14 January 2010

Lectionary Reflections, Part 1

Preface to the Series

2010 marks my thirteenth year as a Presbyter of the Church. Since 1997, I have used several different ‘Sunday and Holy Day’ Lectionaries in various congregations and ministries I have served. They include:
  • The Three Year Lectionary of the Novus Ordo Missae
  • The One Year Lectionary of the historic Book of Common Prayer
  • The Local Use Lectionary of the Syriac Rite Church of the Transfiguration
  • The Three Year Lectionary of the LCMS’s Lutheran Service Book
  • The Three Year Lectionary of the RESA’s Interim Book of Common Prayer
In all those years, I have never felt truly comfortable with any of these Lectionaries for a variety of reasons. My pastoral heart has lead me to ask myself why. This series is my attempt to answer some of those questions for myself, and to share those answers with the Christian community at-large. I hope that you, dear reader, will consider offering feedback to my posts and engaging in discussion concerning them.

Historical Overview and Questions to Consider

Since the late 1960’s, there has been a strong movement afoot in Lectionary development and refinement of providing more and more Scripture to the People of God in the context of the Sunday assembly. Not counting motets, hymns, and choral anthems based on Scriptural texts, most Western Christian congregations hear four portions (lections) from the Word of God when they gather – a Psalm, an Old Testament lesson, a reading from the Gospels, and a lesson from the New Testament. This practice is ancient, to be sure, going back to at least the time of Jerome in the West. Fragments of lectionaries used by many ancient Christian luminaries are known to historians and liturgists, and they tell an interesting tale.

Prior to the reforms instituted by the Second Vatican Council, only a few denominations included such copious amounts of Scripture on a given Sunday or Holy Day. Most Western Churches had snippets of the Psalms which served as introits, graduals, Alleluia verses, offertory verses, and post-communion chants. The Old Testament was rarely found in the Eucharistic lectionary (which was the default public lectionary, as it was the one most frequently used on Sundays) outside of the eves of Holy Days, and the idea of a multi-year lectionary was more a matter of alternate preaching texts (particularly in the Lutheran and, to a lesser extent, Reformed traditions) than regular liturgical texts.

As a result, most of the Christian west heard (as the Christian east still does) the same lessons on the same Sundays and Holy Days year after year. This certainly has a positive impact in terms of impressing the precious truths found in the lectionary upon the hearts and minds of the faithful, but it left the vast majority of the Biblical narrative on the cutting room floor, so to speak – leaving it for the monks, pastors, and industrious laypersons to peruse and apply the more intensive daily lectionaries to their daily life and personal worship.

The Second Vatican Council rightly acknowledged that this was a wholly unsatisfactory situation, and the framers of the Lectionary of the Novus Ordo rite must at least be given credit for attempting to expose more of the Scripture to the people. Sadly, however, what little cohesiveness existed in the preceding lectionary system seemed to disappear in many respects with the adoption of the new lectionary. While the major feasts retain much that is good and valuable (and thematic), many ordinary Sundays now have readings with no seeming interconnectivity, leading to them being frequently ignored by preachers, and disregarded by the faithful.

This leads to three very striking questions:

1. What is the value of reading four passages of Scripture, two or three of which are ignored, marginalized, or even misappropriated to a specific theme?

2. What good is including such a significant amount of Scripture in the Liturgy of the Church when/if people largely tune it out?

3. If the Lectionary is a tool to serve the needs of the People of God, what form should the Lectionary take to ensure that said needs are met?

In my next post on this topic,
I will explore where so many Lectionaries break down in practical use
for both the people and the preacher.


All original material (C) 2007-2010 by Father Robert Lyons.

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