Jan 1, 1994

Infelicities in the New Lectionary for Mass

Online Edition

– Vol. VI, No. 8: November 2000

Infelicities in the New Lectionary for Mass

by Father Ralph Wright, OSB

We have waited a long time for the new Lectionary to be published in the United States. (The Lectionary is the book of selected Scripture readings for Mass.)

Delays were caused by translation problems with the Lectionary as it was first submitted for approval. The text, based on the New American Bible, required many changes because of the revised translations used. Finally a team of American bishops went to Rome to work with Vatican experts on correcting the Lectionary. The first volume, containing the readings for Sundays and major feasts, has been in use since November 1998; but we are still waiting for the second volume, readings for weekdays and saints’ days.

The corrected text of Volume I of the Lectionary was approved by the US bishops only for a period of five years. Now that we have been hearing the readings for Sunday Mass for two years, it is time to take a closer look at what we have been listening to.

The following observations are made by one who came from England some thirty years ago and has been, as a monk, listening daily to the Jerusalem Bible in the Divine Office. (That is, the original Jerusalem Bible [OJB] published in 1968, not the New Jerusalem Bible [NJB], a version committed to using so-called "inclusive" language).

The jarring incongruity of some of the new Lectionary revisions has alarmed me. But perhaps it was the repeated use of the word "subordination" in the Second Reading of the Mass for the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time that drove me to reach for the laptop and start typing.

Let me first let the reader contrast the original Jerusalem Bible version, still permitted for use at Mass in this country as a valid Lectionary text (and one of the standard texts in the United Kingdom) with the text that most of us heard that Sunday:

OJB – Eph. 5:21-33
Give way to one another in obedience to Christ. Wives should regard their husbands as they regard the Lord, since as Christ is head of the Church and saves the whole body, so is a husband the head of his wife; and as the Church submits to Christ so should wives to their husbands, in everything. Husbands should love their wives just as Christ loved the Church and sacrificed Himself for her to make her holy. He made her clean by washing her in water with a form of words, so that when He took her to Himself she would be glorious, with no speck or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and faultless. In the same way husbands must love their wives as they love their own bodies; for a man to love his wife is for him to love himself. A man never hates his own body, but he feeds it and looks after it; and that is the way Christ treats the Church, because it is His body and we are its living parts. For this reason, a man must leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one body. This mystery has many implications; but I am saying it applies to Christ and the Church. To sum up; you too, each one of you, must love his wife as he loves himself; and let every wife respect her husband. (Emphasis added).

Lectionary for Mass
Brothers and sisters:

Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, He Himself the savior of the body. As the Church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church and handed Himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the Word, that He might present to himself the Church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. So also husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the Church, because we are members of his body. For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.

This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the Church. (Emphasis added).

The word hypotassomai in Greek, which is here translated "be subordinate", can be translated in numerous ways: "be subject", "be submissive", "be obedient". In whatever way it is translated in our day, the language is going to need exegesis in the homily accompanying the Mass. After all, in the same breath, Paul has told husbands that they are to lay down their lives for their wives imitating the sacrificial self-giving agapé love that Jesus showed when He laid down His life for each one of us.

The word "subordinate" for me, and perhaps I am not alone, has all the overtones of army life and is about as unfortunate a translation as one could imagine while still being a version of the Greek. Inevitably, it brings to mind the whole notion of "insubordination". With "obedience" we are brought back to the whole mystery of God’s great love for us; our disobedience and the wonderful obedience of Jesus through which we have been brought back into a listening mode before God.

My large but old Liddell & Scott Greek Lexicon gives one word, "obey", as the New Testament meaning of hypotassomai, which is the word in question. This has not been its normal translation. But with "being submissive", "being subordinate" and "being subject" as the alternate options, I’d be for bringing "obedience" back and interpreting it as Paul clearly wants us to in the light of imitating Jesus’ obedience. This translation would lead naturally to the concept of mutual obedience. Whatever the translation used it has to be compatible with the husband’s loving his wife "as Christ has loved the Church". You can have mutual "obedience" in a way in which you can never have mutual "subordination".

The second text is perhaps even more alarming because it could be very misleading and in fact suggests one of the early heresies about Jesus: Docetism. It is from the Twenty Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A: Philippians 2: 1-11.

