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Lessons in the Liturgy

Reading of lessons from the Bible, Acts of Martyrs, or approved Fathers of the Church

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Lessons in the Liturgy (exclusive of Gospel).


—The reading of lessons from the Bible, Acts of Martyrs, or approved Fathers of the Church, forms an important element of Christian services in all rites since the beginning. The Jews had divided the Law into portions for reading in the synagogue. The first part of the Christian synaxis was an imitation or continuation of the service of the synagogue. Like its predecessor it consisted of lessons from the Sacred Books, psalm-singing, homilies, and prayers. The Christians, however, naturally read not only the Old Testament but their own Scriptures too. Among these Christian Scriptures the most important were the histories of Our Lord’s life, that we call Gospels, and the letters of the Apostles to various Churches. So we find St. Paul demanding that his letter to the Thessalonians “be read to all the holy brethren” (I Thess., v, 27). Such a public reading could only take place at the synaxis. Again, at the end of the Epistle to the Colossians he tells the people to send the letter to Laodicea to be read there, and to demand and read his letter to the Laodiceans (Col., iv, 16). Here too he seems to imply a public reading (“when this epistle shall have been read with you”). That the public reading of lessons from the Holy Books was a well-known incident of Christian services in the first centuries appears also from the common idea that the “Gospel” to which St. Paul alludes as being “through all the churches” (II Cor., viii, 18) was the written Gospel of St. Luke read in the assemblies (Eusebius, “Hist. eccl.”, III, iv, 8; Jerome, “De viris illustr.”, vii). The famous text of St. Justin Martyr (I Apol., lxvii, quoted in GOSPEL IN THE LITURGY) shows that Biblical texts were read at the Sunday assemblies. So also Tertullian (d. about 240) says of the Roman Church, that she “combines the Law and the Prophets with the Gospels and Apostolic letters” in her public reading (De prescript. her., 36). There is evidence that at first, not only the canonical Scriptures, but Acts of Martyrs, letters, homilies of prominent bishops, and other edifying documents were read publicly in the assemblies. St. Cyprian (d. 258) demands that his letters be read publicly in church (e.g., Ep. ix, in P.L., IV, 253, etc.). The first Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians was used for public reading; it is included (with II Clem. ad. Cor.) in the Codex Alexandrinus. The Epistle of Barnabas and the “Shepherd” of Hermas are in the Codex Sinaiticus. These manuscripts represent collections made for public reading. So also in the East, Acts of Martyrs were read on their anniversaries. Even as late as his time St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) seems to imply that letters from various Churches were still read in the Liturgy (Horn. 30 on II Cor., in P.G., LXI, 605). From the third and fourth centuries, however, the principle obtained that in the liturgy only the canonical Scriptures should be read. The Muratorian Canon (third century) expressly forbids the “Shepherd” to be read publicly. The ideas of public reading and canonicity become synonymous, so that the fact that a book is read at the Liturgy in any local Church is understood to be evidence that that Church accepts it as canonical. Readings during the Office (Matins, etc.) outside the Liturgy have always been more free in this regard.

Originally, as we see from Justin Martyr‘s account, the amount read was quite indeterminate; the reader went on “as long as time allowed”. The presiding bishop would then stop him with some sign or formula, of which our clause, “Tu autem Domine, miserere nobis”, at the end of lessons (once undoubtedly said by the celebrant) is still a remnant. The gradual fixing of the whole liturgical function into set forms naturally involved the fixing of the portions. of the Bible read. There was an obvious convenience in arranging beforehand more or less equal sections to be read In turn. These sections were called “pericopes” (perikop?), a fragment cut off, almost exactly the German Abschnitt); they were marked in the text of the Bible, as may be seen in most early manuscripts. An index (called Sunaxarion in Greek, capitularium in Latin), giving the first and last words of the pericopes for each Sunday and feast, made it easier to find them. There are many remnants of the practice of naming a pericope after its first words, as in the capitularium. The Fathers preach on Gospels which they so call, as if it were a proper name (so St. Bernard’s “Homilies on the Missus est” is on Luke, i, 26-38, etc.). Eventually, for greater convenience the lessons are written out in their liturgical order in a lectionarium, and later still they are inserted in their place with the text. of the whole service, in Breviaries and Missals (see Gospel in the Liturgy).

Meanwhile the number of lessons, at first undetermined, became fixed and reduced. The reading of the Gospel, as being the most important, the crown and fulfilment of the prophecies in the Old Law, was put in the place of honor, last. Every allusion to the lessons read in churches implies that tile Gospel comes last. A further reason for this arrangement was that in some Churches the catechumens were not allowed to hear the Gospel, so it was read after their dismissal (see Gospel in the Liturgy). We are concerned here with the other lessons that preceded it. For a time their number was still vague. The liturgy of the Apostolic Constitutions refers to “the reading of the Law and the Prophets and of our Epistles and Acts and Gospels” (VIII, v, 11). The Syriac, Coptic, and Abyssinian Rites have several lessons before the Gospel (Brightman, “Eastern Liturgies”, Oxford, 1896, pp. 76-8, 152-4, 212-5). In the Roman Rite we still have Masses with a number of lessons before the Gospel. Then gradually the custom ‘obtains of reading two only, one from the Old Testament and one from the New. From the fact that the text read from the Old Testament is looked upon as a promise or type of what followed in Our Lord’s life (very commonly taken from a Prophet) it is called the “prophecy” The lesson of the New Testament (exclusive of the Gospel) would naturally in most cases be part of an Epistle of St. Paul or another Apostle. So we have three lessons in the Liturgy—prophetia, epistola (or apostolus), evangelium. This was the older arrangement of the liturgies that now have only two. The Armenian Rite, derived at an early date (in the sixth century) from that of Constantinople, has these three lessons (Brightman, op. cit., 425-426). St. John Chrysostom also alludes to three lessons in the Byzantine Rite of his time (Horn. 29 on Acts, P.G., LX, 218; cf. Brightman, op. cit., 470). In the West, Germanus of Paris (d. 576), describing the Gallican Rite, mentions them: “The prophetic lesson of the Old Testament has its place.. The same God speaks in the prophecy who teaches in the Apostle and is glorious in the light of the Gospels”, etc. (Duchesne, “Origines du Culte”, 185). This Gallican use is still preserved in the Mozarabic Liturgy, which has three lessons in the Mass. The Ambrosian Rite has a prophetic lesson on certain days only.

