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Mass Themes

Q. Dear CNP:

A few months ago I stumbled on a website that provided a general description of the themes encountered in Ordinary Time according to the liturgical years (A,B,C). I think there was discussion about the differences for liturgical seasons as well. I found it very interesting and useful but lost the link. As I prepare for my choir season this year, I find the Sundays all seem to have very similar themes as we elaborate on a certain area of Scripture. I would like to find an overall idea that spans a few weeks at a time. Something that would provide a description of how it all fits in the three year cycle. Are there, for instance, specific themes that only come once every three years? Ordinary Time in Year B seems quite different form Ordinary Time in Year A.

Themes Like Old Times

A. Dear Themes:

The English-language Roman Lectionary, which first was published in the 1970s, arranged readings in a three-year cycle (A, built around the Gospel of Matthew / B, using Mark / and C using Luke). The Gospel of John was read during Eastertide and during a 6-week period in Year B (since Saint Mark's Gospel is the shortest).

When the Lectionary came out, it was revolutionary not only in its three-year scheme, but also in the wide selection of Scripture (Old Testament, Psalms, New Testament Epistles, Gospels) that it included. Great effort was made in the latter decades of the 20th century to find "themes" for each Mass, and our Liturgical Planning Pages [ see Ordinary Time Planning pages] still offer themes to aid in choosing music with ties to the readings.

One can easily be overly pre-occupied, however, with "theming" every Mass, a "themingly" overwhelming concept which may not be valid when we look at the bigger picture of a Sunday liturgy. While the readings are an important component of the Sunday liturgical experience (and one that often generates the homily), Scripture is not the only texts that a congregation hears at Mass. Apart from the Ordinary of the Mass (the parts that don't change, like the Gloria, Creed, etc.), there are Propers (Introit, Offertory, Communion) and Orations (Collect, Prayer over the Offerings, Prayer after Communion) — these are sung by the choir and prayed by the celebrant.

It is interesting to note that, unlike the readings (which follow a three-year cycle), the Propers and Orations recur each year. For example, the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time has completely different readings in Year A, Year B, and Year C, but all the Propers and Orations will be the same every year. This diminishes the importance of finding a theme for every Mass, since a large portion of the texts used will be the same every year, even as the readings vary.

As my career in Catholic church music has developed (spanning more than 40 years), I am finding it less and less necessary to slavishly find music to amplify just the Scriptures at a Mass. It's fine if the choir anthem relates to the Gospel, but it's also fine if it doesn't. It may be just as important to find an Entrance Hymn that reflects the words of the Proper Introit text as to search for one that sets a passage from the First Reading to music.

I've become less "strict" with myself about finding Scriptural links for all the liturgical music I choose. Every Mass is ultimately about making present the salvific act of Jesus Christ on Calvary and about our receiving his very Body and Blood as food for our journey toward reunion with him in heaven. There's great amplitude in that for finding suitable music.

In looking to establish liturgical themes, it might be better to recognize those themes that are related to the seasons:

  • Advent: hope, longing, expectation, coming, repentance, end-of-time, Messiah
  • Christmas: God-with-Us, incarnation, humility, plan of salvation, the humanity of Christ, fulfillment
  • Lent: metanoia, baptism, penance, redemptive suffering, prayer, fasting, almsgiving
  • Easter: rejoicing, victory, salvation, power of God, alleluia

Within these general seasonal themes, there are specific aspects. For example, the first two weeks of Advent focus on Christ's Second Coming at the end of time, while the latter two weeks deal more with his historical birth.

Our Liturgical Planning pages should be of help to you in understanding the texts for any particular Sunday. They will offer musical suggestions that support the texts.

CanticaNOVA Publications / PO Box 1388 / Charles Town, WV 25414-7388
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