The Paschal Eclipse of the Sunday Lectionary

by Fr. Michael Slusser

On a Sunday just before Lent, a lector told me with surprise, “In all my years of being a lector, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered the readings we have for today.” I took a moment to explain how the Sunday lectionary is made to fit around the season of Lent and Easter, and how it often happens that, when Ordinary Time resumes, it does not take up immediately where it left off before Lent. For example, in 2014 there were eight weeks of Ordinary Time before Lent, but after Easter Time we resumed with week ten; the intervening week simply dropped out. For that reason, we do not always hear particular Sunday readings.

The lector’s question awakened my curiosity. I wondered how much the gap in Ordinary Time between Ash Wednesday and Pentecost affected the readings for Sunday Mass. Is it enough to puzzle an experienced lector? Or is it only a matter of one Sunday dropping out in some years? It turns out that the impact on weekday readings is very slight, but that Sunday readings are pre-empted four or five times every year, to the point where some sets of Sunday readings may not be used for decades, if at all. In the universal Church, Pentecost and Trinity Sunday already replace the Sunday readings for the first two weeks after Easter Time, and in dioceses where the Feast of Corpus Christi is transferred to the following Sunday, another set of readings is displaced. Here is a table of the displaced Sunday Masses in dioceses that transfer Corpus Christi, following the “Table of Principal Celebrations of the Liturgical Year” printed in the front of the Roman Missal; my edition prints the information up through 2039.

  • Sundays 6 through 9 are pre-empted in 2035
  • Sundays 6 through 10: 2016, 2027, 2032
  • Sundays 7 through 10: 2018, 2024, 2029
  • Sundays 7 through 11: 2015, 2021, 2026, 2037
  • Sundays 8 through 11: 2023, 2034
  • Sundays 8 through 12: 2014, 2020, 2031, 2036, 2039
  • Sundays 9 through 12: 2028
  • Sundays 9 through 13: 2017, 2019, 2022, 2025, 2030, 2033, 2038

What immediately springs to view is that the readings for Sunday 9 are never heard during the years 2014–2039 (although in 2011, the cycle A readings for the Ninth Sunday did get a hearing); only once do we get to hear any readings for the Tenth Sunday, in 2035. Sundays 9 and 10 are in the deepest part of what I call the Paschal eclipse of the Sunday Lectionary. The cycle B and C readings for Sundays 9 and 10 are not used even once in the thirty years 2010–2039. The cycle B readings for Sunday 8 are heard only twice (2030, 2033), and the cycle C readings for Sunday 8 are not heard between 2016 and 2034. On Sunday 7, the cycle A readings are not heard at all from 2023 to 2038, and cycle B is silent between 2012 and 2030. After 2016, the cycle C readings for Sunday 11 will not reappear until the 2040s. Further out on the fringe of the eclipse, the impact of the Paschal Season and associated feasts on the Sunday lectionary is less dramatic, but in 2011 even Sunday 14 was affected.

How much of this is due to the transfer of the Feast of the Body and Blood of the Lord—Corpus Christi—to the following Sunday? Actually, the heart of the eclipse, Sundays 9 and 10, would be affected little if Corpus Christi were not transferred to Sunday. For Sunday 9, we would hear the Sunday readings one more time (2035), and on Sunday 10, the use of Sunday readings instead of a festal substitute would rise from once to eight times in thirty years.

This phenomenon seems strange, since the planners of the lectionary no doubt spent as much energy on planning Sundays 9 and 10 as on the other Sundays, but is it a problem? Perhaps only for lectors who are taken by surprise.

 

Fr. Michael Slusser is a priest of the Catholic Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. He was educated at Louvain and Oxford (D.Phil. 1975), and taught at the College (now University) of St. Thomas, Catholic University of America, and Duquesne University, from which he is Professor Emeritus of Theology. His academic specialty is historical theology, particularly the Greek Fathers.

17 comments

  1. My guess is that they didn’t spend all that much time on it. It might be that the Gospels were perused for 96 passages of “ordinary” interest. It might have been sheer accident Sundays in the Lenten neighborhood fell as they did.

