Rorate Caeli

A Case Study of Rupture in the Lex Orandi: The Epistles of Lenten Sundays

One of the most striking areas of rupture and discontinuity between the traditional Latin Mass and the Mass of Paul VI is to be found in the passages of Scripture read on Sundays. The annual cycle of the old Missal, embodying the practice of well over a millennium, puts before the Christian people year after year essential truths of the spiritual life and fundamentals of morality to which we must always return. The three-year cycle of the new Mass, an unprecedented novelty against the backdrop of all historic liturgical rites, brings in a greater quantity and variety of texts but, as a result, diffuses the impact and substance of the message.

It is as if the canvas on which the painting is being executed is so large and the subjects so numerous that one cannot quite make out what the painting is of. There is not enough “useful repetition” to allow the words to sink in deeply and remain in the heart, rather than passing in one ear and out the other. As a friend of mine likes to say, education involves cutting the groove many times until a lasting mark is left. The enormous contrast between the two is appreciated perhaps only by those who have regularly attended both forms of the Roman Rite over a long stretch of time.

An excellent example of the  change in the message delivered by the liturgy can be seen if we examine the Epistles for the first three Sundays of Lent. (I use the term ‘Epistle’ to refer to the first reading at the usus antiquior and the second reading at the usus recentior, which are nearly always taken from the Epistles of St. Paul.)

In the traditional Roman Rite, all three Epistles emphasize the moral demands of the Gospel, in keeping with the first word spoken by the Lord: “Repent.” In particular, all three Epistles mention the non-negotiable requirement of keeping chaste, in an escalating sequence that begins with a phrase, moves to a couple of sentences, and culminates in nearly an entire reading.

Epistle for the First Sunday of Lent [MR 1962] (2 Cor 6:1–10)

Brethren: We exhort you that you receive not the grace of God in vain. For He saith: In an accepted time have I heard thee, and in the day of salvation have I helped thee. Behold, now is the acceptable time, behold now is the day of salvation. Giving no offence to any man, that our ministry be not blamed: but in all things let us exhibit ourselves as the ministers of God, in much patience, in tribulation, in necessities, in distresses, in stripes, in prisons, in seditions, in labours, in watchings, in fastings, in chastity, in knowledge, in longsuffering, in sweetness, in the Holy Ghost, in charity unfeigned, in the word of truth, in the power of God: by the armour of justice on the right hand and on the left: by honour and dishonour, by evil report and good report: as deceivers and yet true, as unknown and yet known: as dying, and behold we live: as chastised and not killed: as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing: as needy, yet enriching many: as having nothing and possessing all things.

Epistle for the Second Sunday of Lent [MR 1962] (1 Thes 4:1–7)

Brethren: We pray and beseech you in the Lord Jesus that, as you have received from us, now you ought to walk and to please God, so also you would walk, that you may abound the more. For you know what precepts I have given to you by the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from fornication, that every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour; not in the passion of lust, like the Gentiles that know not God: and that no man overreach nor circumvent his brother in business: because the Lord is the avenger of all these things, as we have told you before and have testified. For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto sanctification: in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Epistle for the Third Sunday of Lent [MR 1962] (Eph 5:1–9)

Brethren: Be ye followers of God, as most dear children: and walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us and hath delivered Himself for us, an oblation and a sacrifice to God for an odour of sweetness. But fornication, and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not so much as be named among you, as becometh saints: or obscenity, or foolish talking, or scurrility, which is to no purpose: but rather giving of thanks. For know you this, and understand, that no fornicator, or unclean or covetous person, which is a serving of idols, hath inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the anger of God upon the children of unbelief. Be ye not therefore partakers with them. For you were heretofore darkness: but now light in the Lord. Walk then as children of the light: for the fruit of the light is in all goodness, and justice, and truth.

The contrast with the new lectionary could not possibly be more stark. In the nine readings that were chosen to replace the above three (because there are three cycles: A, B, and C), not a single one mentions either the virtue of chastity or the duty to avoid fornication.[Note 1] Is this coincidental? As C. S. Lewis once wrote: “Chastity is the most unpopular of the Christian virtues.” The liturgical reformers concurred with modern secularism that Catholicism had become “preoccupied” and “fixated” on sexual morality and that it was time to open the windows and let in some fresh air. This they did by selecting nine relatively tame and non-threatening epistles for these three Sundays, none of which makes the same strict demands of ascetical self-denial that the traditional lectionary, always read in the Roman Church prior to the 1960s, made and still makes.