The Roman Rite also certainly, once had these three lessons at every Mass. Besides the now exceptional cases in which there are two or more lessons before the Gospel, we have a trace of them in the arrangement of the Gradual which still shows the place where the other lesson has dropped out (see Gradual). The church of St. Clement at Rome (restored in the ninth century but still keeping the disposition of a much older basilica) has a third ambo for the prophetic lesson. A further modification reduced the lessons to two, one from any book of the Bible other than the Gospel, the second from the Gospel. In the Byzantine Rite this change took place between the time of St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) and the final development of the liturgy. The Barberini manuscript (ninth century, reproduced in Brightman, op. cit., 309-344) still supposes more than one lesson before the Gospel (ibid., 314). The Greek Liturgies of St. James and St. Mark also have only one lesson before the Gospel (ibid., 36, 118). This is one of the many examples of the influence of Constantinople, which from the seventh century gradually byzantinized the older Rites of Antioch and Alexandria, till it replaced them in about the thirteenth century. In St. Augustine’s sermons we see that he refers sometimes to two lessons before the Gospel (e.g., Sermo xl), sometimes to only one (Sermo clxxvi, clxxx). At Rome, too, the lessons were reduced to two since the sixth century (“Liber Pontificalis“, ed. Duchesne, Paris, 1884, I, 230), except on certain rare occasions. These two lessons, then, are our Epistle and Gospel.


—In no rite is the first of these two lessons invariably taken from an Epistle. Nevertheless the preponderance of pericopes from one of the Epistles in the New Testament is so great that the first lesson, whatever it may be, is commonly called the “Epistle” (Epistoler). An older name meaning the same thing is “Apostle” (Apostolus). The Gregorian Sacramentary calls this lesson Apostolus; e.g., P.L., LXXVIII, 25; “denude sequitur Apostolus”; it was also often called simply Lectio (so the Saint-Amand Ordo, Duchesne, “Origines du Culte”, 442). The Eastern rites (Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople) in Greek still call the first lesson ho Apostolos. Originally it was read by a lector. The privileges of the deacon to sing the Gospel and (in the West) of the subdeacon to read the Epistle are a later development (see Gospels in the Liturgy). It seems that in the West lectors read the Epistle as well as the other lessons down to about the fifth century (Reuter, “Das Subdiakonat”, Augsburg, 1890, pp. 177, 185). Gradually, then, the feeling grew that the Epistle belongs to the subdeacon. This is apparently an imitation of the deacon’s right to the Gospel. When the custom had obtained of celebrating High Mass with two ministers only—a deacon and a subdeacon—in place of the number of concelebrating priests, regionary deacons, and assistant subdeacons whom we see around the celebrating bishop in the first centuries at Rome, when further the liturgical lessons were seduced to two, and one of them was sung by the deacon, it seemed natural that the subdeacon should read the other. The first Roman Ordo (sixth-eighth century) describes the Epistle as read by a subdeacon (I, 10). But not till the fourteenth century was the subdeacon’s peculiar office of reading the Epistle expressed and acknowledged by his symbolic reception of the book of Epistles at his ordination. Even now the Roman Pontifical keeps unchanged the old form of the admonition in the ordination of subdeacons (Adepturi, filii dilectissimi, officium subdiaconatus… etc.), which, although it describes their duties at length, says nothing about reading the Epistle. In the corresponding admonition to deacons, on the other hand, there is a clear reference to their duty of singing the Gospel. In the time of Durandus (thirteenth century) the question was still not clear to every one. He insists that “no one may read the Epistle solemnly in church unless he be a subdeacon, or, if no subdeacon be present, it must be said by a deacon” (Rationale Div. Offic., iv. 16); but when he treats of the duties of a subdeacon he finds it still necessary to answer the question: “Why the subdeacon reads the lessons at Mass, since this does not seem to belong to him either from his name or the office given to him” (ii, 8). We have even now a relic of the older use in the rubric of the Missal which prescribes that in a sung Mass, where there are no deacon and subdeacon, a lector in a surplice should read the Epistle (Ritus cel. Missam, vi, 8); in case of necessity at high Mass, too, a clerk, not ordained subdeacon, may wear the tunicle (not the maniple) and perform nearly all the subdeacon’s duties, including the reading of the Epistle (S. R. C., July 15, 1698). In the Eastern rites there is no provision for a subdeacon in the liturgy, except in the one case of the Maronites, who here, too, have romanized their rite. In all the others the Epistle is still chanted by a reader (anagnost?s.)

