How Ordinary Time Readings Are Organized
Understanding the arrangement of the readings can help us appreciate the movement of the season
and to use them to grow in our relationship with Jesus
The official guide for how the readings work for Mass is contained in the introduction to the Lectionary - the book of the readings which we use at Mass. This introduction lays out the decisions which were made to arrange the readings for the Mass in such a way that we experience a great deal of the treasury of the scriptures over a three year Sunday cycle (Year A, B and C) and over a two year Weekday cycle (Year I and II). There is a special arrangement for Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter, and for the special celebrations of the year. We will focus on the part of the introduction which addresses Ordinary Time.
How the Season of Ordinary Time is laid out across the liturgical year
The liturgical year begins with the First Sunday of Advent - about four weeks before Christmas. The Christmas season follows Advent. Ordinary Time counts the weeks between the end of the Christmas season and Ash Wednesday, which begins the season of Lent.
The date for Easter is moveable because it is related to the celebration of Passover on the Jewish calendar, which is connected to the vernal equinox - actually on the first full moon after it. (The vernal, or Spring, equinox, is the date when the length of days and nights are the same. This is when spring begins, as the daylight, which was shorter all winter, now begins to grow longer.) The Council of Niceas (in 325) decided that Easter would be celebrated on the first Sunday after the full moon, which follows the vernal equinox. This means that Easter will be celebrated from about the third week of March to about the third week of April.
So, Ordinary Time counts the time between the end of the Christmas season and whenever Lent begins. Usually there are between four to nine weeks of Ordinary Time before Lent begins.
The last Sunday of the Christmas Season is the feast of the Baptism of the Lord - the Sunday following January 6th. Therefore, the next day becomes, "Monday of the First Week of Ordinary Time. The following Sunday is the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time.
When Ash Wednesday appears, Ordinary Time ends until after the Easter Season. Ordinary Time begins to be counted again, from where the season left off, beginning with the week after Pentecost. There are a total of thirty-three or thirty-four weeks of Ordinary Time which are laid out. (If necessary, sometimes one of the weeks is skipped so that the final weeks are able to be fit in.)
How the Sunday Readings are arranged
The Gospels are laid out so that we read through, in each of the three years, Mark, Matthew and Luke's gospels, one after another, taking us through the life of our Lord, as presented by the three gospels.
The First Reading is carefully chosen from the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) so that important passages are chosen to bring out a connection with the Sunday gospels. Sometimes, when we are preparing for Mass, it is helpful to read the Gospel reading first so that we can appreciate why the First Reading was chosen. Then, when we read the Gospel a second time, the connection helps us.
The Second Reading is taken from the letters of the Apostles Paul and James. These readings are arranged so that we can get a good sense of these important messages, but the readings are not linked to the Gospel. It can be important for us to take advantage of this journey through each of the letters to learn the message, which still has such important help for us today.
How the Weekday Readings are arranged
The Gospel Weekday Readings also are arranged so that we read Mark's Gospel first, then Matthew and finally Luke. Following the daily readings gives us a blessed opportunity to get to know Jesus - his story, his encounters with people, and his message - so that our relationship with Jesus can grow in intimacy.
The First Reading during the weeks of Ordinary Time are not related to the Gospel. They are arranged so that we can experience a great amount of scripture, over a two year period. For example, we might have several weeks from one of the apostolic letters and then several weeks from one of the Hebrew scriptures, before returning to another letter - throughout the season, according to a two year cycle. This is a great opportunity to let our familiarity with these readings grow with our exposure to them each year.
Better understanding the Scriptures
Once we understand how the scriptures are arranged for the Sundays and Weekdays of Ordinary Time, we can use our missalette or an online site like ours, to look ahead at what is coming. So, if we know we are beginning to read Mark's gospel for the next number of weeks - both on Sundays and during the week - we might pay special attention to how Mark approaches his story. It could be helpful to read a brief introduction to Mark's gospel. We can usually find a brief introduction in our Bible or in an online version. Just getting a sense of who Mark's audience was and what issues he was dealing with in helping them hear the Good News, will open up the story - and out rexperience Jesus - very much. The same practice could be used when we are reading from Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians or from a series of readings from the Book of Wisdom.
A simple prayer asking for the grace to hear the Word, as I need to hear it
It can be very fruitful, whenever we begin to read the scripture - whether in preparation for Mass or because we discovered a passage - is to ask our Lord to let me open my heart to hear what this Word can mean for me. Here is a possible example we can pray, using our own words and circumstances.
Dear Lord, I'm beginning to experience this Twentieth Week of Ordinary Time. I have really enjoyed reading how Matthew has been telling us your story. I've been fascinated by the Prophet Ezekiel last week and I look forward to more of his special style this week. Your words to your disciples has been filling me this week. I think when I start to pay attention to your message, as it applies to my life this week, it comes alive. Continue to give me this openness and keep speaking to me so directly. And, give me the grace of your Holy Spirit to be faithful to these gifts, in the way I give myself in loving my family and serving others.
A simple prayer like this, each day, could include specific parts of the message which touched me today, or which I found challenging, and need further help. Then, the readings and movements of this season can nourish my developing relationship with Jesus. And, Ordinary Time counting can become quite extraordinary.