    It would make an interesting promo for a Bible Study, don’t you think? The Gospels that Lent doesn’t want you to hear.

    There is at least one significant Gospel passage that doesn’t ever appear on Sunday–the healing of the man with a withered hand. Anybody think of any others?

    What’s interesting to me is seeing how some readings pop up on Sunday two, or even three times in a year. I’m okay with that kind of serendipity.

  2. This is fascinating! Thank you for this excellent analysis–you must have spent a great deal of time figuring this out.

    Let’s also recall the wonderful scholarship in the book Remembering the Women: Women’s Stories from Scripture for Sundays and Festivals by J. Frank Handerson et al.

  3. I noticed this a few weeks back when I was working on a reflection for the readings of the 9th Sunday in OT for a volume of homilies covering the Sundays and feasts of the B cycle, due out later this year. I wondered what the date would be next year, only to discover that I may not ever hear these readings grouped together in my life time.

    For the record, the first reading for that Sunday is never heard on any other Sunday, the Gospel is part of the weekday cycle. The A and C cycle Gospels are never heard at any other time.

    There was something wryly appropriate in having someone who is not permitted in my tradition to preach, reflecting on a “silent” Gospel. And nevertheless, I gave it my all.

  4. A very interesting article. There are other losses too – many dioceses have transferred Epiphany and Ascension to Sundays, thus “silencing” the Second Sunday of Christmas and the Seventh Sunday of Easter.

    I was a bit distracted by the author’s continued use of the term cycle when it’s more properly termed year, as well as calling the SOLEMNITY of the Body and Blood a feast.

      1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #7:

        Yes, in Year C, alongside the conclusion to the Book of Revelation, another shame… though, IIRC, you can substitute some of the Seventh Sunday scriptures on the Sixth Sunday… but then you lose a different set of readings!

  5. Matthew 26:13
    “Amen, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be spoken of, in memory of her.”

    Ironically this is never read. The parallel in Mark appears on Palm Sunday very third year. The parallel in John is heard on Monday of Holy Week every year. But this passage from Matthew has no day to call its own iirc.

  6. I too, being rather nerdy about the liturgical calendar, appreciate Fr. Slusser’s work in compiling these statistics. It seems he is incorrect, though, about the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time being eclipsed in 2011. Easter was Sunday, April 24 that year (the second-latest date possible); Pentecost was Sunday, June 12, and that week was the 11th in Ordinary Time. Sunday, June 19, was Trinity Sunday; Sunday, June 26 was Corpus Christi (in the US); then Sunday, July 3, was the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

    A few years ago I made a spreadsheet of all possibilities for Sundays of the liturgical year (with Corpus Christi on Sunday), based on all possible dates of Easter, for both leap years and non-leap years (yes, I know, über-nerdy). If my data are correct, we have the following statistics. I’ve amalgamated leap years and non-leap years (which has no effect for Sunday 10 and beyond) and put the possible dates of the Sundays in parenthesis.
    There are 35 possible dates for Easter (March 22-April 25).
    Sunday 5 (2/4-2/10) is eclipsed for 3 dates of Easter (2 in leap years).
    Sunday 6 (2/11-2/17) is eclipsed for 10 dates of Easter (9 in leap years).
    Sunday 7 (2/18-2/24) is eclipsed for 17 dates of Easter (16 in leap years).
    Sunday 8 (2/25-3/2 or 3/3) is eclipsed for 24 dates of Easter (23 in leap years).
    Sunday 9 (3/3 or 3/4-3/7, 5/31-6/4) is eclipsed for 26 dates of Easter (25 in leap years).
    Sunday 10 (6/5-6/11) is eclipsed for 23 dates of Easter.
    Sunday 11 (6/12-6/18) is eclipsed for 16 dates of Easter.
    Sunday 12 (6/19-6/25) is eclipsed for 9 dates of Easter. Of the 26 dates when it is not eclipsed, for 4 of those dates the Sunday is overridden by the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.
    Sunday 13 (6/26-7/2) is eclipsed for 2 dates of Easter. Of the 33 dates when it is not eclipsed, for 5 of those dates the Sunday is overridden by Sts. Peter and Paul.