The Epistle is the last lesson before the Gospel, the first when there are only two lessons. In this case its place is immediately after the Collects. Originally it came between the two chants that we now call the Gradual (see Gradual). It was read from an ambo, the reader or subdeacon turning towards the people. Where there were two or more ambos, one was used only for the Gospel. The common arrangement was that of an ambo on either side of the church, between the choir and the nave, as may still be seen in many old basilicas (e.g., S. Maria in Cosmedin at Rome, etc.). In this case the ambo on the north side was reserved for the Gospel, from which the deacon faced the south, where the men stood (GOSPEL IN THE LITURGY). The north is also the right, and therefore the more honorable, side of the altar. The ambo on the south was used for the Epistle, and for other lessons if there were only two. In the case of three ambos, two were on the south, one for all other lessons, one for the Epistles. This arrangement still subsists, inasmuch as the Epistle is always read on the south side (supposing the church to be orientated). Where there was only one ambo it had two platforms, a lower one for the Epistle and other lessons, a higher one for the Gospel (Durandus, “Rationale“, IV, The ambo for the Epistle should still be used in the Roman Rite where the church has one; it is used regularly at Milan. In the Byzantine Rite the Apostle may be read from an ambo; if there is none the reader stands at the “high place”, the solea (solea), that is, the raised platform in front of the iconostasis. Ambos were still built in Western churches down to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (see “Ambon” in Cabrol’s “Dictionnaire d’archeologie chretienne”). Since then they have disappeared, except in some old churches. From that time the subdeacon as a rule stands in the choir on the south side of the altar (towards what the rubrics of the Missal call the cornu epistoke), facing the altar, as he reads the Epistle. The Byzantine reader, however, faces the people. The Epistle has always been chanted to a simpler tone than the Gospel; generally it is simply read on one note. The answer “Deo gratias” after the Epistle is the common one after the reading of any lesson (e.g., in the Office too). It was originally a sign from the celebrant or presiding bishop that enough had been read. The medieval commentators (e.g., Durandus, IV, 17) note that the subdeacon, having finished his reading, goes to make a reverence to the celebrant and kisses his hand. During the Epistle in every rite the hearers sit. The First Roman Ordo notes this (10); they also cover their heads. This is the natural attitude for be hearing a lesson read (so also at Matins, etc.); to stand at the Gospel is a special mark of reverence for its special dignity.


—The reason of the present order of Epistles in the Roman Rite throughout the year is even more difficult to find than the parallel case of the Gospels (see Gospel in the Liturgy). In the first period the question does not so much concern what we now call the Epistle as rather the whole group of Biblical lessons preceding the Gospel. We may deduce with some certainty that there was at first the principle of reading successive books of the Bible continuously. The second book of the Apostolic Constitutions (third century) says that “the reader standing on a height in the middle shall read the Books of Moses and Jesus son of Nave, and of the Judges and Kings, and of Paralipomenon and the Return [Esdras and Nehemias], after these those of Job and Solomon and the sixteen Prophets [these are the first lessons]. The lessons having been read by two [readers], another one shall sing the hymns of David and the people answer back the verses [this is the psalm between the lessons, our Gradual]. After this our Acts [the Apostles are supposed to be speaking] shall be read and the letters of Paul, our fellow-worker, which he sent to the Churches”. (“Const. Apost.”, II, ivii, ed. Funk, Paderborn, 1905, p. 161.) This then implies continuous readings in that order. For the rest the homilies of the Fathers that explain continuous books (and often explicitly refer to the fact that the passage explained has just been read) show us certain books read at certain seasons. Thus, for instance, in Lent Genesis was read in East and West. So St. John Chrysostom (d. 407), preaching in Lent, says: “Today I will explain the passage you have heard read” and proceeds to preach on Genesis, i, 1 (Horn. vii, de statuis, 1). His homilies on Genesis were held during Lent (Horn. i, in Gen., i). It is also probable that St. Basil’s sermons on the Hexaemeron were held in Lent. In the Roman Office still Genesis begins at Septuagesima (in Matins) ‘and is read in part of Lent. The reason of this is apparently that the ecclesiastical year was counted as beginning then in the spring. Other books read in Lent were Job (e.g., St. Ambrose, “ad Marcell.”, Ep. xx, 14; P.L., XVI, 998), as an example of patient suffering, and Jonas (ibid., 25; col. 1001), as a preparation for the Resurrection. During Eastertide the Acts of the Apostles were read (St. Augustine, Tract. vi in Joh. xviii, P.L., XXXV, 1433). For special feasts and on special occasions suitable lessons were chosen, thus breaking the continuous readings. In the Middle Ages it was believed that St. Jerome (d. 420), in obedience to an order of Pope Damasus, had arranged the lessons of the Roman Liturgy; a spurious letter of his to the Emperor Constantius was quoted as the first comes, or list of lessons, for each day. Dom G. Morin thinks that Victor, Bishop of Capua (541-554), was the author (Revue Benedictine, 1890, p. 416 seq.). The letter is quoted in Beissel, “Entstehung der Perikopen des Romischen Messbuches” (Freiburg, 1907), 54-5.