If we begin from verse six and look at the Jerusalem Bible version:

In your minds you must be the same as Christ Jesus: His state was divine, yet He did not cling to His equality with God but emptied Himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as men are; and being as all men are, He was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross. But God raised Him high and gave Him the name which is above all other names so that all beings in the heavens, on earth and in the underworld, should bend the knee at the name of Jesus and that every tongue should acclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

26th Sunday of Ordinary Time- A
Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus, Who, though He was in the form of God did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, He humbled Himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Because of this, God greatly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. (Emphasis added). 

Those who will recall the ancient controversy about whether Jesus was in fact truly Man as well as truly God will be shaken by the phrases that I emphasized: "human likeness" and "human appearance". This passage is just the kind of sensitive area where there is really no substitute for the generic use of "man". If it is acceptable in some parts of the Lectionary to use the generic for phrases such as "the sabbath was made for man not man for the sabbath", and "I will make you fishers of men", then in the aforesaid context too the generic needs to be used.

The Word, after all, did not take on the "appearance" or the "likeness" of human nature; He took our very manhood into His divine nature in the mystery of the hypostatic union, and we believe that He will continue to have that nature for ever. This is why we say in the Creed that He is now seated at the right hand of the Father. It is most unfortunate that the new version has not opted for the use of generic man in this context in a way similar to that of the original Jerusalem Bible.

Besides this most important point, compare the clumsy "Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus" with the smooth and succinct "In your minds you must be the same as Christ Jesus". As in other places in the Lectionary, I have some misgivings about the grammar of the English: Should it not be either "Have in you the attitude that is also in Christ Jesus" or "Have in you the same attitude that is in Christ Jesus".

This hybrid turn of phrase, a cross between two ways of saying the same thing, makes the sentence very ungainly in English.

In the passage that comes immediately before this one, there looms another grammatical incongruity:

Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others. (Phil 2:4-5)

Surely that fifth word from the end, "also", is out of place. An "also" implies that the subsequent clause relates to another part of the sentence; otherwise, it does not make sense in English.

The original Jerusalem Bible had for this sentence: "Always consider the other person to be better than yourself, so that nobody thinks of his own interests first but everybody thinks of other people’s interests instead". I have not compared this sentence with the original Greek, but at least it has the meaning that the other sentence seems to be reaching for while remaining grammatically correct.

While we are mentioning incongruities in the English, I would suggest the following need careful examination and retranslating if they are to be worthy sounding and grammatical English:

LFM – II Thess. 3:10
3rd Sunday of Easter – C
In fact, when we were with you, we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat. (Emphasis added).

We gave you a rule when we were with you: not to let anyone have any food if he refused to do any work.

The reluctance to use the gender-neutral "he" and the circumlocution makes the prose limp. "Neither should that one eat" is distractingly clumsy.

LFM – Rom 14:7
24th Sunday of Ordinary Time – A
None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself. For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.

The life and death of each of us has its influence on others; if we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord, so that alive or dead we belong to the Lord.

The phrase "None of us lives for oneself and no one dies for oneself" is clumsy, ungainly and again suggests that "him" can no longer be used in a gender neutral way. This is in fact not the case. In the text of Saint John’s Gospel that appears for the B cycle of the Fourth Sunday in Lent, we read "But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God". If "his" is gender-neutral when applied to "works" in this context, then, presumably, "No one lives for himself and no one dies for himself" would be acceptable. "Everyone he" is acceptable, but "No one he" is not.

This leads us in the Sixth Sunday of Easter to the famous passage from Saint John’s fifteenth chapter: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends" (Jn. 15:13). Here we are confronted both by the forbidden generic "man" and the forbidden gender neutral "his", both of which (as noted above) are found acceptable in some places in the new Lectionary.

Once again, the forbidden generic prevents the memorable phrase a phrase that has been part of our culture since the first Scripture in English from remaining a part of the living liturgy. We are allowed to say "fishers of men" but not "A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends".

This brings up a new and particularly important point. If the English version of the New Catechism has found in a particular instance that the use of generic man was acceptable in the translation of a quotation from Scripture, will it not be very confusing to the faithful to have it considered unacceptable in the Lectionary? Besides the example of "Greater love than this no man has…" quoted above, this point comes up in the context of Jesus’ fasting in the desert which, of course, is prominent in the Liturgy for the First Sunday of Lent.