    A final caution–not all dates of Easter are equally probable. From what I’ve seen, the few earliest and the few latest are slightly less frequent, and all the others have approximately equal frequency.

  7. Jim McKay : Matthew 26:13 “Amen, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be spoken of, in memory of her.” Ironically this is never read. The parallel in Mark appears on Palm Sunday very third year. The parallel in John is heard on Monday of Holy Week every year. But this passage from Matthew has no day to call its own iirc.

    That’s a fine example. Another occurred on last Wednesday, June 25 (Wednesday of the 12th Week, Year II), where after the king orders his officials to “Go and consult the Lord, on behalf of me and the people, about the contents of this book that has been found,” we do not hear how they obeyed by consulting the prophetess Huldah.

    At one time long ago I was on the Lectionary Sub-Committee of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, and I mapped out numerous omissions that, in my opinion, American congregations needed to hear.

    Michael

  8. On a less complicated note, I once built a series around “Scriptures you will never hear on Sunday.” It attracted some interest from young adults, since many of the Hebrew Scripture non-starts were apparently deleted for graphic sex or violence.

  9. Many thanks for this article and these comments, as it answers questions I had often wondered about!

  10. @David Scholl (#6): is there any chance of your spreadsheet being shared with the world via Google Drive or another similar service? Because I think it sounds absolutely amazing! 🙂 I wonder what the percentage chance of a particular Sunday cycle being eclipsed is? (I may wonder that for a long time, because I’m not the best statistician!)

    @Sean Whelan (#4): +1. This is part of the reason why I am so against transferring holy days – not only does one lose the biblical lections, but also the propers for those days. In England & Wales, we now never hear the prayers of certain Sundays in the year. I get that the intention is to not have people miss out on Ascension et al, but surely the answer is to insist on the importance of attending Mass on holy days, and help and encourage people to do so (by, e.g., having Mass at suitable times of day for those who have to work), not just capitulating to the culture and transferring the day because, well, God forbid we expect people to come to Mass on the occasional weekday!

    ————-

    For the record, the structures of the cycles of Gospel readings for Sundays are given in this PDF of the General Introduction to the Lectionary, pp. 36-41. I’m currently working on other research in the reformed lectionary, so I don’t really have the time to wonder how the omission of Sundays 8-10 in particular (since according to David Scholl’s stats, they are the Sundays most likely to be eclipsed) affects what and how the structures teach us about Jesus. Perhaps a question for future research?

  11. During ordinary time, if I’m not mistaken, priests may change the readings for a good reason. So, pick out Sundays in which there are opportunities to hear its readings in other years and work in the ones that will otherwise never be heard. BTW, I wish this was the most significant shortcoming of the lectionary. What about the often terrible translations?

  12. If Advent 1 falls in November (or, in a non-leap year, December 1), an entire week (plus the remainder of the week in which Ash Wednesday falls) of OT will be omitted during the preceding liturgical year (conversely, if Advent 1 falls on 12/3, 12/2 or, in a leap year, 12/1, there will not be an entire week omitted).

  13. Another aspect of this is that, while there is always room for improvement (and I am thinking about the various possibilities of making some of the readings longer), we will never have a perfect lectionary. The post Vatican II Lectionary is generally a positive development, but it presumes a Biblical literacy that many of us simply don’t have. Maybe we need to look again, as has been done before on this blog, at Celebrations of the Word of God, that are non-sacramental liturgies. Also there are the various possibilities for the Office of Readings, including the biennial cycle. The Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s liturgical life but it is not the exclusive place where we hear the Word of God proclaimed.

  14. This does raise what I think is a troubling thing about the transfer of Solemnities and Feasts. It beings to obstruct the kalendar and it’s natural flow.

    While I am sure this was done with good intentions, particularly to reveal the mysteries of these transferred days to Faithful who would otherwise not attend, it deprives those who live their year liturgically from hearing the normal sanctoral and liturgical cycle.

    If we must do this, I would suggest seriously considering a return to second collects and commemorations of the actual day. One may not get the readings, but it would be a sign for those who understood the liturgical cycle. At least make them optional.

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