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Strange omission of key women in the lectionary.

Among the more obvious changes of Vatican II that have affected ordinary Catholics are the liturgy reforms. Among these, the revisions of the lectionary (assigned readings for Mass) have brought more of the Bible to the Catholic in the pew.

The council's "Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy" proclaims that "sacred scripture is of paramount importance in the celebration of the liturgy. ... Thus, if the restoration, progress and adaptation of the sacred liturgy are to be achieved, it is necessary to promote that warm and living love for scripture to which the venerable tradition of both Eastern and Western rites gives testimony" (Article 24).

To promote a greater familiarity with and love for the scripture, the council fathers realized they needed to expand the limited selection read at Mass. Therefore, this document on liturgy mandated that "the treasures of the Bible are to be opened up more lavishly so that richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God's word" (Article 51). (The Documents of Vatican II, New York: Guild Press, 1966.)

Thus on May 25, 1969, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments promulgated a new order of readings for use at Mass. From this directive, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops authorized the publishing of lectionaries in the English language for use in our churches, effective Palm Sunday 1970.

As a Benedictine nun who participates in daily Eucharist, I have been hearing and proclaiming God's word from this approved lectionary for almost 24 years. Yet, it was only this past November that I became aware of some particular omissions of select scripture passages.

During the last weeks of the year, the weekday lectionary readings were from St. Paul's Letter to the Romans. The assigned readings were mostly continuous except for a few omissions of pasasages that would be used on various Sundays.

But when we came to Chapter 16 (Paul's greetings to his men and women coworkers), I missed hearing about Phoebe, the deacon, in verses 1 and 2. Wondering if the reader had skipped something, I checked the lectionary passage #490 (every reading is given an identifying number).

There I discovered that these two verses were indeed omitted: I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a deaconess (the Greek word is actually deacon, not deaconess) of the church of Cenchrae (Corinth). Please welcome her in the Lord, as saints should. If she needs help in anything, give it to her, for she herself has been of help to many, including myself."

A further check revealed that these verses are not read on any Sunday either. Thus, even weekday churchgoers never hear in our liturgy of Phoebe, the deacon, who had been of great help to Paul.

Two Sundays later, the first reading was the poetic praise of the valiant woman or worthy wife from the Book of Proverbs, Chapter 31. When I was preparing for liturgy, something puzzled me. The selection in the lectionary did not match with my own recollection of the passage. A comparison of the Bible and of the lectionary (#158) revealed that there was a great difference.

The lectionary omitted the passages that praised the woman's initiative, business acumen, dignity and wisdom (31:41-18, 21-29). However, it did include the passages praising her for serving her husband and staying at home to spin.

A further example of the selectivity occurred a couple of months later, on Feb. 2, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple, with the gospel taken from Luke 2:22-40. When Mary and Joseph presented Jesus in the temple, they were met by Simeon and the prophet Anna, both of whom recognized the infants as the savior.

In the lectionary (#524), Simeon's story is told, but the following verses about the prophet Anna are indicated as merely optional and thus may be omitted. This same gospel is read on the Sunday after Christmas in Year B (#7) but both Simeon and Anna can be omitted from the reading if the short gospel reading is chosen.

These few examples aroused my curiosity further about other omissions of scripture in the lectionary. A quick examination of biblical books featuring women revealed that the total Book of Ruth merits only two weekday readings (#423, #424).

In addition to this being a story of loyalty and devotion, Ruth is the great-grandmother of King David and an ancestor of Jesus, according to Matthew's gospel. The Book of Esther, a story of great heroism in a time of oppression, has one reading for Lent (#228) and three others that might never be used: one option for Common of Saints (#737); and two for Masses for Various Occasions (#821, #876). The Book of Judith, the story of another heroine who jeopardizes her life for her people, has just two passages for Common of Saints (#709, #737).

It was suggested to me that perhaps the violence found in the books of Esther and Judith precluded their inclusion in the lectionary. However, that principle is not applied consistently, since other violent passages are included, such as David's beheading Goliath.

Having done some study of women prophets in scripture, I naturally wondered what the lectionary did with them. My search for Miriam revealed that the passage is omitted in which she is called a prophet and where she led a song of thanksgiving (actually a liturgy in these pre-priest days) after the crossing of the sea (Ex 15:20-21). However, Miriam does not escape without the revelation to the world of the story of her sin an d punishment with leprosy, for Numbers 12:1-13 is included for a weekday reading (#408) every other year.

Also omitted from the Book of Exodus is the account of the two brave midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who dared to defy the order given by Pharaoh to kill the baby boys of the Hebrews. The weekday reading from Chapter 1 of Exodus (#389) skips from verse 14 to 22, thus skimming over their story of defiance of pharaoh's law of death in favor of God's law of life. How relevant and encouraging these women would be for the pro-life movement today, if their stories were told.

Deborah, another woman named a prophet as well as a mother of Israel, was also passed over. Deborah was not only a prophet in the pre-monarchical times, but also a judge of Israel. She planned a defensive military strategy and personally went up to battle with her appointed general. They achieved an astounding military victory over their enemies, the Canaanites.

