By Father Richard Hilgartner
A revised translation of the Old Testament for the New American Bible gives Catholics a fresh look at a large portion of the Bible. Some Catholics presume that the four Gospels form the heart of the Catholic Bible, but the Old Testament holds an important place as well, especially in the Mass.
The Church’s Liturgy makes extensive use of Scripture. Every liturgical rite (the Mass and the other sacraments, the Liturgy of the Hours, and other rites of the Rituale Romanum) includes the proclamation of biblical readings, especially from the Gospels, and often from the Old Testament. The liturgical texts themselves—orations, exhortations, and blessings—draw from the Scriptures, too; particular images, sayings, and expressions often are quoted directly from biblical texts. The Book of Psalms, the first “prayer book” of the Church, always has been a source of the language of liturgical prayer.
Among the many changes brought about by the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council was the expanded use of the Scriptures in the Liturgy. Sacroscanctum Concilium, the Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council, set forth the goal of the formation of the Lectionary for Mass: “The treasures of the Bible are to be opened up more lavishly so that a richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s word.” (SC, #51). The result was the expansion of the cycle of Scripture readings and the addition of readings from the Old Testament.
In the celebration of Mass on Sundays and Solemnities, three readings from Scripture are proclaimed (not counting the Psalm, which, although normally sung in part by the liturgical assembly, is a part of the proclaimed Word of God): a reading from the Old Testament (except during the Easter Season, when the first reading is taken from the Acts of the Apostles), a reading from one of the New Testament letters or the Book of Revelation, and a Gospel reading. On weekdays, two readings are used, selected in “semi-continuous” fashion (that is the use of large excerpts continuing from one day to the next): the first is either from the Old Testament or the New Testament, and the second is a Gospel reading.
The Introduction to the Lectionary for Mass explains that the guiding principle for the selection of the readings on Sundays and feast days the principle of “harmony.” It calls for texts that complement one another thematically, usually centered on the gospel reading. In particular, readings are chosen from the Old Testament that anticipate or reflect the event or theme of the Gospel reading or the feast. For example, on Christmas Eve at the Mass in the Night, the Gospel reading, Luke 2:1–14, tells the story of the birth of Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem. The first reading, from the Prophet Isaiah (9:1–6), announces the birth of the child who is named “Wonder–Counselor, God–Hero, Father–Forever, Prince of Peace.” The harmony of these texts demonstrates what Catholics believe about the Bible, about Jesus, and the relationship between the Old and New Testaments: the context of salvation history for Christians is Jesus, and the Old Testament, as it depicts the unfolding of God’s creation, covenant, and relationship with his people, prepares for and leads to the coming of Christ in human history in his Incarnation in the flesh. The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, summarizes it well:
God, the inspirer and author of the books of both Testaments, in his wisdom has so brought it about that the New should be hidden in the Old and that the Old should be made manifest in the new. For, although Christ founded the new Covenant in his blood, still the books of the Old Testament, all of them caught up into the Gospel message, attain and show forth their full meaning in the New Testament and, in their turn, shed light on it and explain it. (Dei Verbum # 16)
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Father Richard Hilgartner, a priest of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, is the Executive Director of the Secretariat of Divine Worship at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.