From the fifth century various lists of lessons were drawn up. Gennadius of Marseilles (fifth century) says of one Muscus, priest of Marseilles: “Exhorted by the holy Bishop Venerius he selected lessons from Holy Scripture suitable for the feast days of all the year” (De viris illustr., lxxix). The “Lectionarium Gallicanum” published by Mabillon (in P.L., LXXII), written in Burgundy in the seventh century, is another scheme of the same kind. A codex at Fulda contains the Epistles for Sundays and feast days arranged by Victor of Capua in the sixth century. Probst (“Die altesten romischen Sacramentarien and Ordines”, Munster, 1892, p. 33) thinks that they are those read at Rome. All are taken from St. Paul (see the list, loc. cit., and in Beissel, “Entstehung der Perikopen”, 57-8). From this time there are a number of comites arranged for use in different Churches. Of these one of the most famous is the comes arranged by Albinus (i.e., Alcuin) by command of the Emperor Charles. This contains only the Epistles; it is part of the Roman Rite introduced by Charles the Great in the Frankish Kingdom (published in “Thomasii Opera”, ed. Vezzosi, V, 418,. cf. Ranke: “Das kirchliche Perikopensystem”,1850, supplem. III; Beissel, op. cit., 141). The “Liber comicus” edited by Dom G. Morin (“Anecdota Maredsol.”, I, 1893, cf.”Revue Belied.”, 1892, 442) contains the full lessons of the old Mozarabic use. Paul the Deacon composed a collection of homilies between 786 and 797, from which one may deduce the lessons read on Sundays under Charles the Great (P.L., XCV, 1159 sq., cf. Wiegand, “Das Homilarium Karls des Grossen”, Leipzig, 1897, and “Rev. Bened.”, 1898, 400 seq.). Beissel (op. cit.) has collected a great number of such comites, lectionaries, and references in the early Middle Ages, from which the set of lessons in the present Roman Missal gradually emerges.

Of the arrangement one can only say that the special suitableness of certain Epistles for the various feasts and seasons soon quite disturbed the principle of continuous reading. Of continuous readings there is now hardly a trace in the Missal. On the other hand, Epistles obviously suitable for each occasion may be traced back through a long list of comites. Thus our Epistles from Romans at the beginning of Advent recur in many lists: they are chosen obviously because of their appropriateness to that season. In some cases a connection of ideas with the Gospel seems to be the reason for the choice of the Epistle. In the Missal as reformed by Pius V in 1570 about two-thirds of the Epistles are taken from St. Paul; the others are from other Epistles, the Acts, Apocalypse, and various books of the Old Testament. A principle observed fairly regularly is that on fast days the Epistle is a lesson from the Old Testament. This applies to all weekdays in Lent except Maundy Thursday, which has, of course, a festal Mass. The Mass on Holy Saturday is the first Easter Mass and has an Easter Epistle (Col., iii, 1-4). So also on most of the ember-days (which still have several lessons); but on the Whitsun ember Wednesday the sense of Pentecost predominates, so that it has two lessons from the New Testament (Acts, ii and v). It may be a remnant of the old system of reading Acts in Eastertide that, except Friday and Saturday, all the Masses of Easter Week have lessons from Acts, though, on the other hand, they are all in themselves appropriate. Practically all feasts and special occasions have Epistles chosen for their suitableness, as far as such could be found.

Occasionally, as on St. Stephen’s feast and, to some extent, Ascension Day and Whitsunday, it is the Epistle rather than the Gospel that tells the story of the feast. The three Epistles for Christmas Day are sufficiently obvious: St. Stephen has of course the story of his martyrdom from Acts, vi and vii, Holy Innocents the lesson from Apocalypse, xiv, about the immaculate first-fruits of the saints. The Epiphany has a magnificent lesson about the Gentiles seeing the glory of the Lord in Jerusalem and the people who bring gold and incense, from Isaias, lx. Palm Sunday in its Epistle tells of the obedience of Our Lord to the death of the Cross and of His exaltation (Phil., ii), in the tone of the “Vexilla Regis”. The Easter Epistle could be no other than the one appointed (I Cor., v): Ascension Day and Whitsunday have their stories from the Acts. The feast of the Holy Trinity has the passage in Romans, xi, about the inscrutable mystery of God. Corpus Christi brings, of course, St. Paul’s account of the Holy Eucharist (I Cor., xi). St. John Baptist has a lesson from Isaias, xlix, about vocation and sanctification in the mother’s womb. St. Peter and St. Paul have the story of St. Peter’s imprisonment in Acts, xii. For All Saints we have the lesson about the saints signed by God and the great crowd around his throne in Apoc., vii. Most of Our Lady’s feasts have lessons from the Song of Solomon or Ecclesiasticus applied mystically to her, as in her Office. The commons of saints have fairly obvious Epistles too. It will be seen, then, that a great proportion of our pericopes are chosen because of their appropriateness to the occasion. With regard to the others, in the Proprium de tempore, notably those for the Sundays after Epiphany and Pentecost, it is not possible to find any definite scheme for their selection. We can only conjecture some underlying idea of reading the most important passages of St. Paul’s Epistles. The fact that every Sunday except Whitsunday has a pericope from an Epistle, that in nearly all cases it is from St. Paul (the Sundays after Easter, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th after Pentecost have Epistles of other Apostles) still shows that this is the normal text for the lesson before the Gospel; other lessons are exceptions admitted because of their special appropriateness. Of the old principle of continuous readings it is not now possible to find a trace. Our pericopes represent a combination of various comites and lectionaries, between which that principle has become completely overlaid.