Deborah's song of victory in Judges 5:1-31 is considered one of the most ancient extant compositions of the Hebrews. Yet, Deborah is not allowed to take her place in the lectionary beside Gideon, Jotham and Jephthah from the Book of Judges.

Huldah the prophet made history in Second Kings, Chapter 22. This woman a seventh century B.C. contemporary of Jeremiah and one of the few women or men named a prophet, was consulted by King Josiah, noted for his repair of the temple and for religious reforms. It seems that an old scroll (now thought to be probably the original form of Deuteronomy) was found in the temple by the priest Hilkiah, who asked a scribe to read it to the king.

The king responded, "Go consult the Lord for me, for the people, for all Judah, about the stipulations of this book that has been found." The next verse indicates that they took the scroll to Huldah the prophet to find out whether it was truly the word of God. She verified the authenticity of the scroll, and, as a prophet, spoke God's warning to the king. These verses referring to Huldah are neatly sliced out of the middle of the passage given in the lectionary (#373).

In the midst of these discoveries, a friend pointed out to me an essay by Marjorie Procter-Smith in Women: Invisible in Theology and Church (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1985). Procter-Smith examines the images of women in the readings of the Common Lectionary used by many Protestant churches for Sundays and feast days. With the assistance of this article, I made further studies of the New Testament readings in the Roman lectionary.

It is important to remember that the Sunday scripture readings are arranged in a three-year cycle. The Gospel of Matthew is read in Year A, Mark in Year B and Luke in Year C; John is used for seasonal readings every year. For weekdays of ordinary time the first readings are arranged in a two-year cycle, while the gospels are arranged in a single annual cycle. Some of the gospel readings have optional long and short forms. The celebrant may choose which to use.

One of the healing miracles of Jesus recorded in the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) involves two women, the daughter of Jairus and the woman with the hemorrhage. These two healings are intertwined to indicate their innate relationship with each other. Yet the healing of the woman, where Jesus broke several taboos against women, may be sliced out of Mark's gospel (Mk 5:21-43) in the optional short Sunday reading of Year B (#99). If the celebrant decides not to read it in Year B, it is never heard by the Sunday crowd. Mark's complete version and Matthew's may be heard on a weekday (#324, #383), but Luke's is omitted altogether.

The passion reading for Palm Sunday in Year A (#38) is from the Gospel of Matthew. The selection begins with Matthew 26:14, omitting verses 6-13, which is the obvious introduction to the Passion -- the anointing of Jesus on the head by a woman. The short version of this same reading for Year A also concludes just before the mention of the faithful women who had followed Jesus to Jerusalem from Galilee. The gospel reading for Wednesday of Holy Week (#260) begins again with Matthew 26:14, repeating the story from Sunday of the betrayal by Judas and excluding again the anointing by a woman.

For the Palm Sunday passion reading for Year B from Mark (#38), only the optional long version includes the anointing of Jesus on the head by a woman and the witness of the women at the cross. Thus, for those who hear only the short version of the Passion, the role of Jesus' women disciples is again excluded.

The Passion reading for Year C is from the Gospel of Luke. In Luke, the anointing of Jesus takes place earlier in Jesus' ministry (Lk 7:36-50). Luke's account also differs from the earlier gospels of Mark and Matthew by identifying the woman who anoints Jesus as a sinful woman who anoints Jesus on his feet, not his head. So even though the sinful woman does not appear on Palm Sunday in Year C, she is exposed on another Sunday in Year C (#94) and also on a weekday every year (#446).

John's account of the passion is always read on Good Friday. In his gospel, the anointing of Jesus is performed by Mary of Bethany at a banquet served by her sister Martha. This version of the anointing story (Jn 12:1-8) is read only on a weekday, Monday of Holy Week.

If asked about the anointing of Jesus, most Catholics probably would say Jesus was anointed on his feet by a sinful woman (probably even naming her Mary Magdalene, which the scripture does not). The lectionary has not given us familiarity with Mark's and Matthew's version where a woman, not identified as a sinner, assumed the role of a prophet in anointing Jesus on the head. Jesus' words to his companions who criticized her are still waiting to he heard: "I assure you, wherever the Good News is proclaimed throughout the world, what she has done will be told in her memory" (MK 14:9).

There are other noteworthy omissions from the gospel readings. It seems almost impossible to believe that the Magnificat, the beautiful and revolutionary song of Mary in Luke 1:46-56 is never read on a Sunday. It is read on a weekday before Christmas (#199) and on two feast days of Mary: the Visitation (#572) and the Assumption (#622). How many Catholics will become familiar with this marvelous song of praise attributed to the mother of Jesus?

Also in the Gospel of Luke is a passage (8:1-3) that makes note of some of Jesus' women disciples: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and others unnamed. These three short verses may be omitted from the short form of Sunday's gospel (#94) for Year C. Thus, Joanna and Susanna may go unknown except for a weekday mention (#447).

Luke is the only evangelist who records Jesus' healing at the synagogue of a woman who had been crippled for 18 years (Lk 13:10-17). Yet, this story of her faith and Jesus' breaking of the Sabbath law to heal her is not included in the Sundays of Year C, the year of Luke, but is placed only on a weekday.

