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All Those Readings!

April 7th, 2012by Emily Besl

In the liturgies of the Paschal Triduum, our annual three-day observance of Jesus’ saving death and resurrection, we do ceremonies that are different from our customary weekly or daily celebrations, things that are a bit unusual, things we only do once a year.  When you participate in these holy rituals on these sacred days, you know that it’s not “business as usual.”

This is certainly true of the Easter Vigil, the high point of the Triduum.  For one thing, it’s long, much longer than a typical Sunday service.  But that is the point.  The Easter Vigil is meant to be long.  That’s what makes it a Vigil.  It is “the night of keeping vigil for the Lord,” as the Roman Missal says.  Rome’s Circular Letter about the Easter Feasts says the Vigil is about “waiting for the resurrection of the Lord.”  “Waiting,” “keeping vigil” — sounds long to me.

One unusual, lengthy part of the Easter Vigil is the Liturgy of the Word.  This is not like the typical Liturgy of the Word in a Sunday or weekday Mass.  This Liturgy of the Word has nine readings, seven from the Old Testament along with an Epistle and Gospel.  Many find the number of readings challenging and routinely reduce the seven Old Testament readings to three.

While the new Roman Missal still allows for this practice, it has added much stronger language limiting this option.  The previous Sacramentary permitted reducing the Old Testament readings “for pastoral reasons,” to at least three, but even to two.  Now, however, the pastoral reasons have to be “more serious.”  Having just two is no longer allowed.  The new Roman Missal says that decreasing the number of readings at all is only to be done “where more serious pastoral circumstances demand it.”  It clearly states that all of the readings should be read “whenever this can be done.”  “Whenever this can be done” — doesn’t that sound like the Church means this to be taken seriously?

The new Roman Missal emphasizes that all the readings should be included “so that the character of the Vigil, which demands an extended period of time, may be preserved.”  Again, it’s supposed to be long.  Reducing the readings to only three thwarts the meaning and purpose of the Vigil.

One additional note:  the new Roman Missal now adds that if the readings are decreased, they must be from both the Law and the Prophets.  You can’t, for instance, just use the first three Old Testament texts.

I’m happy to see this new, more strict wording about reading all the Scripture passages given for the Easter Vigil.  We did this for years in my parish and it was beautiful, prayerful, solemn, joyful, — and, yes, long.  It definitely was out of the ordinary, different from a regular Mass, and it was worth every minute.

Photo Credit: “Exultet” flickr/RandyOHC
Emily Besl

Emily Besl has been teaching and writing about liturgy for almost thirty years. She is married and has two daughters, and is a member of St. Mary Church, Hyde Park