Bible 101: Scripture in the Mass

On this Holy Saturday, let us talk more about God’s written Word!

Copyright Adrienne Taylor 2012 and Copyright New American Bible

In the Catholic Church, we are blessed to have Masses dripping with Scripture! In case you weren’t aware, the scripture selected for the readings of each day’s Mass is pre-determined by a lectionary that all parishes use (customized per country/region based upon the General Roman Calendar as a standard). The Sunday readings rotate on a three year cycle, and the weekday readings rotate on a two year cycle. 2012 uses cycle B for the Sunday readings. Beyond the 3-4 reading selections in the Liturgy of the Word, if you listen closely to the prayers, and especially the Eucharistic prayers you’ll find many of them are phrased with quotes from the Bible!

Before the advent of the printing press, and widespread literacy (so, for the majority of the history of the world), the faithful weren’t able to study a personal copy of the Bible at home on their Kindle. In fact, Bibles were hand written, page, by page, by scribes, resulting in Bibles costing 3 years’ wages per copy. That’s the equivalent of a house in today’s terms! Instead of the faithful taking out 30 year loans to pay for individual copies of Bibles, they heard God’s written Word at Mass.

Just to get you started for this weekend’s Mass, I am going to share with you quickly the Scriptures in the Liturgy of the Word. Remember, the Mass is divided into two parts, the Liturgy of the Word (all of the readings and the homily) and the Liturgy of the Eucharist (the prayers and rubrics for before, during and after the celebration of the Blessed Sacrament, or Communion). Masses every day have a first reading, a Psalm, and a Gospel reading. Masses on Sundays and Holy Days have a second reading between the Psalm and Gospel reading.

The first reading is usually taken from the Old Testament. The Old Testament is larger than the New Testament and describes God’s interaction with His people before the birth of His Son. If you attend daily Mass, you’ll often find that the missal will lead us through sequential passages of the Old Testament, so sometimes you’ll hear a lot about Moses (the man lived 800 years, so he got a lot of air time), or David, or Soloman, and that’s because a particular book of the Bible is being read sequentially by order of the missal or lectionary. At the conclusion of the reading we hear, “This is the Word of the Lord.” and reply, “Thanks be to God.” Remember this for a distinction I will draw later.

Next is the Psalm. If you take your Bible and open it up roughly to the middle, you’ll likely land in the Psalms. Not only is the book of Psalms in the middle of the compiled Scriptures, but it’s also the biggest book in the Bible and it resides in the Old Testament. Notice that often we sing this part of Scripture, and that’s because the Psalms were written to be sung as worship, and even in the liturgy of the religious communities before Christ.

On Sundays and Holy days, after the Psalm comes the second reading, and this reading is taken from the New Testament epistles, so not from Matthew, Mark, Luke or John (that’s later). Pay attention to the way this reading is announced, “a reading from the letter of Paul to the Ephesians”. Yep, turns out I could have learned all about the New Testament if I’d just been paying attention more. These writings are often to or about the Church after Christ’s Ascension (starting with the book of Acts which begins with Christ’s Ascension to Heaven and chronicles the apostles mission building the Church after Christ). Paul wrote a lot of the New Testament, but he wasn’t the only NT author (though it seems like it because the man wrote a lot!  Thanks be to God, of course).  Many of his letters were to Christian churches (like parishes) whom needed further instruction or were running a muck of immorality and needed to be smacked back into place.   Similar to the conclusion of our first reading we’ll hear, “The Word of the Lord” and will reply, “Thanks be to God.”

Now for the main attraction in the Liturgy of the Word! It is the Gospel reading! We stand for this reading because of our high respect for the very words of and story of our Savior, Jesus Christ.  This reading will be from one of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.   You’ll also notice that the previous readings were specifically selected to support and explain the Gospel reading.  At the conclusion of the Gospel reading we hear, “The Gospel of the Lord.” and respond “Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ.” Jesus never penned a lick o’ Scripture, so thankfully the Holy Spirit, via the pens of the four Gospel writers, still told us about Jesus’ life on Earth such that we can hear Him speak to us with His very words recorded in the Gospels.  The words in the Gospels give us shape for understanding everything else in the Scriptures.


As for some homework, take your Bible and find the Psalms, then also find the four Gospels. And lastly for weekly homework, I want you to look up each Sunday’s Mass readings in the Bible, and for extra credit, read them straight from your Bible before Mass! Believe me, you’ll get a lot more out of the homily if you do this!


 Bible 101:  Beginning with a Beginner – Introduction, Old and New Testament

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