Wednesday, August 28, 2019

“Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth” : A Curious Feature in the Reformed Lectionary

This last Sunday in the Ordinary Form, which was the 21st Sunday per annum in Year C, Catholics will have heard the following passage from the Gospel of Luke read at Mass:
[At that time: Jesus] went on his way through towns and villages, teaching, and journeying toward Jerusalem. And some one said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the householder has risen up and shut the door, you will begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us.’ He will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from; depart from me, all you workers of iniquity!’ There you will weep and gnash your teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves thrust out. And men will come from east and west, and from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (cap. 13:22-30, RSV2CE)
This passage contains a number of memorable phrases: the last shall be first and the first last, the necessity of entering by the narrow door, and weeping and gnashing of teeth. It is the last of these, however, that we might not associate so strongly with Luke’s Gospel. Only once does the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Gk. ekei estai ho klauthmos kai ho brygmos tōn odontōn) occur in Luke, at 13:28. It is really more of a Matthean phrase, where it occurs a total of six times (8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30).

The Gospel of the Third Sunday after Epiphany, Matthew 8, 1-13, in a Roman lectionary of the last quarter of the 9th century (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits Latin 9453, folio 11r). The words “weeping and gnashing of teeth (fletus et stridor dentium) are seen in the last line of the page.
It may surprise readers of NLM to know, then, that last Sunday was the only time in the three-year cycle of the reformed lectionary that Catholics who attend the Ordinary Form are guaranteed to hear this phrase. Put another way: a very Matthean phrase does not ever have to be read on Sundays in Year A, the year of Matthew, but does have to be read once in Year C, the year of Luke.

This is thanks to the “short forms” of readings generously scattered throughout the Ordo lectionum Missae. Out of the six times the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” appears in Matthew, two (8:12 and 24:51) are not included in the OF Sunday lectionary cycle, [1] and the other four are omitted in the short forms of the Gospel readings for the following Sundays in Year A:
  • 16th Sunday per annum (13:24-43 → 13:24-30)
  • 17th Sunday per annum (13:44-52 → 13:44-46)
  • 28th Sunday per annum (22:1-14 → 22:1-10)
  • 33rd Sunday per annum (25:14-30 → 25:14-15, 19-21) [2]
To me, this all seems rather odd. Part of the idea of the three-year cycle is that at least some of the unique features of each of the synoptic Gospels can be more easily utilised by homilists. [3] This includes obvious things like the structure of each Gospel - for example, the readings of Year A are structured around the five “great sermons” in Matthew (chs. 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 24-25), whereas those of Year C are built around Luke’s “travel narrative” (Nazareth → Galilee → Jerusalem → Passion). But it also includes more subtle literary features, such as the different uses of grammar and vocabulary in each Gospel. Indeed, the General Introduction to the Lectionary itself says that the Gospel readings for Sundays per annum “are arranged in such a way that, as the Lord’s life and preaching unfold, the teaching proper to each of these Gospels is presented” (GIL 105), and provides various tables outlining the arrangement of the per annum Sunday readings for each of the three years.

Do the short forms of readings impair this aim of the post-Vatican II Ordo lectionum Missae? Well, when we are faced with an order of readings that allows clergy, through ad libitum use of these short forms, [4] to entirely omit a Matthean phrase considered important enough to be included four times in Year A, but requires it to be read on the one occasion it occurs in Year C, this would seem to be a legitimate question. Quite aside from the issue of whether or not the reformed lectionary minimises certain “difficult” aspects of Catholic teaching, [5] there are doubts about whether it is entirely consistent with its own aims and desires. The short forms of readings are in my opinion a significant problem that, for a number of different reasons, need to be examined during any work towards a future third edition of the Ordo lectionum Missae.


[1] Though they do occur on weekdays, and Matt. 8:12 is paralleled in Luke 13:28.

[2] This last short form is especially egregious, and I have commented on it previously in my article Lectio brevior and the Parable of the Talents.

[3] Whether the reformed lectionary actually achieves this aim is a separate question.

[4] Typically, the “pastoral criterion” of GIL 80 as to when short forms of readings ought to be used is very vague. In my experience, most clergy use them principally to make the liturgy shorter so as to get people out of church ‘on time’. I am not sure this is what Coetus XI had in mind as a suitable “pastoral criterion”!

[5] For comparison with the above, in the usus antiquior on Sundays, the faithful will hear the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” twice every year, on the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany (Matt. 8:1-13) and the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (Matt. 22:1-14). Dr Peter Kwasniewski also touches on this wider subject of “difficult” texts in his foreword to my book Index Lectionum: A Comparative Table of Readings for the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the Roman Rite (Amazon USA, UK).

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