A Brief History of the Lectionary

April 24th, 2011
This article is featured in the The Living Word (May/June/July 2011) issue of Circuit Rider

Every good preacher knows intuitively that preaching has far more to do with helping the congregation make sense out of reality than it does with making rational arguments. This intuition was a driving force behind the formation of the Christian Year and, subsequently, the lectionary cycle. The formation of the Christian Year was in large part a response to the post-Constantinian shift in Christian identity. Multitudes of people were being baptized and found that their lives continued without much change. (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)

The Liturgical Year was a way that Christians, year by year, could relive the foundational events of the gospel while continuing in the necessary ordinariness of their work and family. In this process, in the validating matrix of the Church in which other Christians were sharing the same story, the Christian’s hermeneutic, his or her presuppositions about reality, expanded to include the reality of God’s love and redemption. The implicit hermeneutical strategy of the liturgical year was the repetitive re-living of the foundational events of Christianity at the core of which were the life of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This liturgical re-living was meant to form a way of framing all the quotidian events of life such that God’s grace and the claim of God’s love could be known as the beginning and end of it all.

The first part of every Eucharist, Sunday by Sunday and season by season, was the Liturgy of the Word in which lessons were read, portions of the Psalter sung, and a sermon was given. These readings gradually came to be closely coordinated with the season of the Year as were the words of the prayers, the hymns, the colors of the vestments used, etc., so that the whole liturgy surrounded the worshiper with the sense of the events of that particular time in the sacred Christian cycle.

The reading customs of the first and second centuries admitted a good deal of variety among the locally-chosen lections, but always rested on the base of “Scripture,” that is, the Old Testament. Eventually, as the New Testament canon was established, the readings for the two “cycles” became more stable, beginning with the very old set of lections for Holy Week and the Easter Vigil.

Our Revised Common Lectionary continues to honor those very ancient selections such as John 13 for Maundy Thursday in every year, but seeks to establish an overall plan that reads the salient parts of the whole New Testament in a three-year cycle. This scheme finds its anchor in reading Matthew, Mark, and Luke in years A, B, and C respectively while reading portions of John in each of the three years. This means that in any year the Synoptic “take” on the Gospel is always balanced with the often different Johannine one.

The arrangement of the readings is:

1. Old Testament selection, occasionally a New Testament reading (i.e. Acts in Easter)

2. A Psalm portion

3. A New Testament lesson other than a Gospel reading, most often an Epistle

4. A Gospel reading

The internal “logic” of this scheme during the first half of the Year, that is, from Advent through Pentecost, is that the Old Testament reading and the psalm are chosen for their commensurability with the Gospel reading. This is based on the Christian hermeneutical principle, established by the time of Irenaeus, that the two Testaments constituted a unity. This unity has usually been understood to mean that everything in the Old Testament has a double meaning. On one hand, it refers in its own time to God’s dealings with Israel. On the other hand it refers either by typology or by outright prediction, to Christ and the Church as the New Israel. The disadvantage in this arrangement is that the Hebrew Bible has very little chance of being explored in its own right for its insights on God’s dealing with us. It also lends itself to a “successionist” theology which in our post-holocaust era is really untenable for Christians. This is somewhat rectified in Ordinary Time, which we shall discuss below.

The third reading also usually relates to the Gospel, though sometimes this relationship is less obvious than others. For instance the third readings in the Sundays of Easter are clearly related to Jesus’ death, resurrection, and glorification, whereas in the Sundays after Epiphany the lections from the Epistles seem to pick up their own themes. Thus it is clear that the idea is to lead the worshiper through the events of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection based on the Gospel accounts with the rest of Scripture playing a largely supporting role.

From Pentecost until the Sunday before Advent (often identified as Christ the King Sunday) the Church Year designates “Ordinary Time.” It is often put that the “Narrative Time” tells us of how God has dealt, is dealing, and will deal with us, while Ordinary Time tells us how we should respond. On the face of it, this bit of catechesis is a good starting place to explore the Church Year. For one thing, it includes two of the most important “uses” the Church has always found for Scripture: the re-telling of the Christian Story and the implications of that story for living a Christian life. It also helps explain why the lections of Ordinary Time are arranged a bit differently from those of Narrative Time. From Advent to Pentecost, all readings, especially those of the Old Testament, work back from the Gospel. In Ordinary Time, the Old Testament lessons are far less likely to pair off in this way and rather long sections of those readings as well as Epistle and Gospel lections are presented in sequence so that for several Sundays in a row the worshiper will follow two or three biblical books lectio continua.

This encourages a somewhat different hermeneutical approach in Ordinary Time. Here the preacher is presented with the opportunity, for instance, to explore Paul’s great Epistle to the Romans for sixteen consecutive Sundays in the summer of Year A. It also provides for a few particularly provocative texts to appear twice, once in Narrative Time where the typological agenda is clear and again in Ordinary Time where they can be explored in their own right. Thus the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac (Gen. 22:1-ff.) appears as part of the Easter Vigil where it clearly must be seen in the Paschal context of Christ’s sacrifice and again as part of Proper 8, Year A. There its only other “connection” would seem to be with the theme of faith which appears in the Romans readings throughout this period in Year A, but actually does not appear explicitly in the Proper 8 Epistle (Rom. 6:12-23). Thus Ordinary Time provides the chance to do the kind of expository preaching that characterized not only much early Church catechesis but the great preaching traditions of the Reformation era.


Excerpted from Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary by Gail R. O’Day and Charles Hackett. Copyright © 2007 by Abingdon Press. Used by permission.

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