The epistle is announced as lectio, “Lectio epistolae beati Pauli ad Romans”, “Lectio libri Esther“, and so on. No further reference is given; when there are several Epistles (e.g., those of St. Peter, St. John) the title read out does not say which it is: “Lectio epistolae beati Petri apostoli”. It should also be noted that all the five books attributed to Solomon and known as the “Libri Sapientiales” (namely, Prov., Eccl., Cant., Wis., Ecclus.) are announced as: “Lectio libri Sapientiae”.

The Epistles read in Eastern Churches are arranged in a way in which there is also no longer any trace of a system. Here, too, the present arrangement is the result of a long series of Lectionaries between which various compromises have been made. The Byzantine Church reads from the Epistles, Acts, and Apocalypse for the first lesson, called the Apostle (ho apostolos). These lessons are contained with their Prokeimena in a book also called Apostolos or Praxapostolos. The last part of this book contains a selection of lessons from the Old Testament for use on special occasions (see the exact description in Leo Allatius, “De libris ecclesiasticis Graecorum”, Paris, 1645, I, xv, 4). We have noted that the Armenians still have the older arrangement of three lessons in every liturgy, a Prophecy from the Old Testament, an Epistle, and a Gospel. The Copts have no Prophecy, but four New-Testament lessons, one of St. Paul read from the “Apostle”, one from an Epistle by another Apostle, read from another book called the “Katholikon”, then one from the Acts and finally the Gospel (Brightman, “Eastern Liturgies”, 152-6); the Abyssinian Church follows the use of Egypt in this as in most liturgical matters (ibid., 212-219). The Syrian Jacobites read first several lessons from the Old Testament, then one from the Acts, an Epistle, and a Gospel (ibid., 77-80). The Nestorians have an Old-Testament lesson, one from the Acts, an Epistle and a Gospel (ibid., 256-60). Between the lessons in all these rites are various fragments of psalms, corresponding to our Gradual. The reading of the Apostle or other lessons before the Gospel is a very simple affair in the East. A reader, who is generally any layman, simply takes the book, stands in the middle of the choir, and sings the text in his usual nasal chant with a few enharmonic cadences which are handed down by tradition and, as a matter of fact, very considerably modified according to the taste and skill of the singer. Meanwhile the celebrant turns towards him and listens. He does not also read the text himself in any Eastern Rite. The Byzantine reader first chants the Prokeimenon (Prokeimenon tou apostolou—”placed before”, understand distichon) facing the altar. This is a short verse of a psalm corresponding to our Gradual (which once preceded the Epistle: see Gradual). He then turns to the people and chants the Apostolos. Meanwhile the deacon is incensing the altar (Fortescue, “Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom”, London, 1908, p. 75).


—We have noted that for many centuries the reading of the Epistle is a privilege of the subdeacon. While the celebrant chants the last Collect, the master of ceremonies brings the book containing the Epistle (a lectionarium containing the Epistles and Gospels, very often simply another Missal) from the credence table to the subdeacon at his place behind the deacon. The subdeacon turns towards him and receives it, both making a slight inclination. He then goes to the middle and genuflects (even if the Blessed Sacrament is not on the altar) and comes back to a place in plane at some distance behind the celebrant. Standing there, facing the altar, and holding the book with both hands, he chants the title “Lectio…” etc., and goes on at once with the text, to the end: He bows at the Holy Name and genuflects, if the rubric directs it, at his place towards the altar in front. The normal tone for the Epistle is entirely on one note (do) without any inflection, except that where a question occurs it sinks half a tone (to si) four or five syllables before, and for the last three syllables has the inflection la, si and a podatus si-do. The revised Vatican Missal gives a rather more elaborate chant for use ad libitum in the appendix (no. III). While the Epistle is read the members of the choir sit with covered heads. Meanwhile the celebrant reads it (and the Gradual) in a low voice from the Missal at the altar; the deacon stands at his side, turns over the page, if necessary, and answers, “Deo gratias”, when the celebrant has ended the Epistle. To the Epistle chanted by the subdeacon there is no answer. The last three or four syllables of the Epistle are chanted more slowly, ritardando at the end. The subdeacon, having finished, shuts the book, goes to the middle and genuflects; then, still holding the closed book in both hands, he goes round to where the celebrant stands; here he kneels facing sideways (north) on the step. The celebrant turns to him and rests the right hand on the book. The subdeacon kisses the hand and waits with bowed head while the celebrant makes the sign of the cross over him in silence. He hands the book back to the master of ceremonies and then carries the Missal round to the other side for the celebrant’s Gospel.

At a sung Mass we have seen that the Epistle may be chanted by a lector in a surplice (Ritus celebr., vi, 8; the text even says that this should be done: “Epistolam cantet in loco consueto aliquis lector superpelliceo indutus”). In this case he does not go to kiss the celebrant’s hand afterwards (ibid.). Generally, however, the celebrant chants the Epistle himself at the corner of the altar, using the same tone as would a subdeacon. “Deo gratias” should not be answered in this case either. At low Mass the Epistle is read by the celebrant in its place after the last Collect. The server answers, “Deo gratias”.


