo of the first reading, and in this case, it’s an emphasis on the faithful perseverance of the Maccabees. We hear, “My steps have been steadfast in your paths, my feet have not faltered.” As we know from the Gospel, it’s the faithful “who are deemed worthy” who attain “to the resurrection of the dead.” This Psalm asks the Lord for that free grace of fidelity to God: “Keep me as the apple of your eye, hide me in the shadow of your wings.”

Finally, we come to the second reading, an excerpt from Saint Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. The second reading is not typically connected as closely to the other readings, since, like the Gospel, it progresses through a book from Sunday to Sunday, but in many cases it still makes the most sense in context with them. In this case, it totally does. Paul prays “May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us everlasting encouragement and good hope through his grace, encourage your hearts and strengthen them in every good word and deed.” This again is that grace we need, the grace of God to strengthen us “in every good word and deed” so that we might be found worthy of the promises of Christ and attain to everlasting life with him.

The readings come full circle as we read again the Gospel Acclamation and the Gospel. The earlier readings made more sense, knowing we would come to this, and now the Gospel is illuminated since we’ve now read the readings leading to it.

And that’s it: start with the Gospel Acclamation as the key to the Gospel, then read all the readings in their light. This approach can be utilized every single Sunday or Feast Day.

If you’re not convinced, you can always take another tack, one which I often take when I’ve not had the chance to read the readings before Mass. Instead, after hearing them, you can reread the earlier readings having now heard the Gospel and the Acclamation. It’s less “One week earlier” and more like The Sixth Sense, with a ‘second viewing’ looking so different with the end in mind.

Either way, if you’re like me, you love a good movie and some non-linear storytelling. So I encourage you, give this a try next Sunday, and I promise the readings will be more exciting than any blockbuster movie.

 


Andy Norton is the Recruiting Coordinator for NET Ministries. Before joining NET, Andy worked at the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis and for the Fellowship of Catholic University Students. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Theology and Catechetics from Franciscan University of Steubenville and Master’s in Theology from the Augustine Institute. Andy lives in West St. Paul, Minnesota with his wife Sarah and their three kids.

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