It is well-known that all four of the gospels agree that the faithful women disciples, headed by Mary Magdalene, were the first witnesses to the resurrection. However, Easter's gospel (#$3) from John 20:1-9 stops just at the point of the beautiful and touching story of Jesus' appearance to Mary Magdalene in the garden. She does not rate any Sunday of the Easter season, even though the Sundays seem to run out of stories of Jesus' appearances and fill in with other passages.

This profoundly moving story is found only on Easter Tuesday (#262) and on Mary Magdalene's weekday feast in July (#603). But Peter's and John's race to the tomb in John 20:1-9 (#43) is retold every Easter, and Jesus' appearance to Thomas in John 20:19-31 (#44) is read on the Sunday after Easter every year.

The first reading for each of the Sundays after Easter is taken from the Acts of the Apostles. The selections focus on the sermons and activities of Peter, Paul Barnabas and Stephen. The women disciples found in the Acts of the Apostles -- Tabitha, Lydia and Priscilla -- take second place in the weekday readings of the Easter season.

All these examples of women being overlooked or overshadowed in the readings of Mass lead to the question of the criteria used to choose the lectionary selections. Of course, some omissions had to be made due to the length of the Bible. Because there is much similarity in the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the duplications could be omitted to assure that the unique passages could be used.

But were there other considerations? In the introduction to the lectionary are found the first two chapters of the Roman document containing an explanation of the purpose of a lectionary and the criteria for choice of readings for Sundays and feast days.

The document reads, "In arranging these texts, the purpose was to assign those of greatest importance to Sundays and feasts when the Christian people are bound to celebrate the Eucharist together. In this way the faithful will be able to hear the principal portions of God's revealed word over a suitable period of time" (paragraph 2).

The criteria used for omitting or abbreviating certain passages is stated thus: "Biblical texts that contain serious literary, critical or exegetical problems or that the faithful may find difficult to understand have been omitted from the readings for Sundays and solemnities" (paragraph 7).

In regard to omitting verses, the norms continue: "Many liturgies, including the Roman liturgy, traditionally omit certain verses from biblical readings. One should not be too quick to do this because the style, purpose or meaning of the scriptural texts may easily be damaged. But for pastoral reasons, it seemed best to continue this tradition, taking care that the essential meaning of the text remain unchanged. Otherwise, some texts would be too lengthy or readings of greater spiritual value to the people would have to be entirely omitted because of the one or two verses of little pastoral worth or involving truly difficult questions" (paragraph 7).

In regard to weekday readings, the norms state: "Passages having little pastoral relevance today have been omitted, such as those concerning the gift of tongues or the discipline of the early church" (paragraph 17).

Thus we can conclude that the passages described above featuring women were omitted or made optional for one of the following reasons: 1. They are of lesser importance; 2, They contain serious literary, critical or exegetical problems; 3. the faithful will not understand them; 4. they are not essential to the meaning of the text; 5. they have lesser spiritual value; 6. they have little pastoral worth; 7. they contain truly difficult questions.

For which of these reasons do Catholics seldom, or not at all, hear at their liturgy of the defiant midwives Shiphrah and Puah? Of the prophets Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Anna? Of the heroines Judith and Esther? Of the wisdom and astuteness of the worthy wife? Of Mary's Magnificat? Of the woman who anointed Jesus on the head? Of Joanna, Susanna, Priscilla, Lydia, Tabitha? Of Jesus' appearance to Mary Magdalene in the garden?

Perhaps a Catholic who longs for the full complement of feminine and masculine models might say, "Well, at least we have the saints' feast days to bring holy women as well as men before us." Let us examine the saints listed in the lectionary A cursory review of the annual calendar of celebrations reveals that there are 144 male saints (not counting the three masculine-named archangels) and 29 female saints (counting Mary).

These numbers reflect quite accurately the statistics of canonized saints. In a recent article in Monastic Liturgy Forum Newsletter, autumn 1993, Fr. S. Shawn Madigan reported that of the canonized saints 82 percent are men, 18 percent are women. The U.S. bishops' conference has improved the ratio somewhat by adding 10 men and seven women to the roster of saints to be commemorated in the Unites States.

For the past few years, that conference also has been updating the Roman Missal, which includes a revised lectionary with new translations of sacred scripture. As of May, the bishops were awaiting approval from Rome before the new translations can be published. My understanding is that there will be no substantial changes in the selections of readings in the lectionary.

Liturgy is the center of our Christian life, the primary means by which our spirituality is nourished, formed and celebrated. Liturgy is the action of remembering our salvation history in story and ritual, of which the framework and core is scripture. In the readings from the lectionary at Mass, are we Catholics receiving the "richer fare" promised to us by the reforms mandated by Vatican II?

Benedictine Sr. Ruth Fox, a member of the Benedictine Sacred Heart Monastery of Richardton, N.D., for 40 years, is president of the Federation of St. Gertrude, a union of 18 monasteries of women in the United States and Canada.
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Title Annotation:scripture readings in Mass liturgy
Author:Fox, Ruth
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:May 13, 1994
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