"THE MEMOIRS of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits. When the reader has finished, the president gives an address, exhorting us to practise these noble teachings in our lives. Then all stand up together and recite prayers."
The Liturgy of the World, which Justin Martyr thus sum marises, is descended from the synagogue liturgy, in which there were normally two readings, one from the law and one from the prophets. There was also a homily. and there were prayers.
The exact arrangement varied from time to time and from place to place; we do not have sufficient evidence to say much more than that. But this is enough to indicate the origins of the Christian Order.
How many readings were there originally in the Christian order? Everywhere there were at least two, and the Gospel, as the most important, was always the last — an interesting reversal of the synagogue order, in which the most important. that from the Law, came first.
In a number of eastern rites there were, and in one case still are, four: Law, Prophets, Epistle and Gospel. This may well have been the norm in early times.
Old Testament readings gradually disappeared almost everywhere as part of the regular pattern, although they survived on certain days. By the end of the sixth century the Roman Mass normally had only two readings, the Epistle and the Gospel, although as late as the eighth century a lectionary is found in which the Old Testament readings are still listed, in an appendix.
Why did the Old Testament readings tend to vanish? We don't know; it is possible that it was felt that the considerable amount of reading from the Old Testament then found almost everywhere in the daily offices was sufficient.
In our Own day an Old Testament reading has been restored to the Roman Mass on all Sundays (except those in Eastertide, when, following an ancient tradition, it is replaced by a reading from the Acts of the Apostles) and principal holydays.
Why? The absence of an Old Testament reading from the Mass meant that most people hardly ever heard anything from the Old Testament at all. Yet there are many passages in the New Testament the full significance of which cannot be grasped unless they are seen in their relationship with passages from the Old Testament: the salvation-history of the Old and New Covenants is indivisable. Hence the restoration of the Old Testament reading.
The readings are interspersed with chants — and it must be emphasised that the Responsorial Psalm and the Alleluya are meant to be sung: saying them is a poor second-best. Why? What is their history? What is their function?
Early sources refer to a psalm, or a canticle in psalm-form. between readings. One of the earliest such references is found in the North African writer Tertullian (c 160-225): "First we heard a reading from the apostles, and then we sang a psalm. After this we read the Gospel ..."
St Augustine, among others, often refers to the practice in his homilies on the psalms. These psalms were not designed as accompaniments to ceremonial (like the Introit); they were regarded as an integral part of the ministry of the Word in their own right.
St Augustine himself, for . example, often calls them read
ings, although it is clear that they were sung. They were connected thematically with the readings; usually each such psalm was selected as a meditative response to the reading which preceded it, although in some parts of the Church the psalms appear to have been arranged as introductions to the readings.
In the Roman rite, the Old Testament was followed by the psalm which came to be called the Gradual (because the cantor leading it stood on a step — .graclus — of one of ambos, or reading places, to do so). The Epistle was followed by the Alleluya, a psalm so called because of its unvarying response.
So far as we can tell, the arrangement of these psalms for singing was exactly that which has been restored in the present missal for the Responsorial Psalm, as the Gradual has been renamed to make its function clear.
When the Old Testament reading disappeared its psalm did not disappear with it, but was moved, and inserted between the Epistle and the Alleluya. At about the same time, the texts began to be abbreviated, probably on account of the increasing elaboration of the chant.
The missal of 1970 has simply reverted to the original arrangement in returning the Responsorial Psalm to its right place. and extending the text; one may regret that the text of the Alleluya was not similarly restored to its original integrity.