Review: Making the Most of the Lectionary

October 5th, 2012

This book is not what you think. Given the title, if you are a lectionary preacher, you might well expect to find here handy preaching tips to give direction and depth to a year or three’s worth of sermons. But you would be mistaken. Consider the subtitle: A User's Guide. Thomas O’Loughlin, Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, offers instead an exploration into the lectionary itself taken as a whole. Where did it come from? Why does it exist? What is the point? How is the lectionary an aid to worship, or not? O’Loughlin takes us back—if we were ever there—to essential meta-level questions about the lectionary itself. This bracing and refreshing study pushes the reader far beyond the perfunctory preaching choice of “to-lectionary” or “not-to-lectionary.”

O’Loughlin’s work is important for preachers of both camps, because depending on where one pursued theological education, these meta-level questions exploring the nature of liturgy, and questions about how the church celebrates and communicates, were perhaps never considered. So while this “User’s Guide” is not light reading, it provides a rich foundation for the task and privilege of preaching. We live in an age when discussions of worship and preaching too frequently devolve into opinions about efficacy and relevance and multi-media techniques. In refreshing contrast, O’Loughlin grounds the church in its own story, and in the telling of that story, and of the place of that telling in the whole of liturgical observance.

The lectionary, O’Loughlin reminds, is barely a half-century old and is something completely new in Christian history. It is, he contends, both complex and noble in its aspirations. He defines the lectionary as a deliberate attempt to bring Scriptures in their totality into the life of the church. As such, it is worthy of serious reflection and examination. But instead, O’Loughlin maintains, it is lacking in widespread appreciation, too often remaining in an unexamined background role. And when brought to the foreground, he maintains, it is usually in a negative way—as in “why do we have this strange reading in front of us this week,” or “how in the world does this Gospel passage relate to the Old Testament reading of the week?”

To truly appreciate and understand the lectionary, O’Loughlin probes such unexpected questions as “what is a Gospel?” and “why do we read Scripture at the Eucharist?” If you thought you knew the answers, you will be delighted to reexamine the questions in light of structure and purpose of the lectionary itself.

Underneath all moaning and groaning about the relentless burden of the weekly preaching task, surely those among us who preach most Sundays do so from a place of delight and wonder with God’s Word made ever new—within the heart and imagination of the preacher and within the hearts and imaginations of the congregation. O’Loughlin shares that delight and wonder.

His careful, not uncritical, look at the tool, the roadmap we hold in our hands weekly, however unconsciously, brings the lectionary into the foreground in ways that will enrich the preaching task. O’Loughlin’s real goal, nevertheless, is to deepen the faith and wisdom of the church. As he asserts: “…the books of the people should not be construed as if they ever could contain the mystery of God: God is always greater than our greatest imaginings.” (p. 39)

comments powered by Disqus