—There are a good many occasions in the year on which one or more lessons still precede the Epistle, according to the older custom. They are all days of a penitential nature, conspicuously the ember-days. The lessons are always separated by Graduals or Tracts, generally by Collects too. On the Advent ember Wednesday, after the first Collect a lesson from Isaias, ii, is read, then comes a Gradual, the Collect of the day followed by the other two that are said in Advent (or by commemorations), and a second lesson (the Epistle) from Is., vii, and lastly a second Gradual before the Gospel. The Advent ember Saturday has four lessons from Isaias, each preceded by a Collect and followed by a Gradual, then a lesson from Dan., iii (with its Collect before it), which introduces the canticle “Benedictus es, Domine”; this is sung as a kind of Tract. Then come the usual Collects for the day and the Epistle. The Lent ember Wednesday has two, the Saturday five lessons before the Gospel. The Whitsun ember Wednesday has two lessons from Acts, Saturday five prophecies and an Epistle. The ember-days in September have on Wednesday two lessons, on Saturday four lessons and an Epistle before the Gospel. Wednesday in Holy Week also has two lessons from Isaias. In all these cases the arrangement is the same: a collect, the lesson, a gradual or tract. The lessons other than the last (technically the Epistle) are chanted by the celebrant to the Epistle tone; the deacon and subdeacon answer, “Deo gratias”, except in the case of the lesson from Daniel that introduces the canticle (de Herdt, “S. liturgiae praxis”, I, 435). Palm Sunday, in the missa sicca in which the palms are blessed, has a lesson from Exodus, xv and xiv, sung by the subdeacon as if it were an Epistle, as well as a Gospel. On Maundy Thursday the Gospel of the Mass is sung again at the Maundy (washing of feet). The Mass of the Presanctified on Good Friday, as part of its archaic character, begins with three lessons. The first is the “Prophecy” from Osee, vi. This is sung by a lector—the only occasion on which such a person is mentioned in the text of the Missal (apart from the preface). A tract and collect follow. Then comes the Epistle (in this case, according to the rule for weekdays in Lent, a lesson from the Old Testament, Ex., xii) chanted by the subdeacon in the usual way, another tract, and the Gospel (the Passion from St. John).

Holy Saturday and Whitsun eve keep a relic of very early times in the long series of lessons (called here too “Prophecies”) before the Maas. It is often said that they represent the last instruction of the catechumens before baptism. Msgr. Batiffol (“Histoire du Breviaire Romain”, Paris, 1895, pp. 114-115) and Father Thurston (“Lent and Holy Week“, London, 1904) see in them rather a remnant of the old vigil-office of the type of the fourth-century vigil, but now despoiled of the psalms that once alternated with the lessons. The number of the Prophecies on Holy Saturday varied in different churches. Durandus, who explains them in the usual medieval way as instructions for the catechumens, says: “In some churches four lessons are read, in some six, in some twelve, and in some fourteen”, and proceeds to give mystic reasons for these numbers (Rationale, vi, 81). The number at Rome seems to have been always, as it is now, twelve. A tradition ascribes the arrangement of these twelve to St. Gregory I. They were once chanted first in Latin and then in Greek. As they stand in the Missal they represent very well a general survey of the Old Testament as a preparation for Christ; the Collects which follow each emphasize this idea. The eighth and ninth only are followed by Tracts. They are chanted by readers (now practically anyone from the choir) before the altar, while the celebrant reads them in a low voice at the epistle side. They begin without any title. The celebrant, of course, sings the Collect that follows each. Their tone is given in the appendix of the Vatican Missal (no. 11). It agrees with that for lessons at Matins; namely, they are chanted on one note (do) with a fall of a perfect fifth (to fa) on the last syllable before each full stop, a fall of half a tone (si) before a colon, and the same cadence for questions as in the Epistle (see above). Only the last cadence is different, being formed of the four notes re, do, sib, sib, on the last four syllables. The lessons on Whitsun eve are (like the whole service) an imitation of Holy Saturday. It is supposed that the rites of the Easter vigil, including the baptisms, were transferred to Whitsun eve in the North because of the cold climate. They then reacted so as to produce a duplication, such as is not uncommon in the Roman Rite.

The whole rite follows that of Easter eve exactly; but there are only six prophecies, being the 3rd, 4th, 11th 8th, 6th, and 7th of the Easter series.


—Lessons of Various kinds also form a very important part of the canonical hours in all rites. The essential and original elements of the Divine Office in East and West are the singing of psalms, the reading of lessons, and saying of prayers. The Canons of Hippolytus (second century) ordain that clerks are to come together at cock-crow. and “occupy themselves with psalms and the reading of Scripture and with prayers” (can. xxi). The history of these lessons is bound up closely with that of the Office itself (see Baumer, “Geschichte des Breviers”, Freiburg, 1895, ch. ii, etc.; Batiffol, “Histoire du Breviaire Romain”, Paris, 1895, ch. i, etc.). We may note here that in the Office, as in the Liturgy, we see at first the principle of continuous readings from the Bible; to these are added the reading of Acts of Martyrs and then of homilies of approved Fathers. In the West this idea has been preserved more exactly in the Office than in the Mass. In the Roman and indeed in all Western Rites the most important lessons belong to the night Office, the nocturns that we now call Matins. The Rule of St. Benedict (d. 543) gives us exactly the arrangement still observed in the monastic rite (chap. xi). The development of the Roman Rite is described by Batiffol, op. cit. (chaps. ii and iii especially). Till the seventh century the ferial Nocturn had no lessons, that of Sunday had after the twelve psalms three lessons from Scripture; the lessons followed from the text of the Bible so that it was read through (except the Gospels and Psalms) in a year. The distribution of the books was much the same as now (Batiffol, op. cit., p. 93). In the seventh century lessons began to be read in the ferial Office too. The presiding priest or bishop gave a sign when enough had been read; the reader ended, as now, with the ejaculation, “Tu autem Domine miserere nobis”, and the choir answered, “Deo gratias”.

