18 January 2010

Lectionary Reflections, Part III

In Part I of this series, I asked a series of three questions. I answered the first to in Part II. In today's article, I intend to reflect on the final question:

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?

Part III
Ancient Faith on a Contemporary Mission
When we look back to the writings of the ancient Church, we see -both in Scripture and patristic sources - the idea of the main worship of the local Christian community being focused around the poles of Word and Table. Often, God's Word would be read late into the night on Saturday, with the visiting apostle or the pastor of the local church preaching for a lengthy period of time before the worship moved on to the Table where the Holy Supper was celebrated. As the Liturgy developed more fully, the first portion of the service became known as The Mass of the Catechumens in the Western Church. It was a time of instruction in the Word of God through Scriptural proclamation and preaching. Those preparing for baptism were then dismissed (as were other classes of believers who were not communing) and the Liturgy of the Faithful began.
The term 'catechumens' refers to learners. In the ancient Church it was typically used to refer to the unbaptized... the core word 'catechize' refers to instruction. The 'Mass of the Catechumens' is, thus, the time of instruction that the entire Church should share (yes, Children included! but that's a different topic). We all need ongoing catechesis in the essentials of the faith, and the best way - particularlly in our post-modern era - to provide that ongoing catechesis is to read Scripture in digestible sections, and to discuss thuroughly (at least as thuroughly as our congregation's understanding and tolerance of our preaching will take us) the implications of the Word for both our core doctrines and our modern life.
Neither the traditional one-year or contemporary three-year lectionary offer much in the way to support this ongoing mission, so what, pray tell, is to be done. Well, I wish I had a perfect answer, but instead, the remainder of this article will be dedicated to outlining a vision for what a lectionary could and should be.
The first statement I will make is that there will need to be two separate lectionaries. In reality, there already are in a sense - the readings surrounding the major feasts tend to be rather fixed, and with good reason. So, let's start there.
Use a 1 Year Lectionary Cycle Major Holy Days
At the very minimum, this would encompass 14 separate days:
  • Christmas Day
  • Epiphany
  • Baptism of our Lord
  • Ash Wednesday
  • Palm Sunday
  • Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of Holy Week
  • Maundy Thursday
  • Good Friday
  • Holy Saturday
  • Easter Sunday
  • Ascension Day
  • Pentecost Day
  • Trinity Sunday
  • All Saints Day
On these days, the readings are fixed from year to year, or provide minimal variation, generally related to providing parallel accounts of the same event (i.e., the Passion Narratives from the Four Gospels). This makes sense because we are reinforcing a theological principle when we celebrate these festal days.
Make Use of a 3 Year Ordinary Time Lectionary
"But wait!" I hear you saying... "Didn't you just say you don't like that?"  Well, you are right; sorta - I don't like the existant 3 Year Lectionary, but... what if you were driving a convertable? Have I lost you? That's OK. My 3 Year proposal goes like this:
Year A:  Chronological Overview of the Old Testament 
Year B:  Chronological Reading of the Complete Gospels
Year C:  Chronological Reading of the Complete New Testament
In this vision, small, digestible sections of Scripture would be be appointed to be read, allowing the true flavor and content of the Word to be savored. Further, they would be provided chronologically and, in many instances, in parallel. By following the unfolding of the narrative of Scripture in chronological order, we develop a contextualization behind what we are reading, and - I believe - come to a deeper appreciation of the Word and its power throughout the ages.
"Oh, but wait," you say. "Those would be awfully long readings if you were going to try to split them up over 40 or so Sundays..." Who said anything about Sundays? 
Make it a Daily Lectionary
Here is where, honestly, the suggestion may fall apart for many. So be it. During Ordinary Time, the reading assigned for the day is assigned to a specific calendar date. I don't mean "Sunday between January 2 and 8", I mean "January 2". That's right, one reading a day. This has the added benefit of providing the overachiever with three pericopes a day (OT, Gospel, NT) to use at Morning, Midday, and Evening Prayer. It leaves the average family with a single reading of manageable size which they may use at family devotions in the home each day. Families would be advised of what year of the cycle one was in, and then they could read the readings at home (together with all the other families of the congregation), readings which will flow into and out of the Sunday readings at Church (and in a far better way than the RCL Daily Lectionary does).
