Dear people of Saint Peter’s,
Recently, at the Tuesday morning Bible study, someone asked about where the lessons for our worship services come from and how they are put together. I thought this might be a question of some interest to our wider community and so I thought I would share the answer here.
The readings we have each Sunday and on every Holy Day are set by our Lectionary. A Lectionary is a schedule of readings from Scripture appointed to be read at particular services. Beginning in the fourth century, the Christian church began to associate specific readings of Holy Scripture with particular Holy Days and fasts. As Anglicans, the tradition continued for us in the first Book of Common Prayer of 1549 and in all subsequent editions. In the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the Episcopal Church expanded our Lectionary into a three-year cycle with one of the synoptic Gospels anchoring a year and John spread out over all three (Year A-Matthew, Year B-Mark and Year C-Luke). Each day typically includes a portion of the Hebrew Scriptures, a Psalm or Canticle from the Bible, a portion of Acts, Revelation or an Epistle and a Gospel. In following a three year cycle, we joined the many other denominations in adapting the practices of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet each denomination tweaked their readings in some not so subtle ways. Beginning in the 1970’s, in the midst of the liturgical reforms that were sweeping through most denominations, a hope for Christian Unity was born. While we may not yet be ready to be fully integrated into one community with universal doctrine, the churches dreamed of sharing common texts for certain shared components of the liturgy (Nicene & Apostles Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, etc.), and a shared or common Lectionary. The group was called The Consultation on Common Texts (CCT) and they are an ecumenical consultation of liturgical scholars and denominational representatives from the United States and Canada. They work to produce not only shared English liturgical texts but also curate a three-year lectionary for common use by Christian Churches worldwide.
You might ask, “Why use a Lectionary?” Well, beyond not being tied to the favorite readings of the preacher or a particular denomination, it also forces us to experience broader portions of the Bible. Here are some more reasons from the CCT website:
A lectionary provides whole churches or denominations with a uniform and common pattern of biblical proclamation.
A lectionary serves as a guide for clergy, preachers, church members, musicians, and Sunday School teachers that shows them which texts are to be read on a given Sunday.
A lectionary provides a guide and resource for clergy from different local churches who wish to work and pray together as they share their resources and insights while preparing for their preaching.
A lectionary serves as a resource for those who produce ecumenical preaching and worship resources, commentaries, Sunday School curricula, and other devotional materials.
A lectionary provides a guide to individuals and groups who wish to read, study, and pray the Bible in tune with the church’s prayer and preaching. Some local churches print the references to the following Sunday’s readings in their bulletins and encourage people to come prepared for the next week’s celebration.
A lectionary also shows us the relationship of the readings of one Sunday with those that come before it and after it. Within each of the major seasons of Lent, Easter, Advent, and Christmas-Epiphany, the flow and missional purpose of the season is reflected in the Scripture texts selected for each Sunday.
So, a lectionary not only presents a three year variety of readings for most Holy Days, but also helps tie together and build on liturgical themes for a particular season: Anticipation for the coming of Christ in Advent, celebrating the Incarnation and new life in Chrismastide, looking for manifestations of God during Epiphany, a time of introspection, reflection and self-examination during Lent, recalling the walk to Calvary during Holy Week, celebrating the eternal Grace and reconciliation that comes from the Resurrection in Eastertide, and the dwelling and guidance of the Holy Spirit in Pentecost
The CCT developed an initial Common Lectionary in 1983 which was, obviously, too late to be included in the Book of Common Prayer 1979. Further, some concerns were expressed about many of the suggested readings. CCT continued to work together and finally released a new REVISED Common Lectionary in 1992, which was embraced by the governing body (General Convention) of the Episcopal Church in 2015. The RCL did a couple of things beyond just establishing common Scriptural texts for Sundays and Holy Days. It also provided two tracks to be used during the seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost. Track one was provided for those congregations that wished to systematically move through the essential stories of the Bible in a semi-continuous way; and Track two for those congregations that preferred readings from the Hebrew Scripture that amplified the Gospel reading on a particular Sunday or Holy Day. Here at Saint Peter’s, we have been using Track one.
Through Track one, during the seasons after Epiphany and after Pentecost, we encounter the essential portions of Genesis through Judges in Year A. In Year B, we move through the books of the Davidic Covenant and the Wisdom literature. In Year C we find the prophets—Elijah, Elisha, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, Habbakuk and the like. All of these readings are meant to be more inclusive, demonstrating, where possible, the role of women in Salvation History in both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.
So here’s what all this means: If you worship faithfully, over the course of three years you will hear the most essential portions of Holy Scripture. But wait! There is still more! If you want to dive in deeper, The Book of Common Prayer also includes a second lectionary for daily prayer and devotions! This is a two-year lectionary, which will lead you through over 90% of the Bible if you use it daily. To do so, you can set aside a little time each day for fixed hour prayer or what is called the Daily Office. If you would like to do in concert with others, come to Morning Prayer each day in the chapel! Either way, it is a great way to strengthen your spiritual life in the new year!
I hope you find this helpful and if you have any further questions about the Lectionary or why we do anything else we do liturgically, please let me know. Please keep me in your prayers and know that you are daily in mine.