17 August 2001

the lectionary

Perhaps I should say a word about the Lectionary for those who are not familiar with it.

In some respects the Lectionary represents one of the greatest ecumenical achievements of the 20th century, affecting millions of Christians each week as they hear a common Word proclaimed and expounded. In the United States, Roman Catholics, many Lutherans, most Presbyterians, most Methodists, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalians, and the United Church of Christ celebrate the same (or at least very similar) selections from Word of God in their various assemblies. No other ecumenical effort has produced such a real, living result. (For a brief, helpful history of the Lectionary consult Frederick R. McManus, "Pastoral Ecumenism: The Common Lectionary" in Eucharist: Toward the Third Millennium, Liturgy Training Publications 1997:103-188.)

The Lectionary was actually the fruit of liturgical renewal within the Roman Catholic Church leading up to and after the Second Vatican Council. There was a time in Roman Catholic churches when the congregation would never had heard the Old Testament in English, nor the New outside of a translation of the weekly Gospel reading.

But the Second Vatican Council asserted, counter to what had been practiced for centuries, that "It is essential to promote that warm and living love for Scripture to which the venerable tradition of both eastern and western rites gives testimony" (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy 24). In particular, the Council went on to say, "The treasures of the Bible are to be opened up more lavishly, so that a richer share in God's word may be provided for the faithful. In this way a more representative portion of holy scripture will be read to the people in a prescribed period of years" (51).

And thus the Lectionary was born, beginning with the 1969 Roman order of readings. This order was adopted quickly by other churches beginning with the Presbyterians (PCUSA) in 1970 and very widely by 1974. In 1983 this became officially codified as the Common Lectionary and in 1992 as the Revised Common Lectionary.

The Lectionary works like this. It is designed as a three year cylce of readings, providing four readings for each Sunday - one each from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a New Testament Epistle, and a Gospel.

The readings strike a balance between lectio continua (reading straight through biblical books consecutively, picking up each week where one had left off the week before) and lectio selecta (picking and choosing particular passages usually linked to events on the church calendar, e.g., Easter or Pentecost). The key to the balance is the division of the church calendar between festal cylces and ordinary time. The two major cylces are Advent-Christmas-Epiphany and Lent-Easter-Pentecost. Of the 52 Sundays in any given year, only 14 fall within these cylces. The other 38 Sundays fall within "ordinary time." The Lectionary is balanced so that most of the 14 Sundays around major feasts follow a pattern of lectio selecta, while the rest of the Sundays (making up nearly three-quarters of the year) follow a pattern of lectio continua.

Specifically, the Lectionary is divided into Year A, Year B, and Year C. Year A focuses on Matthew, Year B on Mark, and Year C on Luke. John is read in part during Year B (since Mark is short) and each year during Lent and Easter.

The New Testament Epistles are distributed over the three years, more or less in a lectio continua fashion. In Year A the Lectionary contains Romans, 1 Corinthians, 1 Peter, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians. In Year B it's 1 John, 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, James, and Hebrews. In Year C it's Revelation, Galatians, Colossians, Philemon, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and 2 Thessalonians. Parts of Titus are read Christmas eve and day. Selections from Acts are prescribed for Easter season in various years. Some of 2 Peter is read on the Transfiguration and during Advent, Year B. Jude, 2 John, and 3 John are omitted.

The Old Testament readings are chosen selectively to link with the Gospel or sometimes the Epistle or both. Nonetheless, a large portion of the OT will end up being read in the course of the three year cycle. Only 1 Chronicles, Ezra, Obadiah, and Nahum are entirely left out.

Since there are 150 Psalms and 156 Sundays in the cycle, the Psalms are distributed over the three years, linked to the other readings, with some of the larger ones being broken up into smaller portions.

If one were to use the lectionary over a twelve year period, focusing the homilies during each three year cycle upon a different one of the readings, it would be possible in that time to preach through all four Gospels, almost all the NT Epistles, each Psalm, and about 60% of the OT. Moreover, since the readings are generally related in some fashion, it would also be possible to show the inter-connections between various parts of Scripture.