In this series, “Questions I’m Asked,” we have answered questions about The Creed, The Lord’s Prayer, Grace, biblical sacrifice, and the Sacraments. This week I was asked, “So, what exactly is the Lectionary?”
*This answer will focus on the Three-Year Liturgical Lectionary. We will save the Two-Year Daily Lectionary for another time.
“A lectionary (Latin: lectionarium) is a book or listing that contains a collection of scripture readings appointed for Christian or Judaic worship on a given day or occasion. There are sub-types such as a "Gospel lectionary" or evangeliary, and an epistolary with the readings from the New Testament Epistles.” (wiki)
Up to the time of Emperor Constantine (306-337 AD), Christianity was a faith of the shadows; that is, through periods of persecution and in the face of opposing religious views, Christianity was often practiced in secret. After Constantine became Emperor, Christianity was thrown into the limelight and a period of rapid, chaotic growth ensued. The Constantinian period ushered in a shift in Christian identity both publicly and privately. Thousands of people had converted to Christianity with little or no real knowledge of the faith they were proclaiming. There was a real sense of confusion and disappointment because Baptism had promised change, but people found that their daily lives remained stagnant. It was during this time that many liturgical practices were codified to help direct learning and worship in a uniform and progressive way.
Organizing the “Liturgical Year” was a way that Christians could relive the foundational events of the Gospel while continuing in regular practice of daily life. Attending church services regularly, the convert and faithful alike would share the same story, hear the same Scriptures, and grow in their knowledge and love of the Lord. The weekly lessons would build upon each other to inform and challenge presuppositions about reality and deepen devotion to God. The Lectionary 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 provide an organized framework through which all questions (any question) could be asked and answered. From the daily response to touchy political issues to God’s grace and redemptive sacrifice of Christ, the Lectionary was the backbone of learning.
There have been many “proto-lectionaries” through the ages: many locales and even individual churches produced their own Lectionary. Musaeus of Marseille, a Priest and Preacher in the mid-5th century, produced a lectionary that was widely followed for a time. In 1559 Bishop +Cranmer included a Lectionary in the first Book of Common Prayer based on “regular practices” of the Latin Rite. Our current Lectionary, the Revised Common Lectionary, has evolved over the centuries and is a direct descendant of the Common Lectionary published in 1983. The Revised Common Lectionary preserved approximately 90% of the Gospel readings in the Lectionary of The Book of Common Prayer, but also provided an option of biblical texts to lesser-known potions of Scripture.
The Common Lectionary and Revised Common Lectionary have become atruly ecumenical liturgical and individual resource. In structure, it is a three-year cycle of readings revolving around the foundation of the three synoptic Gospels. Year A’s Gospel is Matthew, Year B’s Gospel is Mark, and Year C’s Gospel is Luke (we are currently in Year C). In practice, each Sunday, Anglicans around the world, as well as most of the Protestant denominations use the Lectionary to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. The Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches also use portions of the Lectionary at times and many Four Square and free church parishes rely upon it as well. It provides new opportunities for ecumenical Bible study and shared resources for teaching and preaching and it has improved the choice of appropriate texts for Sundays and Feast Days.
So, “what exactly is the Lectionary?” Well aside from the historical explanation, and the wonderful ecumenical opportunities possible through its use, the Lectionary is the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit inspired the hearts and minds of women and men throughout the ages to create a system through which God’s love is proclaimed and received. The Lectionary is a guide to ensure the teaching of the faith and prevent special interest fixation and stagnation. The Lectionary is our companion through which the plan of God to unite all the peoples of the earth finds some witness and instills hope through the regular unfolding revelation of God.
Peace in Christ,
Father Bill Burk†