The three epistles in Year A tell us about sin entering the world through Adam (Rom 5), our calling to holiness (2 Tim 1), Christ dying on our behalf (Rom 5); in Year B, the flood prefiguring baptism (1 Pet 3), God being “for us” (Rom 8), Christ as a stumbling block and foolishness (1 Cor 1); in Year C, salvation through Christ (Rom 10), Christ will change our lowly bodies (Phil 3), sacramental prefiguration in the desert (1 Cor 10). All very nice, having some connection with advancing towards Easter—but all rather generic when it comes to the battle of Lent against the world, the flesh, and the devil. The selections are interesting but do not hit too close to home, do not invade that private sphere to which modernity has consigned sexual morality.[Note 2]

Moreover, we can verify our claim that the reformers deliberately avoided this topic by looking at the passages they either omitted in the pericopes or bracketed as optional. In the epistle (i.e., second reading) of the Second Sunday of Lent, Year C, the reading is given as Phil 3:17–4:1 or 3:20–4:1. Why skip verses 17–19? The underlining says it all:

Brothers and sisters: Join with others in being imitators of me, and observe those who thus conduct themselves according to the model you have in us. For many, as I have often told you and now tell you even in tears, conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction. Their God is their stomach; their glory is in their shame. Their minds are occupied with earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself. Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, in this way stand firm in the Lord, beloved.

The underlined sentences are a bit negative and depressing, no? Leave them out if you dislike the tone. Clearly, it was not the length of the reading that was deemed worthy of abbreviation; only the message itself, which offends political (or perhaps one should say ecclesiastical) correctness. It especially contradicts the Balthasarian/Barronian “dare we hope that all might be saved…” St. Paul cuts through that nonsense before it ever arose: “Many conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ,” he says, “and their end is destruction.”[Note 3] Notice he does not say: “A few especially wicked people—you know, Stalin, Hitler, that sort—conduct themselves as enemies of the cross, and perhaps their end might be destruction, though we can dare to hope that it isn’t.” The Apostle’s blunt verses managed to survive in the new lectionary—but their use is optional.

The Apostle fares badly, however, in the epistle of the Third Sunday of Lent, Year C (1 Cor 10:1–6 10–12). In this chapter of First Corinthians, his outspoken rabbinical rigorism or pharisaical negativity was just too much for the reformers, who could not resist snipping out three verses, vv. 7–9, underlined below:

Brothers and sisters: I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all of them were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. All ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was the Christ. Yet God was not pleased with most of them, for they were struck down in the desert. These things happened as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil things, as they did. And do not become idolaters, as some of them did, as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.” Let us not indulge in immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell within a single day. Let us not test Christ as some of them did, and suffered death by serpents. Do not grumble as some of them did, and suffered death by the destroyer. These things happened to them as an example, and they have been written down as a warning to us, upon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.

What I find amazing here is that the only spot in all nine epistles of the first three Sundays of Lent in Years A, B, and C where there is any mention of “immorality” (that’s how porneia is rendered in Nabbish; the Douay-Rheims has: “Neither let us commit fornication, as some of them committed fornication, and there fell in one day three and twenty thousand”)—this one spot is surgically removed. Modern Man will be spared the pain of confronting his addiction to porneia.

In sharp contrast, the old Epistles for these first three Sundays of the annual season of spiritual warfare are tough and to the point. They say to the believer: If you want to observe Lent properly, get your act together, starting with the regulation of your animal appetites. To be a Christian in reality and not in name only, there is “basic training” that has to be undergone, and sexual morality is the most basic part of the basic training. 

Note how I say this: it is the most basic, not the most important. It is a condition or prerequisite of spiritual perfection, not the essence of perfection. Any well-catechized Catholic knows that fornication and other sexual sins are not the worst sins; pride, vanity, and acedia, indeed all the other deadly sins, are worse in themselves than lust. We know, too, that all human beings suffer to a greater or lesser degree from the disordered concupiscence of our fallen nature; we are prone to sins of the flesh, and many will struggle with them for a long time. All this is true; and yet it is no less true, as St. John Cassian and countless spiritual masters teach us, that we must fight against this sin and conquer it if we wish to make any progress in the spiritual life, in holiness, in the charity that loves God for His own sake and our neighbor for God. If we get stuck in porneia, we make the devil’s job easy. He can leave us alone to wreck ourselves. 

There’s a story—I believe it’s from the desert fathers—about a man who had a vision, in which he saw to one side a large city with a single lazy demon resting on its wall, and to the other side, a few monks out in the desert, around whom a swarm of fierce demons were gathered. He asked: “Why is there only one demon for a city with so many people, and so many demons for so few monks?” The reply: “In the city, men give in to sins of the flesh and need little prompting. It is the monks who, having conquered these, are the real targets of the demons’ temptations.” Our struggle against sins, be they coarse or subtle, will never be over until we take our last breath, but, like the monks, we must put the axe to the root of lust, begging the Lord to come to our aid with His grace: “I could not otherwise be continent, except God gave it, and this also was a point of wisdom, to know whose gift it was: I went to the Lord, and besought him” (Wis 8:21). 

