Now that we are in the Easter Season, it might be a good time to explore a unique feature of our lectionary (the various readings we use in church on Sundays) during this phase of Church Year). More often than not, we are used to hearing three readings on Sunday. We usually expect the first to be from the Old Testament, the second from the New Testament letters, and the third from one of the four Gospels. Yet during the Easter Season, the first reading often comes from the Acts of the Apostles, which is in the New Testament.
Quite often, this practice of taking the first reading from Acts catches people off guard! In my first year as a priest, I remember getting a phone call on Sunday morning at 12:13 am from a very worried parishioner. From the sound of his voice, he was in a panic! What had happened was when he was looking over his assigned reading; he noticed that it wasn’t from the Old Testament. Not knowing what this meant, he gave me a call to find out what was going on. He wondered if he had been given the wrong reading by mistake. It was his first Sunday reading in church and he was a bit nervous about getting up in front of everyone and reading the New Testament reading, only to have it reread by the next reader.
After I picked up the phone, I first made a point of telling to him that the best time to reach me was before 10 pm. With that out of the way, I explained that in the weeks which follow Easter, there is a different focus present in the first reading on Sundays. For most of the year, the first reading concentrates on God’s people before the coming of Christ. That is why it is chosen from the Old Testament. But in the Easter Season, we often take the first reading from Acts. This allows us some time to read about what was happening with Christ’s disciples after the resurrection. Given that we just celebrated Christ’s resurrection at Easter, it makes sense for us to continue the story of his disciples as they began to spread the Gospel message.
One might wonder when the Church began this practice of taking the first Sunday reading in the Easter Season from Acts. The short answer is, “We aren’t exactly sure.” We do know, however, it was the normative practice in the fourth century. St. Augustine of Hippo attests that it was based on earlier practice by St. Cyril of Jerusalem.
So how does this ancient practice help us today? First, it tells us that Christ’s resurrection made a difference in the lives of his disciples. So important was this resurrection experience, that it prompted Christ’s followers to spread the Gospel throughout the world. Second, it serves as a reminder that like the first disciples, we too, are entrusted with the same mission to spread the Gospel message.