A further development of the Sunday Office mentioned by St. Gregory I (d. 604) was that a second and third nocturn were added to the first. Each of these had three psalms and three lessons taken, not from the Bible, but from the works of the Fathers (Batiffol, p. 96). For these lessons a library of their works was required, till the homilies and treatises to be read began to be collected in books called homiliaria. Paul the Deacon made a famous collection of this kind. It was published by authority of Charles the Great, who himself wrote a preface to it; it was used throughout his kingdom. It became the chief source of our present Roman series of lessons from the Fathers (in P.L., XCV). Eventually then the arrangement of lessons in the Roman Rite has become this: The lessons from Scripture are arranged throughout the year in the proprium temporis. They form what is called the scriptura occurrens. The chief books of the Bible (except the Gospels and Psalms) are begun and read for a time. The shortening of the lessons, overlapping of seasons, and especially the number of feasts that have special lessons have produced the result that no book is ever finished. But the principle of at least beginning each book is maintained, so that if for any reason the scriptura occurrens of a day on which a book is begun falls out, the lessons of that day are read instead of the normal ones on the next free day.

Although the ecclesiastical year begins with Advent, the course of the scriptura occurrens is begun at. Septuagesima with Genesis. This is a relic of an older calculation that began the year in the spring (see above, II). The course of the continuous reading is continually interrupted for special reasons. So the first Sunday of Lent has lessons from II Cor., vi and vii (“Now is the acceptable time 09). The weekdays in Lent have no scriptura occurrens but a Gospel and a homily, according to the rule for the feriae that were liturgical from the beginning and have a special Mass. Genesis goes on the second and third Sundays of Lent; on the fourth comes a pericope from Exodus. Passion and Palm Sunday have lessons from Jeremias (beginning on Passion Sunday) for a special reason (the connection of the Prophet of the destruction of the temple with Our Lord’s Passion). Easter Day and its octave have only one nocturn, so no scriptura occurrens. Low Sunday has special lessons (Col., in) about the Resurrection. The Acts of the Apostles begin on the day after Low Sunday and are read for a fortnight—according to the old tradition that connects them with Eastertide. The Apocalypse begins on the third Sunday after Easter and lasts for a week. On the fourth Sunday St. James’s Epistle begins, on the fifth St. Peter’s First Epistle. Ascension Day naturally has its own story from Acts, i; but on the next day II Peter begins. The Sunday following brings the First Epistle of St. John; the next Wednesday, II John; the Friday, III John; Saturday, the Epistle of St. Jude. Pentecost and its octave, like Easter, have no scriptura occurrens.

It will be noticed that, just as Lent has on its feriae only lessons from the Old Testament, even in the Epistles at Mass, so Paschal time has only the New Testament, even in the Office. The feast of the Holy Trinity has special lessons (Is., vi—the Seraphim who cry: Holy, holy, holy); the next day we come back to the normal course and begin the First Book of Kings. II Kings begins on the fifth Sunday after Pentecost, III Kings on the seventh, IV Kings on the ninth. On the first Sunday of August (from which day till Advent we count by the months except for the Mass and the lessons of the third nocturn) the Books of Wisdom begin with Proverbs; Ecclesiastes comes on the second Sunday of August, Wisdom on the third, Ecclesiasticus on the fourth. Job comes on the first Sunday of September, Tobias on the third, Judith on the fourth, Esther on the fifth. October brings on its first Sunday I Machabees, on its fourth II Machabees. The Prophets begin in November: Ezekiel on the first Sunday, Daniel on the third, Osee on the fourth, and then the other minor Prophets in very short fragments, obviously in a hurry, till Advent. Advent has Isaias throughout. The first Sunday after Christmas begins St. Paul’s Epistles with Romans; they continue to Septuagesima. I Corinthians comes on the first Sunday after Epiphany, II Corinthians on the second Sunday, Galatians on the third, Ephesians the following Wednesday, Philippians on the fourth Sunday, Colossians on the next Tuesday, I Thessalonians on Thursday, II Thessalonians on Saturday, I Timothy on the fifth Sunday, II Timothy on Tuesday, Titus on Thursday, Philemon on Saturday, Hebrews on the sixth Sunday. We have here again the same crowded changes as at the end of the season after Pentecost. The arrangement then is one of continuous readings from each book, though the books do not follow in order, but are distributed with regard to appropriateness. If we count the Pentateuch as one book (that seems to be the idea), we see that all the books of the Bible are read, in part at least, except Josue, Judges, Ruth, Paralipomenon, and the Canticle of Canticles. Cardinal Quinones in his famous reformed Breviary (issued by Paul III in 1535, withdrawn by Paul IV in 1558) changed all this and arranged the reading of the whole Bible in a year (see Batiffol, op. cit., 222-231). His proposal, however, came to nothing and we still use the traditional Office, with the developments time has brought.