Now, admittedly, this has one flaw - it only provides one reading for a given day. Well, Calvin preferred the idea of a single reading per day, but the liturgical among us would definately want at least one other reading... such a lectionary proposal fits better with our liturgical needs that way. Oh, but how to manage it.
Provide Suggested Add-On's
One way to handle it would be to add at least a second reading (from the Gospels in years A and C, and from wherever else in year B) that thematically relates to the central (i.e., controlling) reading of the day. To this could be added a Psalm and a Collect, as well as other necessary liturgical add-ons.
Allow for Local Variations
Perhaps, however, it would be best to allow pastors to choose a second reading, a psalm, and a collect to match the reading. Sure, sounds horribly Protestant, but it also sounds like a good idea. Providing the controlling reading mandates a thematic base for the service, and the pastor selects a text that reinforces the theme. Perhaps a text will apply or be recieved better in one congregation than another. Sure, this runs the risk of turning the pastor into a typological theologian, but any thematic lectionary is going to do that anyway, and in our era it is my conviction that people need themes to wrap their minds around, comprehend, and make their own.
Skip Nothing (Well, Almost Nothing)
So, it's the middle of November and the Passion narrative is starting to come around in your daily lectionary. So what? Sure it isn't the right liturgical season for it, but preaching 'out of season' may provide opprutunities to preach that preaching 'in season' does not afford. Yes, I'd find it odd to be preaching about the nativity of Jesus a week after we put away the nativity scenes... but so what.  Alternatively, omit only those items covered in the fixed liturgical seasons (thus the Nativity through Baptism of Christ and the Passion, Death, Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost).
This falls apart a bit for the Old Testament. I don't think most folks want to read three years of the Old Testament - those who do will do it for themselves. Provide a survey of the great stories and important concepts of the Old Testament, and make it a good one.
If Observing Liturgical Seasons, Provide Them as Thematic Times
Lent should be penetential. Easter a time of joyful exultation. The daily readings in these seasons, as well as at other times, can take on a different tone and method of selection.
Give Careful Consideration to Saint's Days
While commemorating non-biblical worthies is as simple as a collect in their honor and a biography, the question of how to handle Biblical saints with proper readings is sticky.
My initial thought would be to commemorate them as the reading traditionally assigned to their feast occurs in the Lectionary. (This is my solution for Transfiguration.) The problem is that many of the most significant Christian saints would only get mention in years B and C of the cycle. 
The other option is to simply mark those days out as festal days, give three proper readings and a psalm that unites them, and pick up the Ordinary Time cycle the following day. Thus, if I am commemorating Saint Thomas on July 3rd, I read the Ordinary readings on the 2nd and 4th, with the festal readings on the 3rd.  By my accounting, there would be around 30 festal days to work around. Not perfect, but doable.
Here is a proposal for a serious Lectionary revision:
15 Days, Beginning December 18 and Running Through January 1
These days would be strictly thematic.
Full Propers (Collect and Psalm) Provided
(*One will note that there is no provision for Advent. This would be simple to solve, by simply beginning on December 1st and expaning the thematic readings. I'd argue against it, keeping the week leading up to Christmas as more of an Advent-like time.)
103 Days, Beginning Ash Wednedsay and Running Through Trinity Sunday
(39 Days of Lent, 7 Days of Holy Week, 39 Days of Eastertide, 1 Day of Ascension, 9 Days after Ascension, 1 Day of Pentecost, 6 Days after Pentecost, 1 Day of Trinity Sunday)
These days would be strictly thematic.
Full Propers (Collect and Psalm) Provided
Would suggest reading Job in Lent, as its chronolgical place is sketchy
Would suggest reading Revelation in Paschaltide, as it points towards the ultimate goal
247 Days, Not Counting Any Feasts
(If Keeping Feasts, Approximatley 217 Days, Depending on What Feasts are Selected)
Readings assigned to Calendar Dates
Pastor/Preacher free to choose complimentary readings, psalms, and collects
Pastors could compose their own collects


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

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