The phrase “second reading” comes from the breviary that monks, clerics, and religious are to say daily (the laity often find it most inspiring, too). In addition to psalms, canticles, and other prayers, a “first reading” is from the Old or New Testament. The second reading is usually from a Church Father — Basil, Ambrose, or Aquinas. But it can be from the documents of Vatican II or a homily of one of the later popes or saints.
Over the years, I have often been struck by the day’s second reading. Almost always, it is directed to the understanding of faith and the reasoning that supports it. The reading for December 23, for instance, is from “A Treatise against the Heresy of Noetus” by St. Hippolytus, priest (d. 236). Noetus thought that Christ was the Father. Hippolytus begins: “There is only one God, brethren, and we learn about him only from sacred Scripture. It is therefore our duty to become acquainted with what Scripture proclaims and to investigate its teachings thoroughly.” Hippolytus explains the inner life of the Trinity: Christ is not the Father, but He is God.
What I like about Hippolytus’s comment is his admonition: We must investigate the teachings of Scripture thoroughly. It is not enough to read them; we are to investigate them. Catholicism always involves its faith with the mind. The second readings are seldom longer than two pages. Though much more can be said, still we can state clearly and succinctly what we hold. How often will I shake my head over something great being said by Leo the Great or John Damascene. One’s mind becomes alert, attentive. “This is true,” I say to myself.
If I have any favorite among the second readings, it is the oft-cited Augustine. Augustine is a vast wisdom. For beauty or profundity, no one is quite like him. Augustine is a soul-mover, no doubt about it.
On the Saturday before the Epiphany, the second reading is from a sermon of Augustine. (I prefer “sermons” to “homilies” — not that Augustine was not adept at both, and at most other literary forms.) He is “St. Augustine, bishop.” One can imagine the congregation at Hippo listening to him. Did they really know what they heard? We still ask the same question of ourselves as we read him now.
This little sermon is about why Mary is the Mother of God. Something very surprising is said. The wording in the Third Mass Preface for the Nativity reads: “God has become one with man, and man has become one again with God. . . . So marvelous is this oneness between God and man that in Christ man restores to man the gift of everlasting life.” How was this feat possible?
Augustine begins, “The eternal creator of all things today became our Savior by being born of a mother. Of his own will he was born for us today, in time, so that he could lead us to his Father’s eternity. God became man so that man might become God.” We do not follow Noetus; we do not become “God.” But we follow Christ in grace to eternal life, the Trinitarian life. “Man sinned and became guilty; God is born a man to free man from his guilt.”
“The Lord who has created all things is himself now created” — the great paradox. Augustine explains the virgin birth precisely in the context of why it was necessary for God to be born of woman — to be man. The mystery of the Virgin is the mystery of who and what the Christ is.
Augustine’s words provoke the soul. Christ “alone was born without sin, for she [Mary] bore him without the embrace of a man, not by the concupiscence of the flesh but by the obedience of the mind” (emphasis added). Isn’t that a remarkable way to put it?
We recall the Annunciation: Mary quizzes Gabriel about his words to her. She “knows not” man. After the explanation, she replies, “Be it done to me according to thy word.” Who is to be born of her is to be called Emmanuel, God with us.
Mary’s is no doubt the only case in which a mother is specifically asked if she will bear this Son. She has yet many things to ponder, including the “sword” that will pierce her heart.
But Augustine’s words stick with me of a morning. I reread the passage, less than a page in length. Mary’s mind is obedient. That is to say, to be obedient is also an act of the mind. Without her understanding and consent, the Incarnation could not have happened in the way we know it.
Second readings leave us of a morning with such ultimate things on our mind, when we least expect them.