In the Lectionary, the oft-quoted proverb "Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God" (Catechism §2835) has become "One does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God". The noun, anthropos, man, in sacred Scripture is translated by the pronoun "one".

Once again, the injunction of the Second Vatican Council that tremendous care be taken for accuracy in the translation of sacred Scripture is being ignored: nouns are not pronouns; therefore, they should not be translated by them.

The Holy See’s 1997 Norms for the Translation of Biblical Texts for Use in the Liturgy includes the statement (6/3) "the word man in English should as a rule translate adam and anthropos since there is no one synonym which effectively conveys the play between the individual, the collectivity and the unity of the human family so important, for example, to expression of Christian doctrine and anthropology".

To use the phrase "Human beings do not live on bread alone" would clearly be inelegant in context. But it seems to me high time that the valid use of generic man be stated and stood by unflinchingly against the cultural fashion of considering it "exclusive". In fact, pace the Feminist Dictionary, the word is inclusive. Historically, the word in its generic sense precedes its use in the English language to denote a male member of the species.

In other words, from its very origin, the word "man" was inclusive of men and women. It has continued to be such and is currently used in this sense in our secular society.

What is more, the term "Son of Man" is one of the most important titles of Jesus in the Gospel (especially in the Gospel of John), and this in itself could be said to justify the retention of the generic sense for the benefit of all men and women.

It happened in the early years of Christianity that new words had sometimes to be brought in to be fitting vehicles for the revelation that came in Christ Jesus. This happened with the word to be used to describe the kind of Love that is God, the Greek word agapé (our "charity"). It happened also in a similar way with the word "person" for hypostasis. Our Christian revelation has some concepts that either have to be brought into a new language or preserved in one, if the notion brought through divine revelation is to be conveyed adequately.

The generic sense of the word "man" in the English language is, I believe, a strong candidate for such an instance. Women have been pointing this out for a long time. For example, the Statement on Feminism, Language and Liturgy made by three Catholic women’s organizations more than a decade ago.

So, it really is unnecessary to go the route of the Lectionary of saying, in Mark 10:8 "What God has joined together no human being must separate".

The old JB has for this: "…what God has united man must not divide".

The new Catechism keeps generic "man" and has in §2364 "What therefore God has joined let not man put asunder".

The same may be said for the use of "others" as a substitute for generic man. "Others" implies a noun. If a man hears the term "other" or "another", he immediately has in his mind the question, "Other what"? Of course, in its use for the translation of Scripture, we usually can tell from the context that it’s other "people" or another "man" or "woman" that is implied.

But there are contexts here, too, where the noun in Scripture is left out in a way analogous to the use of the pronoun "one", which has been referred to above. So we get this:

LFM – Matt. 5:13-16
5th Sunday of Ordinary Time – A
Just so, your light must shine before others that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.

In the same way your light must shine in the sight of men so that seeing your good works they may give the praise to your Father in heaven.

Then, out of the blue, we get the following:

LFM – Matt 16:27
22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time – A
For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his glory, and then he will repay all according to his conduct.

A text can have "each person according to his conduct", but all according to his? This must have been a proofing error.

For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and, when He does, He will reward each one according to His behavior.

There is a different kind of incongruity in the following passage, in which the sentence begins with a listing of people in their different designated roles in the body of the Church. From a list of jobs or callings there is a sudden change to activities. This translation is, of course, what Paul says in the original Greek, and therefore it has to be carefully translated, or else the swing between functions of individuals and the gifts themselves is jarring on the ear.

The Lectionary is particularly unsuccessful in this passage, and the result limps accordingly.

Once again, compare the Lectionary version with that of the old JB:

LFM – I Cor 12:12-30
3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time – C
Some people God has designated in the Church to be, first, apostles, second, prophets; third, teachers; then, mighty deeds; then gifts of healing, assistance, administration, and varieties of tongues.

In the Church, God has given the first place to apostles, the second to prophets, the third to teachers; after them, miracles, and after them the gift of healing; helpers, good leaders, those with many languages.