The arrangement of Matins is this: On feriae and simple feasts there is only one nocturn with its three lessons. On feriae all three are from the scriptura occurrens: on simples the third lesson is an account of the saint instead of the Scriptural one. The exception is when a feria has its own Mass. Such are the days that were originally liturgical days—weekdays in Lent, ember-days, and vigils. In this case the lessons consist of the fragment of the Gospel with a homily as in the third nocturn of semi-doubles. On semi-doubles and all higher feasts (Sundays are semi-doubles) there are three nocturns, each with three lessons. Such days are the feata novem lectionum. The first nocturn has always Scriptural lessons—those of the scriptura occurrens, or on special feasts, a text chosen for its suitability. The second nocturn has lessons from a Father of the Church, here called sermo, a life of the saint on his feast, or a description of the event of the day. Thus, for instance, St. Peter’s Chains (August 1) tells the story of their finding and how they came to Rome; S. Maria tit. Auxilium Christianorum (May 24) in the sixth lesson tells “ex publicis monumentis” the story of the battle of Lepanto. Sometimes papal Bulls are read in the second nocturn, as the Bull of Pius IX (Ineffabilis Deus) during the Octave of the Immaculate Conception (December 8). The second nocturn continually receives new lessons, written by various people and approved by the Sacred Congregation of Rites. Many of the older ones are taken from the “Liber Pontificalis“. The third nocturn has for its lessons first a fragment (the first clause) of the Gospel read at Mass followed by the words, et reliqua, then a sermon (called Homilia) of a Father explaining it through the three lessons (the 7th, 8th, and 9th). In cases of concurrence of feasts, the feast commemorated (or the feria, if it be a liturgical day) has its own lesson (the life of the saint, or Gospel-fragment, and homily) read as the ninth lesson.

The monastic Office differs only in that it has four lessons in each nocturn (twelve altogether) and the whole Gospel of the day read after the Te Deum. This practice of reading the Gospel at the end of Matins was common in many medieval rites. Thus at Christmas in England the genealogy of Our Lord from St. Matthew was read at Christmas, and the one in St. Luke at the Epiphany at this place. So in the Byzantine Rite the Gospel of the day is read at the Orthros.

The other canonical hours have short lessons called capitula, originally lectiunculce, sometimes capitella. The Ambrosian Breviary calls them epistolellae and collectiones. These are very short passages from the Bible, generally continuous throughout the hours, connected with the feast or occasion. Very often they are from the same source as the Epistle. At Lauds and Vespers the capitulum is chanted by the officiating priest after the fifth psalm, before the hymn. At Terce, Sext, None he chants it after the psalm. Prime and Compline (originally private prayers of monks) are in many ways different from the other hours. They have always the same capitula. Prime has I Tim., i, 17 (omitting the word autem) chanted in the same place. Compline has Jer., xiv, 9b (adding the word sanctum after nomen and the final clause, Domine, Deus noster). This is sung after the hymn by the celebrant. At Prime the officiating priest chants a second lesson (called lectio brevis) at the end, after the blessing that follows the preces and the prayer “Dirigere et sanctificare”. For the proprium temporis this is given in the Breviary (in the psalterium); on feasts it is the capitulum of None, with the addition of “Tu autem Domine miserere nobis”. Compline begins after the blessing with a lectio brevis from I Peter, v, 8, 9a (with the additional word Fratres at the, beginning and the clause, Tu autem, etc., at the end). All these short lessons are answered by the words Deo gratias, but the capitula do not have the clause “Tu autem”, etc. The Roman Ritual has a few isolated lessons for special occasions. The Office of the “Visitation and care of the sick” has four Gospels from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (all about healing the sick), and the beginning of John. The “Order of commending a soul” has two Gospels—the high-priestly prayer in John, xvii, and the Passion according to St. John. The exorcism has three Gospels (about driving out devils). In the Pontifical, a Gospel (Luke, ix) is appointed to be read at the opening of synods, before the Veni Creator, and another one (Luke, x) is given for the end of the blessing of bells. In some countries (Germany and Austria) it is the custom to sing the beginning of each Gospel during the Corpus Christi procession at the altars of repose, before the benediction.

All the Eastern rites in the same way have lessons of various kinds as part of the canonical hours. They constantly use psalms as lessons; that is to say, the whole text of a psalm is read straight through by a reader, as we read our lessons. The choral part of the Office consists chiefly of verses, responses, and exclamations of various kinds (the Byzantine Stichera, Troparia, Kontakia, etc., etc.,) that are not taken from the Bible, but are composed by various hymn-writers. In the Byzantine Office three lessons, generally from the Old Testament (called paroimiai), are read by a lector towards the end of the hesperinos, soon after the singing of the phos hilaron. In the Orthros the priest reads the Gospel of the day shortly before the Canon is sung. In the Canon at the end of the sixth ode a lesson called sunaxarion, describing the life of the saint, or containing reflections on the feast or occasion, is read. If several feasts concur the various synaxaria follow each other (see Fortescue, “Canon dans le rite byzantin”, in Cabrol, “Dictionnaire d’archeologie”). The day-hours have no lessons, except that many troparia throughout the Office describe the mystery that is celebrated and give information to the hearers in a way that makes them often very like what we should call short lessons. Lessons, Epistles, and Gospels are read at many special services; thus the “Blessing of the Waters” on the Epiphany has three lessons from Isaias, an Epistle (I Cor., x, 1-4), and a Gospel (Mark, i, 9-11). The Byzantine synaxaria and menologia are described by Leo Allatius (De libris eccl. Graec., I, xv).


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