Linking the Lectionary and Church Seasons

September 21st, 2012

The lectionary is not a chronological approach to reading the Bible, nor is it a book-by-book approach. Each week the scripture readings are closely linked to the seasons of Church's life cycle, it's liturgical calendar. In the first half of the of Church year, we follow the major events of the life of Jesus, including his birth, death, resurrection and the birth of the Church, and in the second half we study Jesus' actions and teachings.

In addition, the lectionary provides an opportunity to remember great persons in Church history on saints' days and to celebrate special events in the life of a parish, such as confirmation. Throughout the year, scriptures have been chosen for their appropriateness for the occasions on which they are read.

The repeating nature of the cycle of readings means that leaders need not feel compelled to teach all there to know about a passage at any particular age level. Individuals encounter each passage again and again at progressive stages of maturity and understanding.

Within the Church year we find two major liturgical segments. The first is Advent-Christmas-Epiphany and the second is Lent-Holy Week-Easter. Both segments describe a passage from dark to light.

Advent, Christmas, Epiphany

In the northern hemisphere, Advent begins during that dark period of the solar year in which the days grow shorter and the nights longer. Trees lose their leaves and the days grow colder.

In the midst of this darkness the Church proclaims the approach of God's kingdom: "The true light, which enlightens every one, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him" (John 1:9-10). Into this darkness the twenty-fifth of December comes as a celebration of the invincibility of the Light.

During the last half of December, when the Roman pagans celebrated the feast of the Unconquered Sun, the Church now gathers to proclaim that the Son has indeed come into the world. As John writes in the gospel: "In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." (John 1:4-5)

The fulfillment of God's promise of light leads to proclamation. In the season after Epiphany, we share the news that God's love is for every person, for all of creation! Thus the triad of Advent-Christmas-Epiphany can be seen as darkness-light-manifestation or as promise-fulfillment-proclamation.

In all three years of the lectionary cycle, the gospel designated for the First Sunday after Epiphany recounts Jesus' baptism, when he is revealed as God's Son. In other readings of the season, Jesus emphasizes discipleship and evangelization, teaching that his followers are salt of the earth and light to the world. In the Beatitudes and in other passages, he teaches a attitude of love toward our enemies. He preaches repentance, God's forgiveness, and a new order-freedom from all that blinds and enchains us. We hear the Ten Commandments and learn that Jesus has come to fulfill the purpose of the law.

Lent, Holy Week, Easter

The Christian calendar found its first inspiration in the rites of initiation. It's greatest feast and most important rites were celebrated on Easter. Easter was the time of baptism, when new members of the Church would take the plunge into the waters of baptism, emerge into a new life of fellowship, their way lit by baptismal candles and their journey nourished by the meal of bread and wine. Today, the seasons of Easter, which lasts fifty days, and Lent which lasts forty days, retain this baptismal focus. In ancient times, the initiates prepared for their Easter baptism by a long course of study and discipline, culminating in a Lenten season of final preparation.

Lent is a time when we seek out the shadows in our souls, inviting the Light to illumine. In Lent the Old Testament readings present God's covenants. God pledges, "I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and and they shall be my people" (Jeremiah 31:33). The Old Testament readings sound a call: How shall we be God's people? What is our response to God's promises? New Testament Lenten readings often use images of being born, bearing fruit, dying and coming to new life. These readings look to the "new thing" that God will accomplish through Jesus.

Holy Week is perhaps the darkest part of the Church's night. We know that God's promises are true, yet the events of this week of the awesome struggle of good over evil, life over death, that we may reclaim the original blessing of creation. In the midst of this darkness, a fire is kindled, a candle is lit and a voice sings, "The Light of Christ!" The darkness is vanquished; the light of the resurrection fills the world. It is Easter and we celebrate the world made new in Christ and in the newly baptized.

During the season of Easter, in place of the Old Testament readings, passages from Acts portray the emerging Church and its mission. Gospel readings recount Jesus' discourse to his disciples at the Last Supper and tell of his post-resurrection appearances.

Just as the world did not recognize the light of the incarnation, so it is blind to the light of the resurrection. Witnesses to the resurrection are needed to guide others to the Source of resurrection power. At Pentecost, these witnesses are empowered to spread the good news to the ends of the earth. The Holy Spirit descends on them, giving them new tongues to proclaim the good news of God in Jesus Christ.

In the season after Pentecost the prophets of the Old Testament remind us of God's commandments, calling us to "steadfast love and ... knowledge of God" (Hosea 6:6). In both the Old and New Testaments, there are strong themes of justice and reconciliation. The prophets beckon us: "do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor" (Deuteronomy 15:7). Jesus' teachings in the gospel readings compel us to reach out to others.

Used with permission of the publisher of Living the Good News curriculum for all ages.

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