St. Gregory the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas provide a still deeper reason for the urgency and priority of building up the virtue of chastity, as the Church’s ancient lex orandi demands of us. With unerring judgment and not the least hint of ecclesiastical correctness, St. Gregory identifies as “the daughters of lust” the following mental and emotional consequences: “blindness of mind, thoughtlessness, inconstancy, rashness, self-love, hatred of God, love of this world and abhorrence or despair of a future world.” Commenting on this list, St. Thomas Aquinas writes:

When the lower powers are strongly moved towards their objects, the result is that the higher powers are hindered and disordered in their acts. Now the effect of the vice of lust is that the lower appetite, namely the concupiscible, is most vehemently intent on its object, to wit, the object of pleasure, on account of the vehemence of the pleasure. Consequently the higher powers, namely the reason and the will, are most grievously disordered by lust.
          Now the reason has four acts in matters of action. First there is simple understanding, which apprehends some end as good, and this act is hindered by lust, according to Daniel 13:56, “Beauty hath deceived thee, and lust hath perverted thy heart.” On this respect we have “blindness of mind.” The second act is counsel about what is to be done for the sake of the end: and this is also hindered by the concupiscence of lust. Hence Terence says, speaking of lecherous love: “This thing admits of neither counsel nor moderation, thou canst not control it by counseling.” On this respect there is “rashness,” which denotes absence of counsel, as stated above. The third act is judgment about the things to be done, and this again is hindered by lust. For it is said of the lustful old men (Dan 13:9): “They perverted their own mind . . . that they might not . . . remember just judgments.” On this respect there is “thoughtlessness.” The fourth act is the reason’s command about the thing to be done, and this also is impeded by lust, in so far as through being carried away by concupiscence, a man is hindered from doing what his reason ordered to be done. To this “inconstancy” must be referred. Hence Terence says of a man who declared that he would leave his mistress: “One little false tear will undo those words.”
          On the part of the will there results a twofold inordinate act. One is the desire for the end, to which we refer “self-love,” which regards the pleasure which a man desires inordinately, while on the other hand there is “hatred of God,” by reason of His forbidding the desired pleasure. The other act is the desire for the things directed to the end. With regard to this there is “love of this world,” whose pleasures a man desires to enjoy, while on the other hand there is “despair of a future world,” because through being held back by carnal pleasures he cares not to obtain spiritual pleasures, since they are distasteful to him. (Summa theologiae, II-II, q. 153)

In this frightening portrait of the soul trapped in sensual sin, sinking down, fast asleep in the pleasures and cares of this world (cf. Mark 4:18–19), we see the defeat of the very possibility of being awake and alert in spiritual matters, of turning actively towards God and the world to come. This is why the usus antiquior bids us to flee fornication and all sexual sins—including, yes, adultery, which is always and everywhere against God’s will and contrary to man’s good, and which can never be justified or excused for any reason whatsoever, pace high-level advocates of pseudo-mercy. The Church in her authentic lex orandi shows us the right way, the only way to sanctity and thence to heaven.

Once again we see the wisdom of Catholic tradition nurtured by the Holy Spirit. When He brought forth the liturgy of the Roman Rite over the ages, God knew what was in the heart of man (cf. Jn 2:25) and what his ever-recurring needs would be—and he knew as well that "modern man," man suffering under the mounting illusions of Protestantism, rationalism, liberalism, materialism,  romanticism, a veritable swarm of -isms, would need to hear this message of chastity more than any generation had ever needed to hear it. The irony of liturgical reform is nowhere better seen than in the abandonment of the traditional lectionary after 1968, which, especially on Sundays, challenges us at so many of the points where we most need to be challenged. Let us thank Almighty God for giving us the solid rock of tradition on which to build a spiritual edifice that waves and winds will not sweep away.


[1] I am not saying that the OF lectionary lacks these readings altogether, but rather that they were purposefully moved away from the first three Sundays of Lent, where they would be encountered by Sunday Mass-goers, and moved to weekdays where far fewer will hear them. Thus, 2 Cor 6:1-10 is read on Monday of Week 11 per annum in Year 1 of the usus recentior; 1 Thes 4:1-8 is read on Friday of Week 21 per annum in Year 1; and Eph 5:1-9 (but as Eph 4:32-5:8) is read on Monday of Week 30 per annum in Year 2. It is obvious that these passages have nowhere near the prominence in the Novus Ordo that they have in the traditional Mass—particularly if one takes into account that there are only two readings in the latter, the Lesson & Gospel, in contrast with three in the revised lectionary.

[2] Apart from this narrower problem of content, there is the more general problem of lack of reverence for inherited tradition, which stems from a lack of trust in Divine Providence and a lack of faith in the guidance of the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn 16:13). The core of the lectionary of the Roman Rite has been in place since ca. 650 AD; the stability of Sunday readings is consistently witnessed to in the historical record. Of course, as I have argued elsewhere, the lectionary could have been enriched with daily readings for certain times of the year, but that the long-fixed Sunday and festal readings would be almost completely changed beggars belief. The liturgical reformers apparently did not share the sentiment of the Psalmist: "The lines are fallen unto me in goodly places: for my inheritance is goodly to me" (Ps 15:6).

[3] In so teaching, he simply concurs with the other NT writers, e.g., St. Peter: "And if the just man shall scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?" (1 Pet 4:18). All are transmitting the doctrine of their Master: "For many are called, but few chosen" (Matt 20:16; Matt 22:14).