When I was first reading the New Jerusalem Bible and came across a phrase from the infancy narrative that said that at Bethlehem where Jesus was born there was no room for them "in the living space" and "lepers" were referred to as people suffering from a "virulent skin disease", I knew that I was going to have a serious disagreement with the judgment of the editors of the NJB about what works and what does not.

When I hear the phrase in the New Lectionary, "On that day a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse" (Is.:11:1 – Second Sunday of Advent, year A), I had the same feeling. "Stump" is too redolent of amputation to work for the Lectionary. (The original JB had, "A shoot springs from the stock of Jesse).

It is disappointing that this carry-over from the original NAB Lectionary was not corrected in the new version. A missed opportunity, surely.

The economics of adjusting the current text may be a consideration, but, at the same time, when the bishops approved it for a period of five years, they gave themselves an opportunity to improve it.

What right have I to make these comments? Only the right to make observations about what I believe to be objectively true infelicities words and phrases that tarnish the project. If others have noticed them too, then what I have said may lead people to consider that this version, which has taken so long to produce, is worth improving. The trouble is we can so easily get used to such irritants as these.

There are further infelicities, which I have italicized in the following passages:

LFM – II Cor. 1:19
7th Sunday of Ordinary Time – B
For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was proclaimed to you by us, Silvanus and Timothy and me, was not "yes" and "no", but "yes" has been in him.

The Son of God, the Christ Jesus that we proclaimed among you I mean Silvanus and Timothy and I was never Yes and No: with him it was always Yes.

LFM – Jn. 1:18
2nd Sunday of After Christmas – ABC
No one has ever seen God. The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed Him.

No one has ever seen God; It is the only Son, who is nearest to the Father’s heart, who has made Him known.

LFM – Romans 15:4-9
2nd Suday of Advent
For I say that Christ became a minister of the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, to confirm the promises to the patriarchs, but so that the gentiles might glorify God for His mercy.

(Is there an "also" missing from this text after "but"?)

The reason Christ became the servant of the circumcised Jews was not only so that God could faithfully carry out the promises made to the patriarchs, it was also to get the pagans to give glory to God for His mercy.

LFM – II Thess. 3:7
33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time – C
You know how one must imitate us.

You know how you are supposed to imitate us.

LFM – Luke 21:11
33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time – C
There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place;

There will be great earthquakes and plagues and famines here and there;

LFM – Col. 1:19-20
The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King – C
For in Him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile all things for Him, making peace by the blood of His cross through Him, whether those on earth or those in heaven.

(I cannot make sense of this passage.)

because God wanted all perfection to be found in Him and all things to be reconciled through Him and for Him, everything in heaven and everything on earth, when He made peace by His death on the cross.

LFM – Eph. 3:5-6
The Epiphany of The Lord – A,B,C
that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

("Copartners" is a strange neologism.)

it means that pagans now share the same inheritance, that they are parts of the same body and that the same promise has been made to them, in Christ Jesus, through the gospel.

The above incongruities have come to me as I have been glancing at or listening to the Sunday readings. We still have Year C to listen to and, of course, the weekday texts are yet to be published in Volume II of the Lectionary. It has been said that when the new Lectionary weekday edition has been published it will become the only "authorized" version.

As I have attempted to show by direct quotation, the attempts at inclusivity have often dulled the ear of the editors to felicitous prose. The winds of change have led to Doubleday’s bringing back into the stores the Readers’ Edition of the original Jerusalem Bible, the one that was not "inclusivized".

The version of the Scriptures that is to be proclaimed in our liturgies should be accurate, beautiful, accessible and, whenever possible, memorable. I close with a passage from the original Jerusalem Bible that for me typifies the music and lyrical beauty that we are seeking for our Lectionary.

"Glory be to Him whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine; glory be to Him from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen". (Eph. 3: 20, 21).

Father Ralph Wright, of the Saint Louis Benedictine Abbey, teaches English at the Priory School in Saint Louis. His article, "Silence and the Sacred: Can we recover a sense of awe, of mystery at Mass?", appeared in the December 2001 – January 2002 issue of the Adoremus Bulletin. Father Ralph also contributed an essay to The Politics of Prayer: Feminist Language and The Worship of God, edited by Helen Hull Hitchcock (Ignatius Press).


Father Ralph Wright, OSB