Why do we read what we read when we read it?

One of the real blessings of our current model of shared ministry among the parishes of MDI is the opportunity for congregations to hear multiple different preaching voices from month to month (Actually, I’m a little jealous of you in that regard:  I only get to hear preaching from my talented colleagues on Fifth Sundays, and sometimes I get a little tired of the sound of my own voice).

The lectionary, however, provides a thread of continuity from week to week and among congregations.  The lectionary is more than just a reading list.  At best it can be an interpretive tool that encourages us to juxtapose passages of scripture that we might not otherwise, and to participate in conversations among the different voices of scripture.  At worst, it can allow us to skip over difficult or uncomfortable passages, or encourage anachronistic or even anti-Jewish interpretations of the Hebrew Scripture.

The idea of a set scripture reading for each week goes back at least to the exile of the sixth century BC when the writings of the Torah were being compiled and when the pattern of synagogue worship was being established by the Scribes.  Early Christian congregations adopted and adapted the Jewish synagogue practice, adding the reading of open letters among congregations (the Epistles)  and later the retelling of stories and sayings from the life and teaching of Jesus (the Gospels).  While consensus developed around the canonical books of scripture in the Western Church in the third century, the scripture read each week varied widely from diocese to diocese until quite recently, especially during the “Ordinary” seasons of Epiphany and Pentecost.

Our current three-year lectionary is largely a product of the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church (1962-1965).  Prior to this point, most lectionaries for worship repeated every year, and included only a small portion of the Bible, with the assumption that Christians were reading the Bible systematically on their own at home.  Goals of this new Mass Lectionary were to encourage the reading of more of the Bible in worship, and to ensure reading from the different parts of the Bible each week:  Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle, and Gospel.  Each of the three years in the cycle is organized around a semi-continuous reading of one of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), with readings from John’s Gospel incorporated mostly into Lent, Easter, Advent and Christmas.

A version of the Catholic Mass Lectionary was included in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.  The current Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) was adopted with minor modifications by the Episcopal Church for trial use in 1994, and as the official lectionary of the church as of the first Sunday of Advent, 2007.  It is used by many mainline Protestant denominations, and it is good to know that many of our Christian brothers and sisters are reading and responding to the same scriptures as we are each week.

One noticeable difference between the RCL and earlier lectionaries is the option of two different tracks through the Hebrew Scriptures during Ordinary Time.  The track which was included in the 1979 BCP is driven by the Gospel reading for the day; readings from the Old Testament are chosen specifically to complement typological themes and images from the Gospel.  The newer track is a more nearly continuous reading through big chunks of the Hebrew Scriptures from week to week.  The advantage of the “complementary” track is that it (theoretically) makes preaching easier, as readings are already grouped around a theme, but at the cost of chopping up the Hebrew Scriptures into out-of-context snippets and more or less forcing the interpretation of Jewish scripture through a Christian lens.  The advantage of the “continuous” track is that it allows the Old Testament stories their own integrity, but it makes connections less tidy.  The intention is that a parish pick one track and stick with it throughout the cycle, as it doesn’t make much sense to have a continuous reading if you are dipping in and out of it.  At St. Saviour we have followed the continuous track for the last several years.

Finally, a note of caution.  Even with the three year, multi-track lectionary, there are huge parts of the bible that we don’t ever read week to week.  It can be argued that some passages are not particularly edifying (long genealogical lists, fine points of the purity code, chronicles of forgettable kings).  Other passages, though, seem to have been left out because they are troubling:  violent, misogynistic, nationalistic, or otherwise telling a story we’d prefer not to hear.  For a fuller picture of humanity’s relationship with God, I invite you to check out the parts we leave out:  the verses before and after the appointed readings, and especially any “holes” cut out of the middle of passages.  And then ask yourself, “Why do you suppose we don’t read that?”

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