The Art of Celebration XII: Ministering the First Reading

The last two posts – on the structure of the Liturgy of the Word and how and why its readings are as they are – have been rather technical. Over the coming weeks some brief and practical suggestions on how we might help the various elements of the Liturgy of the Word be more intelligible and fruitful for us and for others. The focus will be on the Sunday Liturgy of the Word but many of the same principles can be applied to regular weekday Mass and to more occasional celebrations also.

We start with the First Reading.

Usually this will come from the Old Testament, but in the Easter season it is taken from the Acts of the Apostles. The readings from the Old Testament are chosen to harmonise with the Gospel or the season and are not otherwise in any sequence. The readings from the Acts of the Apostles are pretty much in semi-continuous sequence but with different starting points for each year of the 3 year cycle.

The challenge of listening to the reading read

Almost always the reading will make sense as a stand-alone reading when we read it on the page, though even then some will be much more obscure than others. But to hear the reading read to us without some sense of context can make it very much more difficult to comprehend.

The congregation ‘follows’ using printed texts

For this reason many people – native English-speakers or not – complement their listening to the reader by following the reading on the page.

There are lots of reasons why this is not a good practice.

  • Sometimes people will simply not really listen to the reading – and the good reader will bring much to the ‘performance’ of the text which allows it to live and assists its intelligibility.
  • To read to oneself means that to some degree and for a time one has effectively absented oneself from the common action of the whole assembly and engaged in some privatised action.
  • If many people are doing this the reader will lose something of their reason for reading, and their service of the word may well suffer.

And there are some reasons that people claim it as a good practice

  • They can’t understand or hear the reader. (The better solution though will be to help the reader read better or improve the sound system in the church, or the hearing aids congregants may need to use)
  • It helps them to focus on the reading and think about it.
  • They are helping their children to follow the readings.
  • They are not native English speakers.

Those last three should give us reason to pause, and they seem to me the most reasonable justifications, however much the need for the practice might otherwise be regretted. Even so there may be some value in encouraging people to listen to the reading and then to have recourse to the printed text in the time for meditation which will (should!) follow.

A brief spoken introduction can help greatly

The Lectionary provides one such – for example A reading from the prophet Ezekiel or a reading from the Acts of the Apostles.

For those with significant biblical literacy this helps, perhaps by a surprising degree. It points to the genre, and the circumstances of the writing and/or editing of the work, sometimes even to the general themes of a work. Again, for example, Ezekiel writing in the context of Israel’s exile in Babylon, Acts dealing with the formation and mission of the early Church.

However for those who lack this something more is needed and can be helpful. The Introduction to the Lectionary permits the use of additional brief introdcutions.

There may be concise introductions before the readings, especially the first. The style proper to such comments must be respected, that is, they must be simple, faithful to the text, brief, well prepared, and properly varied to suit the text they introduce.

Lectionary, General Introduction 15

Most every word in that paragraph is worthy of comment!

The introduction is to serve as introduction to the reading, not to replace it, nor to be a mini-homily offering commentary or explanation. And it is to be brief and accessible – especially to those who are in greatest need of it.

Take next week’s first reading:

The spirit came into me and made me stand up, and I heard the Lord speaking to me. He said, ‘Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to the rebels who have turned against me. Till now they and their ancestors have been in revolt against me. The sons are defiant and obstinate; I am sending you to them, to say, “The Lord says this.” Whether they listen or not, this set of rebels shall know there is a prophet among them.’

Ezekiel 2:2-5

The reading is relatively straight forward but some additional introduction can help people  hear and find nourishment there. For example say “Ezekiel writes of Israel in exile and offers hope and challenge to his people.”

Learning to write these introductions – and they ought to be written in advance and not extemporised – takes time. Thought needs giving also to who should write them, and who should read them. Perhaps the readers group might write them – it would be a great way of developing their understanding of the readings and of the ministry; and if there is no commentator for the Mass, then the options are probably the reader reads the home-grown introduction before pausing for a moment and then beginning again, ‘A reading from…’ or the home-grown introduction is read by the deacon, priest or cantor or a. n. other, according to local circumstances, and then the reader begins with the Lectionary’s reading.

A word of warning.

There is a brief summary text given in the Lectionary after the Introduction and before the reading. In the case of the above reading it is ‘These rebels shall know that there is a prophet among them.’

This summary text is given for the benefit and aid of readers, as the briefest of summaries of what it is they are reading. It is offered as a sort of aide-memoire, , but it is not an introduction intended for the congregation. Why? Because it’s brevity and focus will tend to close down the range of meanings of meanings in the readings: the congregation is likely pretty much to listen  so they basically hear just what has been summarised. The word of God speaks even in ways that compilers of Lectionaries have not imagined and we ought not to be silencing the word of God!

A log with links to previous postings in this series is kept here.


~ Translation of Scriptures: The Jerusalem Bible © 1966, 1967 and 1968 by Darton, Longman  &  Todd, Ltd and Doubleday, a division of  Random House, Inc.
~ Commentary: (c) 2021, Allen Morris
Photograph: (c) 2018, Allen Morris. Stiffkey Parish Church, East Anglia.

2 thoughts on “The Art of Celebration XII: Ministering the First Reading

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